El Velador: Interview with Filmmaker Natalia Almada

On Wednesday, March 16, Haverford students and community members will have the opportunity to view the documentary El Velador and speak with award winning filmmaker Natalia Almada. The quiet, mesmerizing film follows the nightwatchman of a “narco-cementary”, where some of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords are buried. For a sneak-peek into Wednesday’s event, Natalia Almada agreed to a brief interview on El Velador and filmmaking in general. Still from El Velador Icarus Films describes El Velador as “a film about violence without violence.” Do you agree? Why did you decide not to explicitly portray violence? Yes, that’s how I describe the film. In part it was a reaction to the mainstream media in Mexico, which is flooded with extremely graphic images of violence. The result of such images is that eventually they cease to touch us. We become numb to their horror and turn away. They also serve to support a discourse in which the perpetrators of these crimes are simply seen as monsters and therefore not human beings who deserve to have rights. It allows us to disassociate the violence from our social responsibility; we are no longer implicated. I believe that the violence we are experiencing in Mexico is a result of our unequal and unjust society—not only Mexican society but global society and we need to make media which allows us to see it, think about it and feel it. My hope I suppose was that the absence of violence in my film would actually allow for a reflection on violence. I was watching the trailer for El Velador on Youtube, and I couldn’t help but notice that many of the suggested videos were news pieces such as “Univision News – In Sinaloa, a Cemetary Dominated by Narcos”. Is this the context that you imagine viewers watching the film in? How did think about context while making the film? Once a film is done it has a life of its own and that is as it should be. The film has had an incredibly diverse life that ranges from Youtube to Cannes to museums all over the world and US public television. I think this is the power of film and I love the vast range of audiences and contexts in which the film can participate or ignite dialogue. I don’t make films for a given audience. I want my films to be seen by all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances. I understand that they will relate to the film differently and read the film differently and I find this immensely rewarding and a testament to the power of cinema. The notion that we must define our audience is a market driven notion, not an artistic one. The clips of El Velador that I have seen are very quiet. How did the silence or quiet of El Velador come about? I think that form should be born out of the film, not imposed onto the film. The silence in El Velador was inevitable in my opinion. The cemetery is a place of mourning and reflection, therefore a place of silence. The cemetery is also a site of violence and one of the first effects of violence is silence, people are afraid to talk. I needed to respect this in order to make the film. In documentary we tend to privilege the interview and testimony as a vehicle to” truth,” but when speaking can be dangerous and threatening, then the spoken work is no longer reliable and we must rely on gestures and other things to understand a situation. El_Velador_Capilla_construccion copy Do you think of subtitles as a deliberate choice in your films or as a practical necessity? How do you feel the presence or absence of subtitles alters your films? In my first film, All Water has a Perfect Memory, the subtitles are an integral part of the form of the film, but in my other films they are simply a necessity for any non-Spanish speaking audience. I believe that film, or rather, art in all its forms, has the capacity to cross borders. It is one of its greatest strengths and so if we are to share with others who speak different languages we must accept and embrace reading subtitles. It is an effort worth making, and frankly I think it is only in the US that this arises as an issue because Americans are spoiled by Hollywood. As a Mexican/American filmmaker, do you ever feel pressured to make a certain kind of film or present your films in a particular light? My bicultural background influences my work in that it shapes the way I see things. I think all creative endeavors are shaped by identity (culture, class, race, gender, sexuality…)—it is only that when you’re mixed, bi-cultural or simply not of the mainstream you’re asked about it usually because it makes others aware of difference. Perhaps another way of posing the above question—As a biracial person myself, I often feel that society’s intense fascination, perhaps fetishization, of people who cross racial or cultural boundaries can open up a space of conversation and yet restrict that space to very specific conversations and purposes. Do you feel this sort of double-edged gaze on you and your filmmaking? Of course what you describe is true, but I think it’s important to hold one’s ground and not only be reactionary. In other words, not allow oneself to be limited and constrained by the gaze that society imposes on those who are not of the dominant mainstream As both a director and editor, do you have a favorite part of the filmmaking process? I love that it has so many parts. Do you consider your art to have an activist or social justice role? It can. Right now there is a trend in activist, social documentary that I don’t feel particularly attuned to, although I make social issues films and believe that all my work is political. To view El Velador, join the Hurford Center at Bryn Mawr Film Institute this Wednesday, March 16.  For more info, contact hcah@haverford.edu