A scene from EL VELADOR (THE NIGHT WATCHMAN), a film by Natalia Almada. Picture courtesy Icarus Films. All rights reserved.
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El Velador (The Night Watchman) (2011/2012)
Also Known As: The Night Watchman
Opened: 06/15/2012 Limited
|MoMO/NYC||06/14/2012 - 06/20/2012||7 days|
Trailer: Click for trailer
Genre: Mexican Documentary
Martin, the night watchman, arrives at the cemetery in his rumbling blue Chevrolet with the setting sun. The cemetery's canine mascots, EI Negro and La Negra, chase his truck down the road and greet him with wagging tails. As the daytime workers leave, the sound of construction fades away and Martin is left alone, looking out over the skyline of mausoleums where Mexico's most notorious drug lords lie at rest.
As night descends, silhouetting crosses and steel construction scaffolding against the purple and pink sky, luxurious cars creep down the dirt roads. Mercedes, a sexy young widow, arrives in a pristine white Audi with her little girl. A portrait of her husband, a policeman holding a machine gun, watches over them as they sweep and mop the shiny marble floors of his tomb.
"Culiacan has become a war zone," reports a coconut vendor's radio as it lists the day's murders. The ominous buzz of cicadas fills the air. Through Martin's vigilant eyes, we see time pass in a place where, for so many, time has stopped.
Natalia Almada's beautiful portrait of daily life in the cemetery captures the intersection between those who live there and those who rest there: the innocent beside the guilty. Construction workers perfect the gaudy details of crypts. Children play hopscotch on tombs. Families light candles for those they've lost. For many, mourning and the caretaking of the mausoleums has become a kind of daily work that echoes the tasks of those whose livelihoods are made from their service to the dead.
The perversely gaudy mausoleums over which Martin keeps watch are monuments to the violence that is devastating contemporary Mexico. They also speak volumes about that country's class inequities. Workers hang lavish chandeliers they could never afford in the houses of the dead.
AEl Velador (The Nightwatchman) lingers at the threshold of violence. By refusing to show the graphic images that most of the press feverishly disseminates and instead contemplating the living and dead casualties, Almada asks us to dwell in the moments after violence has left its mark. Her camera enters into the intimate and ordinary routines of the cemetery world with patience, restraint and tenderness.
A code of silence makes conversation dangerous. The word "narco" is forbidden. The teetering scaffolding, the rotting wooden ladder, the photograph of a man who died at 23: life is precarious for everyone with business here.
El Velador (The Nightwatchman) lingers at the threshold of violence. By refusing to show the graphic images that most of the press feverishly disseminates and instead contemplating the living and dead casualties, Almada asks us to dwell in the moments after violence has left its mark. Her camera enters into the intimate and ordinary routines of the cemetery world with patience, restraint and tenderness.
El Velador (The Nightwatchman) is a film about violence without violence.
"An unsettlingly quiet, even lyrical film about a world made and unmade by violence" --A. O. Scott, The New York Times
"An exquisite study of a rapidly expanding cemetery" --Variety
"(An) hypnotically detailed feature documentary depiction of life and death" --The Wall Street Journal
"Two documentaries, El Velador and The Black Power Mixtape, provide chilling accounts of their subjects that are matched by a refreshing vitality." --The New York Press
"El Velador is deliberate, repetitive, and deceptively peaceful. Watching it feels at first as if you're eavesdropping on someone else's daydream." --Slant Magazine
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I come from a ranching family and grew up in Sinaloa, which is now Mexico's most productive agricultural state and, coincidentally, the cradle of drug trafficking in Mexico. The constant dinner table stories about run-ins with "narcos" were countless, and all had a quality about them reminiscent of The Godfather. But when the cowboy I'd known my whole life told us his son had disappeared, the remains of his seven buddies burned alive, and the ranch caretaker tortured and beaten so badly he couldn't tell the story of what had happened to him without wetting his pants, the violence of the drug trade lost its romantic Hollywood glow for me. Reality no longer felt like a movie. Instead, I felt the need to make a film.
"Why is there so much violence in Mexico?" "What is the solution to the violence?" people ask when I travel outside of Mexico. However, they usually ask as they are getting up from the table, not as they are sitting down to engage in a real conversation about the matter. Violence is the issue that puts Mexico on the cover of The New York Times, yet a solution always seems to remain out of reach. Looking at a photo in the paper, we often wonder, "How could someone do that?" We feel a sense of relief when it happens over there, far from here. It seems impossible to imagine anyone for whom normal life could continue in the midst of such atrocities.
When I am shooting, I often think of it in terms of Baudelaire's phrase from Barthes' Camera Lucida: it is an example of "The emphatic truth of gesture in the great circumstances of life." If film has any relationship to truth (which I'm not convinced it does) it must lie in its ability to gesture.
