Award-winning director Natalia Almada (Al Otro Lado, 2006; El General, 2010) returns to POV (Point of View) for a third time with a beautiful and mesmerizing new film about her native Mexico. From dusk to dawn, El Velador (The Night Watchman) accompanies Martin, a guard who watches over the extravagant mausoleums of some of the country’s most notorious drug lords. In the labyrinth of the cemetery, this film about violence without violence reminds us that, amid the turmoil of a drug war that has claimed more than 50,000 lives, ordinary existence persists and quietly defies the dead.
The cemetery of El Velador (The Night Watchman) is located in Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa and Mexico’s drug heartland. Since the war on drugs began, the number of graves in the cemetery has exploded and the opulence of the mausoleums has exceeded the imaginable. Ranging in design from minimalist modernism to fanciful imitations of mosques pictured in magazines, these tombs look more like houses for the living than resting places for the dead. Who can afford such luxuries and dies so young?
As youthful widows methodically sweep the marble floors of elaborate crypts, luxury cars glide silently between tombs and construction workers build new memorials more lavish than their homes. One by one the funeral processions come and go; family and friends weep as they lay their loved ones to rest. A procession leaves, and a new one arrives a day or two later. Through Martin’s eyes, El Velador (The Night Watchman) sees night pass in a place where time stands still.
As the sun sets, Martin arrives at the graveyard in his rumbling blue Chevrolet. The cemetery’s resident pets, El Negro and La Negra, chase his truck down the road and greet him with wagging tails. The sound of construction fades away as the daytime workers leave and Martin is left alone, looking out over the skyline of mausoleums, one larger than the next. Crosses and steel construction bars pierce the pink sky.
As night descends, a comely young widow arrives with her little girl in a pristine white Audi. A portrait of her husband, a policeman holding a machine gun, watches over them as they sweep and mop the shiny marble floors of his crypt. The coconut vendor’s radio blasts a list of the day’s murders: “Culiacán has become a war zone.”
The sun rises, and mourning becomes a kind of work as women return day after day to tend to their deceased husbands’ shrines. They look too young to be widows; their children play hopscotch on tombs as if they were in a playground. The code of silence makes conversation dangerous. The word “narco” is forbidden.
Shortly after taking office in December 2006, President Felipe Calderón declared war on Mexico’s drug cartels and assigned the military the task of fighting the drug trade in Mexico. The drug war has killed more than 55,000 people during Calderón’s presidency, according to Reuters. Enrique Peña Nieto, candidate of the formerly ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was elected president of Mexico on July 2, 2012. In the two days following his victory, a car bomb killed two police officers, gunmen opened fired on a wake near the U.S. border and rival gunmen left 10 dead near the capital. Mexico has become the battlefield for an international, illegal drug trade, with the majority of its customers in the United States.
“When I first went to film at the cemetery where the film takes place in July 2009, there were four new mausoleums under construction and a tractor was digging up the dirt for a new hole to bury another 300 bodies,” says filmmaker Almada. “The ‘progress’ of the cemetery mirrored the violence that was spiraling out of control.”
Lyrical and deceptively peaceful, El Velador (The Night Watchman) lingers at the threshold of violence. Refusing to show the graphic images of murder that have become commonplace in the Mexican press, filmmaker Natalia Almada’s camera instead enters into the intimate and ordinary routines of death with patience and restraint.