- The Sound & the ImageAn Interview with Filmmaker Natalia Almada
Viewing a documentary by film-maker Natalia Almada often feels like sifting through a stranger’s family photo album while overhearing a whispered conversation about the subjects in the images. Her films are deeply intimate, treating topics such as the loss of a sibling; a young man’s choice between drug trafficking and illegal immigration; the familial and national legacy of a dictator; and daily life during a violent civil conflict. Each of these topics is intensely familiar to the filmmaker. All Water Has a Perfect Memory (2001) is comprised of home videos and interviews with her own family and deals with the process of mourning and remembrance after her two-year-old sister’s accidental drowning. Al Otro Lado (2005) follows a corrido composer who, no longer able to earn money as a fisherman due to economic crisis, must decide between trafficking illegal drugs in his hometown in Sinaloa (the Mexican state where Almada is also from) or crossing to the US to work as an illegal immigrant. El General (2009) tells the story of President Plutarco Elías Calles, Almada’s great-grandfather, through the memories of her grandmother and Mexicans who lived during Calles’s reign. Finally, El Velador (2011) considers the ways in which life persists despite daily violence as Mexico endures a bloody drug war.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
After seeing Almada’s work, it is no surprise to learn that her background is in photography—she received a Masters in Fine Arts in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design. Each image in her films appears deliberately selected and meticulously framed. For instance, in El Velador, featuring Martín—a [End Page 129] night watchman of the Culiacán Cemetery in Sinaloa, who guards the tombs and crypts of some of Mexico’s most notorious narcotics dealers—Almada’s camera often rests on a single image for minutes at a time. Her lens captures a group of workers leveling concrete that will serve as the foundation to a cemetery monument as the anguished wail of a grieving mother, whose son is being buried off camera, pierces the silence of their workday. Her camera sits still as a lona1 gently flaps in the wind, and a widow mops the marble floor of one of the elaborate mausoleums that entombs the body of a dead victim of Mexico’s drug trade.
Almada’s choice of the Sinaloa cemetery was a careful and deliberate one. Since 2006, when the war on drugs was declared by the Calderón administration, tens of thousands of people have died violent, drug-trade-related deaths in Mexico, and that trend has not abated since the 2012 election of the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto. Almada’s film shows the seemingly innocuous hustle and bustle of the booming cemetery industry in order to obliquely point to the pernicious drug trade that fuels this macabre arm of the economy. In this way, the film is subtle, and, as one New York Times reviewer put it, El Velador “is an unsettlingly quiet, even lyrical film about a world made and unmade by violence” (Scott).
One of the most striking elements of Almada’s films is their capacity to undermine the viewer’s expectation of finding an iconography related to a particular topic, such as immigration or drug trafficking. In El Velador, for instance, in lieu of highlighting graphic violence, Almada focalizes individuals going about their lives alongside Mexico’s daily turmoil. In one scene, the camera rests on the dark interior of the cemetery’s guardhouse, framing two dusty buckets as Martín, walking in and out of the frame, prepares for an evening of work. In the background, a newscast sounds from the TV, and the reporter states that there have been 1,100 deaths related to organized crime in the current month, totaling 21,915 violent deaths since the start of Calderón’s presidency. The film refuses to participate in the reproduction of violent spectacles, and...