Culture, Globe, Latin America, Screen

A very indigenous and independent cinema

Two Mexican directors explain the difficulties inherent in bringing a film project to fruition in the Central American country.  The “LondonMexFest” film festival will be held in London from 17th to 19th August.

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Carlos Efraín Perez Rojas - Photo: Mecapal Films

Jesús Rodríguez Montes


In the Mexican state of Guerrero lies a small indigenous village which has remained hidden beneath an enormous road bridge that has been constructed on top of it, connecting a road that runs towards Mexico City. In the village lives an elderly man called Silvestre Pantaleón who has suffered from a number of ailments for some time..

Being far from the city, Silvestre turned to the local “healer”, who told him that his ailments are due to his  age, but are also because he is suffering from “fright disease”.

To be cured, the healer tells him, he must undergo various treatments, which should be  accompanied by a ritual.  Silvestre does not have any money, so he has dedicated a great deal of time and effort to making things out of palm and agave fiber that he can sell.

Roberto Olivares Ruiz and Jonathan D. Amith’s documentary “Silvestre Pantaleón” is set around the story of this Nahuatl-speaking native of southern Mexico.  The documentary forms part of the official programme to be screened at the “LondonMexFest, a festival of cinema, art and music” being held from 17th to 19th August.

Roberto Olivares - Photo: Ojo de Agua Comunicación

“Silvestre Pantaleón” is voiced entirely in the Nahuatl language and looks at the lives of the elderly in Mexico’s indigenous villages, religious syncretism and the difficulties faces by artisan producers in these communities.

The documentary was considered a worthy prize-winner at a number of film festivals, both in Mexico and abroad, particularly the Morelia International Film Festival (2011) and Montreal’s First People’s Festival (2011).

In an interview with The Prisma, director Roberto Olivares asserts that the true value of the documentary is in it’s being “a human story that could be told in any corner of the world and in any language, something that could happen anywhere, it is more something that appeals to what unites us as human beings, than to what makes us different.”

“Silvestre Pantaleón” – perhaps the most widely distributed of the author’s works – came about by accident.  Filming originally began on an anthropologically focused documentation but, together with Jonathan D. Amith, they subsequently came up with the idea of a feature-length film focusing on a single indigenous man, his family “and the difficulties he faces in earning the money for his treatment.”

Silvestre Pantaleón - Photo: Ojo de Agua Comunicación

The project was two years in the making, but turned out to be profitable.  Olivares reveals that half of the profits generated from the feature film and from prizes won at film festivals, have been sent to the story’s main protagonist, the aging Silvestre Pantaleón.

The Nahuatl-language documentary is available with Spanish and English subtitles and, from the 21st October,  in Chinese, for Beijing’s Mexican-Spanish film festival.

The difficulties faced by Pérez Rojas

Few Mexican film-makers would risk working independently and making the indigenous peoples their focus.

Those who do have to leave behind the comfort of the big cities and strike out into impoverished villages where sometimes they don’t even speak any Spanish, in order to develop projects out of little money, but with a great deal of talent and intellectual skill.

Two of these committed film-makers  are Roberto Olivares Ruiz, who is currently living in the Oaxaca region of Mexico, and Carlos Efraín Pérez Rojas, who is himself descended from the  Mixe people, indigenous to the region, and for the past 3 years has lived in Lyons, France.

Olivares has worked for over 15 years with the organisation “Ojo de Agua Comunicación” (Eye of Water Communication), a group dedicated to training and audiovisual production in the indigenous communities of Southern Mexico.

He says “The work we do is artisan, we have limited equipment, but everything we produce is done on a couple of cameras and a computer”.

Olivares is asked whether it is difficult to make films about Mexico’s indigenous villages.

The most important thing is that those of us who dedicate ourselves to this are able to survive, because obviously to produce a film requires resources, but very little compared with what big industry uses.  For example, at the moment I am getting a grant and I have to survive on this grant and I’m going to develop projects.  One grant is enough for me to make two documentaries.”

Pérez Rojas is a 33 year old documentary maker who in 2005 was awarded the Reebok Foundation’s international prize as recognition for his work in the field of human rights.

His documentaries are precisely focused on what goes on in the indigenous communities of Southern Mexico, and his most recent feature length film “Y el río sigue corriendo” (And the river keeps on running), won the Alanis Obomsawin prize for Best Documentary at the 2010 imagineNATIVE Film Festival, and the Golden Drum prize at the International Festival of Indigenous Film in Nepal.

In his interview with The Prisma, Pérez Rojas agreed that conditions are tough for film makers in Mexico saying “In general, it’s difficult to find support for making documentaries, but it’s even more difficult if they’re about indigenous peoples.”

He explains that the institutions responsible for distributing grants and resources very often impose criteria that directors find difficult to comply with.  For example, they put limits on the length of the documentary, or notifications are just simply never broadcast.

Pérez’s wife is French, which is why he migrated to that country.  When asked about his experiences in Europe and what difficulties he has come up against in distributing his work, he replies “Being here doesn’t make things easy, but in any case there are always spaces to show work”.

And he adds that in Europe “the vision they have of Mexico is of a developing country, Mexican folklore is out there, but in some of the places where I’ve shown my videos they didn’t even know that indigenous peoples existed.  Mexico is seen as being a country in development, but nothing is known of the poverty, the harsh reality of the indigenous peoples”.

(Translated by Viv Griffiths)

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