I come from a cattle ranching family in Mexico’s northern state of Sinaloa, one of Mexico’s most productive agricultural states and also the cradle of drug trafficking. From corrido songs about traffickers to “narco-churro” B-movies, the contraband life has been part of our culture for decades. In the past it was a harmless economic endeavor. There was relatively little drug abuse in Mexico and there was a code of ethics that controlled the violence, so drug trafficking was seen simply as an alternative to mere subsistence: growing beans or picking strawberries in Fresno, California as an illegal farm worker. It was a ticket to a slightly better life, definitely a more exciting one, and the risk was minimal.
But in recent years, with the growth of the illegal narcotics industry, Mexico has become the battlefield in a global war on drugs. Cowboys who once boasted about making a few extra bucks on the side are now mourning their children — killed in a drug war that has claimed more than 60,000 lives in the past six years.
When I first went to film at the cemetery where El Velador (The Night Watchman) 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. The “progress” of the cemetery mirrored the violence that was spiraling out of control. (The death toll was 18,000 at that point.) I immediately recalled another burial ground — the paupers’ cemetery a few miles north of the border in Arizona where I shot a scene in Al Otro Lado: To the Other Side (POV 2006). That cemetery was full of the graves of unidentified illegal immigrants who had died crossing the desert. Their “American dream” had come to its fruition in a desolate empty lot of dirt, under bricks inscribed with their new American names, Jane and John Doe.
The rows of bricks were a vision of utter anonymity and oblivion. I understood that the surreal skyline of mausoleums in this cemetery was their antithesis — a grand expression of remembrance, a refusal to be invisible, anonymous and forgotten. Yet both are products of the same social inequalities and the same governmental disregard for the invisible, dispensable classes.
After cartel leader Arturo Beltrán Leyva, “el jefe de jefes,” was killed in December 2009 and buried in the cemetery where I was shooting, a decapitated head was left on his tomb. I thought it was a threat, but later it was explained to me that it was actually an offering. Hence the red gerbera daisy placed behind the left ear of the bloodied head: The detail stood out brilliantly against the white marble in the photograph that inevitably circulated in the nota roja, as the Mexican tabloids that revel in gore are known. Perhaps the person who placed the head on the tomb did not take the photograph himself, but when he tucked that flower behind its left ear, he most certainly knew that a photograph would be taken of the tableau; moreover, he knew that the more shocking the image was, the more likely it would be to circulate far and wide.
The Mexican media and the web are saturated with gruesome images of the burned, decapitated and tortured. We have grown accustomed, numb and desensitized to them. Initially, their horror makes us look away in disgust or fills us with a sense of relief that it is not us in that photo, not our children. And once the morbid sensationalism of the photos fades away, all we are left with is fear and a desperate feeling of impotence and disempowerment. With my camera in the back corner of that cemetery, I set out to answer the question of how to look at violence.
In making El Velador, I hoped to gain entry to that world of violence. To experience what it means to live in that context, to work, to mourn, to sweat, to sleep there. I wanted to pause, and I wanted others to pause and be suspended in that place and moment where violence has just occurred and where violence is imminent. By restricting myself to one small corner of the cemetery, I came to realize that it is only by paying attention to the details that we can begin to fathom the complexity of violence.
I read a quote from Charles Baudelaire in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida that often comes to mind: “The emphatic truth of gesture in the great circumstances of life.” If film has any relationship to truth (and I’m not convinced it does), I think that truth must lie in its ability to film gestures. Over the course of a year of shooting in that tiny corner of the cemetery, I realized that what I was really seeking through the lens was not understanding but a sense of humanity. Or, as film critic Serge Daney so beautifully wrote, “to touch with the gaze that distance between myself and where the other exists.”
— Natalia Almada, Director/Producer/Director of Photography/Editor