POV: Tell us about El Velador. This cemetery, what makes this particular place so unique?
Natalia Almada: Well I think the best way to describe it is through my first impressions when I went. It was July, 2009 and there were three or four mausoleums that were in the middle of being constructed. They were right on the front of the skyline shall we say. And they were huge — two, three-story mausoleums, incredibly extravagant. Just in front of them, they were excavating a new hole because the cemetery had run out of space. So they were digging out a new hole for about 300 more bodies. There was something about the skyline, and construction and the excavation of this hole which really was a reflection of the violence in Mexico where at the time, I believe there were about 18,000 dead. Today they calculate up to 60,000 or more.
POV: So, where is this geographically in Mexico?
Almada: Sinaloa is the northwest, so it’s right across the Baja peninsula. It’s about a 15-20 hour drive from the border. It’s considered northern Mexico and it has always been a kind of cradle of drug-trafficking in Mexico, historically speaking. We can see that many of the biggest capos have always been from Sinaloa.
POV: We hear a lot about the situation in Mexico with the war on drugs, but you took a very particular approach to this story. Can you talk about how you went about conceiving your approach to this particular film?
Almada: Well when I started, my idea was to make a film about violence. And I actually thought I would make three shorts that looked at violence from different perspectives. So I wanted to do something at the cemetery. I thought maybe I’d do something with the journalists in Mexico — a lot have died or been killed in the last few years. When I went to the cemetery I sort of fell in love with the place. It’s a place where you see the grandness of it and the kitsch aspect of these incredibly big mausoleums, a city for the dead. But being there over a time, it sort of shifts and you begin to pay attention to the details of the place. And so it becomes much more human. I would walk through the cemetery noticing the age of the people who were buried there. Most of them were younger than I am. Most of them were in their late twenties, early thirties. I began to notice that there were widows who came back every day to clean the mausoleums, to put flowers. Their children kind of lived at the cemetery in a very, how do you say, quotidian way. So it was kind of their playground or a second home kind of feeling. You can feel that violence has just happened, because of the funerals and the deaths that are present. And then there’s always this kind of sense of anticipation of what’s going to happen. And yet, nothing happens at all. So it’s really a place where time just is very abstract. I wanted to make a film that had that quality about it so you could understand what it means to live in a place of violence. It’s not the way we see violence in the newspaper, it doesn’t mean that you’re always looking blood and gore and the awful things that are depicted in the press, especially of Mexico, I think less in the U.S. But rather, you’re made to live in that space and to understand what it means to kind of have that constant presence of the violence that has happened and is about to happen.
POV: Talk a little bit about how you explored the violence within the film, because you have these beautiful images of these very peaceful places in some way. But then we have it’s contrasted with what we hear. How did you go about conceiving that, because it’s a pretty unusual approach.
Almada: I have to say it was a little bit of a formal question, because after making El General which has so many elements — the music and narration and archival and contemporary and kind of all the elements you could use to make a film — I had thought, well can I make a film staying in one place with as few elements as possible? Then being there, I thought, well is it possible for me to make a film in the corner of the cemetery? Because it actually takes place all in one little corner. But, in order for you to understand what the cemetery meant, you needed to understand what was happening outside the cemetery. Through the radio and the television was the way to contextualize actually where the cemetery was and what’s happening outside. But the aim was to create a sense of claustrophobia. You’re trapped in the cemetery with Martin and this life that doesn’t move in a sense.
POV: There’s a number of scenes you have in the film — with the widows for example — where you focus on the feet, or you see the scene from the back of the mausoleums. Why did you make those decisions?
Almada: Filming with the widows was tricky because it’s such a delicate situation, given that they’re mourning and that had to be respected. It’s also a place where there’s a code of silence that has to be respected which is the main reason why there’s not really any dialogue in the film - you can’t ask people direct questions. It’s forbidden in a sense. And so you have to respect that code of silence in order to gain access. Once you’ve eliminated language as your main form of communication, which is usually what we think of in documentary — we usually privilege dialogue over everything else, it’s the testimony, it’s the interview and we think if someone tells us about their lives that’s how we’re going to know what their situation is and that’s how we’re going to care about them — once you realize that language is not reliable and that people can’t really speak freely, then you have to focus on gestures and actions as a way to enter into someone’s life. Removing dialogue as the main way to tell the story also forced me and the viewer to really look at the gestures and the repetition, of the cleaning let’s say, how the widows come and they mop the floor every single day. There’s something in that repetition that has an element of ritual to it, that also reflects a little bit the violence that we’re going through. It’s the killings that happen again and again and again, the images of violence that get published over and over in the newspaper. There’s this feeling of bombardment with the violence.
POV: Tell us about Martin. How did you find him and make him a central part of the film?
