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Mexican Filmmaker Federico Cecchetti Brings His Exploration of Indigenous Communities to the Global Stage

"Most of the Mexican films that are currently being produced are about narcos, kidnapping and violence. I wanted to tell a different story."

"Mara'akame's Dream"

“Mara’akame’s Dream”

Ivan Hernández

This article was produced as part of the Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring journalists at the Locarno Film Festival, a collaboration between the Locarno Film Festival, IndieWire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the support of Film Comment and the Swiss Alliance of Film Journalists. The following interview, conducted by a member of the Critics Academy, focuses on a participant in the affiliated Filmmakers Academy program at the festival.

Federico Cecchetti is a 34-year-old filmmaker based in Mexico City. He’s currently living in Paris as one of five residents of the prestigious Cinéfondation residency program, which was designed by the Cannes Film Festival to help promising filmmakers with their first and second feature films.

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Cecchetti’s unique films raise cultural understanding and social awareness by means of interweaving psychology, philosophy and poetry in film. His first two features explore the explore indigenous communities, specifically the Huicholes and Tarahumaras, in Mexico. While in Locarno, IndieWire sat down with Cecchetti to discuss how he uses dreams, French poetry and the blending of fiction with nonfiction to make his unique films.

Federico Cecchetti

Federico Cecchetti

courtesy of Federico Cecchetti

Federico, you are one of 17 young filmmakers from all over the world participating in the Filmmakers Academy of the Locarno Film Festival 2016. How did you end up coming to Locarno?

At Cinéfondation I am working on my second feature film. The residency consists of four and half months of writing in Paris followed by several festivals including the Filmmakers Academy. It’s a great opportunity. First of all because you’re given time and money to concentrate fully on your writing. Secondly, because it’s a very open program without mentors or script doctors. This means the residents have plenty of time and space for the idea development and [to do] in-depth research. While this freedom can be challenging, it allows for the first version of the script to be very personal. Developing one’s own voice is the best part of the program.

When did you discover you wanted to make films?

It took me some time. I started studying psychology and then philosophy. It wasn’t until later that I switched to film. That isn’t contradictory though, because I get to make use of psychology and philosophy in my films. Through filmmaking I question life, however in a much more free way than in an academic context. It’s a more playful approach, even though any author has a certain responsibility.

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In yesterday’s Academy Master Class Jonas Mekas stated that he was never interested in questioning life, but in celebrating it with his camera. Do you approach your films with a question?

In a way, yes. My first feature film “Mara’akame’s Dream” is about shamanism in Mexico. The film focuses on the indigenous culture of the Huicholes and their rituals. Huicholes understand themselves as the guardians of the peyote, the magic cactus. When I started getting familiar with them, one shaman told me about how he healed people through dreams. To me that was very enigmatic and appealing. And I started questioning: How is it possible to cure others through dreams? This question motivated the film. Questioning, to me, is part of being human.

Did your first feature film about the Huicholes start off as a documentary?

Only in the way it approached the subject because I knew from the start that it was going to be fiction. The beginning of the film has a somewhat documentary and [has a] realistic feel. But there are many existing documentaries on indigenous cultures in Mexico and I chose to do something different. Moreover, I wanted to approach the world of dreams, and fiction was the best way to achieve that. Besides, the line between documentary and fiction is generally fading. I need to do solid research in order to portray a culture, of course, and if an anthropologist saw my film I would like them to think: this might be true. But my research methods are not academic. The brilliant anthropologists I’ve met during my research all seemed to have trouble getting involved in the communities. Wanting to go beyond that, I tried to cultivate very close relationships and participated in the celebrations and rituals as much as I could.

Have you shown your movie to the indigenous actors yet?

So far there was only a small screening at the UNAM in Mexico City, but once I return I will definitely screen it for the Huichol community. The main characters already saw it of course. One of the shamans seemed to have an idea of what he would have wanted the movie to be. I’m not sure he liked it. He’s not a man of many words, but in the end he told me, “if you believe this is good, it is.” His son and the son’s friends really liked it though.

