POV: How would you describe El General for someone who hasn't seen it?
Natalia Almada: The film was born out of audio recordings that my grandmother made in the 1970s and that I inherited a few years ago. She said her intention was to use them to write a biography about her father based on her memories. So I've kind of taken those recordings and, on the one hand, made a portrait of my great-grandfather Plutarco Elías Calles, who is a very controversial figure in Mexican history. But at the same time, I made a more poetic reflection about memory and history and how the past continues to be a part of the present.
POV: How do you bridge that gap between contemporary life in Mexico and the history of your great-grandfather and his times?
Almada: I started with the audio recordings, and I listened to my grandmother's tapes — which are about six hours long — over and over and over again. I was editing these tapes and starting to look for archival materials in the presidential archives and ask my family — my aunts and my father — for it. It was as if my grandmother's stories and her voice became part of my conscience, so as I would move around Mexico City, I would remember something she said. I would be hearing her voice, in a sense, in present day Mexico, and that was what pushed me to start filming in Mexico today.
Also, I was shooting in 2006, which was an interesting time. Mexico held elections that year, and there were such clear links between the past and the present, and between the then-current situation and the things fought for during the Mexican Revolution — institutions that were established in the 1920s and by my great-grandfather in particular. There was this echo of the past in the protests you would see in Mexico City in 2006 — conflict about whether the elections were fraudulent or not. All of these things seemed cyclical, or as if they were echoing the past in some way or another. I think it's also a part of Mexican culture — we don't have a very linear way of looking at life in general. We always kind of have one foot in the past, one foot in the present and something in the future. But it's not a culture that looks at life very linearly.
POV: Was it coming into possession of these tapes and hearing your grandmother's voice that actually inspired the film, or have you always wanted to make a film about your great-grandfather?
Almada: No, I never would have made a film about my great-grandfather, in part because I'm not a historian. The impetus behind the film was never to discover something about him that wasn't known, or even to redeem him — that was never my mission. But the audiotapes that my grandmother left are really beautiful and they shed light on this important person in Mexican history. But more than that, the tapes depict this woman, who must have been in her late 60s or early 70s, trying to make sense of her life and trying to find a way to reconstruct her past and to reconcile the huge contradiction between how she saw her dad and the image of him as a political figure. I thought there was something really beautiful in those recordings. Also, that felt like the only way to make a film that would b honest and that would bring all of that into the present.
POV: Did you know much about your great-grandfather before you started this project, or was learning about him a process of discovery for you?
Almada: No, and as I mentioned I never really set out to discover anything new about him. He is a very well-known figure in Mexican history, so it wasn't a discovery as in, "Oh, I'm related to this man!" That was never part of my experience or process in making the film. It was more that it was an excuse for me to go back and to revisit my family history. In some ways, I connected to the film much more through my grandmother. She died when I was 13 and I didn't have a chance to have these conversations with her when she was alive, so I suddenly had the feeling that in my 30s I was having a conversation with my grandmother. Obviously, that conversation was in my mind, or imaginary, yet at the same time it's such a gift to have inherited these tapes and to have had a chance to create something that is in some ways a dialogue with her.
POV: How did your family feel about you making this film?
Almada: A lot of people think that because I made a film about my family I must have had all these interests that I wanted to protect and that I must have wanted to protect people's feelings when making the film, but I feel the opposite way. In a sense, I feel that I have the right to speak about my family. I have more freedom to speak about my family. When you're making a documentary about someone else's family, you have to be much more respectful and much more careful throughout the whole process. When you're in someone else's kitchen, filming a moment that's happening in that family's life, as a filmmaker, as an outsider, you have to say, "Well, what right do I have to be here? How am I portraying them? Is the way I see them fair? Is that how they see themselves?" When it's your own family, all those questions disappear. You may have to deal with your own feelings and you may worry about your parents' feelings or your siblings' feelings or the feelings of the rest of your family, but the family they are part of is yours, and with that comes great freedom.
POV: When you're telling your great-grandfather's story and recounting his place in history, you look at Mexican history through lens of the upper echelons of society. When you deal with contemporary Mexican society, you talk to people in the streets. Why did you make that decision?
Almada: Well, I would break it down a little bit differently. The Mexican Revolution was fought by campesinos, the working-class people of Mexico. Calles was an elementary school teacher in rural Mexico who became a general. So, looking at what happened 100 years after the revolution I thought it was important to look at those people, not at the people who have had power. The people who have had power have always had the same privileges and the same opportunity and wealth. But the Revolution was really about the working class, the campesinos. So to me, for the purposes of this analysis of or reflection on the past, those were the people who mattered.
