Oscars for Mexican Filmmakers

The image depicts a scene from El Rancho Grande. Photo courtesy of Filmoteca UNAM Collection

But Where Are the Mexican Films?

By Humberto Delgado

A couple of years ago, in 2007, the so-called Three Amigos (the filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu) went up on stage for the 79th Oscar Awards presentations. Their three films (Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth and Babel, respectively) garnered a total of sixteen nominations for the golden statuette (ten of them for people born in Mexico). Together, they won four of the Oscars handed over that night and a contract with Universal for $100 million dollars to produce five movies, one or two of them in Spanish.

On the other side of the border, the event was much celebrated and publicized. This national triumph had great symbolic value for Mexico. These directors and other Mexican artists had managed to realize the American dream by directing Robert de Niro, acting alongside of Brad Pitt, and working as photography directors for Tim Burton or the Coen brothers. Film criticism in Mexico, sometimes excessively condescending, at other times extremely harsh, was polarized between critics who unabashedly praised the filmmakers for displaying high technical expertise and notable aesthetic quality in these multimillion dollar projects, and commentators who considered these films to be mere “popcorn movies,” commercial factory piecework that erased national identity and eclipsed true Mexican films with cultural values that defined the country or that had taken risks to create formal avant garde experiments. Regardless of this polemic (impossible to resolve in this space), the night of the 2007 Oscars could also be said to demonstrate a historic inertia of cinematography in a country which had been capable of generating its own export-quality movies. In this, the relations between Mexico and the United States have played a fundamental role that is responsible for the present situation—not only cinematographic, but also the economic, political, social and cultural. Let us use the flashback technique to explain some of the background that led to the night when the Three Amigos took each other’s hands and greeted the audience in the movie awards ceremony seen throughout the world.

The initial point of departure for any discussion of Mexican film is its so-called Golden Age, whose exact dates are defined differently by different commentators. In “El cine nacional,” for example, Carlos Monsiváis places the era from 1930 to 1954, while Rafael Aviña and Gustavo García situate its beginning in 1936, the year of the legendary film Allá en el Rancho Grande. In any case, the period encompassed a little less than thirty years and managed to dominate the film industry in Latin America, with the exception of Argentina. Mexico made the most widely seen films in Spanish on the continent, including in Brazil and the United States; here, in 1950, 300 movie houses showed Spanish-language films, mainly Mexican movies.

Commercial success led to thematic richness in the film industry. Producers made movies of an expressionist nature such as Dos monjes (1934), political-historical films such as ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (1935) or films dissecting specific sectors of the society such as the family in Una familia de tantas (1934) or immigrants to the United States in Espaldas mojadas(1953). Only a strong film industry could receive exiled Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and help revive his career, or let a terribly bad filmmaker, Juan Orol (the local Ed Wood), write, direct, produce, act in and compose the music for a movie in which Mexican charros—a type of Mexican cowboy—defend the national sovereignty when threatened by the Chicago Mafia (Gángsters contra charros, 1947). This peculiar and weird film demonstrates the good health and diversity of a cinematography capable of making 108 movies in 1949 and 150 in 1950, in contrast to the harsh and sad reality of the end of the century, when only thirteen movies were made in 1997.

In this entire Mexican Belle Époque, Mexico-United States relations were notably important. The first factor that should be mentioned—a commonplace for all references regarding this period—was Mexico’s northern neighbor’s entry into World War II. The U.S. film industry needed to ration its production of celluloid (the material for making film) and to concentrate its movie production on war-related movies and propaganda. Thus, although it continued to be the dominant industry in the world, it had to cede a bit of room to its neighbors. In addition, European film, the second dominant market in Latin America, directly suffered the effects of the war. Mexico took advantage of the situation when it declared itself an ally of the United States against the German-Italian-Japanese axis. Its Spanish-language film competitors fell behind: Spain was recuperating from a civil war, and Argentina was trapped in its relationship with Germany and Italy. Hence the Mexican movie industry flourished and expanded throughout the continent.

