“The peasantry during and after the Revolution of 1910 – 1920 fell from the frying pan of dictatorship into a revolutionary fire caused by internecine feuds between the caudillos engaged in bloody warfare. Whether it was the cause of secular Revolution against a corrupt dictator, in defense of Catholicism against an atheist state, or to create a Marxist utopia by pulling society up by its roots, the result was always the same. The people, fleeing to cities or to work the fields in the southwestern United States, went to the movies to remember a Mexico that they had never known because it had never existed.”
– Mike MicKinley
On my journey to travel the world in film in 2020, it quickly became evident that any entry point into Latin America was going to go through Mexico first. This is true not only for understanding the diverse cultural identity that Latin America represents, but of the ongoing relationship between culture, politics and film. There are very real parallels one can find between a discussion of Mexican and Italian film industries in this regard, mirroring its development amidst cultural revolutions, war, and the liberation of its people.
The Politics of An Emerging Film Industry
Most of the available data dates Mexican Cinema to the “late nineteenth century” and the Presidency of Porfirio Diaz. As is a common mark of cinema worldwide, the early emergence of films, which of course were still of the silent era, fufilled the purpose of “documenting” (documentaries) a Countries political interest, most often in the interest of controlling the narrative. Film represented a new way to influence the masses, something his presidency saw in Salvador Barragan’s Don Juan Tenorio (1898).
This is also how (and why) a documentary style would emerge as a way to give voice back to the people later on in Italy, with Mexico being no different. In terms of the Presidency, these early images (short films) were used to create what history refers to as an “idealizing” image. This became a mark of the Mexican Revolution, a socio-political struggle that has come to be defined as a ‘national” transformation (see: Alan Knight and “Mexican Revolution: Interpretations”). An underreported aspect of this revolution is the failure of Diaz’s attempt to control the narrative of the Country by way of film, which really depended on the reality of a succession of power. Where film could be controlled by the elite, it also exposed the voices of the people, creating a chaotic landscape in which we find a succession not of powers, but of revolutions (including the Ten Tragic Days). All of this, history suggests, hinges on the development of the Mexican Constitution (1917), an idea that lingered for a while amidst these back and forth revolutions which divided the Country into many different pockets and circles of social, economic and political powers. As historian John Womack, Jr documented, “Economic and social conditions improved in accordance with revolutionary policies, so that the new society took shape within a framework of official revolutionary institutions.”
All of this marries back into the development of the film industry as a key factor and role player in unifying a fractured Country by way of allowing the people to tell their stories, beginning in the trenches of the industry that first began to erect these house of “moving pictures”, but even more so, in like minded fashion to other global areas, via travelling shows (called Carpas, or tent shows in Mexico) that saved these stories from simply being a product of the elite. This is what played a key role in not allowing a singular political narrative to be established. The industry was actually being built on the backs of the common people, whom were the artists and the creatives developing the art form as an image and expression of Mexican culture.
A Unifying Culture and the Progression of a Developing Film Industry
The historians that I read seemed to be unified in the understanding that in a fractured Country a unified industry is difficult to establish, which meant that one of the key factors that weighed on the film industry as Carpas disappeared (largely due to problem of highly flammable film not lending itself to longevity and consistency) and the industry started to define itself as something uniquely “Mexican” was the question of distribution. A diversity of voices were making film, but getting those films seen and heard beyond the borders of these socio-political pockets proved difficult. Levels of attempted censorship that emerged out of these revolutions also played a role in how films could emerge from these circles.
This meant that any semblance of an industry was relegated to a narrow selection of smaller companies (see: Carlos Mongrand). Being in such close proximity to America as well, with all of the socio-political and economic developments that flow from that, meant that any discussion of an industry was being measured by what historians call “the genius of the system”. “This concept of what André Bazin referred to as “the genius of the system,” and its subsequent stability would ultimately prove the undoing of the very system it nurtured, as the industrial production process became ossified and incapable of innovation.” (See: The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio EraBook by Thomas Schatz). What this quote points to is the tension that exists, especially as the film industry marries to socio-political realities, between the “social” and the “political”, the (liberated) people and the (controlled) system. It is for this reason that you see one of the greatest influences of Mexican system actually coming from Italy, a Country which mirrored Mexico’s own struggle.
From Italy to America to a Mexican Film Industry
When one studies the Mexican film industry, what gets uncovered is the deep “influence” of Italian filmmaking. It helped to anchor Mexico’s own cinematic development as a ground level endeavor. Out of the shared chaos of both Countries, filled with shared revolutions comes a dedication to protecting film as the “voice of the people”.