In what way does your second movie represent a response or a continuation of your first feature?

In every way. “Letters from the Land of the Tarahumara” clearly continues the interests and efforts of my first film. I felt like I had something more to find out and say about the native cultures. Subsequently the subject is more or less the same, but treated in a different way. The feature is also an homage to the French poet Antonin Artaud. When I had started reading Artaud’s books I was instantly fascinated. I had to make a film about this man. Artaud himself had a very non-anthropological, intuitive way of approaching the cultures he went to learn about. His way of perceiving things in the “Tarahumara” was poetic and free.

In a way this also means giving up the illusion of authority or any fixed idea of how to properly approach something as complex as human, social and cosmological life.

Of course and this is what’s great about cinema. To me, good filmmakers are the ones that make their own rules and have their own approach to phenomena. How Antonin Artaud related acting, performance and art to the Mexican culture was very appealing to me. But also the tragedy about his life – going to a mental institution for nine years after having returned to France from Mexico – compelled me to tell his story.

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Do you understand yourself as a translator or mediator between cultures?

Yes. This leads to a political question. In Mexico the indigenous cultures are often forgotten and marginalized. But lately we are experiencing a movement that’s trying to go back to these roots. I want to be a part of it and tell the forgotten stories. Most of the Mexican films that are currently being produced are about narcos, kidnapping and violence. I wanted to tell a different story. To focus on spirituality and metaphysics is not easy, but one of the great challenges I seek in filmmaking. It’s my way of exploring life.

David Lynch

David Lynch

Who are your most important mentors or teachers?

I really like David Lynch as he too is a very metaphysical and experimental director. Furthermore Jean Luc Godard for the same reason. It’s difficult to name only a few. Carl Gustav Jung is among my favorites and so is Alejandro Jodorowsky whom I really love as an artist, a philosopher and a filmmaker. Even though I think his films aren’t his greatest achievements. I like what he wrote about Psychomagic and the way he approached theatre. He has [his] own point of view – something precious that most of contemporary directors lack.

What do you mean by that?

There are many directors that have an aesthetical purpose. But there aren’t many that have an ideological one. Consider Ken Loach for example. Loach has a very clear ideology that he expresses through his work. He developed a very personal way of making films and of thinking, just like Lynch and Jodorowsky. To me, this is of great value. I don’t consider myself to be on a predefined mission though, it is simply an intuition of where to search. I find it important to make films that are at once political, ethical and metaphysical.

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Have you ever thought of expressing yourself through other forms of art?

First and foremost I want to improve my filmmaking and not get lost. I think filmmakers are doing something really, really important. Given that the filmmaking isn’t an end in itself. Eventually, I would love to do something where different forms of art can interact. I am interested in building ethical communities and purpose for action. Filmmaking alone risks to remain locked in a capitalistic, narcissistic way of life. Thousands of filmmakers have become crazy consumers and want to see anything. For my part, I am interested in social innovation and revolution through film and art. Filmmaking is my way of social activism. My first movie was also socially aware and with “Tarahumara” I would like to try something similar: Finding ways for giving, not only taking.

Do you consider yourself part of a movement or a collective shift of consciousness within Latin American filmmaking towards a growing interest for the indigenous communities and cosmologies?

Yes, I do. There’s a real necessity of Latin American filmmakers to look into these subjects and I don’t see myself as a pioneer. “El Abrazo de la Serpiente” by Ciro Guerra for example is a very strong movie that is often mentioned when I talk about my work. Also the dialectic between the rural indigenous communities and urban lifestyles is pretty obvious in my films. Maybe too obvious. The first part of “Letters from the Land of the Tarahumara” will be shot in the northern Mexico and the second part in a mental institution in France – as an effort to combine these worlds.

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