Meet Jose Álvarez, the soulful filmmaker of Canícula

Top Doc Director, Jose Alvarez

Nothing beats the physical thrill of absorbing a high sensory image on the big screen, and in this past year’s Morelia Film Festival I had one of those unforgettable moments watching Canícula, a remarkably cinematic and revelatory documentary by Jose Álvarez about the Totonac people in Veracruz, Mexico.  My visual senses were so intensely activated by the rich photography its as if spillover stimulation tickled my sense of smell during a scene in which pristine vanilla bean trees are dazzlingly captured; I could almost smell the vanilla!   This fine mexican documentary is screening in next month’s Guadalajara Film Festival and mini-major doc fest True/False.  Check out the interview with the endearingly soulful filmmaker below.  Note:  Yours truly translated, but I’m also including  Jose’s unedited answers in Español because it sounds so much prettier!

CD: Tell us about the special meaning and significance of the word, Canícula  

The name of the documentary Canícula (Dog Days), has to do with the hottest 40 days that occurs in many parts of the world, in particular this zone in Ciudad Sagrada de El Tajín, Veracruz.  It coincides with a special season for the “Voladores” (or “Bird Men”), because it represents the time in which their fellow dead Voladores come down from the heavens.  For this reason they wear red Volador pants which symbolizes the blood and sacrifice, and ceremonially they ask the gods for rain, a bountiful harvest and health for their children and families.  As they spin and lower from the top of the pole circling around, they disperse prayers and blessings they’ve acquired from the heavens.  It may also represent the fire that comes from the sun, necessary to bake the mud and shape the clay of the beautiful ceramics the tribal women make.

~El nombre del documental Canícula (días de perros) tiene que ver con la época de los 40 días mas caluroso  que se viven en muchos lugares del mundo y en especial en esta zona de México, Ciudad Sagrada de El Tajín, Veracruz, esta época para los voladores representa el momento en el que bajan del cielo los voladores muertos, es la época del sol sangrante, por esa razón usan los voladores pantalones rojos haciendo referencia a este símbolo de sangre y sacrificio, a las peticiones que hacen a los dioses para que haya lluvia y fertilidad para sus cultivos,  salud para sus hijos y bienestar para sus familias.

Bajan desde la cima del palo volando y girando dispersando todas las bendiciones y favores a su pueblo que obtuvieron del cielo.  En algún lugar también representa al fuego que viene del sol que necesitan las alfareras para cristalizar el barro de sus piezas.

CD: Your documentaries spotlight the rich diversity of indigenous communities of Mexico (Flores En el Desierto).  On what social activist/awareness levels do you feel your films being out in the world, operate and give back to those communities.  And what expectations, if any, do these communities and people who agree to be in your films hold you to?

The people who see my films can easily engage with what they see as long as their hearts are open, they are willing to experience other human realities, and as long as they don’t reject different ways of life.  It’s the respect as well as the admiration of being able to witness original cultures like the Wixárikas or Totonacos maintaining their way of life, their faith, community, work, love, family and death.  Audiences can make a trip to lands far away yet be as close as we the filmmakers and be able to marvel at their millennial wisdom, a striking counter example for the otherwise chaotic times we are living.

The Flores En El Desierto documentary has proven to be of great help for the Wixárikas  (Huicholes) in regards to bringing awareness to their ongoing struggle they wage against the Canadian mining companies that come in and exploit their land, their center of sacrificial ceremony, and threaten ecological destruction as well as impose their imperial culture.  In my opinion, Los Totonacos like the Wixarikas have made these films.  We merely provide the instrument.   There are great producers and photogenic personalities in front of the camera.  I’ve always made the effort of making films as least intrusive as possible since I’m most interested in working FOR and WITH them.

