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I was able recently to catch two documentaries by Mexican/American filmmaker Natalia Almada as part of the public screening program of the Australian International Documentary Conference in Adelaide. They both offered different ways for a documentary to be photographic.

El General (2009) takes as its starting point a collection of audio recordings that Almada’s grandmother left, where she remembers her youth and talks about her father, Elias Calles, president of Mexico from 1924 to 1928. He is an ambiguous figure, someone who established a lot of the institutions of modern Mexico, yet also seen as a dictator. The film is Almada’s attempt to confront this legacy and to try and understand a little better both her family’s and Mexico’s history. It’s as if Almada is continuing her grandmother’s project. Almada grafts onto the audio recordings a montage of archival footage (some of it found in a relative’s house), old stills and her own gently flowing observational video of the streets of contemporary Mexico City.

What the archival images do in the film is make the voices and the stories a little more concrete; I’m sure I remember seeing an image of a young girl with her father and, in another image, the same man being fêted by a large crowd at an inaguration. But rather than reconcile the public and private personas, the images make the contradictions more apparent. One image is of a young woman, the grandmother, on a ship, enjoying the wind and sun. Another is of a Calles, seen from the back, walking on a beach, alone in the frame, but obviously with some family member trailing behind carrying a camera.

Calles beach

“Plutarco Elias Calles on the beach in Sinaloa Mexico around 1934 as seen in El General
Credit: Courtesy of Almada Family

There are also others pictures of violence and unrest: people being hanged, priests being shot. Almada ultimately leaves these contradictions unresolved. She doesn’t dismiss history, which is so heavily present in the film, though. Nevertheless, with her own camera, her own images, she turns to the reality of contemporary Mexico as something present and real, as if to say ‘whatever the family’s history, the country’s history, we know that we have this’ And this is: women in a subway car on the way to work, a man trying to sell hats to a crowd not yet needing the shade, a masked wrestler making a political speech, a woman buying flowers on the day of the dead who says “It’s too much. We love the dead, but they’re too expensive”. (You can grab a podcast that’s got some good clips from the film–see especially a beautiful sequence starting at about 6:20 of a truck taking the camera down a street, framed with a stack of blue gas bottles.)

Natalia Almada goes on to look at another reality of contemporary Mexico with her next documentary El Velador (2011). There’s hardly any dialogue and no voice-over, but it soon becomes clear that the cemetery where el velador, the nightwatchman, works is in an area that’s subject to drug violence, and that many of its interrees are probably victims of that violence. There are a lot of young men with elaborate mausoleums being buried there, and the newspaper and television reports that we glimpse make that dark context clear. It’s a quiet film that is photographic in the sense that a lot of shots are long takes with a static frame, with minimal action happening in front of the camera. The film is a portrait of the space and the rituals that happen in it. A man drives around selling drinks and snacks to mourners, a woman returns again and again to wash a grave, the nightwatchman wets the dry ground with a hose as the sun sets. Like we do with a still photograph, the meditative quality of this film allows us to linger and watch and be in the space for a while, acknowledging the context, but concentrating on what is before us.

This clip gives a bit of the flavour of the film: the drinks man drives past, a white Audi pulls up quietly (it has slightly more resonance later), news reports drift past of terrible things going on not too far away.

El Velador is getting a screening in the US on PBS in September–here in Australia we’ll have to hope the few festival screenings it’s had won’t be the last.