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Women Filmmakers in Mexico

Women Filmmakers in Mexico
The Country of Which We Dream

How and why women filmmakers became key figures in contemporary Mexican cinema.

April 2001
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310 pages | 6 x 9 | 18 b&w photos |

Women filmmakers in Mexico were rare until the 1980s and 1990s, when women began to direct feature films in unprecedented numbers. Their films have won acclaim at home and abroad, and the filmmakers have become key figures in contemporary Mexican cinema. In this book, Elissa Rashkin documents how and why women filmmakers have achieved these successes, as she explores how the women's movement, film studies programs, governmental film policy, and the transformation of the intellectual sector since the 1960s have all affected women's filmmaking in Mexico.

After a historical overview of Mexican women's filmmaking from the 1930s onward, Rashkin focuses on the work of five contemporary directors—Marisa Sistach, Busi Cortés, Guita Schyfter, María Novaro, and Dana Rotberg. Portraying the filmmakers as intellectuals participating in the public life of the nation, Rashkin examines how these directors have addressed questions of national identity through their films, replacing the patriarchal images and stereotypes of the classic Mexican cinema with feminist visions of a democratic and tolerant society.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: An "Other Cinema"
  • Part One: Histories
    • 1. Trespassers: Women Directors before 1960
    • 2. Student and Feminist Film, 1961-1980
  • Part Two: Revisions
    • 3. Marisa Sistach: The Other Gaze
    • 4. Busi Cortés: Telling Romelia's Secrets
    • 5. Guita Schyfter: The Chicken and the Egg
    • 6. María Novaro: Exploring the Mythic Nation
    • 7. Dana Rotberg: Modernity and Marginality
  • Conclusion: Borders and Boundaries of National Cinema
  • Annotated Filmography
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Elissa J. Rashkin is an independent writer and scholar based in Mexico City and Portland, Oregon. She holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa.


My intention and my defense for making films was to make "the other cinema." To make the other world. Women are half of humanity, but almost everything is explored and explained through men. Women explained through men. At that time I thought that the cinema that I made, and I still think today, that the cinema that I make is from the woman's point of view. Not that of the romantic and subjugated woman, but on the contrary, of woman as thinker.
—Matilde Landeta

When veteran director Matilde Landeta explained her notion of a feminist otro cine or "other cinema" to interviewer Patricia Martínez de Velasco in 1988, only Landeta and a handful of other women in Mexico had directed feature films. Moreover, those women's work, although spanning the near-century of the cinema's existence, had been irregular, fragmentary, and often compromised by external obstacles; many early films had been lost due to critical and curatorial neglect, while later directors had seen their work shelved and forgotten. The status of women's filmmaking was aptly expressed in the title of Martínez de Velasco's 1991 book, Directoras de cine: Proyección de un mundo obscuro, as "a dark world."

In the late 1980s and the 1990s, however, this situation dramatically changed. Following two decades of sporadic short films, independent and institutional documentaries, and student efforts, women at last began to emerge as professional feature film directors. In 1988, two debut features, Busi Cortés's El secreto de Romelia and Marisa Sistach's Los pasos de Ana, marked the beginning of what would soon become the widely recognized phenomenon labeled cine de mujer or women's cinema. These were followed by Maria Novaro's Lola and Dana Rotberg's Intimidad in 1989, a second feature from Cortés, Serpientes y escaleras, in 1991, and Guita Schyfter's Novia que to vea in 1992. Novaro's second feature, Danzón, went to Cannes in 1991, as did Rotberg's Angel de fuego in 1992. Marcela Fernández Violante, an active director since the 1960s, began production on Golpe de suerte in 1991, and even Matilde Landeta, by then in her late seventies, returned to directing that year with Nocturno a Rosario. Landeta's films from the 1940s were rediscovered, exhibited, and restored, as were those of Adela Sequeyro from the 1930s; festivals and special programs highlighted these discoveries, linking them to the work of the new generation of women filmmakers. For the first time, the possibility of an otro cine had become an historical reality.