~Las personas que ven mis películas se involucran de manera fácil con lo que ven en ellas si es que tienen abierto el corazón, si quieren ver estas realidades humanas, si no rechazan la existencia de otras formas de llevar la vida, el respeto, incluso la admiración por ver a culturas originales como la Wixárka (Flores en el desierto) o los Totonacos (Canícula) desenvolviéndose en sus vidas cotidianas, en su fe, en su comunidad, en el trabajo, en el amor, la familia o la muerte, los espectadores podrán hacer un viaje a tierras y formas muy lejanas para estar tan cerca de ellas como nosotros que las filmamos y maravillares con su sabiduría milenaria, ejemplo para nuestros tiempos de caos.

Por ejemplo, Flores en el desierto ha sido un documento de gran ayuda para los Wixárikas (huicholes) en esta lucha que mantienen contra las intensiones de explotación de mineras canadienses dentro de las tierras donde están sus centros ceremoniales sagrados que generarían destrucción ecológica y cultural absoluta. Tanto Los Totonacos como los Wixárikas han hecho estas películas, nosotros hemos sido meros instrumentos para que se realicen, son grandes productores, grandes y fotogénicos personajes frente a la cámara, siempre me he dispuesto a hacer películas poco intrusivas, me interesa trabajara para ellos y con ellos.


CD: Clearly the viewfinder has so much to do with not only the context but the experience of what you are showing us, the angles, the focus, closeups, etc. In a way your films demonstrate a unique transportive quality. How much do you think about where to place the camera  –  as it relates to the ‘outsider looking in’ to a world unfamiliar with the audience ?

The film’s cinematographers, Pedro González Rubio (Alamar), Fernanda Romandia (Flores en El Desierto) and Sebastian Hofmann(Viaje Redondo) were totally free to photograph this colorful and intense reality in order to relate the gaze of a young child as well as say an elderly woman, in essence, encompassing the spectrum of our human existence.

When it appears that the camera knocks and pries open the door into the soul, its simply because there is something there to share.  In the context of making films, not only does it provide an opportunity for the world to see them, but also an opportunity for their eyes to meet the world as well.

~Los fotógrafos Pedro González Rubio, Fernanda Romandía y Sebastian Hofmann han sido libres para retratar esta realidad tan colorida, tan intensa, para adivinar en esas miradas desde la de un pequeño niño hasta la de una mujer anciana, los rincones de la existencia humana.

Cuando parece que la cámara toca la puerta del alma y esta se abre, es simplemente porque algo quiere decir, porque en el contexto en el que hacemos estas películas les abre a ellos una oportunidad también no solo de que el mundo los vea a ellos si no de que ellos miren al mundo.

CD: Your films are not only impressive in the ethnographic/anthropological sense but the divine cinematography that allows one to be captivated by the mesmerizing beauty of nature, and the unwavering spirituality of the indigenous who persevere a sacred connection with it.  Is this conscious on your part as far as making the films cinematic form so elevated and visceral?

I’ve had a lot of luck finding these amazing cinematographers who bring a keen understanding and who have embraced an approach that seems to pinpoint this language, but also the paradises these cultures inhabit are so beautiful that it could possibly be enough to take a camera and shoot or photograph.  What I always aim to express is the language of their land, people, music, art, ceremony, history and faithful existence.  I believe that what I’m in awe of, is also what will awe the audience.  It has much to do with the manner in how we ingratiate ourselves, become close to, and how we enter into this Mexico so wonderful and rich.

~He tenido mucha suerte en encontrar a estos extraordinarios fotógrafos, sin duda, que han entendido y han propuesto de forma muy atinada este lenguaje, pero también  los paraísos que habitan estas culturas son tan bellos que bastaría poner la cámara y grabar o filmar.

Lo que quiero plasmar siempre es el lenguaje de sus tierras, gente, música, arte, ceremonias, historias, su fe vivencial y pienso que lo que a mi me asombra de este acercamiento será también lo que asombre a los espectadores, tiene mucho que ver con la manera en la que nos acercamos y como entramos en este México rich maravilloso.

Canicula’s FB page here and trailer here

Industry subscribers –  you can catch both Flores en El Desierto and Canicula at Festival Scope

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