Almada: Well when I first got to the cemetery I thought I would film the construction of a mausoleum from beginning to end. I would have a nice clean little story. But then I realized that construction work is very specific and so the person who pours the foundation is not the person who builds the cupula, who’s not the person who does the iron or the windows or the tile or the cement. So there is no cast of characters. Once I realized that and sort of experienced also the monotony of construction, I gravitated more and more towards Martin because he’s a person who was always there. I liked very much that he arrived like clockwork, when the sun was setting and he’d be driving in his truck right into the sunset, and then in the morning, leaving you know with the kind of dewy morning, low kind of purplish light. He was also visually just a wonderful character. He’s this very stoic, quiet man. I always thought that he would start talking to me one day, but he really just wasn’t like that. He allowed me to spend a lot of time wit him just filming him watching the cemetery. In that way I think his eyes become our eyes, and he asks us to watch this place in the same way he does.
POV: How long did you spend in the cemetery? What period of time were you filming?
Almada: I shot from about June, 2009 to June 2010. So I was there for a year. I wasn’t living there, but I would come and go pretty randomly. I would stay three, four days and then leave for a little bit and come back. But my process with all my films has always been to shoot and edit at the same time. So I kind of build the film in the way you might build a sculpture. I think a little bit, in the sense of shooting and beginning to find the story, beginning to structure it and then it helps me a lot because then when I go back to shoot I know what’s working, what’s not working, what I’m interested in, and I can really organically develop the film.
POV: And when you first approached Martin, what did you say? This is such an unusual place to film.
Almada: My initial approach was to say that I was actually making a film about cemeteries, because I wasn’t sure what I was doing. And it was a way to gain access to the place. But I think more interesting is that when we make documentaries we tend to think that we’re taking someone’s life and making a story out of it. When you’re shooting someone, there’s this feeling of grabbing something from someone, from your subject. I’ve never really thought of myself that way as a filmmaker. I think that the camera makes a triangular relationship between the subject and the filmmaker. You’re making a tool available to the people in your film, not just taking their stories to put them somewhere else.
POV: There’s a spareness to this film that belies its complexity but also belies the challenges in making a film in this place.
Almada: I’m from Sinaloa. And so being from Sinaloa and understanding the culture makes a big difference when you’re shooting in a place. So I think one of the dangers a lot that people run is that they arrive, they don’t know the culture, they don’t know the place, they’re not from there. They’re immediately a threat to the people who are there. We see what’s happening with journalists and we see the dangers that they face, reporting on on the violence, whether it’s related to the drug cartels or violence in general. It’s kind of an obvious thing because the moment you have a camera, it doesn’t matter whether you’re making a documentary or a news report — people see you as a journalist. So I had to be very careful. And I think the thing that helped was one, just being very, very respectful of the place. You know it is a cemetery. People are mourning. There's the common sense of not putting yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was also very lucky to have my assistant Ramiro, who is someone I’ve known my whole life, who lives in Culiacan. He is not a filmmaker and essentially he was my eyes, let’s say. So while I could focus on shooting, he could focus on what was happening around us. If he felt that there was a delicate situation that we should leave, I would just pack up and leave, no questions asked.
POV: There’s wonderful scene in the film where Martin is watering the ground. Just this static shot and the light changes. Can you describe that scene and what it means to you metaphorically?
Almada: The futility of all of it. You know, why would you water a dirt road is always the question I get. But throughout the long version of the film — I don’t know how much you can tell it in the POV version 'cause it doesn't have the full six-minute shot — you see fragments of him watering the ground. So you never see the full action until the end of the film. And it’s a hard shot. I think it’s five minutes or so and the camera’s static. It’s this wide shot of the skyline where there’s this yellow mausoleum that’s right in the center. And he makes this perfect square. It’s interesting because ten seconds is more than enough to understand that the man waters the dirt. But there’s something that happens when you’re forced to experience it over time. You’re in his shoes in a way that I don’t think you are when we’re constantly cutting, looking at movies. It's meant to be a little bit uncomfortable. You have to go through those different thoughts: why is he watering the dirt? What does it mean? You see it and then you understand it, and then you feel it, and then you come back around to seeing it again. If you don’t allow things to happen over time, you can’t have those experiences as a viewer. You know in Bratislava they gave us an award. And their comment on the award was, “for showing us how long it takes to water the long and dusty road to heaven.” When you think of fast cutting, it’s actually quite an aggressive thing to do, but people suffer so much with those slow shots that they’re not used to in film, especially on television. It’s awkward for them. It asks people to stop. And we don’t live in a society where you’re supposed to stop.
POV: People are used to three acts and "I follow this character and they go through these changes and this conflict and this resolution."
Almada: So when I was cutting the film, I thought a lot about music and the way that we move through music, more through our emotions. You have tension, you have release, you have build, you have repetition and that allows you to get through music, right? When we cut films, we usually think they have to make sense, they have to be clear and they have to have plot. And a beginning and a middle and an end, right? Films do work like that. But there’s another way of thinking of film that’s a lot more like music. And building that sense of progress or that thing that keeps you moving through the film, with a different set of elements. So, how can you structure a film so that the dog wagging the tail actually becomes an action, it becomes an event? Or how do you create rupture in the monotony by going from a dark, dark scene at night to a super bright overblown morning and so waking up your viewer, just by changing the light? Showcasing a tiny bit of dialogue when you haven’t had dialogue. In the cutting you’re looking a lot more at rhythm and that feeling of tension, release and tension and release and creating this kind of monotony shall we say or a lull. If you rupture it, it suddenly is action. But that rupture can be a hammer, it doesn’t have to be that something happens.
