“This newsreel tells us that for the first time in Mexican history, the president of the republic was sworn in in broad daylight.” Natalia Almada narrates over black-and-white footage of Plutarco Elias Calles, a former schoolteacher and general during the Mexican Revolution, elected in 1924. As he smiles and waves to the surrounding crowd, the new president looks both vigorous and earnest, embodying hope for a future where politics might indeed be conducted “in broad daylight.”
At first glance, this clip in El General seems straightforward, illustrating the reassuring ritual that was performed following the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) and a series of political assassinations, of the presidents Francisco I. Madero (1913) and Venustiano Carranza (1920), and the revolutionaries Zapata (1919) and Pancho Villa (1923). Coming after grim shots of dead bodies and funeral processions, the newsreel, scratchy and slowed down, is also astute and allusive. For, as Almada tells the story of Calles, her great-grandfather, she also reflects on the interplay of memory, history, and representation.
The result is a remarkable documentary, provocative and impressionistic, based on questions rather than assertions. Premiering as part of POV on 20 July, El General draws connects between past and present as Almada listens to tapes made by her grandmother, Alicia. Made with a friend, Mauricio Gonzalez de la Graza, in preparation for a biography of her father, the 1978 tapes are, as Almada says, “full of doubts and silences,” as well as the mechanical whir of the recorder. As she listens to these fragments of a very subjective past, the filmmaker muses, “I am left with the sound of the tape, which runs over the present.” Her voice overlaps with her grandmother’s as the film shows Calles, in black and white, walking away from the camera, alone on a beach. Haunting and poetic, the shot dissolves into the “present,” a street in Mexico City where work begins early each morning.
“My memories are really diffuse,” says Alicia, “Perhaps because my father was never home.” The camera pans gradually up a photo of an eight- or nine-year-old Alicia, the surface cracked and faded. This nostalgic picture is set among recreations of history: scenes from Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished ¡Que Viva Mexico! (1930) show heroic fighters of the Mexican Revolution and Marlon Brando’s Zapata urges an assembly of peasants, “There are no leaders but yourself… A strong people is the only lasting strength.”
Mixing such mythic memories with present-day verité, El General considers how history is made, in gaps between aspirations and effects. Alicia sees faults in the system that organizes class, power, and celebrity: “We have to talk about the adulation and servility of the people who surrounded these powerful figures,” she says, as Calles and other men in suits stand over a crowd of supporters, their waves made eerie in slow-motion. “It is one of the most dangerous things for a Mexican president, aside from changing the way they think, by blinding them from the truth, their contact with the people is also very relative.” The film cuts to an interview with a worker, who observes, “They’re always fighting over the same thing. All the presidents are the same, they all promise but never fulfill.”
The film shows how memorials—say, in the Monument of the Revolution, where Calles and other leaders are buried—can reshape history, allowing it to repeat or be forgotten. Calles is remembered as a revolutionary champion of the people and also Jefe Máximo: from 1928 to 1935, three successive presidents were regarded as his “puppets.” By 1934, Calles supported Lázaro Cárdenas for president; Almada says her great-grandfather didn’t anticipate that two years later, the new president would send him into exile.
During his own term, Calles was called El Quema-Curas (the Priest Burner), for his brutal policies during the Cristero War. His anti-Catholic position led to the outlawing of religious orders and the brutal murders of thousands of priests. Looking at pictures of hanged clergymen, a firing squad aiming at a priest, and mutilated bodies, Almada tries to reconcile “the father Calles, who sent my grandmother to Catholic school, and Calles the president, accused of persecuting the Catholic church.” The conflict was political, she concludes, the clergy set against the government and vice versa, but still, the depictions of violence are stunning.
Today, religious rituals shape daily life: vendors sell portraits of Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Believers can carry these framed icons during an annual pilgrimage, crawling, blindfolded, and enduring. These shots lead to others showing other acts of faith, the habitual purchase of lottery tickets, both rites enacted by the dedicated poor, hoping for rewards. Over her footage of the walk honoring the Virgin, in slow motion and filled with color and passion, Almada says, “I’m certain that in 70 years someone will take the same images as me.”
The question of images—how they repeat, capture, and also refract events—is key to the film’s contemplation of memory and history. As Alicia parses differences between personal and public selves, El General both illustrates and interrogates representations of Calles. If the United States condemned him following his efforts to maintain control of oil in Mexico, he also left behind a seemingly inconsistent legacy, the horrific violence of the Cristero War as well as political institutions to proscribe such abuses going forward. Alicia recalls, “Talking about politics, he used to say, ‘It is a poisonous little worm.’ He was very realistic.” Her perspective, limited as well as specific, provides a frame for the questions El General can’t answer.
Cabbie José Jesús Domínguez Reyes says, “Politicians are the biggest parasites in the world. Ask any Mexican.” Almada ponders this generalization: “I wonder if my great-grandfather was just another parasite in a long history of parasites who took advantage of Mexico, like the taxi driver says, or if he was the man my grandmother remembers.” It’s not clear, however, that these are mutually exclusive or even opposite figures. In a flower market, the screen is filled with movement and reds and yellows, flowers grown, cut, and sold by the ton to honor the dead. “We love the dead,” a woman vendor says. Maybe so. But as the dead here appear in footage and photographs, they remain apart, revered but also misremembered.
In his last state of the union address, made in 1928, Calles said, “History’s judgment is always harsh because the circumstances of the time are ignored or forgotten.” The film posits various contexts, finding connections as often as discrepancies and gaps. Returning again and again to images of today’s Mexico, men and women engaged in labors and rituals and self-reflections, El General show collective memory—as well as poverty—stretching across time. At last, it cannot reconcile Calles the father with Calles the politician. Just so, a recurring shot shows him on the beach, walking in from the surf in silhouette, suggests at once his elusiveness and familiarity, another image ever remote and coming closer.