In addition to the factor of the war, the Golden Age of movies in Mexico was strengthened by closeness to Hollywood. The proximity of the border allowed many Mexican technicians and film artists to develop their skills in the United States and to learn from Hollywood the difficult art of making movies. The most notable case—because of its importance and because it serves as a microcosm of the relationship between the two neighbors—is that of the group made up of Emilio Fernández (director), Gabriel Figueroa (cinematographer) and Dolores del Río (actress). This group is unanimously considered by critics as the crew that brought film aesthetics of Mexico to its highest point during the Golden Age in the middle of the 20th century, a status that even today no one has been able to attain. All three had been in Hollywood under different circumstances, and each one was representative of the diverse strata of Mexican society.

First, there is Emilio Fernández, the wetback who worked his way up to learning how to make movies after laboring as bricklayer, longshoreman and waiter in Chicago and Los Angeles. He then became an apprentice in several movies, where he learned a bit of everything and was a specialist in nothing. Later, thanks to his athletic figure, he was hired as a double and an extra in movies, including a few for Douglas Fairbanks. The “Indio” —the Indian—(a nickname he wore with honor) is even said to have been the model who posed for the Oscar statuette, an unlikely tale but indicative of his striking looks. Fernández arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s, when the cinematographic development of silent films had reached its peak after its institutionalization with films such as Intolerance in the previous decade. It was also in California where “El Indio” learned of an unfinished film that affected him deeply: Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva México!, about which he declares, “This is where I learned the pain of the people, the land, the strike, the struggle for freedom and social justice. It was wonderful.” This statement is in and of itself an aesthetic declaration that Emilio Fernández would abide by to the end.

The inspiring mix of the North American film and the Soviet director would influence Fernández significantly after he returned to Mexico and became the author of Flor Silvestre, Enamorada, Río Escondido, María Candelaria and Salón México, among his most significant films. As does Almodóvar today, Fernández stylized melodrama in such a fashion as to give it a tragic aspect and transform it into something greater that could effectively transmit the values of a post-revolutionary Mexico. The idealization and exaltation as a way to construct the identity of the country led the director to create diverse mythic figures that have survived in the local imaginary (the Peasant, the Motherland, the Mother, Providence, all with capital letters). He is, without a doubt, the most nationalist among nationalist filmmakers and this turned him, for better or worse, into one of the few Mexican film directors, perhaps the only one, that has made it to a select pantheon known as authors’ films. The grandfather of the Three Amigos returned from the United States to his country of origin, not to reencounter but to reinvent it and this was somethg he never would have been able to accomplish without the experience of living in the United States, distanced from his home country.

The director would not have accomplished much without the help of another notable artist: the cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who also had his own experience in Hollywood. If Emilio Fernández crossed the border as a wetback, Figueroa did so through networking among producers. Figueroa received a scholarship in 1935 from the Mexican film company CLASA to study with the legendary Gregg Toland, who later would become the cameraman for Citizen Kane and also would take charge of teaching Orson Wells about the language of film. Just as Eisenstein was important for Fernández, Toland’s style would mark Figueroa and through him the entire Mexican film industry, with the use of deep focus in which the depth of field is increased and the cinematographic space is expanded. The “Indio” and Figueroa learned to optimize this resource to capture the Mexican landscape, imbuing it with a lyrical essence. Through Figueroa, Mexican photography turned into a school with a certain prestige in the world, to the degree that today, fifty years later, there are at least five Mexican cameramen filming in Hollywood and winning Oscars for which Figueroa was nominated, but did not win.

Last but not least is Dolores del Río, who arrived in Hollywood in a very different manner. Unlike Figueroa and Fernández, the future star of the Golden Age was a member of Mexico’s wealthy upper class and emigrated to California—to the circles of the jet set—after the upheaval of the Mexican Revolution. Del Río became an actress in silent films and made about 30 movies, many of them very successful and of the highest quality. She worked with highly regarded directors such as Raoul Walsh, King Vidor and Busby Berkeley, and in 1928 even managed to make a hit as a singer on the soundtrack of the silent film Ramona. Although she contributed to the promotion of the Latin stereotype, her elegant and aristocratic beauty, together with a true dramatic talent, made her a diva in her time; while a minor diva alongside some of the great divas of the period, she achieved greater fame than contemporary Mexican actresses like Salma Hayek, who has not managed to achieve a high-quality role in her North American experience. Unlike other non-English-speaking actors, Dolores del Río made an easy transition from silent film to the talkies and managed to continue her career in the United States. In 1942, getting close to 40 and knowing that Hollywood tended to put older actresses out to pasture, she decided to return to Mexico. There she met with intellectuals and artists, among whom was “Indio” Fernández. The director offered her the lead role in Flor Silvestre and this would begin the second act of her career, the face of love and feminine anguish of Mexican melodrama.