The emergence of a "women's cinema" meant more than the addition of female names to the film credits of the era; in fact, it posed a formidable challenge to a long-standing cinematic tradition of female objectification, erasure, and displacement. For although the foregrounding of female characters had been a consistent distinguishing feature of the Mexican cinema (from Santa, one of the first Mexican sound films, in 1931, to Enamorada and María Candelaria in the Golden Age a few years later, to the action-heroine subgenre exemplified by the Lola la trailera series of the 1980s), the industry had always been better at what actress Diana Bracho has called "pimping" (an ironic reference to the abundance of prostitutes on the Mexican screen) than allowing women to tell their own stories (Bracho 413). Feminist theorist Teresa de Lauretis's well-known distinction between Woman as "the representation of an essence inherent in all women" (Technologies of Gender 9) and women as historical beings was amply supported by the Mexican cinema: its particular formulae, such as the veneration of the suffering mother and the vilification of the treacherous mala mujer (bad woman), functioned to displace women as historical subjects and replace them with symbolic figures whose repetitive trajectories were depicted as essential to the reproduction of the social order within the context of a clearly patriarchal nation-state.

Given the history of women's erasure from the field of representation and their replacement by the iconic, passive image of Woman, the presence of women directors in the 1990s represented a qualitative breakthrough that went well beyond the question of quantitative equity. This breakthrough took place on many levels, both within and outside of the film texts themselves, for the work of these directors embodied what film scholar Patricia Torres San Martin has described as a "symbiosis" between filmic creation and social praxis ("La investigación sobre el cine de mujeres en México" 44). Several of the filmmakers considered themselves feminists, some came from the women's movement, and all dedicated themselves to telling women's stories and directly or indirectly to revising the image of women on the Mexican screen. Referring to these developments, Torres pointed to "a new female identity" in the cinema, an identity which had been forged by "sujetos activos que han partipado en la sociedad de una manera especifica pese al dominio de ideologias y estructuras patriarcales" [active subjects who have participated in society in a specific manner in spite of the domination of patriarchal ideologies and structures] ("La investigación" 41-42).

As Torres's comment suggests, neither the origins nor the political implications of women's filmmaking were confined to the cinematic realm. Rather, they took place within and reflected the changing cultural geography of Mexico in the 1990s, a complex and highly ambivalent landscape marked by a number of important social, political, economic, and even psychological factors. These included a changing intellectual sector, characterized by the emergence of new media, new forms of participation, and new participants; a deep crisis in the unifying mythos of national identity, resulting in a proliferation of critical analysis and debate and the emergence of new social actors; a film industry also deeply in crisis and in need of rejuvenation; increased participation by women in formal education and professional employment, albeit in a social climate of complexity and contradiction; and finally, a presidential administration acutely sensitive to the ideological functions of culture and willing to lend its support to the production of film images in the interests of self-promotion and social control. While not entirely separate from one another or from the broad social and economic changes of the era—namely, the globalization and privatization of production and consumption, cultural and otherwise—it is worth examining each of these areas in detail in order to locate the significance of the cine de mujer, not simply as a subgenre of Mexican cinema but as an historical phenomenon.

The Shifting Intellectual Sector

The emergence of a body of films made by women and centered around gender issues and women's experiences reflected a long history of feminist struggle. Women filmmakers of the 1990s, whether or not they identified themselves or their work as feminist, were on the front lines of the battle for a form of representation which would take into account the point of view of women, not, as Landeta puts it, romanticized or submissive, but "woman as thinker" (Martínez de Velasco 64). In this sense, they reflected a convergence of two subtle but important long-term reconfigurations of the traditional intellectual sector in Mexico: the increased participation of women and the broad shift in that sector away from an exclusive emphasis on literate/print culture and toward an embrace of the audiovisual communications media of the era, changes that are themselves indicative of larger real and potential transformations in historically constituted fields of power and knowledge.

In The Lettered City, a provocative study of literate culture, urbanism, and state power in Latin America, Angel Rama shows how since the colonial era, state power has both depended on and produced groups of literate men (letrados) charged with managing the expanding bureaucracy of the colony (later the nation-state) and with creating ideological visions of its past, present, and future. In Mexico, asserts Rama, the basic arrangement by which a small group of urban elites imposed their ideal maps of nationhood onto an unruly and heterogeneous territory continued almost unabated from viceregal times on, with Independence and Revolution doing little more than shifting players (if that much) and vocabularies. Moreover, in spite of late-nineteenth-century economic modernization and corresponding professional specialization, culture in the limited sense of arts and letters continued to be inseparable from politics (Rama 86-87).

Written accounts of the Mexican Revolution speak to this phenomenon. In numerous novels and testimonies (notably Mariano Azuela's 1915 Los de abajo, from which much of Rama's argument is drawn), the actual fighting is characterized as emerging out of a massive, inchoate sense of rage and injustice on the part of Mexican campesinos, yet this almost primal force is shown to be quickly co-opted by the educated men who would renovate legal systems and write constitutions that paid homage to the desires of the populace while in fact reinstating their own class privileges. Being themselves emissaries from the lettered city, the narrators of these texts can do little but chronicle this cooptation with irony and bitterness.

