The past and the present collide as filmmaker Natalia Almada brings to life audio recordings about her great-grandfather Plutarco Elías Calles, a revolutionary general who became president of Mexico in 1924. In his time, Calles was called El Bolshevique and El Jefe Maximo (the Foremost Chief). Today, he is remembered as El Quema-Curas (the Priest Burner) and as a dictator who ruled through puppet presidents until he was exiled in 1936. Through recordings by Calles’ daughter, El General moves between the memories of a daughter grappling with history’s portrait of her father and the weight of that same man’s legacy in Mexico today. Time is blurred in this complex and visually arresting portrait of a family and country living in the shadow of the past.
“The tape recorder makes me very nervous,” says Natalia Almada’s grandmother Alicia at the start of an old crackling audio tape recording. In 1978, Alicia, approaching the last years of her life, began to record her memoirs with the intention of writing a book about her father, Plutarco Elías Calles, one of a celebrated generation of revolutionary leaders — along with Álvaro Obregón, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata — who remade Mexico in the early 20th century and also one of Mexico’s most controversial figures. Though the book was never written, Alicia’s recordings inspired Almada (Al Otro Lado, POV 2006) to make the film. Almada brings to life her grandmother’s voice not only as a unique window into her country and family’s the past but as a lens through which to look at modern day Mexico.
A former primary school teacher and general of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), Calles ruled Mexico as president from 1924 to 1928. He left a seemingly contradictory legacy. Though he employed a dictatorial style, he also created the political apparatus that made it possible to resolve differences within an institutional framework rather than through violence; laid the groundwork for Mexico’s modern political system; and created a political party that would hold power for over 70 years.
For their part, Alicia’s audiotapes offer an intimate portrait of the public figure. In El General, Almada plunges into the gap between personal memories and national history and between the promises of the revolution and the realities of the society that resulted from that revolution a century later.
In El General, Almada shares her vision of Mexico as a country of contradictions that resists firm definition. She does not seek answers, but instead relishes the questions that lead her camera unexpectedly from one subject to another, from past to present, from the intimate to the public. One of the delights of El General is observing what occurs when Almada follows the precept of author John Berger that “if we can see the present clearly enough, we shall ask the right questions of the past.” The film begins with, and returns again and again to, the street-level realities of Mexico City, home to 22 million people, including half a million unlicensed street vendors, whose earnings comprise anywhere from 12 to 40 percent of the nation’s gross national product. The voices of these “informal merchants” form a kind of modern Mexican Greek chorus that comments on Mexico’s current social realities and how they reflect the past.
“Politicians are the biggest parasites in the world,” taxi driver José Jesús Domínguez Reyes says. “Ask any Mexican.” A printer who looks uncannily like the picture of comedian Tin Tan on his wall chimes in, “They always make promises, but once their term is over, it’s bye-bye.” Almada notes that in the aftermath of the disputed 2006 presidential election, people protested under banners reading LEGITIMATE ELECTIONS, NO FRAUD — the same slogan used by the revolutionaries and her great-grandfather nearly a century earlier. “It is a crooked government that treats us like children,” a newsstand salesman opines. Taxi driver Reyes expresses his countrymen’s despair and resilience when he notes proudly that he has always voted. “Always!” Yet when asked if he thinks his vote counted, he replies just as fervently, “No! It has never counted. It’s always been authoritarianism in Mexico. Always, always. My poor Mexico, lindo y querido [beautiful and beloved].”
Deftly weaving together family photos and movies, audiotapes, archival newsreels and clips from Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished 1930s epic ¡Que Viva Mexico! and American filmmaker Elia Kazan’s 1952 Viva Zapata! starring Marlon Brando, Almada contrasts the Revolution’s myths and realities and stacks them up against her grandmother’s personal memories of her father, resulting in a lyrical film about time, memory and history that reaches beyond a single family and even a single country.
In the recordings, Alicia struggles to reconstruct her past and to reconcile the contradictions between her memories and history’s portrait and judgment of her father. She recalls a meticulous and methodical man who shielded his family from the public eye. “Everyone thinks my father was an imposing despot,” Alicia states in the opening of the film, “but I want you to see him as I saw him, as a father, as a Mexican and as man.” As one example, she says, “Everyone thinks my father was anti-religious,” referring to the bloody war between the government and the Catholic Church that erupted in 1927 during Calles’ presidency, “but proof that he wasn’t is that he sent all his daughters to Catholic school.” She also recalls that her schoolmates would bring in newspaper clippings of nuns being burned at the stake and priests hanging from the gallows and insist, “Look at what Alicia’s father does in Mexico!” Almada does not attempt to resolve the contradictions of the past but instead connects her grandmother’s conflict to present-day Mexico with images of millions making the pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint.
Calles is buried at the Monument of the Revolution, which casts a heavy and symbolic shadow over Mexico City. His remains lie next to those of Pancho Villa, Lázaro Cárdenas and Venustiano Carranza. In 1932, Anita Brenner wrote in The New York Times, “For seven years General Plutarco Elías Calles has loomed indestructible in the Mexican picture, like a Toltec pyramid — huge, harsh, mysterious. His name adds naturally to the list of dictatorial gladiators that the world watches with mixed feelings. . . . He has been called a Mexican Mussolini, an Indian von Hindenburg, a Latin American Lenin. . .” Calles was and remains one of Mexico’s most elusive and polemic figures, a perception that Almada does not try to deny.
Calles predicted that history’s judgment of him would be harsh and unjust because the circumstances of the time would be ignored or forgotten. Almada in turn asks viewers to look at the present to judge history, and she shows a Mexico full of contradictions. The result, El General, is a compellingly personal exploration of the borders between personal and public, history and the present, cultural myths and everyday realties. It is also a snapshot of a tumultuous, beloved Mexico still waiting for the promise of its Revolution to manifest itself fully.
“My grandmother wanted to write her father’s biography, but all that remains of that intention are the recordings that were handed to me, presumably so that I might finish what she left incomplete,” says Almada. “To me, film is a tithe for memory, a cost I gratefully pay in order to make sense of the world actively. It is a way to question how we reconcile the contradictions between our personal family memories and our country’s collective memory. How do I reconcile my reality with my family history? How do I, a Mexican, understand Mexico today through a historical lens?
“A woman in the film buying marigolds for the Day of the Dead says, ‘We love the dead but they are expensive,’” Almada continues. “I have come to understand how she speaks for me and for Mexico. El General considers the price we pay for our memories and our history, the wounds we close and the ones we ignore.”
El General is a co-production of Altamura Films and the Independent Television Service (ITVS) in association with Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and American Documentary | POV. The POV broadcast of El General is co-presented by Latino Public Broadcasting.