Which points to an interesting development following the exodus of filmmakers following the World War to America. Between the wars, there is documentation that shows how America tried to use the film industry to gain influence and control over Mexican development (which flows from their political involvement as well in Mexico’s ongoing revolutionary state). As one historian states,
“In the 1930s, once peace and a degree of political stability were achieved, the film industry took off in Mexico and several movies still experimenting with the new medium were made. Hollywood’s attempt at creating Spanish language films for Latin America failed mainly due to the combination of Hispanic actors from different ethnicities exhibiting various accents unfamiliar to the Mexican people.” To simplify this idea, America misjudged an assumed uniformity of a Latin American culture, causing them to make films that stereotyped a diverse culture into a single entity that made no sense to the diverse peoples that made up the Mexican landscape, culture and experience, and thus Latin America as a whole. Somewhat bridged by Mexico’s adherence to socialist and socially minded systems (see Italy and even Russia, by way of Sergei Eisenstien’s travels to the Country around 1930), what ended up happening is that this created a protective barrier between Mexico and America that allowed Mexico to develop its own style of industry alongside America, also making Mexico the most significant influencer of film industries across Latin America rather than America.
Mexican Film’s Golden Age
As information seems to establish, it would appear that as the 1930’s hits, we find a Golden Age of Mexican Cinema starting to emerge. As one writing suggested, “It’s widely accepted that the Fernando de Fuentes films Allá en el Rancho Grande (1936) and Vámonos con Pancho Villa (1936) set the wheels in motion for what would become Mexican cinema’s Golden Age.”
As with the development of the global industry, distinguising itself as a culture and amidst other cultures is often measured by way of the rise of recognizable “figures” or stars. What might be an underdocumented aspect of Mexico’s rise in the film world during this period is the fact that the second World War left them free to navigate a developing industry outside of the view of America and Europe. Which connects to Mexico’s eventual joining “in the war” when a German submarine destroyed a Mexican tanker. Mexico was looked at kindly as an outside entity joining the greater cause, which resulted in Mexico being provided with (gifted with) the necessary tools to make film at a time when other industries were struggling to maintain and keep afloat their industries. Being somewhat distanced and removed, and yet also sacrificially involved, meant that Mexico’s already established diversity was able to afford their films cherished stories that had nothing to do with the war. This is where you see the voice of Mexico essentially establishing a long lasting influence in the rest of Latin America as well (it is said that film development tripled during World War 2 in Mexico).
Yet another underdeveloped topic of Mexico’s rise in cinematic dominence is how this diversity filtered down into the mimicking of the “star system” that dominated other global entities, especially in America. In America, the system held power over the stars, while in Mexico the gradual and slow development of its constitutional awareness gave control to the stars to direct the industries within their diverse presence. This made for a cultural diversity and a diversity of genres that was unique to Mexico itself, protecting its culture through its lack of uniformity. And while different degrees of socialism formed an ebb and flow within Mexico’s socio-political growth, this diversity was interpreted in more fascist governments in Latin America as the freedom of language, people and culture. “Mexican films served as a conduit for a complex of ideas and influences: Mexican music, slang, performers, and folklore were popularized throughout the Hispanic world; on another level, the ideology and social view of the Mexican bourgeoisie were disseminated throughout Latin American society. In other words, Mexican cinema has practiced “cultural imperialism” just as Hollywood is so often accused of doing.”
Socialism and A New Mexican Cinema
As with the rest of the world, Cinema in Mexico went through some challenging times with the advent of television and changing political realities. What one finds is a similar narrative as well in terms of how the Mexican governments responded to these challenges by way of government funding, sponsorships and policies. “State supported film” helped lead the way to a revitalization now known as New Mexican Cinema. What makes Mexico stand out in this endeavor however is how this revitalization has persisted even to this day. The establishment of an industry during the war meant that they were able to develop filmmakers from the inside (through film studies, courses, education centers), and a marriage of private and state function/investment has helped to give it a necessary longevity, which gives it not only an authentic voice, but an established voice in terms of serious art. What continues to define Mexican cinema is its dedication to “independent and diverse voices, something that sets it apart from its American counterparts. What has aided in this longevity is Mexico’s dependence on and interest in a variety of local festivals in a Country without a unifying presence of a “Hollywood” type entity. It gives these individual entities more power, rather than filtering this power through singular entities. And what will continue to foster this strong relationship between people, culture and film is a ground level investment in film as a “social function”. This is something that Mexico’s “socially” minded progress has continued to uphold, even as other industries have gravitated towards more individualistic, market fueled, and industry based approaches (see the streaming wars). A wander into Mexican Cimema can feel like a retreat back to the good old days of film as a social presence, only in a curious way it arrives as a modern expression. This quote sums up the power of Mexican Cinema as well as any:
“In many of these (Mexican) films, we observe most clearly the clash of the diverse factions of Mexican society riven by centuries of unresolved cultural, class and gender disconnects and intersections — indigenous vs. Spanish, peasant farmer vs. landowner, factory worker vs. capitalist, religious vs. secular, folkloric vs. commercial — these elements all collided and simmered in the rich social heritage of indigenous and Spanish society that created Mexico.”
*I am still working on my personal list of Mexican films, but here is a decent watchlist for those interested
http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com › view › obo-9780199791286-0170
The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio EraBook by Thomas Schatz
John Womack, Jr
Alan Knight and “Mexican Revolution: Interpretations”