The extent to which power has been linked to the written word in a largely illiterate context can scarcely be overstated. Rama writes that the "exclusive place of writing in Latin American societies made it so revered as to take on an aura of sacredness." Like the sacred in general, this place was somewhat distinct from the realm of everyday life: "Written documents seemed not to spring from social life but rather to be imposed upon it and to force it into a mold not at all made to measure" (30). While many Mexicans may therefore have a deep and well-founded cynicism toward the lettered city, they have rarely escaped its coercive authority. Rama concludes his book with an allusion to "two forms of power, that which rests on the sword, and the other, which flows from the pen" (125).

With the rise of broadcast media in the twentieth century, however, come important changes. In an essay titled "What's Left of the Intelligentsia?: The Uncertain Future of the Printed Word," Jean Franco notes:

The new technologies of communication have created a class of technocrats and new audiences for whom print culture has lost its luster and now competes with—and is often superseded by—visual and aural culture.... Music and the television image, rather than the printed word, have become the privileged vehicles for the exploration of Latin American identity and the nature of modernity. (17)

These shifts are not inevitable results of the technologies themselves but rather resonate with social and political developments both particular to Mexico and consistent with the evolution of capitalism worldwide. The need to incorporate more and more of the populace into the postrevolutionary national project implies the development of media which circumvent requirements of literacy and elite education, for instance, while at the same time the expansion of consumer culture requires the creation of consumers on a massive scale. But in any case, the growing importance of radio, television, film, the music industry, and hybrid print-visual media such as comics and fotonovelas has required adaptation on the part of the traditional intellectual sector, whose lettered city has in many ways been engulfed by a multinational, electronic megalopolis.

This phenomenon has been chronicled by Néstor García Canclini in his book Culturas híbridas: Estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad, in which he outlines the increasing links between traditional elite culture (formerly the province of state patronage) and private enterprise as well as the ways that traditional Latin American intellectuals have adapted to the mass media. Franco, in La cultura moderna en America Latina, similarly describes how writers of the 1960s, were forced to confront a growing mass culture whose conservative generic forms—gothic romance, melodrama, detective story—replicated themselves as if impervious to modernist avant-garde challenges. Many novels of that period took up mass culture as a theme, often by means of parody (La cultura 324). Moreover, writers like Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes became media icons, their texts and ideas sold through the same marketing channels as the consumer products of industry. García Canclini recounts a meeting between Paz and Borges that could not be filmed because of the authors' obligations to rival television stations (García Canclini, Culturas híbridas 101); the humorous anecdote is emblematic of the configuration Franco sums up in her chapter title, "Narrador, autor, superestrella" (Franco, La cultura 311). At the same time, social and political concerns are taken up—if only, more often than not, to be contained and defused—in the texts of mass media, while individuals coming out of pop culture, such as rock stars, actors, and athletes, compete with more traditional figures as the icons and spokespersons of their epoch.

These developments, it should be emphasized, are politically ambiguous, although not neutral; while the mass media in Mexico overwhelmingly reinforce a conservative understanding of the status quo, the challenge to traditional elitism that they symbolize rather than embody may also provide space for the expression of oppositional values. As Franco suggests, that the increasing power of the corporate media in Latin America (and throughout the world) has displaced and engulfed the traditional intellectual sector is not a particularly progressive development ("What's Left" 20); moreover, hybrid formations that appear "postmodern" may simply be the lettered city's attempt to map itself onto yet another configuration of political and economic power. Yet if much of what constitutes contemporary culture can be seen as linked to the expansionist project of neoliberal capitalism, new kinds of intellectuals have emerged to respond to and challenge this monopolistic regime of power and knowledge. Such is the case within the field with which we are presently concerned, that is, the cinema.

Whereas the "classic" cinema in Mexico, as in Hollywood, was characterized by a star system which rendered off-screen production almost invisible, the director as auteur has since come to the fore. Since the 1960s, filmmakers have sought and won recognition not only as purveyors of entertainment but as artists, cultural workers, and thinkers. As we will see, the film industry remains split between a "cinema of quality" that retains much of the elitist aura of the traditional fine arts and a commercial cinema that manufactures generic products as if from an assembly line; yet many filmmakers elude both of these categories, participating instead in the cross-pollination and hybridization of cultural strains and the blurring of lines among elite, mass, and popular cultural domains that García Canclini described. These individuals are among the best positioned to fulfill the role of intellectual in a "postliterate" era, creating images and representations that reflect—and shape—the concerns, experiences, values, and beliefs of broad audiences.

