Film

The Mexican Suitcase (La Maleta Mexicana)

Memory is at the center of The Mexican Suitcase (La Maleta Mexicana), Trisha Ziff's magnificent documentary about the Mexican Suitcase, that is, three lost boxes of images of the Spanish Civil that were discovered in Mexico.


The Mexican Suitcase (La Maleta Mexicana)

Director: Trisha Ziff
Cast: Lorna Arroyo, Sebastian Faber, Susan Meislas, Pedro Meyer, Ben Tarver, Juan Villoro, Brian Wallis, Anna Winand
Rated: NR
Studio: 212BERLIN
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-08-26 (DocuWeeks)
Website
Trailer

"The most important historical event of my life is an event that I have lived without direct experience," says artist Francesco Torres. "I'm a direct result of the Spanish Civil War, even though I was born nine years later. It has conditioned my life it has made me who I am." As Torres alludes to the importance of memory -- collective as much as individual -- you become aware of the many ways that memory takes shape. It is passed down through generations as stories, in history books, in museums. Precious and consequential, it is formed and re-formed by those who tell it or frame it, it is perpetually changing, accommodating political or emotional needs of a moment.

Memory is at the center of The Mexican Suitcase (La Maleta Mexicana), Trisha Ziff's magnificent, complex documentary about the Mexican Suitcase, that is, three lost boxes of images of the Spanish Civil that were discovered in Mexico in 2007. Screening in DocuWeeks, the film's particular assembly of the images represents another way of remembering, as the photos constitute memories, instants of life and death captured by photographers Robert Capa, David Seymour "Chim," and Gerda Taro. The film includes as well another set of memories, as curators and photographers, academics and survivors of the war sort through their recollections. As their pieces come together to form the film, they're much like the contact sheets produced from the negatives -- each separate and all connected.

Their connections can be imposed, as an expert explains the significance of a photo or elucidates a context. Thus, Lorna Arroyo notes that what we now know as the "war correspondent" was only beginning to come into being during the Spanish Civil War, when these three photographers and others traveled to the battleground and recorded what they saw. "They're foreigners," says Arroyo, "who come for the Spanish Civil War." The concept is remarkable once you get past what has become so seemingly normal, that reporters would immerse themselves in battle in order to show people -- "the public" -- what they would never see firsthand, risking their lives in order to do so.

The film also examines the pieces embodied by the artists themselves, their stories and their legacies. Juan Villoro notes of Capa in particular, the most famous of these three: "He was the Indiana Jones of photography, he was a lot of fun, friendly, and self-made. He was a Hungarian boy who reached the top as a world class photographer." He was also married to Taro, who was equally fearless and committed to her work, and who was killed during this war. Irene Golden, the nurse who looked after her that last night, remembers that Taro had "one of those massive wounds that are absolutely lethal, you know," as the film shows another sort of remembering, a headline pronouncing, "Spanish Civil War Kills First Woman Photographer."

Each of these bits is a memory that builds a story, each granting a different context for the same event - Taro's death -- that had repercussions. Cap suffered a personal loss you can only imagine, of course, as did Taro's coworkers and friends (Golden's face, even 70 years later, indicates the effect of Taro's death on her. The bits of Taro's story of Taro confirm what you think you know or might anticipate, and also, refract what's been handed down. The contents of the Mexican Suitcase reveal at least in part how Capa's legend has absorbed the work of his wife and also his colleague Chim, their photos attributed to him, their names less well known than his. Rightly remembered as an extraordinary photographer, Capa ("If your picture isn't good enough, you're not close enough") is also a man who worked with others, whose art is a function of his relationships -- with associates, friends, and of course, photographic subjects.

The subjects too have stories to tell. Even those who are long gone, like Capa and Taro and Chim, and seemingly lost "to history," might be rediscovered. Sometimes these finds are brutally material: the film shows relatives and archeologists digging for remains in mass graves, looking to recover personal histories but also the story of a people. Archeologist Amelia Barreiro observes, "We might not like it, it might hurt, we may feel angry, but we can't forget what happened and we shouldn't try to forget." She sits on a dirt ridge, near a site where still more lost lives might be retrieved. So many Spanish civilians went to Mexico during and after the war, to escape Franco and to have families. In Spain, surrounded by nations like France who refused to help, survivors of the war learned that Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas was welcoming refugees. And so they traveled, by ship, to gain their freedom. Historian Sebastian Faber notes that the "intellectual life of the Spanish Republic ended up in Mexico."

At the same time, the photographs in the Suitcase allude to the experiences of war -- this one and also war more universally. The photos are stunning, and the film's camera tends to rest on each for long seconds. It doesn’t pan to mobilize viewers' emotions, but remains still, so you might contemplate: a man leaps at or over a dead horse, a child looks directly into the lens, a teenager lies dead on a pile of bricks, a building wall reduced to bits of experience, its meaning transformed in its reshaping. "There's so much sense of fragmentation, you capture so little of all that's going on. I mean it's not just the nature of the photograph or the filmic experience," photographer Susan Meislas notes. "There are so many layers of what lies beneath any moment that you might capture. How do you speak to injustice? How do you document the conditions?"

Impossible as it sounds, this is what war photographers struggle to do, to "document the conditions," the events and even the feelings of those involved. If the images are incomplete, if the frame omits another part of what happened, and if the emotional portraits are fleeting and imperfect, they are also components of a larger story, of multiple stories. And if these stories don't find their way into "history," they might, in some instances be salvaged and reintegrated into a next layer. "Remembering works not so as to open wounds for revenge," says Juan Villoro, "to get some loot to grab something. No. It is to know what's there, to close a chapter. There is a redemption that remembering offers." The Mexican Suitcase also insists that remembering evokes more questions, about what's not "there."

9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image