The 2017 Academy Awards ceremony was a largely apolitical affair, but Gael Garcia Bernal changed that. Co-presenting the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, he acknowledged the current tension with the Trump Administration over immigration issues, specifically as they pertained to Mexico. “As a Mexican, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I’m against any form of wall that separates us,” he said.
Over the last 12 years, Bernal has been putting that message of unification to work within the boundaries of his native country, pushing a country marred by reports of a drug war and other problems to find itself at the movies. Along with his close friend and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” co-star Diego Luna and the producer Elena Fortes, Bernal co-founded the Ambulante Documentary Film Festival in 2005. The traveling screening series focuses on non-fiction film that brings its vast programming to cities and rural areas around the country over the course of two months.
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Bolstered by generous government funding and the support of the national theater chain Cinépolis, Ambulante’s 2017 edition featured 106 documentaries screened across 64 days in 42 venues. The lineup is an eclectic blend of highlights from the international documentary scene — from “I Am Not Your Negro” to “Last Men in Aleppo” —to locally-produced projects and students films depicting everyday life in Mexico.
On opening weekend in Mexico City, screenings were packed less with industry figures than curious locals intrigued by the prospects of unfamiliar programming, starting with a free outdoor screening of “The Eagle Huntress” in the city’s plaza. That weekend, more than 300 moviegoers camped outside in the mountainous region known as Los Dinamos for a free screening of the documentary “Brimstone and Glory,” about the fireworks celebration in Tultepec, Mexico, and engaged in a prolonged Q&A session with the filmmaker that ran almost as long as the movie itself.
Such widespread enthusiasm is exactly what Bernal and Luna had in mind. “There’s an interesting dialogue that happens when people are in the same room watching a documentary,” Bernal said in an interview. “The singular discourse disappears. Arguments become more sophisticated. This is what happens when you see a plaza full of people watching a documentary for free.”
Bernal was inspired to start Ambulante after seeing that Eugenio Polgovsky’s 2004 documentary “Tropic of Cancer,” about an isolated community in Mexico in which villagers trap animals to sell them to tourists, failed to get a release in its home country. “It made me feel that there was no chance for someone to see the film — specifically, the people who are portrayed in it,” Bernal said. “Maybe a few film festivals could screen it, but that would be it. So we decided to take that film and others to the places where they were shot. It was more utopian euphoria than frustration.”
Notably, Ambulante receives 44% of its funding from U.S. sources, although some 40% comes from federal and state funds, while an additional 15% comes comes from private sponsors, and just one percent comes from ticketing and merchandise sales. Ambulante has been designed more as a form of advocacy than a business, and that goal has extended to its educational initiative, Ambulante Mas Alla.
The program involves filmmaking workshops in rural areas of Mexico, where participants ranging from teenagers to senior citizens produce short films about topics such as farming and family traditions. Since the program launched with the start of Ambulante, program instructor and documentary producer Carlos Rossini said that he has seen significant improvement in the sensibilities of his students. “It used to be that when I asked what was the last documentary students had seen, they would say ‘Shark Week,’” he said. “Now, after 12 years, that has changed. They talk about the films they saw at Ambulante.”
The communal progress underscores a broader goal for the festival, now run by director Paulina Suarez and director of programming Meghan Monsour: the capacity to push beyond stereotypical impressions of the country and its hardships. “This is the most important thing for us now,” Rossini said. “To discover that people are all on one side. It’s not what everybody says it is. It’s not a war, it’s not that everybody’s a corrupt police officer or politician. It’s a big country working through things, sharing thing. There are many difficulties, but most of us believe that this place has a future.”
For Bernal, the festival allows Mexico both a window into its own identity and the ability to scrutinize other cultures. “Watching otherness, understanding and creating empathy, can only lead to good things,” he said. “All films are political to me.”
The 2017 Ambulante Film Festival runs through May 25, 2017.