Even as the intellectual sector has seen itself transformed by historical shifts in communication and economic structures—what Franco summarizes as "the growing privatization of culture" ("What's Left" 17)—resulting in increased interface with film, television, and other mass media, it has also been affected by the demands of disenfranchised sectors for greater participation in the life of the nation. Roderic Camp's 1985 study Intellectuals and the State in Twentieth-Century Mexico depicts an intellectual establishment based primarily on old-boy networks formed at exclusive educational institutions and names only one woman (Elena Poniatowska) among its list of recognized figures; yet an enormous increase in female participation in education has begun to change this scenario. While, for example, women made up 18.5 percent of students enrolled in higher education in 1969, they comprised 30 percent in 1980; in 1994, women made up 44.6 percent of the collegiate population, concentrated in health sciences, education, and humanities. Because overall numbers of students rose dramatically during those twenty-five years, the gains in women's education have been far greater than the percentages reflect. These educated women have gone on to achieve visible (if not proportional) representation in the professions and among the intelligentsia.

If we take film studies as a case in point, we find that while only a handful of women studied film when the discipline emerged in the 1960s, their representation in the nation's film schools was equal to that of men by the late 1980s This had important ramifications for their subsequent access to what in the case of film can be described as the means of production; for while the film industry's professional guilds have long resisted admitting women, the majority of women directors in the 1990s came from the universities rather than working their way through the ranks of the industry. Moreover, immersed in the university milieu, they not only learned the techniques of their trade but also were exposed to and often participated in the debates and struggles of their epoch, as a result becoming outspoken critical thinkers as well as skilled professionals.

Social and political activism per se has also brought women to the forefront of intellectual debate, as in the case of Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, the founder of an organization of parents of "disappeared" political victims who became an opposition congresswoman in the 1990s or that of Debate feminista magazine founder Marta Lamas and others associated with feminist organizing and publishing. In fact, many contemporary filmmakers first approached film as a way to communicate feminist and progressive ideas to broad audiences. Their work is thus closely linked to the larger project of creating what Franco terms a "feminist public sphere" (Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico 184). Clearly, few if any of these women have achieved the cultural status and prestige of an Octavio Paz, José Vasconcelos, or Carlos Fuentes (to name three widely recognized figures cited by Camp), yet the transformation of the intellectual sector that they represent renders the comparison somewhat irrelevant. In fact, in a society characterized by overwhelming cynicism and distrust of the official establishment, it is those voices, both male and female, which seem to speak from outside the lettered city that have begun to gain substantial credibility and appeal. In any case, the partial democratization of the intellectual sphere as well as the increasing power and influence of the communications media are crucial factors in making film a terrain of intellectual activity in which women as well as men have become protagonists.

Mexicanidad in Crisis

The transformation of the traditional intellectual sector as the result of global pressures and local demands parallels another phenomenon which, although impossible to measure in quantitative terms, was perceptible on almost every level of cultural and social activity toward the end of the twentieth century: the breakdown of nationalist ideologies to a degree that put into question the existence of the nation itself as a meaningful entity. Charles Ramírez Berg analyzes this breakdown in detail in his 1992 book, Cinema of Solitude: A Critical Study of Mexican Film, 1967-1983. Although his study concludes before the period in question here, his observations regarding film as a scenario of collective identity formation help us to understand the conditions under which feminism and other oppositional (re)visions were able to flourish in the cinema.

For Ramírez Berg as for other observers, the ideology of Mexican cinema hinges on the concept of mexicanidad, or "Mexican-ness." This elusive notion, he asserts, "has been the key concept in Mexican intellectual, political, and artistic thought for most of this century" (Cinema of Solitude 2); it encompasses identity, culture, national sovereignty, and authenticity and is often set against a perceived encroachment by an alien (European or U.S.) value system and especially the embrace of such a system by a complicit intelligentsia. While mexicanidad is presumed to exist as a complex of recognizable traits, it is in fact always in process. Like all American nationalisms, mexicanidad originated as an anticolonial position, as both a line of defense and a process of collective self-discovery, over time growing in strength as what Jesús Martín Barbero summarizes as "a popular revolution against creoles, private corporations, and foreign threats" ("Modernity, Nationalism, and Communication in Latin America" 136). Yet in the absence of true national unity—that is, in a large and populous country marked by ethnic, regional, and class divisions, among others—the discourse of mexicanidad seeks to homogenize and fix what in fact is heterogeneous and mobile. It creates strategic points of convergence that are then asserted as cultural essence, particularly within the seamless genealogies of historia patria, the master narrative par excellence. Like the cultural construct of the nation defined by Homi Bhabha as "a form of social and textual affiliation," mexicanidad in fact becomes a kind of metaphor for its own absence—the search itself, rather than an objective entity (Bhabha 140).

