Wide Angle 21.3 (1999) 42-65

Toward a Political Cinema:
The Cooperative of Marginal Cinema

José Carlos Méndez (July 19, 1972)

Figures


In the month of June, 1971, the "II Experimental Cinema Competition in 8mm" was held, with the theme "The Main Problem," sponsored by the "Committee for Cultural Agitation of the National School of Economics belonging to the UNAM." During the screenings, which included debates between the audience and filmmakers, several pamphlets were handed out, some personal and others from small groups which had taken part in the making of one of the works presented, but all in a politicizing tone, seeking to give a political approach to cinema and to the competition itself. And what is undeniable about the competition is that it was influenced by the Student Movement of 1968. The demobilization created after October 2 meant that many activists abandoned political action and were absorbed, in one way or another, by the "onda", "counter-culture", etc., or simply remained isolated. No one had a clear idea of what to do. The competition arose in the midst of this situation, managing to bring together new trends that sought to express themselves through film. It is clear that not all understood it in the same way: for some it was a way of continuing the political struggle, or a recess while waiting for more favorable conditions; for others, it was a refuge, a defense against a system which in any case they did not accept and did not understand, yet which caused them suffering.

Most of the films revealed personal experiences of '68, though in different or even contradictory ways. Some revealed frustration, [End Page 43] [Begin Page 45] others skepticism, opportunism, and political optimism. All remained at a level of refutation, provocation, rejection, some of them in a spirit of open opportunism, justification, or easy conscience. However, the old discussion about politically or artistically committed cinema, the bourgeois nature of competitions, which encourage an individualistic view without social significance on integrationism and leftism, and promote reactionism and dogmatism, etc., was made evident in the debates, which all resulted in the crystallization of positions of two antagonistic and unreconcilable groups, based in questions of principle: those who were in favor of a cinema of "free" artistic expression, for a cinema of personal creation (expression), and those who were for a cinema as a fact, as a social product, for a cinema which would be a political tool. Some called themselves "independent," others "marginal." The "independent" group declare their independence from the Industry (taken in isolation) but remain within the frameworks of the system. The "marginal" group came out against the Industry (which they do not consider as something isolated, but as an instrument of the State in the field of cinema) and against the system. All this, in general, took place more in a tone of ideological radicalism than in one of theoretical clarity, truly critical and polemic, which brought with it the risk that all of it would be nothing but another repetition of the old dispute, as false as it is polemic, between the liberal and the populist conceptions. What was new was that this discussion took place—in Mexico—in the field of cinema. When the Competition had ended, both blocks established themselves in organized groups: the Taller de Cine Experimental and the Cooperativa de Cine Marginal.

The Cooperativa de Cine Marginal was formed to make the cinema it proposed and to try to give this a real context, marginal in nature. Aware of the fact that making cinema in an individual way is not possible, they joined forces and shared resources, on the basis of basic agreements, given the heterogeneity of the components: an ideology, a leftist attitude. Also aware that films must be shown and confronted with the audience for them to have any meaning, for them to meet their proposed aim, and moreover that if they were not screened and their investment were not recovered, production could not continue, so the Cooperativa therefore had to devote itself to the task of creating its own system of distribution and screening. Political auteur cinema is made, though the scripts and the finished films are discussed collectively, [End Page 45] [Begin Page 47]

in order to decide whether they are to be exhibited or not. Everybody does a bit of everything: films, directs, edits, screens, conducts debates, and seeks an audience. The equipment is shared, everybody helps everybody, they all discuss everything. In this first stage which lasted about six months, the Cooperativa members did a good deal of work both in the production and in the screening. The natural audience was made up of students and there were screenings in trade union halls. During this time, in the student milieu of Mexico City, mainly of high schools, as well as in some universities of the provinces, it became com- monplace to see the figure of the Cooperativa member carrying the projector, adapting it to the existing conditions to project on a sheet or on a wall, starting the debate which changed in its form and approach according to the audience. For example, a film such as Jueves de Corpus [Corpus Christi], on June 10, unaccom- plished both in its form and content (as a political view of the facts), gave rise to different types and levels of discussion. In the Mexico City high schools, the emotional factor prevailed over the analysis; they condemned the regime in mass as repressive, without looking at how it was composed, they agreed that "opening" was just a phrase, a demagogic slogan, they discussed whether it was right or not to take to the streets, whether they needed to denounce (which is still true) the person who actually committed the crime (which is still unknown), that is to say, the ideological and emotional level dominated. In the provinces what dominated was the hunger to see, for the document, to make common cause with the victims of aggression whether only through the cinematographic view of the facts, to widen the information and confront it with the view the press had given. In both spheres the Cooperativa members were asked if they had been there, how they had filmed it and were asked to tell more about it. In other circles (workers) repression did not cause the same astonishment, though this did not mean less indignation; accustomed to distortions in the press, the more advanced also wanted to see and be informed. The debates largely depended on the level and experience of the Cooperativa mem- ber present, especially, because the film itself, beyond the testimony, is limited in its elements and to a great extent the questions posed lay outside its purview. I must note that Jueves de Corpus was made prior to the formation of the Cooperativa,and that I only use it as an example as it was the one most frequently screened, and is expressive of the subjective political position that existed at the time. [End Page 47] [Begin Page 48]

In this first phase the discussions were exhausting, unending, among those in favor of theory and those in favor of practice. The main contradiction was between the conception of author cinema and an effectively political one regarding what this implies. In practice, in the films shown, this contradiction manifests itself as a subjective, basically emotional, view of the film. This contradiction in which a destructive petit bourgeois ideological structure is subjacent is not exclusive to the Cooperativa, but is a social problem of our milieu, a historical fact. In the recognition and in the understanding of this fact is the principle for overcoming it.