POV: Talk a little bit about the soundscape of the film. Because of the lack of dialogue you as a viewer become very aware of the sound bursts in the construction, in the truck ora wailing off-camera.
Almada: Well my closest collaborator is Alejandro de Icaza, who is my sound designer. He actually looks at my rushes with me when I’m shooting. And because I was working alone on this film, I just had a shotgun mounted onto my camera. Occasionally I would put a radio wireless mic onto Martin, the main character, but not all the time. So what was actually happening was that my sound was really flat. It was kind of having like a medium shot in sonic terms, all the time. In order to deal with this problem, because I couldn’t take more people with me to record sound, we actually did a lot of foleys in Argentina, which is kind of amazing. But, which for me as a documentary filmmaker was - it was difficult. I’ve never done foleys before and I didn’t know what it meant. Does it mean it’s fabricated, it’s not reality? It brings all those questions that we usually think of in terms of the image or the story into the sound. On the one side of the cemetery there’s a highway. And so you actually have this constant rumble of highway, like those big trucks that pass and the kind of ominous, deep sound of the highway. Instead of trying to clean it and take it out and make a nice clean you know birds chirping landscape, we used that and intensified it at times to actually help create the mood of the place. So it’s the rumble of the highway and then there is the cicadas. The bug that makes that really kind of hard sound. But I spent about three months doing sound design with Alejandro.
POV: So was the use of foley, was that an ethical question for you in terms of your representation of the truth?
Almada: Well I think if I was more attached to the idea that documentary is truth, then it would have been a big ethical question. For example, the woman who cries, that’s real. I mean it’s not a foley that I added in. So I didn’t feel like I ever used sound in a manipulative way or the invention of fake sounds to create something that wasn’t in the place.
POV: There’s another moment which I wanted to talk about. We hear a lot of audio from news reports, from radio and from television. And then we have one from the weather.
Almada: You actually have two weather reports. But that’s okay, I’ll forgive you. There’s one at the beginning. The television clips, they were shot there, all of them were shot there. So none of those television clips are archival clips that I later digitally inserted into the film. But you know I always think that there’s this kind of gap between the experience of making a film and the film that you make. But for me it was so important - the weather while making the film. Michael Taussig wrote that you cannot film heat. And I took this as a real challenge. I thought well of course I can film heat. There’s got to be a way to film heat. And Sinaloa is a place where the light and the temperature is so present and it’s so, so hot in the summer. Like you can’t believe it and the workers get really sluggish and kind of slow and you end up feeling this anticipation for rain. So I really wanted to build towards the rain scene in the film.
POV: I think you had mentioned once, the challenge of putting some of the night scenes?
Almada: I would say about half the film takes place at night. And you know usually we think video is really bad in low light. And not to work in low light. And to make sure you have lighting with you. One of the things that Rafael told me was, "As long as you have a light bulb, you’re fine." Work with whatever you have. It’s something that Chuy Chavez, another cinematographer I’ve worked with a lot, I would say that he always managed to make use of the available light and to sit someone next to the window if necessary. Play with it. But also, break our conception of what’s acceptable and not acceptable in the image. So why should the night have information? So why not allow the screen to go black? As long as you have a little bit of information, that’s actually all you need. And that’s more the way that we experience the night. It creates mystery. It’s about everything we can’t see and in a place like the cemetery, that which we cannot see is as important as what we see.
POV: So what do you want a U.S. audience to take away from the film?
Almada: For me, the most important thing I think is to actually not worry so much. I think about other people’s perceptions of the place that I’m portraying, because I know that it’s already burdened with so many stereotypes that what I need to find actually is more the complexity and the freedom to question and to doubt and to be critical which we’re often afraid to do because we think if we’re critical then we’re going to fuel the fire.
POV: Do you think that the audience in Mexico will take away a different impression from the film than the U.S. audience will?
Almada: I think audiences all over the world respond to everything differently. And I think that even within a certain country it really depends on the demographic and the background of the people looking at it. I think more of a challenge with the film is not that it’s a film about violence in Mexico or about the drug wars, I think it’s the formal aspect of the film that is challenging for people rather than the subject matter. It’s asking viewers to think of documentary in a different way,especially now that we’re in a climate of kind of these advocacy films. Feeling that documentaries really have to have a social message and a measurable outcome and to leave you with a to-do list of how to solve the problem. There’s a different kind of documentary that’s really important and necessary to have out there. Not in place of that other kind. They can both exist. But right now we’re in a time where one kind of style of documentary has really dominated and to me it’s a little bit of a disservice because what interests me is to have an audience that’s critical, not an audience that’s lazy. So I’m not so interested in making films that say you know here’s the problem, here’s how I want you to feel and this is what I think you should do. But rather putting the viewer in a much more active position, forcing the viewer to have to make their own opinions and to put the pieces together in a way so that any thought that comes at the end of it is actually theirs.