"The history of Mexican film," Ramírez Berg writes, "might be viewed as a quest for a filmmaking form, a cinematic aesthetic that would appropriately express the Mexican experience" (Cinema of Solitude 3). The Revolution of 1910-1920, roughly coinciding as it did with the development of narrative cinema, provided early filmmakers with subject matter that necessarily had the nation at its core. Carmen Toscano's 1950 compilation of footage shot by her father, the pioneering filmmaker and exhibitor Salvador Toscano, and by other documentarians of the period suggests the era's preoccupations: beginning with images of Porfirio Díaz's lavish celebration of the first century of Mexican independence, Toscano and his colleagues went on to chronicle the struggle against the Diaz regime and the subsequent years of conflict in which factions and regional armies battled for power in the country. Footage of such significant events as the Zapatista army entering Mexico City is breathtaking in its feeling of historical "authenticity"; such images would provide the material for spectacular re-creations in dramatic films of subsequent decades. Carmen Toscano's title for the edited compilation, Memorias de un mexicano, is oddly apt, for the cinema, in its lasting fusion of documentary realism and patriotic melodrama, posed individual history and memory as synonymous with that of that nation.

From the mid-1930s to the 1950s, known as the "classical" period or "Golden Age" of Mexican cinema, the Mexicanist aesthetic coalesced around particular genres (the family melodrama, the ranchera musical comedy, the urban cabaretera cycle, and so forth), landscapes (the maguey-dotted expanses captured by the lens of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa), and thematic figures or stereotypes (strong, virile, macho men, juxtaposed with women as suffering mothers, virgins, and whores, whose value to the project of nation-building was almost always in direct proportion to the depth of their self-sacrifice). The product of the Golden Age was "an idealized, romanticized, and imaginary Mexico that illuminated the movie screens of Latin America" (Cinema of Solitude 15) but that could hardly be sustained given the contradictions inherent in the industry itself and the modernizing project to which it belonged. In fact, postrevolutionary novelists and essayists, writing for the lettered elite rather than the mass audience of the cinema, tended to view the national psyche as an edifice of denial constructed on the ruins of Revolutionary idealism, whose blustery nationalism and machismo was no more than a mask hiding failure and solitude.

The late 1950s, and the 1960s, were years of turmoil in Mexico. The postwar economic policy of import substitution industrialization, whose statistical appearance of success led to its being labeled "the Mexican miracle," had not addressed the needs of the country's rural sector and in fact had brought about an increasingly uneven distribution of national income (Peter H. Smith 324-327). On the one hand, an expanding middle class found itself largely estranged from the populist mechanisms of the traditional corporatist state and began to demand greater freedom. At the same time, displaced campesinos filled the cities, and unemployed and unsatisfied workers increasingly took to the streets in protest. Financed by a debt that would soon lay bare its stranglehold over the economy, the "miracle" collapsed and with it the fiction of national cultural and political unity whose bankruptcy was definitively exposed on 2 October 1968 in the massacre of student protesters by the army at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City. The formation of an independent and radical film sector at this time, influenced by the theories and practices of New Latin American Cinema, was symptomatic of the need for alternative representations as well as alternative political formations. When events of the 1960s, plunged the Mexican state into crisis, "national self-image" and its cinematic analog broke down, initiating what in subsequent decades would become a kind of return of the repressed: the appearance on the screen of the dark side of a nation (that is, a national construct, or in Benedict Anderson's famous phrase, "imagined community") founded on patriarchy and masculinist ideology.

As Ramírez Berg details, the archetypes and stereotypes of the Golden Age were grotesquely inverted in the films of the 1970s. Suffering mothers became vampires; swaggering machos were shown as impotent, alienated prisoners of their own defensive posturing; "fallen women" went from being víctimas del pecado to víctimas del machismo (victims of sin to victims of machismo), with insanity depicted as the inevitable outcome for women trying to balance the contradictions of patriarchy (Cinema of Solitude 77). In the cinema, as in life, the "taken-for-granted pillars of the old order, patriarchy and machismo, were rocked to their foundations" (4). During the 1970s and 1980s, the cinematic leitmotif that predominated, from the most commercial films to the most experimental, was radical alienation; if few filmmakers went so far as to imagine what a nonpatriarchal society might look like, all seemed to agree on the bankruptcy of past "solutions."

