By Christopher Campbell | Spout August 26, 2011 at 5:40AM
A major surprise for me this week is Trisha Ziff's documentary "The Mexican Suitcase," which begins an Oscar-qualifying run at NYC's IFC Center today as part of DocuWeeks (the Los Angeles run begins September 2). Fascinating on multiple levels, the film tells the story of a case (in reality three cases) of negatives legendary to photo historians and found in Mexico City in the 1990s. Inside are 4500 photographs taken by famed war correspondents Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David "Chim" Seymour during the Spanish Civil War, all thought completely lost for almost 70 years (they weren't recovered and revealed to the world's attention until 2007, when Ziff retrieved them). To put it in perspective for cinephiles, it's kind of like when the extended cut of "Metropolis" was recently rediscovered in Argentina. Literary nerds, imagine if Hemingway's early manuscripts (the ones infamously lost in 1922) suddenly turned up.
If you're at all interested in either history or photography, "The Mexican Suitcase" is a must-see film. Because as the chronicle of the suitcase is relayed, detailing its origins in Spain then its travel to France then Mexico and ultimately to the International Center of Photography in New York City (an underrated museum founded by Capa's brother, Cornell), Ziff pads the story with the context of the Civil War and where Spain and the exiled Spanish in Mexico are at with the memory today. Also we get terrific biographical testimonies about Capa and company (all of whom died in action -- though only Taro during this period) as well as a bit of controversy regarding the suitcase's rightful beneficiary, contention that made me recall the more heated Barnes Foundation battle documented in "The Art of the Steal."
Ziff's film is simply a compilation of the found photos (plus some of Capa's famous Spanish Civil War shots, such as "The Falling Soldier") and numerous talking heads of all sorts, from survivors (one woman sits positioned just beneath her own giant print of Picasso's Guernica, to hit that nail on the head), experts on the history and on Capa (one biographer refers to him as "the Indiana Jones of photography"), curators from the ICP and members of the new generation seeking information on the war, which has so long been a taboo subject in Spain. Some of the less static moments occur with these younger persons exhuming mass graves and discussing relatives lost during the war, some hoping to find these ancestors through forensics.
A central theme is clearly this current movement to bring the Civil War to the surface, physically and orally, and Ziff really wants us to relate this to the suitcase simultaneously showing up now. "The negatives were hiding and did not want to be found," says a very astute and unambiguous expert, as if scripted. A lot of these kinds of lines are uttered throughout the doc. And the fact it ended up in the same place as exiles and refugees is obviously symbolic. Someone also points out the poetic significance of Capa's darkroom assistant, Cziki Weisz, as being about shedding light on something, literally and figuratively, while surrounded by darkness. Of course, there is so much else to think about during a film like this. The very nature of Capa's life and work is so relevant to the embedded, endangered journalists presently in the Middle East, and accounts of Taro's demise by tank made me think immediately of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros.
The discussion that arises near the end of the film is the one I'm now left contemplating the most, whether because of its structured placement or its genuine weight in any case. Should these negatives have ended up in NYC? Sure, they were reasonably inherited by Capa's brother, but do the images really belong to their photographer to begin with? Are they more rightfully owned by Spain, and those descendants of the subjects, or by Mexico, as the place they were exiled to and located? An interviewee compares the situation to museum mentality overall and the pilfering of ancient history for display in places without much connection to their origins. Especially in this era, the questions of who owns certain histories and art are very complicated.
I don't expect "The Mexican Suitcase" to get the Oscar nod it's being qualified for with DocuWeeks, but it's one of the few nonfiction films not currently in my top ten of the year that I'm recommending with great necessity. I guess the fact that two great friends of mine weren't familiar with Capa when I discussed the film today is one of the reasons for that. Film history buffs at least should know him for being Ingrid Bergman's lover for a while (he did uncredited publicity still work on Hitchcock's "Notorious" shoot during this time), and I believe he was her one true love -- unfortunately he hated Hollywood and preferred life in the trenches, where he died in pre-Vietnam Indochina. Whether you know of him or much about the Spanish Civil War (most Americans learn even less about it than the Spanish under Franco did) or not, see "The Mexican Suitcase" for a compelling narrative involving both.
"The Mexican Suitcase" is now playing in NYC.
Recommended If You Like: Robert Capa and documentary photography in general; "The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War"; "La Isla: Archives of a Tragedy"