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A Superb Meditation on Life and Death: 'El Velador'

Natalia Almada's superb El Velador (The Night Watchman) shows the labor of death, the construction and care of mausoleums, the difficulty of living with loss.

El Velador (The Night Watchman)

Director: Natalia Almada
Rated: NR
Studio: Icarus Films
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-06-14 (Museum of Modern Art)

It's morning in Culiacán, Mexico. A rooster crows, the sound far off and faint. A dog walks with a man, making their way to the man's workplace, the cemetery. The camera doesn't move as they come near, slowly. The light behind them is pink and pale yellow, they pass a series of mausoleums in varying states of completion. For a moment, the pair is obscured by a pile of sheet rock, thin slabs waiting to be assembled into the next gravesite. "As soon as I wake up I take a walk around," says Martin. "When people drink, they leave a lot of empty beer cans. I gather them up. But that's all I do."

The moment is one of the few in Natalia Almada's superb El Velador (The Night Watchman) when Martin speaks. More often, he works, which means, he keeps watch over the cemetery, walking among the tombs and hosing down the desperately dry roads and walkways. But still, the film -- which opens at the Museum of Modern Art on 13 June and will air on on PBS 27 September -- is full of sound, the clatter of construction, the music of funeral bands, the occasional wailing of mourners, as well as the sounds of children playing, a little girl who practices counting as she skips over the stones of a memorial, a portrait of the deceased on the wall behind her.

This and other images of the dead show reveal -- again and again -- that they're young. The cemetery at Culiacán is a preferred site for burying victims in Mexico's drug wars. There are many victims, gang members and police officers, as well as innocent bystanders. The TV that Martin runs at night by way of a makeshift antenna reports that some 11,000 have been killed this past month alone, some 21,915 so far during Felipe Calderón's presidency. You come to realize, late in the documentary, that the year is 2009, when a worker arrives at the cemetery with news: Arturo Beltrán Leyva has been killed, "the capo of capos." ("A shitload of money is going to fly, man," observes another worker as they prepare for their day, slipping on their Nikes and pulling together their buckets.)

As you watch them go on about their business, you think again, that as much as such events might be news, the capture or killing of a specific figure or the retribution that comes a few days later (a head is left near Arturo's grave, a head "in a black plastic bag," the news reports), really, the specific time is irrelevant. This not only because the war goes on and on, and so the bodies keep coming to Culiacán, but also because the film presents the days and nights here as endless in other ways, periods of time that are unmeasured, dissolving into one another.

The effect of these accumulating images is gradual, stunning. You hear context, when Barry McCaffery is interviewed on TV, lamenting the money the US is spending in Afghanistan, compared to its neglect of Mexico, "the most important country along with Canada on the face of the earth to us." Janet Napolitano says that in Ciudad Juárez, "civil order has been lost."

Or maybe this order is only shape-shifted, to memorials and burials. Alongside such reports, you see the industry that surrounds the violence, in long shots of mausoleums in mid-construction, and lose-ups of men mixing cement or laying bricks, men smoking cigarettes, their faces white with dust, their hands smeared with wet mortar. You see as well the elaborate floral arrangements delivered to the cemetery, workers moving them. You hear, from off-screen, an occasional funeral party, people in pain, people imposing ritual on chaos. The television reports more deaths: someone has been executed, a young woman was "found chopped in pieces." The TV reporter says the act is thought to be a "vendetta against one of the cartels."

If the film doesn't track causes and effects per se, it invites you to consider consequences. During the days, another young woman comes to work: she mops the marble floors of mausoleums, accompanied by children. The girl skips and runs. Two younger boys, dressed in neat shorts and shirts, follow the woman as she makes her way from one section to another. She's slender and dedicated to the task, the camera pausing to note that her feet bare as she mops, squeezing polish from a plastic bottle onto the surface, shiny and smooth. You don't see much of her face. It's easy to guess that she's one of many family members who visit the cemetery each week, to look after the sites. It's also, sadly, easy to imagine the difficult world the kids inhabit, not only the violence that claims relatives but also shapes their sense of the future, in any number of ways, in their ongoing sense of loss, in the tributes paid to the dead, in the vexing, frightening opportunities to support their families as they grow older.

The film doesn’t identify these many effects. But it lets you wonder about them, in focusing on the expansive land of the cemetery, so soon to be filled, on the workers who do fill the empty space, sky and ground littered with structures. They serve as memorials to lives and deaths. But, as moving as they may be -- and here they're gaudy and too big, signs of respect -- they only serve to mark more, more money, more bodies, more lives changed forever.

Late in El Velador, Martin listens to a weather report on television. It's raining outside. The camera observes him looking out from the doorway of the shack where he stays, cuts to a series of close-up shots of puddles, mud, rain pelting concrete. His television is now moved inside, its volume turned up against the rain, increasingly loud. The weather lady notes the "rain and strong winds" currently affecting Culiacán. "There's a chance," she goes on. "That unstable conditions will affect the country for at least 24 hours." The rain is pounding.


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