The decline of the old order, to be sure, did not automatically bring about progressive change. As economic crisis led to increasing civil unrest among many sectors of the population, part of the government's response in the 1970s was to bolster the by-then stagnant film industry. As Alberto Ruy Sánchez in Mitología de un tine en crisis and Jaime Tello in "Notas sobre la política del 'nuevo cine' mexicano" have convincingly argued, the supposed apertura (opening) of Luis Echeverría's government (1970-1976), which permitted the critical images discussed in Cinema of Solitude, served to co-opt dissent and fortify state control while creating an appearance of democracy. From a feminist standpoint, the results were certainly mixed; for example, relaxation of censorship codes during the 1970s meant that the national cinema became not only more "political" but also more blatantly sexist in its depiction of women as sexual objects. Nevertheless, the crisis in the dominant ideology ultimately provided an opening for what Martin Barbero has called the "formation of new subjects—ethnic, regional, religious, sexual, generational" manifesting "new forms of rebellion and resistance" ("Communication from Culture: The Crisis of the National and the Emergence of the Popular" 453). In this sense, the women filmmakers of the 1990s, confronted with the radical breakdown of old notions of mexicanidad, became part of a societywide movement toward the imagination of alternatives.

Mexican Cinema in the 1990s: Rising from the Ruins

The most obvious factor influencing the emergence of women as directors was the film industry itself, which at the end of the 1980s was clearly in disarray. In a scathing essay in which he referred to national cinema as a "dead corpse," Dicine editor Nelson Carro outlined the situation: even though the Mexican cinema had been proclaimed to be in crisis since at least the end of World War II, several factors made the 1980s especially difficult. The worldwide expansion of Hollywood cinema during the second half of the 1970s had put domestic film producers on the defensive in Mexico as around the world. Mexican films all but disappeared from South and Central American screens; meanwhile, the 1982 peso devaluation disproportionately affected film producers, whose costs often were accounted in dollars, and the emergence of home video (likewise foreign-dominated) reduced film attendance at theaters (Carro, "Cine mexicano de los ochenta: Ante el cadáver de un difunto" 2).

Although the number of films made suggested a healthy industry, Carro wrote, their quality left much to be desired; the bulk of films were either sex comedies or aventuras norteñas, action films often based on popular songs and aimed at audiences close to the northern border. The most successful films of the decade, El mil usos (1981) and La India María's Ni de aquí, ni de allá (1987), were distributed by Videocine, whose access to promotional resources was unmatched. And although directors such as Felipe Cazals and Arturo Ripstein continued to produce "quality" films at the margins of the industry, their output was negligible compared to that of the likes of formula directors Víctor "El Güero" Castro and Alfredo Crevenna (Carro, "Cine mexicano de los ochenta" 5).

In the pages of Dicine, the Colectivo Alejandro Galindo published "El cine mexicano y su crisis," a three-part critique of Mexican cinema that concluded with a set of recommendations more developed than but ultimately not all that different from the demands that film activists had made in the 1960s, infrastructure, promotion, and support for film production personnel as workers. Meanwhile, critics like Carro and Rafael Medina de la Serna bemoaned their fate as spectators, with Medina writing in 1988,

Ir al cine en México es sin duda la actividad que menos satisfacciones produce a quienes la pratican y por ello cada vez menos personas se toman la molestia de praticarla. Pero si it al cine en este país es tan poco gratificante, ser cinéfilo es poco menos que una perversión masoquista. [To go to the movies in Mexico is without a doubt the activity that produces the least satisfaction for those who practice it, and for that reason fewer people all the time are bothering to practice it. But if going to the movies in this country is ungratifying, to be a cinephile is little short of a masochistic perversion.] (6)

These texts reflect a number of biases, full discussion of which is beyond the scope of this chapter; apart from the obvious elitism, for example, Carro's dismissal of films with a northern focus ignores the concrete historical reasons that the cinema's attention shifted to the north and that stories of narcotraffic, migration, and border banditry have come to replace those set in the demi-monde of Mexico City or on bucolic haciendas. Moreover, these critics' negative prognoses often verge on becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. In contrast, director Busi Cortés has offered strong arguments against the critical establishment's habitual pessimism, accusing critics of assuming an "intellectual pose" that amounts to a double standard for Mexican films (Torralba in El Sol de México).

