Ethereal, contemplative, and intuitively perceptive…this is one way to describe Natalia Almada’s documentaries, which not coincidentally, can also describe her passionate nature. To kick off my first of Meet Mexican Filmmakers interview series, I recently emailed the director of previous films, Al Otro Lado (05) and El General (Sundance 08) to talk about her most recent film, El Velador, a meditative, supremely shot, lyrical film about a Night Watchman who guards over a growing metropolis of a special graveyard, where bodies of drug-lords rest in extravagant mausoleums. The serenity of the piece clashes with the violence it represents, delivering a piercing poignancy. El Velador premiered in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight and is currently making the festival rounds. Look for it on POV in 2012
CC: Those pimped out mausoleums look like mini-condos! It makes for a striking visual. There’s a long shot, quite arresting, in which I can’t believe its not a little pueblo we are looking at but a village of dead people. Burying the dead is a big cultural tradition in Mexico. I’ve heard and read that drug-lords frequently give their victims’ widows’ some pesos to bury the body….
NA: Yes is it a kind of city of the dead. I think it is a mistake to conflate the mausoleums at this cemetery with Mexico’s traditions around death. Something different is happening at the cemetery which isn’t a reflection of Octavio Paz’ idea that Mexicans love death. To me it has to do with the reality that the dead are so young. It almost feels like death is a right of passage and the young people who visit their friends at the cemetery I am quite certain visit them in part as a way to embrace their own future. I would never say they are pimped out but I understand what you are getting it. At first they are pimped out and kitch, but over time I think they become much more than that. To me they are really expressions of desire. How does someone want to be remembered? And not only that, but we see how strong the desire to be remembered is, to not be forgotten. In that, to me, lies the humanity of this tragic violence which we are living.
CC: Your filmmaking decisions and your long-take shooting reflect an easy confidence. You edit and produced this film as well. With whom, if anyone, do you bounce off these types of creative decisions? How do you trust yourself?
NA: The beauty of making documentaries is that you have to improvise with reality. You have to be aware and attentive to respond to the sounds, the light, the place. The cemetery called for those long slow shots (either hand held or on a tripod). It was a place where you couldn’t really demand things to happen quickly, you just had to wait and be ready. I feel like the long shots capture that quality about the cemetery and the strange sense of time that exists there. There is a code of silence when it comes to violence and to drug trafficking. A talkative film would have gone against the grain of the place and all it represents. Of course I have my insecurities like everyone but in the end I do trust myself. With this project I would show early rushes to Rafael Ortega who is a very good cinematographer here in Mexico City. In the editing process I worked with Julien Devaux for about 6 weeks once I had the film at a rough cut phase and then I also relied on the feedback of Sam Pollard, Shannon Kennedy and Francis Alys. All three of them have such different sensibilities and backgrounds that their feedback was quite different and that pushed me to define my own ideas of how the film should be. I would also say that probably my closest collaborator is Alejandro de Icaza, my sound designer. Alejandro watches my rushes and rough cuts so that by the time we are ready to work on sound he completely understand what I’m trying to do and say with the film. We worked for about six or eight weeks to build a soundscape that would immerse the viewer in that place and evoke certain feelings.
CC: Once you start shooting how much room do you tend to allow for any unexpected incident that might reshape your initial vision?
NA: A lot. In fact it is all about the unexpected incident and reshaping ones vision. If you aren’t open to those things then how can you be watching the unpredictable world in which we live? And why make documentaries? It is different to have a very clear sense of direction and ideas – that’s very important otherwise you don’t know where to point the camera or how to frame much less do you know how to structure the footage into a film. But that does not mean being closed of to the unexpected or rigid about how you imagined something would be.
CC: Background: You recently moved back to Mexico. Why did you choose now to do so? Anything to do with creative inspiration or reason? Do you feel you ever left?
NA: I think some of us are just nomadic creatures. I was recently talking with a filmmaker friend exactly about that, do we ever really land? Perhaps we use film as a way to land. A kind of geography. I don’t know. But I came back to Mexico because I wanted to live in the country where I film. I love New York and have a wonderful community of filmmaker friends who I am still very close to but I felt it was really important to be here, to talk to the taxi drivers and feel the smells and sounds of life here as part of my everyday. That said I sometimes feel like I live in some strange place in between. There is a passage from Serge Daney’s Postcards from the Cinema which I really like which I think somehow describes this nomadic person’s relationship to film: “And then I clearly see why I have adopted cinema, so it could adopt me in return and could teach me to ceaselessly touch with the gaze that distance between myself and the place where the other begins”.