Rehabilitating Mexico's Hollywood image

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Back in 2013, Eduardo Medina-Mora, then Mexican Ambassador to the United States, took the extraordinary action of publicly denouncing Hollywood's film industry and its 'racist' stereotypes of Mexicans. 'Mexicans on the silver screen are usually portrayed as poor and uneducated at best, corrupt and violent at worst,' he said, declaring such representations 'not only racist, but wrong'.

Portrait contrasting dead drug dealer with Day of the Dead imageryHe used Mexican actor Demián Bichir as an example, pointing out that after his move to America Bichir has played a gardener (A Better Life), a corrupt Tijuana mayor (Weeds) and a drug dealer (Savages).

Hollywood is fascinated with the violent world of drug cartels, and Denis Villeneuve's Sicario, released in Australia late last month, is no exception. Sicario has many of the characters Medina-Mora was concerned about, including corrupt police and drug dealers — though, to its credit, it's the first fiction film since Steven Stodebergh's Traffic (2000) to look closely at America's misguided attempts to quell the cartels.

Unfortunately for Mexico's image, the horrific violence perpetrated during the near decade-long Drug War is easy pickings for Hollywood, who present it as a simple equation: Mexican drug dealers bad, America good. We see it time and time again, and often to exploitative lengths.

In the 2013 comedy We Are the Millers, Jason Sudakis' character David Miller is sent to Mexico to score a large sum of marijuana, only to come up against Mexican drug dealers. Hijinks ensue, the Mexicans are thwarted, and Miller, the drug mule, gets home scot-free.

In 2013's The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the sheriff of a small border town who is America's last hope at stopping an escaped cartel leader crossing the border back into Mexico.

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) involved the FF team bringing down a cartel leader. In Savages (2012) a harmless, easygoing American pot dealer's girlfriend is kidnapped by a cartel. In both The Counselor (2013) and Sabotage (2014) audiences are shown the dangers of ripping off cartels.

Hollywood need not deny the violence cartels have perpetrated upon one another, members of the public, police and military. But to almost exclusively engage with Mexico in terms of this violence provides a badly limited perspective on that country. Hollywood does something similar when it goes to Africa and tells only stories of warlords and child soldiers. To do so brings nothing to the conversation, but merely exploits tragic situations for the benefit of laughs and action.

Sicario doesn't pretend to know how the US should deal with cartels, though it at least acknowledges the questionable tactics of government bodies such as the CIA. But still Sicario depicts Juárez through the eyes of an outsider, and in graphic terms. In one scene mutilated bodies hang from a bridge, and in another a brazen assault by cartel enforcers occurs within sight of the US border.

For Mexico, outside their own film industry, it would seem there's little to be done to influence such representations. However, the Sony hacks this year revealed something resourceful, if ethically questionable, going on behind the scenes of the latest instalment in the James Bond franchise, Spectre.

The leaked emails from Jonathan Glickman, president of MGM, outlined a rebate the filmmakers were to receive from an unspecified Mexican body.

The rebate, estimated to be between US$14 and $20 million, was to be paid on the proviso that certain changes be made to the film: a 'known Mexican actress' had to feature; the character of an assassin could not be a Mexican national; a scene involving a cage-fight in Mexico City would be replaced by a Day of the Dead parade; and the film must contain aerial shots of 'modern Mexico City buildings'.

The Mexican Film Commission couldn't, under its guidelines, provide rebates to the tune of $20 million, so it's assumed Mexico City officials struck the deal — given that the last Hollywood film set in Mexico City, Man on Fire (2004), flagged it as the world's kidnapping capital, you can understand why they might want to. Either way, it goes to show how badly some want Mexico's positive aspects highlighted over its violent and corrupt underbelly.

It is true that such a rebate, directly influencing the crafting of a script, affects its 'artistic integrity'. But is there much integrity to begin with in resorting to the familiar tropes that so many Hollywood films fall back on when setting films in or around Mexico? How often do we see American characters going to Mexico at great peril? And how little do we see of Mexico's culture and history, colour and vibrancy?

Producers shouldn't have to be bribed in order to present Mexico differently. Sicario is welcome in its attempts to at least invite audiences into a dialogue — maybe Hollywood studios and filmmakers could think harder about creating narratives that add to the conversation, rather than exploit it.

A rebate as significant as the one allegedly given to the makers of Spectre is problematic. But if Hollywood continues to focus solely on cartels, maybe all is fair in love, war and filmmaking.


Garry_WestmoreGarry Westmore is a Melbourne based writer, educator, and Film Editor of SPOOK. Follow him on Twitter @garrywestmore

Original artwork by Chris Johnston.

 

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Topic tags: Garry Westmore, Mexico, Sicario, drug cartels, Day of the Dead

 

 

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Existing comments

Mexican film industtry itself has been and is no mean competitor-perhaps suggesting better acculturated themes for Holywood The history of Mexican cinema goes back to the ending of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, when several enthusiasts of the new medium documented historical events – most particularly the Mexican Revolution – and produced some movies that have only recently been rediscovered. During the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, Mexico all but dominated the Latin American film industry for quality I of course await a masterpiece on our lady of Guadalupe. St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin(1474–1548) is the first Roman Catholic indigenous American saint. He is said to have been granted an apparition of the Virgin Mary on four separate occasions in December 1531 at the hill of Tepeyac, then outside but now well within metropolitan Mexico City. The Basilica of Guadalupe located at the foot of the hill of Tepeyac claims to possess Juan Diego's mantle or cloak (known as a tilma) on which an image of the Virgin is said to have been impressed by a miracle as a pledge of the authenticity of the apparitions. These apparitions and the imparting of the miraculous image (together known as the Guadalupe event, in Spanish "el acontecimiento Guadalupano") are the basis of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe which is ubiquitous in Mexico, prevalent throughout the Spanish-speaking Americas, and increasingly widespread beyond. As a result, the Basilica of Guadalupe is now the world's major centre of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics, receiving 22 million visitors in 2010, the vast bulk of whom were pilgrims. Juan Diego was beatified in 1990, and canonized in 2002.
Father John George | 20 October 2015


A most intriguing photographic phenomenon is evident in the image eye of Our Lady of Guadalupe http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-5TGPCcTCPuY/T3ZNoKdXJuI/AAAAAAAAEnA/U9lV9x89dQE/s1600/eyes1.jpg In 1929 and 1951 photographers found a figure reflected in the Virgin's eyes; upon inspection they said that the reflection was tripled in what is called the Purkinje effect, commonly found in human eyes.[77] An ophthalmologist, Dr. Jose Aste Tonsmann, later enlarged an image of the Virgin's eyes by 2500x and claimed to have found not only the aforementioned single figure, but images of all the witnesses present when the tilma was first revealed before Zumárraga in 1531, plus a small family group of mother, father, and a group of children, in the center of the Virgin's eyes, fourteen people in all[Wikipedia: "Oir Lady of Guadalupe"]
Father John George | 22 October 2015


The Purkinje effect (sometimes called the Purkinje shift, or dark adaptation and named after the Czech anatomist Jan Evangelista Purkyne) is the tendency for the peak luminance sensitivity of the human eye to shift toward the blue end of the color spectrum at low illumination levels.
Father John George | 24 October 2015


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