Nevertheless, it is true that during the 1980s, innovative, accomplished films like Paul Leduc's Frida (1984), Cazals's Los motivos de Luz (1985), and Ripstein's El imperio de la fortuna (1986), to name three of Dicine's top ten of the decade, were the exception rather than the rule. Javier González Rubio's review of Cortés's El secreto de Romelia in Dicine indicates the general attitude toward national cinema at the end of the decade,

Si tomamos en cuenta que en general los distintivos del cine mexicano son: a) guiones incongruentes, b) personajes inverosímiles y estereotipados al máximo, c) diálogos absurdos e increíbles, d) malas actuaciones y e) excusas de algunos directores de por qué la película no salió tan bien, entonces podemos considerar a El secreto de Romelia como una excelente película mexicana.

[If we take into account that in general the characteristics of Mexican cinema are: a) incongruent scripts, b) unrealistic and supremely stereotyped characters, c) absurd and unbelievable dialogue, d) bad acting, and e) excuses from some directors for why the film came out so poorly, then we can consider El secreto de Romelia to be an excellent Mexican film.] (González Rubio 18)

The release of El secreto de Romelia in September 1989, under the auspices of four federal and two regional institutions, in some ways heralded a new era for the cinema. On the one hand, the Salinas administration had adopted a proactive policy toward filmmaking (and toward other media and cultural sectors) that contributed greatly to the "cinematic renaissance" of the sexenio (six-year presidential term). On the other hand, however, in keeping with the administration's shift toward neoliberalism, its policy was not so much outright sponsorship as brokering of partnerships between a range of private investors and governmental entities (Pérez Turrent, "Crises and Renovations" 112). While each of the films discussed in Chapters 3 through 7 received some funding from the federal government, none was entirely state-supported. The inter-institutional collaboration behind productions like El secreto de Romelia thus met the needs of the filmmakers (enabling newer directors with less institutional clout to find funding from a range of sources) and of the government, which sought to minimize its investment while enjoying the cultural cachet associated with a thriving national cinema.

Salinas's National Development Plan for the period 1989-1994 contained a number of provisions mandating support for the arts, which continued to bear the label "cultural patrimony" (Esteinou Madrid 16n). As in the previous decade, the administration of the government's relationship to cinema was in the hands of the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía (IMCINE), whose director under Salinas was Ignacio Durán. As David Maciel explains, Durán's appointment took place at a critical moment in which Salinas's party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), was struggling to maintain its credibility in the face of widespread accusations of fraud and corruption. Durán's mission was to streamline and decentralize the state cinema apparatus and, in keeping with Salinas's neoliberal ambitions, to encourage collaboration with the private sector and with foreign coproducers (Maciel 34).

From its peak of state involvement during the Echeverría administration, the Mexican cinema, like other state enterprises, was increasingly privatized. As a result, foreign involvement increased, and so did the monopolistic practices by which film production was absorbed and reduced to a function of vertically and horizontally integrated media corporations. In 1990, for example, the state-owned theater chain COTSA was to be sold; symptomatic of the state of affairs were speculations that its new owner would be either a Japanese company or the powerful media conglomerate Televisa.

However, the state continued to produce and distribute films, mainly through IMCINE and the Fondo de Fomento a la Calidad Cinematográfica (FFCC). During the Salinas sexenio, the state financed fifty-seven feature films and thirty-one shorts, a marked increase over the low of previous years yet still a small proportion of total national production ("El estado financió 57 filmes en 6 años" in Esto). What emerged as a result was a two-tiered system, dividing the "national" cinema into, on the one hand, a commercial industry infamous for its low-quality genre films characterized by sex and violence and, on the other, a state sector devoted to more "serious" subject matter but extremely limited in terms of distribution and exhibition. While state-sponsored films were more likely than commercial films to go to national and international festivals and to win prizes, most were unlikely to be seen by large numbers of Mexicans. If Alfonso Arau's 1991 Como agua para chocolate was a stunning exception, the commercial feature Juana la cubana (1994), starring Rosa Gloria Chagoyán and directed by Raúl Fernández Jr., was more representative of the rule: dismissed by critics, it nevertheless remained for weeks in Mexico City theaters in the fall of 1994, during which time seven of the state's most promising new features premiered collectively during a single week, one per day at only one theater, in the annual program titled Hoy en el Cine Mexicano.

