- Los Rollos perdidos de Pancho Villa / The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa
Gregorio Rocha begins his film The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa (2003) by inviting archival materials to an impossible dialogue. To the mute photographic and filmic subjects, he plaintively demands, "Who are you standing there in front of the camera? Who took your picture? Where were you? What was going through your mind?" With this ruminative gesture, Rocha invokes a now well-circulated notion that the historical nuances of the archive are not located in the institutional documents and artifacts but can be glimpsed in the subjugated perspectives of those in the margins and in the backdrop.
The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa is a peripatetic video journey from the perspective of a displaced Mexican national looking for the displaced relics of a Mexican icon. This inventive metadocumentary (or making of the making of a documentary) can be read as a primer on what Joel Katz has dubbed archiveology. According to Katz, archiveology is a "metalevel of investigation [that] attempts to interrogate [the] archive on its many registers as historical record, mnemonic object, and emotive experience, [thus] making the material's historicity a central point of investigation."1 Whereas experimental purveyors of archiveology (from Craig Baldwin to the duo of Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian) foreground montage and its collision of historical meanings, Rocha uses Lost Reels as a forum to debate the grounds of archiveology.
Rocha departs from the anarchic impulse of Baldwin, Bruce Conner, and found-footage collagists to examine the fragility of the historical record and the interpenetration of the fictional and the actual in early cinema. We [End Page 145] follow Rocha, the "amateur" (with a nod to Jan-Christopher Horak, a true "lover" of film) archivist traipsing around the world on planes, trains, and automobiles in search of his cinematic holy grail—the lost reels of a 1914 Mutual film entitled The Life of General Villa. The Mexican Revolution was one of the first historical events to be photographed by roving newsreel cinematographers. Cinema historian Aurelio de los Reyes notes that "between 1911 and 1920 over 80 cameramen [worked] either freelance or for various film companies" documenting the Revolution.2 In 1914, Pancho Villa signed a contract presented to him by Frank Thayer of the Mutual Film Company. In this document, Villa apparently agreed to give Mutual "exclusive rights" to film the battle of Ojinaga in the state of Chihuahua. In return, Mutual would endow Villa with twenty percent of the film's revenue. Besides being an early biopic, The Life of General Villa was perhaps the first to feature a cameo by the historical figure whose life it attempted to depict—certainly a foreshadowing of the twentieth century's ensuing fusion of entertainment and actuality.
In an independently forged film career that now spans over two decades, Rocha has been exploring the uneven dynamics of Mexican and United States relations. He is part of a generation of documentary and experimental filmmakers that emerged from the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos (University Center for Cinematographic Studies), a training ground for Mexican filmmakers that emerged in the early 1960s, largely due to the demands of student film clubs and a creative crisis that was plaguing the state-operated film industry at the time. Unlike others from his generation who have gone on to commercial production, Rocha's independent work (financed by teaching and grants) has evolved from cinema verité to an experimental forging of personal cinema with historical documentary. He has documented punks and street kids in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl with his former partner Sarah Minter in Sabado de Mierda (1985–1987), a colony of North American utopians in northern Mexico in Railroad to Utopia (1995), his own journey to distinguish the myths and geopolitical realities of Aztlán in The Arrow (1996), and representations of Mexico in North American popular culture in War and Images (1996–1999).
The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa documents the pathos and solitude of archival research but also features the filmmaker...