Cinetracts essay: Mercedes Chavez on Natalia Almada

Mercedes Chavez

Oct 08, 2020

A young boy of Latin descent wearing headphones sits in a living room, looking in the direction of the camera as he plays a videogame on an offscreen computer

Mercedes Chavez is a Ph.D in English Candidate and professor at Ohio State and part of the collective Voices in the Anthropocene. Below, she offers a view of Natalia Almada's contribution to the Cinetracts '20 project in the context of the filmmaker's career as a whole. Cinetracts '20 makes its world premiere on this website October 8 at 7 PM.

In her short for Cinetracts ’20, Mexican American director and 2012 MacArthur Fellow Natalia Almada gestures toward the power of technology to absorb, delight, and provide a site of companionship in a period defined by physical distance. Although filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant lockdowns, her short foresees the relationship between human communication and a growing reliance on technology, intensified by social distancing. In the short, a young boy gazes indirectly toward the camera, his eyes bouncing between focal points as colorful lights reflect and shift on his face. He is playing a computer game, responding to the voices of fellow players faintly heard over his headset. The viewer takes on the perspective of the technology itself, as though situated from roughly the computer monitor’s point of view, pushing the boundaries between the human and machine in much the same way that the child is absorbed by his gameplay. 

Though brief, Almada’s Cinetracts ’20 short continues essential thematic and aesthetic threads of her body of work, spanning documentary and fiction film. Herself of Mexican and U.S. citizenship, Almada’s films often trouble borders, both literal and figurative, by exposing the porousness of boundaries. Her documentaries blur the lines between memoir, history, past and present, through nonlinear compositions that more closely resemble the cadence of oral storytelling. Perhaps above all, Almada’s films contemplate the nature of human connection–as well as its absence. 

Almada began her career in cinema as a documentary filmmaker, pushing past the traditional dynamic of documentarian and subject by exploring the artist’s role in bearing witness and molding memory. Her first short, All Water Has a Perfect Memory (2001), recounts the accidental drowning of her older sister as a child, and the tragedy’s rippling effect through her family history. She mixes archival footage and audio recordings from her family members, a technique on which she would later expand in her feature-length El General (2009). In this film, Almada explores her family history and its impact on modern Mexico through the figure of her own great-grandfather–controversial former Mexican president General Plutarco Elías Calles. A leader during the 1910 revolutionary war, his presidency was marred by civil conflicts caused by his attempt to secularize the state and reduce the Catholic Church’s political influence. Using audio recordings from her grandmother Alicia Calles, the general’s daughter, she brings together memory, past, and the present through a juxtaposition between archival newsreels and modern-day Mexico. Almada’s introspective and poetic narration accompanies interviews with the working poor set against a rich sound mix which crafts a palpable sense of contemporary life and the reverberations of Mexico’s political past. 

Sound is a key element of Almada’s filmography that functions equally to the image as a technique to evoke space and place. Two of her documentaries, Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side, 2005) and El Velador (The Night Watchman, 2011), use music and meticulously layered sound to confront violence at the US-Mexico border. Her debut feature, Al Otro Lado, evokes the cluster of crises at the US-Mexico through corrido music, a jaunty Mexican ballad genre born in the 1910 Revolution and of late adapted to narrate the drug trade. Through the corrido, Almada touches on undocumented immigration, drug trafficking, crushing poverty, and the mythical wealth of “the other side” in the United States. She focuses on Magdiel, a young corrido singer from her home state Sinaloa, but expands her scope to encapsulate a culture divided by an arbitrary line. Almada brings together interviews with Mexican and Mexican American musicians about their connection to a shared heritage channeled through an ever-present corrido soundtrack. Perhaps more poignantly, both the music and interviews with local Sinaloans clearly illustrate the cultural pervasiveness of narcotrafficking in an area devastated by poverty and where the only options for escape seem to be drug dealing or crossing to the US.

Corrido music reappears in El Velador but as a more ambivalent element. El Velador similarly channels borderlands violence through a single figure by following Martin, the night watchman of a cemetery popular among narcotraffickers. In the pitch black of night, lit only by votive candles or Martin’s television screen, corridos play in the background at parties or bars unseen. But in the light of day, the mood reverses as that same music instead accompanies yet another funeral. In contrast to her earlier documentary work, El Velador takes a more oblique approach towards its subject by using sound, silence, and a slow impressionistic approach rather than descriptive dialogue. The threat of drug-related violence hangs heavy in the atmosphere but remains outside the edges of the frame. Using audio from television and radio news reports, Almada alludes to a mounting death toll from drug activities but retains a reverent approach to her subject by avoiding sensationalistic imagery. Instead, she lingers on youthful faces depicted on tombstones and banners, mothers and widows tending to graves. The documentary becomes a composition in time by allowing the watchman’s daily activities unfold, or more hauntingly, as he and other cemetery workers labor to build monuments as the grounds steadily expand to accommodate the next occupant. 

A middle-aged Latino woman in glasses seen in close up against a blue wall, facing the camera and holding an ID card up in front of her

Adriana Barranza in Everything Else; image courtesy of Cinema Tropical

The patience displayed in Almada’s nonfiction cinema carries over to her first foray into the fiction realm. In her latest feature, Todo lo démas (Everything Else, 2016) Almada employs the same acute observation and empathy on display in her documentaries. Adriana Barranza plays Doña Flor, an older bureaucrat whose life of routine is disrupted when her cat unexpectedly dies. Todo lo démas is a quiet meditation on loneliness portrayed in simple imagery: a drawer of nude pantyhose rolled neatly into balls or a close up of well-worn, sensible beige heels stands in for Doña Flor’s rote existence. Almada’s intimate cinematography captures Barranza’s nuanced performance in close-ups that directly gaze into the camera, isolating her while simultaneously rendering the viewer unable to skirt her gaze. Repetition of the direct address—Doña Flor’s and the many people subject to her exacting attention to rules—serves to insert the viewer into the narrative as both supplicant and bureaucrat. But with her cat’s death, the camera pulls back to reveal Doña Flor’s solitude in the midst of Mexico City’s crowds, and the close-ups now reveal her emotional devastation. A simple moment of physical, human connection brings the film to its emotional apex and hints toward the potential for healing.

And so, building on her cinematic themes, Almada’s Cinetracts ’20 short presciently forecast today’s increased entanglement and dependence on telecommunication. Physical distancing and the desire to maintain emotional attachments complicate anxieties over technology’s role in human life, especially for children. Yet it may be that children, primed by new media’s expansive presence in their lives, are already more adept than adults fatigued by video meetings. But as Almada’s films show, the ability to maintain and recognize human connection even during the worst of trials is not only possible, but crucial to our resilience.

Image at top of page courtesy of the filmmaker

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