03 | almada

Spring 2016

Natalia Almada: Ambient regions

In its second series, Latitude Cinema and Screen Arts from the Global South is excited to present the work of acclaimed Mexican-American filmmaker Natalia Almada. Almada was raised in both Mexico and the U.S., and obtained her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. She has received the McArthur, Guggenheim, and MacDowell fellowships. Her films have screened at prestigious institutions and festivals around the world such as Documenta13, Sundance, MOMA and the Guggenheim Museum.

To the Other Side (Al otro lado)
Directed by Natalia Almada
Mexico/USA 2005, digital, BW/color, 70 min. Spanish with English subtitles

Magdiel is a 23-year old musician and composer from a poor fishing village in Sinaloa, the traditional drug heartland in Mexico. In order to get by, Magdiel fishes with his father and composes narcocorridos (drug ballads) for local drug kingpins and human traffickers. However, limited by the poverty and lack of opportunity available to him in his home town, Magdiel is faced with two options to support his family: begin to traffic drugs or attempt to cross the border illegally into the United States.

Throughout the film we learn of the narcocorrido’s close relationship to issues of immigration, border violence and drug smuggling via the lives and music of well-known artists such as Los Tigres del Norte, Chalino Sánchez and Jenni Rivera. In an era where right-wing politicians rally to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Almada’s film paints a humanizing portrait of a little-understood borderlands culture, asking us to consider the struggles, hopes and realities of those “on the other side.”

Al otro lado, her début feature-length documentary, while being a starkly different artistic statement from the rest of her work nevertheless establishes Almada’s career-long exploration of a region rich in lore, bravado and longing.

All Water Has a Perfect Memory
Directed by Natalia Almada
USA/Mexico 2001, digital, color/BW, 19 min. Spanish & English with subtitles

In her award-winning short film, Almada reconstructs her sister’s death at the family pool through recollections of her brother, mother and father, photographs, home movies and, in the filmmaker’s words, “fabricated images”. The family members narrate in turns the context and impact of such dramatic event. Closer to the intimacy of audio diaries than interviews, their grief is revealed through the tonalities, stoppages and drifts of their remembrances, presaging Almada’s investigation of aural images and memory in El general. Two refrains punctuate the film: a little girl’s lower body swirling in a dress and the rhythmic stitching of a sewing machine. One points toward the pool, continuously filled and drained in an effort to erase its silent testimony; the other signals the caesura that remembrance always attempts to suture. In the Tony Morrison passage from which Almada borrows her film’s title: “All water has perfect memory and is forever trying to get back where it was.” Yet Almada’s film and its “fabrications” show how it can never return to a fixed, more real, course since water and memory are the most truthful to their own flow.

The General (El general)
Directed by Natalia Almada
Mexico/USA/Argentina 2009, digital, color/BW, 83 min. Spanish with English subtitles

El general weaves a fraught history of the former Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles, told by his great-granddaughter, filmmaker Natalia Almada. Depending on the point of view of the (his)storyteller, Calles was a revolutionary, a “strong man,” a father, a dictator, and a tyrant. Almada creates a complicated portrait, partially told through tape recordings of her grandmother and family films, alongside archival footage, photographs and press coverage of Calles, as well as more contemporary footage that speaks to the legacy of concentrations of power in Mexico.

Through an assemblage of of clips and images, visual traces of the past and present, and narration privileging multiple voices, Almada pushes against the limits of historical documentary filmmaking. Her grandfather is portrayed as a contradictory man, both brutal and caring, imperious and tragic. Almada stitches together partial memories and fragments of information to create a film that is as much about the impossibility of telling an objective history as it is about the rippling effects of a man whose actions during contexts of political turmoil close to a century ago continue to impact Mexican society today.

The Night Watchman (El velador)
Directed by Natalia Almada
Mexico 2011, DCP, color 82 min. Spanish with English subtitles

The Night Watchman (El Velador, 2011), Natalia Almada’s third and most recent full-length documentary showcases Almada’s ability to use formal restraints to create a quiet but poignant observational film. The film depicts an ever-expanding graveyard linked to Mexican drug cartels and their immaculate graves. Using diegetic music, no narration, and no interviews, The Night Watchman pushes its restraints further to create a distinctly minimalist style. Even when the camera is hand-held, Almada almost never moves it, preferring still, static shots. People are rarely shown in medium or medium close-up shots. Instead, the film prefers very wide shots or extreme close-ups, always providing unusual perspectives on otherwise ordinary actions. The unusual perspectives reflect the extraordinary circumstances of the graveyard’s existence. In a sequence depicting construction workers building a new monument, the film uses extremely low-angle shots. The workers’ faces and bodies are obscured, defamiliarizing their form to moving shapes, colors, and sounds. This creates a disassociating effect that lets the quiet humanity of their work seem both banal and extraordinary simultaneously. In almost Ozu-like fashion, the film intercuts its human subjects with still-life shots of worn out shoes, balloons, low-resolution plastic banners of the dead, and the glowing blue of an old CRT antennae TV turned to a local news station.

It is in the moments when Martin, the graveyard’s night watchman, listens to the news reports of cartel-related deaths and weather forecasts–normally while eating or readying for bed–that the backdrop responsible for this cemetery comes to the fore. Despite the title’s implication about its subject, he is barely privileged over other images, thus creating the feeling that the night watchman is not necessarily Martin, but perhaps instead the watchful eye of Almada, the camera lens, or the potential viewer of the film. The Night Watchman provides a much-needed quiet insight on the Mexican drug cartels that contrasts with the loud, exploitative depictions produced by its northern neighbor.

All Water Has a Perfect Memory
Directed by Natalia Almada
USA/Mexico 2001, video, color/BW, 19 min. Spanish & English with subtitles

See description above.

APRIL 11 @ the Harry Ransom Center
The Night Watchman (El velador)
Directed by Natalia Almada
Mexico 2011, DCP, color 72 min. Spanish with English subtitles

Screening, Q&A and sneak previews of her latest work with the director in attendance.

APRIL 11 @ Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies
Natalia Almada in conversation with Jim Mendiola