Carmen Durán turns the camera on herself inside the factory where she works.
POV: Maquilapolis is unique in that the subjects of the film are part of the filmmaking process. Can you tell us how this came about and what the process for working with the women was like?
Sergio De La Torre: In 1996, Vicky and I met the people who run the nonprofit organization Factor X, which help women in the Tijuana factories organize for better working conditions and human rights. In 1999 we started working with them and proposed a project to them based on conversations that we had over the years. Factor X then approached the workers with the project. They said, “There are two filmmakers from the Bay Area that are interested in working with some of you on a project called Maquilapolis.” These factory workers had previously worked with artists in Tijuana, and they had expectations, ideas and demands about our practices. Some of them said, “No, we’re not interested in this project,” and some of them said yes. When we got down to Tijuana we met with sixteen factory workers and interviewed them — we got to know them and they got to know us. When we began to film we ended up working with fourteen factory workers.
At the beginning, we knew that we wanted to bring video cameras for the women. It was important for us to get footage from the factory workers — who are amateurs at filmmaking — that we couldn’t get ourselves as professional filmmakers. We set up video-making workshops and video screenings, bringing a library of videos to the women. We held discussions about representation with the women, talking about how they, as factory workers, are seen through the media. So there was a long process of working with them during filming.
Vicky Funari: We could have taken a journalistic approach to making the film, but to me, that wouldn’t have given audiences anything different than what they already had access to through news reports. So in this case we really wanted to give the women a chance to express themselves and tell their stories. We wanted them to use the filmmaking process to further their own self-organizing. What’s important about the film, to me, is that it came out of the collective process and that it’s a completely subjective account by the women.
The idea of giving people cameras to tell their story is a pretty major trend in documentary filmmaking these days. If you don’t believe in objectivity, if you think that truth lies in subjectivity, and you want people who haven’t been able to tell their stories or to have control over their stories to have that control, then you give them cameras. But it has to be bigger than that, you can’t just hand somebody a camera, you also have to develop a whole process of working with them.
For Maquilapolis, we talked a lot to the women over the years of making it, we did a lot of discussions and exercises, and we consulted them the whole way along. They wrote a lot of the narration for the film. As a filmmaker, I know how to structure a film; a factory worker, on the other hand, might not know how to structure a film, but she knows what she wants to say about her life. So through a long-term engagement with the workers we came up with a way for them to have a voice and have control.
POV: Describe the film stylistically, and explain why you made the decisions that you did.
Funari: Maquilapolis is a blend of styles, partly because we chose to work with a group of factory workers and have them be coauthors of the film with us. So we taught them to use cameras and asked them to make video diaries, and over the course of the years, they made diaries as well as little reports on what was going on in their neighborhoods. Part of the style of the film is coming from them and from their way of telling their stories.
Sergio and I both come from an art background, and our approach is not in any way journalistic. We were engaging a lot with the visual imagery of Tijuana and of the factories. So what we have in the film is, I think, a really interesting blend of a rough approach that’s coming from the women in their very first attempts to use cameras to tell their stories, and some more formal material that’s coming from Sergio and me.
De La Torre: I’m a photographer and a video artist, and this is the first time that I’ve been a part of a film from the very beginning. I’ve seen so many films, and I think I always borrow or steal from other filmmakers. So I would say that I was trying to do the work of other filmmakers in the way I shoot film. I’ve done a lot of performance art, and so some of the footage that you see in Maquilapolis comes out of performance art.
POV: How did you decide on the main characters?
Funari: Factor X issued an open invitation to all the women who were going through their training process to participate in a video workshop that Sergio and I were holding. So the women who attended the workshop were very interested in seeing what they could do with a camera. The workshop lasted over a period of weeks during which they got to know the equipment and went out and shot their own footage.
We went into the workshop thinking we knew who the main characters were, and it turned out that we were completely wrong. The people we thought would be the main characters had already gone through their arc of self-discovery by the time we started the project, and we wanted two women who were in the middle of finding out what they could do. Those two women turned out to be Carmen and Lourdes.
One of them was engaged in a struggle against Sanyo for illegal labor practices and the other one was engaged in trying to get both the U.S. and Mexican governments to commit to a cleanup of a toxic waste dump. So they were also both in the middle of these emblematic struggles. We really wanted to follow those stories, and that’s how they became the main characters.
Additionally, one of the motifs that the film has is the idea of the chorus. We knew that we could only focus on two or three main characters, but we were both really impressed with the way that collectivity was functioning in these women’s lives. At work they were very anonymous people, each person essentially becomes just a function in the factory. But outside of work they were becoming activists, and while they were helped by organizations in Tijuana that were training them, they were also forming their own sense of themselves as a collective movement. Because of that, we really wanted to deal with the idea of the group in the film. So we came up with a whole series of images that had to do with the women as a group, both in the factory and as a collective force.
De La Torre: It was an organic process through the years of working with the women. I don’t think that anyone knew that they were going to be the main character, or that we were going to use their footage, or that they were going to be interviewing other people. It was based on some of the footage that they shot. For example, I think Carmen Durán, one of the main characters, is just an amazing woman. She went ahead and documented her entire neighborhood. I think we got more tapes from Carmen than from anybody else. She was a natural reporter. She went around the neighborhood and interviewed everyone she could.
POV: How did you establish trust with the women?
De La Torre: I tend to establish trust through humor and I think that in Mexico it works well. It’s a cultural thing — people have a kind of witty, dark sense of humor there. With the women, humor was a way to go around things. For a long time I was the only man involved in the movie, so it wasn’t easy to establish trust. However, through time and work we were able to understand each other’s ways of working.
Funari: I think the key for me is not establishing trust, but earning it. Sergio and I went in knowing that we were committed to going through the frequently painful and difficult process of delivering to the women what we promised we were going to deliver. And we’re still in that process because the project is ongoing. The women are involved in outreach and distribution of the film. They have the same voice in that as they’ve had all along. We’re keeping the dialogue between us and the women going the entire time. That’s really hard because it takes time and money, and it means that you have to check in with twelve different people every time you make a big decision.
For me, keeping that dialogue going is the responsibility of the filmmaker. Your subjects don’t owe you anything; you owe them, because you’re asking them to share their lives with you. So you better not just establish trust, you better earn it.