Also, when you're in Mexico City, when you walk out onto the street, that's who you find. People have asked, "Why didn't you interview doctors and lawyers and engineers?" But that would have meant choosing an engineer or doctor, going to that person's office and setting up an interview — and the film wasn't about that. The film was about what life in Mexico City feels like, what it is like to be out on the streets — including the political protests that were happening around the time of the elections. There were some upper-class people who went to those protests, but the majority of people on the street were and are from Mexico's working class.
POV: Tell me a little about your great-grandfather. Why is he such a controversial figure? How is he remembered in Mexico?
Almada: That's an interesting question. It's funny that the film is seen very differently in Mexico than it is in the United States. In Mexico, I always feel as if I have to say that this isn't really a biography of my great-grandfather, in part because it has so many gaps. There are huge historical things that are just missing. It's not really a biography of the man. A non-Mexican audience needs a historical narrative that runs through the film so that it won't be lost and will at least understand who this person was and what his role was, both looking back and in Mexico today.
For example, there's a scene in the film that for me is a key moment, because it gives the viewer a sense of where my grandmother stood. In 1927, there was a war between the Church and the government, and the Church was essentially shut down. It was a very violent war — there were lots of burnings and decapitations and other awful things happened. In the recordings, my grandmother talks about being 12 or 13 and being sent to study with nuns in San Diego in a Catholic school. And the other girls would show pictures of what her father was doing in Mexico — that's how she describes it — and to me that's the heart of the film. It's this woman who's saying, "Okay, here are these documents that showed this certain historical fact." They're photographs that show something that her father was accused of doing, and yet she was in Catholic school, and she somehow had to reconcile that difference and try to make sense of it both as a young child and then 60 years later. So, how did she make sense of it? To me, that's the conflict in the film and the heart of the film.
POV: What do you hope audiences get out of this film?
Almada: I hope that the film evokes something in people and provokes and moves them and has some kind of effect. I'm very curious as to what it will make non-Mexicans see about Mexico. You know, one of the best responses I've gotten was when I showed the film in Chile, and a man in the audience completely related the film to his own history and to Chileans and how they have dealt with their past or not dealt with their past. For me, it was great that someone saw the film not just as a way to look at Mexico but as a way to look at how we think about the past and history and memory.
POV: I think it's clear from the way you tell your story that you value documentary as an art form.
Almada: I'm interested in posing questions in a playful way and in creating an alternate reality, both in the sense that we can jump from the past to the present and in the sense that it has its own sense of time. For example, there is a scene with a spinning statue of Cantinflas, a famous Mexican comedian, and that statue is right next door to my house. For me, it was like, how can I get that statue into my film? It's a game. How can I make that somehow fit into the film and reflect on all these things I'm experiencing at the same time?
In a sense, we're on a very slippery slope if we make activist films that have a clear message and a clear didactic approach, because that same method can be used for different means. To me, form is really important when thinking about how to make documentaries that ask people to think about how they're made and to make the process of making the film transparent in the film. For example, watching this film, you never think you're seeing an objective biography of Calles — it's clear throughout the whole film that there's a filmmaker behind it, and that my grandmother's position is very subjective. I think it's important that we make programs that force people to think about what they're seeing. They need to know that there's a person behind the camera, that there's a person who cut the story together, that it reflects a perspective. It's important that we make programs that push people to ask questions and then come to their own conclusions or choose how to respond. More than anything, it's important to ask people to think. I think it's a disservice, in a sense, when we make media that doesn't ask people to think but just tells them how they should feel and what they should do.
POV: Let's draw a comparison between your earlier film, Al Otro Lado: To the Other Side, and El General. How is the experience different for you, in terms of the type of film you're creating?
Almada: I never thought of it like that because I just kind of keep going. I don't necessarily think, "I'm going do this again the way I did it then." I mean, hopefully you get a little more confidence and things get a little bit easier as you go, but not that much easier. I think when you start something, there is this feeling: Here I go into the unknown and can I do it? I feel a little bit of fear. I wonder whether it's going to work. Is this little seed of an idea that I have really going to flourish into something and is it something that anybody else is going understand or care about? I think those questions are always there.
Looking back at the two films, I think that what they have in common is that I'm very interested in this idea of creating impossible situations through film, so in Al Otro Lado: To the Other Side, you have a conversation between the border patrol, a vigilante and a bollero and a guy crossing, all within the same space, but that's an impossible situation in real life that can be achieved only on film, and I like that. I like to use film that way, and El General does the same thing, so there is a conversation between my grandmother, present day Mexico and myself — obviously that happened only on film, and I like that there's no other way in which you could achieve that. It has to be done with film.