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Meet the 2011 ND/NF Filmmakers: “El Velador” Director Natalia Almada

Meet the 2011 ND/NF Filmmakers: "El Velador" Director Natalia Almada

Through the eyes of the night watchman, we enter into the world of “El Jardin,” a cemetery in the drug heartland of Mexico. Since the war on drugs began in 2007, the cemetery has doubled in size and some of its mausoleums have been built to resemble gaudy cathedrals, creating a skyline that looks like a fantastical surrealist city more than a resting place for the deceased. Through her quiet, observational style, Natalia Almada (“The General”) introduces us to both the lives of the cemetery workers and the families of the victims; here, the guilty and the innocent, the powerful and the powerless, intersect in the shadow of an increasingly bloody conflict that has claimed nearly 35,000 lives. El Velador is a film about violence without violence. [Synopsis courtesy of ND/NF]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the 40th edition of New Directors/New Films to submit responses in their own words about their films. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

“El Velador”
Director/Producer/DP: Natalia Almada
Associate Producers: Laurence Ansquer and Charlotte Uzu
Editor: Natalia Almada and Julien Devaux
Sound Designer: Alejandro de Icaza
Production Assistant: Ramiro Rodriguez

Responses courtesy of “El Velador” director Natalia Almada.

Any filmmaking role models?

I had a fantastic video teacher when I was studying photography at RISD.

Drugs and violence as the basis for the film…

I come from a ranching family and spent a lot of time growing up in Sinaloa, which is now Mexico’s in Mexico. The dinner table stories about the constant run-ins with the “narcos” that was part of daily life in Sinaloa are countless, and all had a Godfather quality about them. But when the cowboy I’d known my whole life told us his son had disappeared and the remains of his seven buddies where found burned alive, the violence of the drug trade stopped having that Hollywood flare. The ranch caretaker was tortured and beaten so badly he couldn’t tell the story of what had happened to him without wetting his pants and so he never told the authorities. Reality no longer felt ‘like a movie” and I felt the need to make a film.

People often ask me, “Why is there so much violence in Mexico?” “What is the solution to the violence?” I noticed, however, that they usually ask as they get up from the table, not as they sit down. When I am filming, I often think of a Baudelaire quote that I read in Barthes’ “Camera Lucida”: “The emphatic truth of gesture in the great circumstances of life.” If film has any relationship to truth (which I’m not convinced it does), it must lie in its ability to depict gestures. I thought that by filming at the cemetery, I might be able to understand the violence that is pointlessly destroying our country. Over the course of a year filming at the cemetery, I realized that it is not understanding that I seek through the lens, but to rescue the sense of humanity that violence kills. Or, as Serge Daney so beautifully wrote, “To touch with the gaze that distance between myself and where the other exists.”

Shooting in a cemetery…

When I began the film, I thought it would be one of three shorts about violence, but I became captivated by the place and fell in love with the idea of the nightwatchman. The more time I spent shooting at the cemetery, the more I understood the meaning of all the details and what they reflect about the violence in Mexico and the social economic situation.

I wanted to make a film that stood in opposition to the sensational depiction of violence that we see in most media. I wanted to make a beautiful, contemplative film that would allow us to look at violence differently by putting us in the middle of it – at the moments when violence has happened and when violence is immanent.

Shooting the film required a lot of patience because of the delicate situation. I just had to wait to see what would happen, asking questions didn’t lead to anything interesting and I had to be very careful never to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The cemetery was also a tricky place to shoot because of the light. The sun rises just behind the mausoleums, so in the early morning everything is strongly backlit. Then, throughout most of the day, the sun is so bright and so hot that everything becomes flat and blown out. Late afternoon was my favorite time to shoot, not only because of the light and the Sinaloa sky, but also because it was the moment of transition between the workers and the night watchman and the time of day when the widows would visit. But, this meant that I didn’t have many hours of the day to really make the kind of images that I wanted. I also wanted to film the night to capture the life of the night watchman, who was always there just waiting and watching and the ominous and forbidden aspect of the cemetery’s nightlife.

The challenges of documentary film…

Working in documentary film, I often feel trapped by the educational, explanatory or activist expectations of the genre. I wasn’t really interested in making an educational or activist film about Mexico’s drug war. While the socio-economic realities are very interesting to me and the film has a political view point, I want the realities to be inherent to the film’s context and not something that turns the film into a portrait. Finding the cinematic language that would allow me this freedom, while working within the boundaries of what we generally consider to be documentary, was very challenging.

Cemeteries vs. mausoleums…

When I went to the cemetery in July 2009, I immediately recalled the paupers’ cemetery where I shot part of “AI Otro Lado,” a few miles north of the border in Arizona. That cemetery was full of unidentified illegal immigrants who had died crossing the desert. Their “American Dream” came to fruition in a desolate empty lot of dirt, under a brick inscribed with their new American names, Jane and John Doe. The rows of bricks were a site of utter anonymity and oblivion. I understood that the surreal skyline of mausoleums was the antithesis to these bricks, a grand expression of remembrance, a refusal to be invisible, anonymous and forgotten. Yet both are products of the same social inequalities, and the same governmental disregard for the “invisible, dispensable classes.” The difference is that those with the ability to pay for mausoleums have made themselves economically indispensable, with a multi-billion dollar industry that makes news through violence, and marks its memory with rich tombs. When I began filming, four massive mausoleums were in mid-construction and a new hole had been excavated for 300 more graves. The continuing growth of the cemetery reflects the continuing failure to end the violence that has already claimed over 35,000 lives.

Any future projects?

We’ll see…

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