Samuel Douek, the Los Angeles-based founder/director of the Hola Mexico Film Festival (HMFF), has very precise and passionate points of view about how Mexico should be represented by its filmmakers.
“We take a big responsibility in bringing the festival and [representing] what Mexican filmmakers are doing,” says Douek, a widely-respected expert on Mexican film culture. “It is not a coincidence that the best films coming out of Mexico are the ones that are criticising heavily, the situation in Mexico right now. The situation is bad but that is the reality… they are things we have to live with every day. These films that we'll be seeing in Australia over the next few weeks paint for the audience a reality.”
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Mexican cinema has largely ruminated on drug/crime/corruption/immigration themes in recent years, irrespective of the genre. You'll get no argument from Douek on that point. “Now, more than ever, it is important that people see what is going on in Mexico,” he says.
Recent domestic policy decisions by US state governments, in particular Arizona's controversial immigration reforms that directly target Mexican nationals, give added impetus to several of the films programmed at HMFF 2011. Films such as Luis Estrada's epic black comedy El Infierno, a major hit in its homeland, Alvaro Curiel's Acorazado and Everardo González's award-winning documentary El cielo abierto, cross borders to reflect on the relationships between Mexico and its neighbours .
Douek's duties as festival director were redefined in 2011 when the Mexican Embassy had to decline involvement/official support for the event. (When contacted by SBS Film, Mexican Embassy officials declined to comment about their decision.) Though it could be viewed as a setback, the withdrawal of diplomatic support provided a new found freedom for the veteran programmer. “There are a few films that I would never screen with their support because they are films that do not talk really highly of Mexico,” Douek says. “If we are not going to have any support then we are going to do what we think is best for the festival, so we are going to screen films like El Infierno and run a trilogy of films from Luis Estrada. It is a hardcore experience to see these films, films that no one in Australia will have seen and films that have done very well at the box office; they are [representative] of what is happening in Mexico.”
One film that speaks to a global issue is Alejandra Sánchez's Agnus Dei, a Mexican/French documentary co-production that highlights, in frank terms, the scourge of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, and focuses on one victim's determination to confront his abuser. Douek first heard about Agnus Dei during the 2008 Hola event in New York, where Sánchez' was presenting her film Bajo Juarez: La ciudad devorando a sus hijas; a Q&A participant drilled her on her next project. “She said she was doing a film on the paedophile church and I said 'Wow, that sounds crazy'!” recalls Douek. “I saw the film maybe four months ago and I am very impressed with what she has done. She could have done a documentary talking about (statistics) and newspaper headlines, but she has found an individual's story and she tells it really well.”
Douek pines for the business model of Mexican cinema's post-war 'Golden Era', when 'comedia ranchero' films like Fernando de Fuentes' Allá en el Rancho Grande (Out on the Big Ranch, 1936) and Ismael Rodriguez's Nosotros los pobres (We the Poor, 1948) turned huge profits and paid for the next wave of audience-friendly hits. But the reality is that US majors still secure the prime box office results.
“Many films crossover and speak to all Mexicans, but just as many don't,” says Douek. “It is nothing like the 1940s or 1950s because we are talking about an industry now. It exists on its own [terms]. It was a huge thing for [those films] to sell enough [tickets] to pay for their costs, whereas now the Mexican film industry survives thanks to the government and its support.”
Samuel Douek has programmed the 2011 HMFF with films that confront modern social issues with a distinctly singular voice, such as Salomón Azkenazi's richly cinematic romance, Ocean Blues and David Michan's desolate, surrealistic slice of existentialism, Reacciones Adversas. “These are films that are extremely independent, that would have had Mexican box office results that were very small in number,” he states. It's these types of films that Douek believes signifies a strong Mexican film culture in the years ahead. “In the line-up that we are bringing this year, we have many directors who are doing works for the first time. There are many directors who are growing and becoming very well known. There are 80 films being made in Mexico every year, and that is how [filmmakers] train and become better. There is a lot of talent and a lot of stories to tell.”
The 2011 Hola Mexico Film Festival will visit Melbourne (21-30 Oct), Sydney (4-13 Nov), Adelaide (18-27 Nov), Perth (24-30 Nov) and Brisbane (1-4 Dec). For more imformation visit the festival website.