El General

PBS Premiere: July 20, 2010Check the broadcast schedule »

Mexico: Past and Present

Chris Marker

I do not know how those who do not film remember.
-- Chris Marker

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Chris Marker (b. 1921) is a French writer, photographer, and filmmaker. He is best known for La Jetée, A Grin Without a Cat and Sans Soleil, a meditation on the nature of memory and how the inability to recall context and nuance affect the way we perceive history.


Carmen Boullosa
Well, in this country so-called intellectuals are the owners of collective history. And intellectuals in Mexico have a great deal of value. They have enormous value because they are the ones who are going to define the past. Not only the historians, but also the poets, filmmakers, the mobilistas. They are going to define the past. But in reality, the past is defined by everyone. Especially in the year of the centennial and the bicentennial, there won't be a boy or girl or adult who, much to his dismay, even if he doesn't wish
to do so, even if he is not paying attention, will not be rewriting Mexico's history. There will be no escape.

I've noticed that writers younger than I am are not interested in this re-defining of memory. They don't want anything to do with this issue; they don't want to look back again. I think it will be fascinating to see what everyone, not just intellectuals, does with all of this. And I think it could be very reinvigorating, for Mexico, because we feed off of that, especially in a moment of crisis like the one we are in now. We can't live off of the expectation that there will be growth. The future looks terrible, but even if it didn't it would be material for us to use to reconstruct our past. But in this moment of enormous crisis, of violence, of absolute hopelessness and distrust of any moral leader, recreating and redefining our past will be much more important, and I honestly think that it will be invigorating. We'll see. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe nothing will change. I think it will, though.

The revolution doesn't happen only when it occurs; the real revolution happens when it is written. It is a power struggle. What does one want to be remembered? And in Mexico this war has been fought every six years since the time of Luis Echeverria. Before then it was fixed: The entire party [PRI] had agreed that history would be told in a certain way, but since Echeverria's presidency, the way history has been told has changed every six years. It is war. It is a war to the death, because memory is the most important thing in Mexico. How are we going to remember what happened? What happened in 1910? The interpretation is totally different every six years, from one party to another. And it is a personal matter. It is not a public issue. In the end it is always personal to all of us. For some for economic reasons, for others for political reasons, whatever the reason may be, in the end we all fight over it as a personal matter.

Cuauhtémoc Medina
Chris Marker's proposition is sadly true, but it is also what Marker sees. In other words, Marker understands that cinema plays the role of social memory. And, in fact, his conclusion implies that he thought that historiography was insufficient, as was the unconscious recording of artistic work. Using Theodor W. Adorno's idea of unconscious historiography was also insufficient. But then again, Marker is probably the filmmaker who has most tried to make history on film, meaning not only a retelling of history on film but a telling of how film becomes history. And here I'm thinking about the absolutely brilliant moment when he contemplates the vibration of the image as the film passes through the camera during the scenes of 1968 in A Grin Without a Cat. A declaration of that kind, made in the first person, I can understand. It is not the same as declaring that no one practices another form of memory.

There are many ways of practicing memory, and I think that they are all political and produce politics. I remember the importance that a compilation of interviews I read about 25 years ago had for me. Luis González y González interviewed people who had suffered through the revolution. He explores a concept that I thought was fantastic: What would happen if we stopped writing the history of the revolutionaries and started writing the history of the revolutionized? And thanks to him I understood what it means to think not from the position of the modern and postmodern, but from the position of being modernized. And I blatantly stole this idea from him.

Who gets to do it? I think whoever it falls upon. I think there are subsidized professions that have the task of recording others' memories, and I think that there are certain tasks of memory that just fall upon someone. The medium of film has fulfilled this function many times. I think of the significance of the brigades of the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográfico (a Mexico City film school), who were responsible for communication in 1968. This was during the student movement, which was trying to produce a kind of counteroffensive to the media using the school's resources to produce El Grito, a documentary about the movement. For people like me who are now in our 40s, watching it felt clandestine, as if we were receiving a memory that we'd previously been denied. But I also can't stop thinking about what was implied by the perverse reproduction of cartes des visites of Maximilian I's perforated vest and people who would put them in their photo albums in the 1970s here and in Europe. And what paradoxical act of memory was being performed when Benito Juárez, the Mexican president, executed the Habsburg prince Maximilian I, and an Italian anarchist was so excited by the idea that an Indian had killed an Austrian prince that he decided to name his son Benito Mussolini. What structure of memory was being erected in that case? In some ways I have the impression that the notion that memory belongs to whomever it fell upon is good, because it means the person who lived it owns it.

Jean Meyer
Look, there was a German philosopher and writer who was also an extraordinary historian of cinema and film analyst [named Siegfried Kracauer]. His best-known book is titled Theory of Film.

Anyway, he wrote a great book called, History: The Last Things Before the Last. I think the title quotes Shakespeare. In that book, Kracauer developed the idea that the work of the historian and the work of the photographer and the filmmaker are all the same. Without realizing it, they all adhere to the same structure, same process, same methods. People think that the documentary maker or the photographer is reproducing reality, and people think that the historian must adhere strictly to reality and that the historian is reporting things as they were. He says that all that is impossible, because the personality of the photographer, the filmmaker, the historian intervenes, be it as an artist, as a citizen, as a Jew, as a Christian or however. So just as we have 360 degrees around this vase and could make an infinite number of photographs of this vase, in the same way, the same event, recorded in the same documents, can be read in different ways by the historian. I think Kracauer would have told Chris Marker not to worry. Filming will help us remember.

Before film, before photography, was there then no memory? Was it impossible to have memory? Anthropologists know perfectly well that in civilizations that don't have writing, just oral traditions, memories are lost or enter the realm of myth, or legend, after four generations. So, yes, memory is ephemeral if there is no support for it, be it writing or photography or film. But I think in Mexico we are really just beginning.

I don't really know how to answer Marker, because all those people, my fantastic witnesses from the 1960s, all those people spent their lives thinking about this great event, perhaps the only big event in their lives. In many cases the only big event, but a tragedy. Just as some Jews can only talk about the Holocaust, some Mexicans of that generation can only talk about the religious conflict and what they experienced. I think the fact that they are always reflecting on that great mystery explains why their memories are so strong and fresh. Many didn't understand that great mystery, but it had to be given a religious explanation to avoid causing some kind of neurosis or depression. That was why in 1929, when it was sure to defeat the government after three years of struggle, the Church made peace with the government and accepted what it had forbidden in 1926. Why did the Church agree to obey Calles' Law?

A Cristero in San José de Gracia Michoacán, Don Bernardo, once gave me a really beautiful answer to that question. He used to call me Meyer, and he said, "Listen, Meyer, do you know why God didn't allow us to enter Mexico City and put a Catholic president in the palace?" "Don Bernardo, I don't now but I'd like to know," I answered. And he said to me, "Imagine, we would have had a Franco. And today the Church and all of us Catholics would have lost face for putting a dictator into power in Mexico."

For that same reason, it was as if those people were waiting for me. It really made a big impression on me. They were waiting for someone they could trust. He is young, so he doesn't know anything. He is a foreigner, so he knows even less, and he isn't with the government and isn't with the Church, so we can tell him about all the atrocities that the government committed and we can criticize the Church. Plus, he doesn't know anything, so we can teach him. So it was really an amazing experience.