Violence in Mexico escalated when the war on drugs began and is out of control. Now the culture of violence for easy money is corrupting young people. His latest film deals impressionistically with the ghosts and living metaphors which haunt this ‘surreal and melodramatic country’.
He teaches film at the Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica in Mexico, and has programmed many film festivals.
His first feature film “Malaventura” (2011) dealt with the life of 89-yr.-old Isaac, one of the ‘ghosts’ of Mexico City. It has only one character and little dialogue – a reflection of Lipkes’s love of silent films, and his sympathy for Robert Bresson’s belief that cinema is closer to poetry and music than literature or drama. He is attracted by ambiguity.
His latest film “Extraño pero verdadero” (Strange but true), is in black and white. It has a ‘choral group’ of four characters, but is highly metaphorical in the way it comments on the violence and machismo in Mexican society. It tells the story of a young couple, Yesi and Jonathan, working on a rubbish truck with two older men, Maestro Limpio and Mummia, when they discover a body in the rubbish.
When I met him at the Ibero-American Film Festival in Lisbon in December, he talked about these issues, and how the war on drugs has encouraged corruption, and an escalation of violence, especially against women.
You are risking a lot making documentaries in Mexico – physically or just politically?
Physically. There is another documentary called “The devil’s freedom”: interviews with both victims and perpetrators of violence. How people arrive to this coldness after doing these things has affected everyone. Those who live from this have become zombies, monsters. I watched videos on narco-blogs during my research, incredibly brutal things. Before I could watch anything, now my body reacts to the sight of blood, even a small cut and I feel faint.
How long has this level of violence been going on?
It began with Felipe Calderon declaring war on the narcos, he dressed like a soldier to go with the image. PANI – the right-wing party took power. Then the PRI came back, and everybody thought: “that’s good, they created the narcos, so they will stop them now”. But it was too late, people are making money out of contracts and weapons. And in a climate of violence, politicians can manipulate the population.
It’s as if crime now is a tool of policy, states are run by gangsters, and everyone accepts it, not just in Mexico.
Mexico is in the headlines because of the numbers and it has been going on for 11 or 12 years. Corruption goes from the very top of the pyramid to the bottom: you can always save money if you bribe someone. We, in the younger generation are trying to change our mentality, but it is deeply rooted, a way of living. In my film, I wanted to say that the poorest and the weakest pay the highest price in this war. It’s quite normal to read about kids, growing corn in a village, and the narcos arrive and force them to change to poppies or marijuana. They live surviving from day to day, and suddenly find they can become super-rich.
If someone holds an AR-15 to your head you don’t argue, living means working for the narcos. There are many damaged youths in Mexico, and this is what worries me the most. They die very young. I cannot bear making films and not putting in my grain of sand. This culture of cruelty affects everyone around me.
“Malaventura”, also concerned people on the margins, but “Strange but true” deals more with violence.
My first film is about loneliness in the middle of the city, Isaac is 89 years old in the film, he died the next year. If you stand on a corner in Mexico City you see many Isaacs, the city is very aggressive to old people who have difficulty walking. I wanted to make a film about these things that really turn your head, because you are living in this city full of ghosts.
I was scouting for locations with a cinematographer from the film school, and he said: “let’s go and have a beer afterwards, I know this place you will really love”. It was clandestine, you have to knock on the door, and Don Pepe let you into this bar that was once glorious but now is dusty and full of junk, where these old men are very happy, singing, talking and making jokes. I loved that place and we hung out there a lot. I shot it in the film without the happy atmosphere, to show this little bubble of time, on the margins of the present.
“Strange but true” is also about Mexico City, and they are both very spatial films, the spaces the characters are in is what is narrating. Finding beauty in the sadness or tragedy of the space, is important to me. My creative instinct always guides me to those places. Space, architecture tells so much about humans and their history. “Malaventura” is 90% shot in the historic centre of Mexico City. It’s a magnificent place, you feel it and understand a lot about history. This time I wanted to explore the periphery. There are places where the statistics of violence are similar to Syria or Afghanistan.
The number of femicides in the State of Mexico City, is an aberration, an insult; and I wanted to deal with the culture of power, of machismo. In the film it’s very important for Yesi to be the source of strength.
You said that Mexico is a melodramatic and surreal country.
It’s the culture where tele-novelas were born, before the US got them.
They have stories about social disparity, the poor girl who falls in love with the rich guy, with intense music. And even recently, during Peña Ñieto’s election campaign, there were billboards trying to sell him as a handsome movie star, hugging an indigenous woman and saying: “Vote for me”. It was playing with the fairy-tale world of tele-novela, to manipulate people.
And Mexico is surreal by nature, the culture is mystical, but also cynical. On the surface it seems very patriarchal, but at home the mothers are in control. There is always something on the surface and something beneath. You can see a bit of it on the surface, and it creates tension.
One day I saw this kid, in the landfill, who seemed very messianic, talking to himself, spiritual and political things. People said he was the crazy one. But there are people who go there and never leave, because the outside world is so prejudiced.
I had shot there 12 yrs ago. Now some parts are closed because of the chemicals and inflammable things. But sometimes they make tele-novelas there. They come with trucks and campers, take their images and leave. The film Elysium with Matt Damon had some shots there. So, when we arrived people said: “Not Matt Damon again! – You are the kind who just come and take, and give nothing, we don’t want you”.
But we worked together, built houses there, people there play in the movie. We were only there for 5 days and nights, but it was a working relationship.
Peña Ñieto’s name came up in another film saying he was connected with nastier people in his past than other presidents.
His mistakes have been exposed more, and he inherited a country at war. When he arrived the ex-governors of Vera Cruz, Javier Duarte, and of Quintana Roo State, Roberto Borge Angulo were his best pals. He said: “We are the new generation of the PRI, I put my hands in the fire for them, we are here to make things good…” They are vicious criminals who stole a lot of money, exploited lands, but they have been caught and will be extradited. We have elections in six months, and they are selecting less charismatic characters because they want people who seem reliable. Peña Ñieto’s popularity has sunk a lot. The only time it went up a bit was when he told Trump “We are not going to pay for the wall”, so finally, he did something right. But a week after Trump took office he gave him a present by extraditing El Chapo to the US.
(Photos provided by Michel Lipkes)