Mar 31, 2011
El Velador by young Mexican filmmaker Natalia Almada, is a documentary only in the sense that it is not a fictional film. It narrows down its focus on the reality of drug violence in the northern state of Sinaloa, Mexico by following the daily routine of an impoverished caretaker at a grotesque and rapidly expanding cemetery mostly populated by victims and perpetrators of drug violence. There are no interviews, no talking heads and no solemn voiceover narration. More importantly, Almada refuses to show the morbid violence that is gripping the media in Mexico and terrorizing its citizens. For a narrative thread, she uses the soundtrack of escalating drug-related savagery through radio or TV newscasts reporting the latest decapitations, executions, and kidnappings.
Almada's film is a dreamlike, quietly outraged meditation on the surreal reality of Mexican drug warfare. Thus, it is not for the impatient or literal minded. Her camera records the repetitive every day rituals of the place without the slightest hurry. Her scenes are long and static. She has a keen eye for meaningful images but someone expecting a thrilling ride through the terrible mayhem going on in Mexico may be exasperated by her slow and oblique approach. Her patient, deliberate style is reminiscent of filmmakers like Kiarostami or Apitchapong Weeaseethakul. but there is much to be gleaned from what she observes in this dusty, godforsaken place, where young dead criminals abide in gaudy palaces while poor victims in bare concrete rectangles. As she patiently records the comings and goings of the cemetery, our sense of incredulity and outrage sharpens. At certain points, I felt she was about to fall prey to pretentiousness, but I respect and understand her approach. By eschewing conventional documentary style she makes a strong, thoughtful and artistically mature personal statement.
Almada is attuned to the kind of poetry that can only happen in deeply surreal countries like Mexico. There are endless shots of the caretaker patiently watering dust with a garden hose. Long shots of the skyline of this bizarre city of dead souls, which looks like a midget version of a Mexican colonial town, resting on the outskirts of the city of the living, like a pariah relative. Almada trains her camera on the guy who makes a living selling snacks and coconut water at the cemetery. On the toil of construction workers building by hand the gaudy mausoleums. Tacky enormous plastic posters honor the young men killed. A young, rich widow who drives a white Audi, mops the floor of the condo-like tomb of her dearly departed every day. By refusing to add the cacophony of opinion to the terrible fray that is the war on drugs in Mexico, and to show the horrendous pornography of drug violence, Almada paints a devastating portrait of class inequality and a country gripped by social insanity.
In one exasperating but effective scene, she keeps the camera on the construction workers as she captures the sounds of the horrible wailing of a mourning mother. She sounds totally over the top, a walking Mexican cliche of La Llorona, the wailing woman, with the kind of hammy crying you hear in a telenovela, except that the histrionics are real. Yet Almada either can't (for fear of reprisals) or won't show us the woman. This goes on for a good long while and finally we see her and the funeral group from afar. Generic mourners, suffering. Almada has plenty of empathy for the caretaker and the builders, which she lovingly photographs. She spends time on close ups of cherubic children who play around the graves of their dead fathers. But her impersonal approach restrains her from imbuing her film with too much emotion, which is welcome and bracing. Her empathy for the workers feels genuine, while her detachment as she films the rich widow mopping obsessively, shows a wise restraint, letting the audience decide if they want to judge or pity. And there is sly humor at work too. Mexicans have a chummier relationship with death and the dead than other cultures. At Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, I was visiting a humble cemetery once, and I saw a guy selling popsicles around the graves, jingling the bells of his little cart, and a man in full clown regalia. In this city of dead narcos, the snack vendor makes the rounds by turning on his loudspeakers as high as he can. He apparently knows when burials are scheduled so he's there to sell fresh mangoes, coconuts or chicharrones to the mourners. People bury their untimely dead with impressive wreaths and brass bands. They spend a lot of drug money in lavish gifts to the dead. The caretaker however, lives in a shack with one lightbulb. His bed is made of 4 overturned paint buckets and a slab of plywood, whereas the ridiculous tombs he guards are mini McMansions for the dead. They have doors and windows and second floors. They have terraces and gardens and cupolas. Their absurdity is staggering.
Almada is not interested in personal histories or testimonies, but this doesn't mean that the film is not deeply human. By avoiding contact with the mourners, she makes the audience wonder about these people. How can they live with this reality? How has this nightmare become a normal, daily occurrence in our country? What are the children of Mexico feeling and fearing, playing around premature graves and surrounded by the horrible whispers of endless violence?