The director, the photographer, the actress. The wetback, the exchange student, the aristocrat. All the cinematographic sectors and the social strata of Mexico were enriched through this experience. U.S. cinematography gave them the technical expertise and allowed them to encounter their own cultural values that they later developed on returning to their native land. There are also other examples, such as Gonzalo Gavira, the first Mexican to win an Oscar; his award was for the sound effects in The Exorcist. Gavira managed to create peculiar sounds with ordinary objects, such as the possessed girl’s famous turn of the head, a sound that he made with a comb. Another success story is that of Luis Mandoki, the first true filmmaker of this new bevy of directors at the end of the 20th century. Mandoki emigrated to California as a result of the Mexican economic crisis and achieved a certain prestige in Hollywood; years later, in a curious reversal, he returned to Mexico to support the causes of the Mexican and Central American left, making leftist, politically committed films.

Given this history, it is not surprising to see the Three Amigos on stage for the 79th Oscar ceremony. González Iñárritu, Cuarón and del Toro are products of the Mexican film industry, which, even in crisis, still maintains the infrastructure forged in the years of splendor, enabling it to develop quality movies within the scope offered by the commercial and political relations with its northern neighbor. In spite of this history of being good neighbors in the film industry, there are elements that have negatively affected the Mexican film industry, bringing about its present crisis. The free market strategy, especially through NAFTA, has constrained cinematography south of the Bravo River and has permitted U.S. monopolies to dominate the Mexican movie houses. For example, in 2000, 84.2% of films shown in Mexico were from the United States, while 8.3% were Mexican, according to cultural critic Néstor García Canclini. The vicious cycle this produces is evident: if Mexican films do not profit from or recoup their investment, movie production is cut back and thus fewer local films are shown. In response, the Mexican filmaking community has often protested, including a 1998 international symposium that was called Los que no somos Hollywood (“Those of Us Who Are Not Hollywood”). These protests resulted in an effort to implement a law to protect the Mexican cinematographic market, a law that was completely rejected by Jack Valenti, director of the Motion Picture Association of America and by the U.S. government itself. The law, of course, never went into effect. Despite these problems, thanks to new digital technologies and the participation of the Mexican government, 70 movies were made in 2008, but only 46 of them were ever shown, and as a result the audience for local movies decreased dramatically. The artificial lifeline that the Mexican state has granted to the movie industry will not help if there is no fair competition within the local market and the Mexican film industry will continue to be in crisis for at least the next few years. This problem can be seen as a microcosm of what has happened in other areas—economic, social, cultural and political—of U.S.-Mexico relations. On one hand, the strong U.S. filmindustry has directly permitted the strengthening of the Mexican industry, but at the same time, power of the former diminishes the latter. But one should not forget the fact that in its turn, México dominated the Latin American film industry in the middle of the last century and hindered cinematographic development in other Latin American countries as a result of the inevitable spiral of the big fish gobbling up the smaller ones. The strengthening of national film industries is not possible without strengthening the economy and public policy in each country; at the same time, a robust film industry reflects the autonomy and strength of an economically healthy and democratic country (film in totalitarian governments should be considered as a separate, distinct case). The best way to guarantee that many more “Tres Amigos” will emerge and that new artistic talents will be developed in other Latin American nations is to guarantee the economic and social health of those nations. Utopia is still desirable—and still possible.

Humberto Delgado is a third-year doctoral student of Latin American literature in Harvard’s Departament de Romance Languages and Literatures. He studied Latin American literature at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México (UAEM) and later film directing at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), where he also received a Master’s in Communications Studies.