'POV: El General': We Love the Dead

Mixing mythic memories with present-day verité, El General considers how history is made, in gaps between aspirations and effects. The result is a remarkable documentary, provocative and impressionistic, based on questions rather than assertions.

POV: El General

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Natalia Almad (narrator)
Network: PBS
Director: Natalia Almada
Air date: 2010-07-20

"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.


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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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