This situation was exacerbated by the general decline of moviegoing as a practice, the closure of hundreds of movie theaters, and the rise of home video. While it is perhaps too unexamined a reaction on the part of film scholars to see these developments as inherently negative, the results were concretely detrimental in the Mexican case, due mainly to the fact that the only producer able to respond effectively to the advent of the video age was Televisa, the broadcasting corporation formed in 1972 as a competitor of stateowned television and which quickly surpassed the latter in size and importance. The rise of video allowed the media giant to further consolidate its empire, cheaply producing films for video as well as movie-theater distribution and using its privileged access to television to promote its products, which in many cases were themselves little more than promotional vehicles for its musical and television stars.

During the 1980s the government, apparently in an effort to avert film piracy, awarded a concession to Televisa to open video rental outlets which would contract with foreign and national producers to distribute their films. As Rodrigo Azuela reported in El Universal in October 1994, this caused many existing video rental outlets to close, creating a monopoly which resulted in a lack of choice for viewers as well as a potent threat to traditional exhibitors. In 1992, Televisa's Videovisión was operating 772 video stores throughout the country, renting and selling almost exclusively U.S.-made products (García Canclini, "¿Habrá cine latinoamericano en el año 2000?: La cultura visual en la época del postnacionalismo" 28). That same year, the state-run COTSA theater chain began a painful process of liquidation that left many union workers unemployed and many theaters sold and converted to other uses; of the 99 Mexico City theaters operated by COTSA in 1990 (more than a third of which had been dedicated to exhibiting Mexican films), 33 had been sold by July 1992, as had 164 more throughout the country. By 1994, the theaters that remained operational, now in private hands, suffered from notorious mismanagement and neglect.

Of the exhibition spaces that remained, the majority were given over to Hollywood blockbusters or to pornography, with only a few devoting screen time to Mexican genre films, most often action-adventure or features starring popular musical artists. With the modification of the Ley de Cinematografia, the requirement that Mexican films be given 50 percent of screen time was abolished (although this had in effect already taken place with the liquidation of the COTSA theaters, the sole exhibition outlet for Mexican cinema in the 1980s. Thus, although the Cineteca Nacional and a few small cine-clubes continued to screen new and classic Mexican films, and although pirate copies of films such as Novaro's Danzón (1990), Jaime Humberto Hermosillo's La tarea (1991), and Jorge Fons's Rojo amanecer (1990) could sometimes be found alongside porno and martial arts videos in street vendors' stalls, "quality" films were almost completely absent from the big and small screens. The most frequent complaint made by Mexican filmmakers was that their films, once completed, never reached national audiences.

In short, the conditions under which Cortés, Novaro, Rotberg, and others entered film production were fraught with contradiction. Although it would be, in Meaghan Morris's sardonic phrase, "too paranoid for words" (Morris 38) to suggest a link between the apparently declining fortunes of the film medium and its rising accessibility to women (as Morris implies about the emergence of l'écriture féminin in Europe at a point when the status of the writer as intellectual was in decline), it is important to note that while women's involvement in film production quantitatively increased during the Salinas era, the increase took place overwhelmingly within the state sector and not the commercial film industry. While stars such as Chagoyán and Gloria Trevi undoubtedly enjoyed a certain level of influence over the films in which they appeared, the only woman to direct more than one commercial film (apart from the university-based Fernández Violante) was María Elena Velasco, a comic actress better known as La India María. Velasco's box-office record as a star gave her the power to produce and direct her own films, yet unlike the directors in this study, her clout derived from her acting success and not from her ambitions or abilities as a director per se. The majority of women filmmakers worked with state support, under the rubric of culture rather than commerce.

Given its confinement to a semi-marginal sector of film production, it is tempting to see the growth of women's involvement in filmmaking as a kind of tokenism not unlike that which was apparent in the electoral politics of the era, with the high visibility of a few masking the exclusion of many. Yet while this cynical analysis contains a great deal of truth, it also denies the real gains made by women during the past two decades, not only within the film industry but within society as a whole. In fact, somewhere between the idealistic view in which the high number of female directors represents progress and equality and the pessimistic view that sees their presence as window dressing covering an essentially unchanged situation lie the complex realities that women in contemporary Mexico face.



“This is simply the most significant analysis of contemporary Mexican cinema to date, and it will make an incalculably important contribution to the field. . . . Rashkin’s incisive analyses and brilliant juxtaposition of cultural and socio-political determinants will become the new standard that other scholars will seek to emulate.”
Ana M. López, Associate Professor of Film Studies and Communication, Tulane University


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