Meet the next generation of Mexican filmmakers

SAN CRISTEBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — When María Sojob was 11 years old, the Zapatista National Liberation Army rose up to demand democratic elections and basic necessities. National and international media flocked to Sojob’s home state of Chiapas to cover the standoff and its aftermath. He vividly remembers that the coverage was overwhelmingly in Spanish. “Why don’t they say all this in Tsotsil,” he remembers and thinks, “so that my grandfather would understand.”

When Sojob was growing up, his parents spoke to him in Spanish rather than Tsotsil, his mother tongue. He called it an “act of love” because they didn’t want him to face discrimination when he went to school outside the municipality of Chenalho, in towns like San Cristóbal de las Casas, for example. But this early education about the inequalities of language and how they affect who tells stories and for whom stayed with Sojob. In fact, it has created a new generation of filmmakers in Mexico’s southernmost state. Tsotsil and Tseltal women decided to tell stories on their own terms.

After the 1994 uprising, there was a boom in documentaries focusing on indigenous subjects and communities, but the vast majority, Sojob says, were made by people from outside the state. His own interest in storytelling began when, using a camera given to him by his father, he documented the ongoing land conflict between the people of Chenalho and the neighboring town of Chalcihuitan. As long as there was no evidence, he realized, no one would know what was going on, “that we were on our own, that we had to take everything that was going on inside, out of our context, out of our community.”

Sojob’s award-winning films cover a range of topics; young Tsotsil musicians experiment with rock in their own language (“Voces de hoy”, 2010); A tsotsil elder navigating change and cultural permanence (“Bankilal / El hermano mayor”, 2014); and an exploration of his childhood and how love is understood in his community through conversations with his elderly grandfather as he weaves a traditional hat (“Tote / Abuelo”, 2019). Sojob is currently working on Por la vida, a film documenting the resistance of Lenka women against extractive projects in Honduras.

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Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Feminist activist and indigenous rights defender Araceli Mendez, pictured at her home in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, made the documentary El cielo es muy bonito, set in a women’s shelter in southern Mexico.

Like Sojob, filmmaker Araceli Mendes explores deeply personal themes in her work. Mendez and his family, originally from Tzeltal, moved to San Cristóbal de las Casas from their ancestral lands. He identifies as a migrant and explores the struggles of migrants through his films. El cielo es muy bonito (2022), a documentary short film selected for the prestigious Morelia International Film Festival, focuses on a women’s shelter in southern Mexico and the hopes and dreams of different generations of women passing through.

“It’s important that we tell stories because of how we see things. we’ve gone through the same things that happen in the stories we want to tell,” Mendes says, adding that she’s interested in exposing the plight of migrant women. crossing international borders. “They come from violence, where they live and where they arrive, they still face violence because they cannot access hospitals, workplaces. the whole process is difficult for them.”

For a long time, filmmaking was an elite enterprise out of reach for most communities in Chiapas. It was easier “to go to a rural school here and study as a teacher so you can get a job,” Sojob says. Recent attempts at decentralization, beginning with workshops in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas in 2011 organized by the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica, one of two major public film schools headquartered in Mexico City, opened in the south of the country. Of the 29 community-led film projects registered for copyright in 2021, more than half were shot in Oaxaca or Chiapas, and nearly three-quarters were by filmmakers who identified as indigenous or Afro-heritage community members. However, men are much more likely to lead such projects; In 2021, only 14% of projects were by women.

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Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Florencia Gómez Santiz, whose documentary “3 Days, 3 Years” profiles Elena, a Tsotsil woman elected to an all-male community meeting, at her home in Oxchuk.

In 2019, the Mexican Institute of Cinematography, a federal agency attached to the Secretariat of Culture, launched a program to support filmmakers of indigenous and African origin in Mexico and Central America. Project coordinator Noe Pineda Arredondo says they received proposals in 33 languages.

Florence Gomez Santis says: “I think we are role models. We are building a road.” Her documentary 3 días, 3 años (2022) explores the same phenomenon in another area, municipal governance, through the story of Elena, a Tsotsil woman from the municipality of San Andres Larainzar, who is elected to an all-male community assembly. , raising questions about the masculine exercise of power.

While exposure to these projects remains small, largely confined to festival circles, their growing numbers are lifting the spirits of existing and aspiring filmmakers, especially those seeking to explore Chiapas through a different lens than the 1994 uprising.

“It’s really exciting to think how many women produce, each from their own struggle, you know?” Sojob says: “It’s so gratifying to see so many women on this journey.”

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