By filming at the cemetery, I hoped to understand the violence that is pointlessly destroying Mexico and rescue a sense of humanity from the heart of that violence. Or, as Serge Daney so beautifully wrote, "to touch with the gaze that distance between myself and where the other exists."
When I went first to the cemetery, I was reminded of the paupers' graveyard a few miles north of the border in Arizona where I shot part of my first film, AI Otro Lado. That cemetery was full of unidentified illegal immigrants who had died crossing the desert. Their American dream ended in a desolate empty lot of dirt, under a brick inscribed with their new American names, Jane and John Doe. The rows of bricks were a site of anonymity and oblivion. The surreal skyline of mausoleums in El Velador (The Night Watchman) is its antithesis, a grand expression of remembrance. They index Mexicans' refusal to be invisible, anonymous and forgotten in death.
When I began filming, four massive mausoleums were under construction and a new hole had been excavated for 300 more graves. By the time I finished, that hole had been filled with young bodies and a tractor was digging a new one. The cemetery's exponential growth illustrates our continuing failure to end the violence that has already claimed over 35,000 lives.
In December 2009, after the assassination of Beltran Leyva, "EI Jefe de Jefes," a decapitated head was left on his tomb. Rather than a threat, it turned out to be an offering; hence, the red gerbera daisy placed behind the left ear of the bloodied head. the detail stood out brilliantly against the write marble in the photograph that inevitably circulated in the "nota roja" and on the web.
What are we to make of these images: Are they shameful? Are they like trophies of war? Are they like lynching photographs of slaves in Southern United States? Or the photographs of the religious hung along the train tracks in Mexico's Cristiada war?
In her essay about the Abu Ghraib photographs, Regarding the Torture of Others, Susan Sontag writes, "The horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken." Perhaps the person who left the head on the tomb was not the one to take the photograph. When he placed the gerbera behind the victim's left ear, did he do it for the benefit of a future photographer? Did he take pleasure in posing the head just so? The media took the bait, and millions stared with fascination and terror at the grotesqueness of it all. And then we walked away.
After a year of filming at the cemetery, I arrived one morning at 7:00 a.m. as usual, to catch the sun rising behind the mausoleums and the arrival of the construction workers. Shortly after setting up my tripod in front of the first burial in the new hole, I was informed that I had to leave. It was very clear to me that this was to be taken seriously. I have always been able to talk my way out of sticky situations, but this time there was nothing to say, because there was no one but the messenger to say it to. That early July morning I felt an invisible, omnipresent power exerted over me. The media had shown again and again what El Narco was capable of doing. This time, the threat implied, it could happen to me. It was a perfect combination of invisibility and visibility designed to render me powerless.
To viewers of El Velador (The Night Watchman), I hope to convey the desperate fear, impotence and numbness that I felt in that moment. Without resorting to morbid sensationalism or showing the graphic images that have become all too common, I propose that we take an unflinching look at violence.
"There aren't enough living to bury the dead," says the director of the cemetery that is the setting for Natalia Almada's El Velador (The Nightwatchman). The graveyard is located in Culiacan, capital of the northern state of Sinaloa, deep in the drug heartland of Mexico.
Shortly after taking office, Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels and put the military to the task of fighting the drug trade. The subsequent blood bath has affected every sector of society and the daily lives of nearly all Mexico's citizens. In 2009, over 8000 people died in violent incidents related to drug trafficking, nearly twice the civilian death toll in Iraq.
The illegal drug trade is a multi-billion dollar industry without borders. Drugs are produced, trafficked, and consumed across the globe, and responsible for billions of dollars circulating in the global economy. But it is Mexico that has become the central battlefield of this worldwide problem. It is estimated that approximately 35,000 people have been killed since December 2006.
The cemetery is a private enterprise, the most expensive such place in Culiacan. A plot here requires dispensable income that very few have. Since the beginning of the war on drugs, the number of graves in the cemetery has exploded, as has the extravagance of the mausoleums. Ranging in design from minimalist modernism to fanciful imitations based on magazine designs, these opulent narco-tombs can cost upwards of $100,000. In Mexico's depressed economy, who besides the drug lords can afford such luxuries?
Recipient of the 2009 Sundance Documentary Directing Award for her film El General, Natalia Almada's most recent film, El Velador is a haunting look at violence through the eyes of the night watchman of Mexico's most notorious narco-cemetery. Her previous credits include All Water Has a Perfect Memory, an experimental short film that received international recognition; and Al Otro Lado, her award-winning debut feature documentary about immigration, drug trafficking and corrido music.
Almada's films have screened at The Sundance Film Festival, The Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim Museum, and The Whitney Biennial. Her three feature documentaries were all selected for broadcast on POV, the award-winning PBS television series. Almada is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow, a 2010 USA Artist Fellow, a 2011 Alpert Award recipient, and a 2011 TEDx Speaker. Almada graduated with a MFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design, and lives in Mexico City and Brooklyn, New York.