This first stage was set between June 10 and the first demonstrations of the STERM and MSF (Railway Union Movement, in its Spanish acronym), including Avándaro. Avándaro was the first social movement which the Cooperativa faced as such. Close to the Cooperativa members in all senses, in so far as it was an event directed by the middle classes, Avándaro "demanded" to be filmed. The obvious danger was to make a Mexican Woodstock. It was discussed in a [End Page 49] [Begin Page 51] critical way what Avándaro implied as a social and political fact, it was decided that it should be filmed collectively, and that the material would be exchanged among those who, individually, were interested in making their own personal versions. It was not a film of the Cooperativa as a whole. The procedure for its distribution would be the same as had existed until then. In fact, the only change was in the manner of filming. The result was two different and uneven versions. The experience taught a lot of things at different levels: that the appropriate method of filming in these cases was the one which had been chosen (relay of equipment, each one making a determined type of shot to save on material, etc.), that the personal prestige of those who had filmed specific moments was not as important as the fact that the film had been made, that the road was collective cinema, though auteur cinema was not yet discarded. The contradiction continued to be manifest in the political limitations of the finished films, though at a different level. A film, El año de la rata [The Year of the Rat], one of the formally best achieved, basically connected, through a proper montage, Avándaro to June 10. The latter was repression; Avándaro was the manipulation of conscience and social discredit rather than about youth, the students, in so far as a politically active social force. In the center of both of them, the regime. "to burn" in mass does not make for common cause, it only results in cramming together, making a turmoil and every group for itself, with- out mixing. Between cement and cookies there is a difference, not only of refinement but also of an economic and social nature.* Anyhow, no one, except for the organizers, found what he was looking for. The only slogan—peace and love—was merely a wish, so weak, so up in the air, that it did not even last till they came back.

However, the energy freed and the final emptiness served to calm the rebel moods and made for more skepticism and frustration. And if this is not absolute, any loss in the opponent's field is to one's advantage. Avándaro made evident the weakness of political memory; merely emotional participation fades with new emotions. However, El año de la ratashowed the other side of the coin: the halcones in action. It refreshed the memory and related the facts. [End Page 51] [Begin Page 53] But the film was limited because it did not get down to the causes, the conditions which enable manipulation of conscience, the weakness of political memory, the alienating channeling of rebel capacity, of contestation, of the political insensitivity of the left when confronted with the phenomenon. Although in Mexico City the film contributed—from its own elements, despite its critical limitations-—to the demythification of Avándaro, both for those who attended and for those who did not, in the provinces it had a stronger effect. El año de la ratawas, nevertheless, a step forward.

In this situation, the theoreticians insisted on the need for more work of political analysis, not restricting themselves to representations of the facts, but rather on being able to critically interpret; and they were right. The practical members argued that the necessary elements for it were to be found in practice itself, making and not discussing things; and they were right. They were both right, though not completely right. It was in the midst of these discussions, which did not paralyze the work, that the STERM invited the Cooperativa to film a demonstration on December 14 in the provinces. This was the first demonstration that the Sindicato de Trabajadores Electricistas de la República Mexicana [End Page 53] [Begin Page 55]

(Electricians' Union), headed by Rafael Galván, carried out at a national level to protest publicly the fact that their union had been ousted and the contract given to the charro (the pseudo workers' leader) Francisco Pérez Ríos by the Federal Board for Conciliation and Arbitration.

Throughout the provinces, all the STERM Sections took to the streets, except for that of Mexico City because they had few members there and due to the repressive climate toward any unauthorized demonstrations. Obviously, the official press did not publish anything about it, and neither has it done so since. The STERM considered the documentary and informative function the Cooperativa could provide as useful for its cause. The main units of the STERM were filmed, providing material for the first of the Comunicados, a call to the struggle for union democracy. The Cooperativa had insisted on absolute independence for the making; if changes had to be made, these changes would be made from the discussions with the union ranks, for whom it would be projected and debated. From then on all STERM and MSF demonstrations would be filmed. During this period, the Cooperativa members became true activists. They filmed, edited, discussed the approaches, screened for all the union sections, and debated. They took part in the rising of the masses and they worked with them. The process unfolded itself in such a way that there was barely time to discuss

the Comunicados, which the Cooperativa had now created collectively and as a whole. The existing limitations had to be overcome as they cropped up, as best they could. The process imposed itself; without understanding it in all its determinations, they participated in it. If in Avándaro the Cooperativa had moved in its own terrain, so to speak, now it was in a process which took place in the heart of class struggle, with which it had not been previously involved. What was experienced in the very act of filming it, in the screenings and discussions (apart from and after the frenzy), had put the Cooperativa members in crisis. It was necessary to rethink it all again, but from the new perspective which the worker's movement had given. Political cinema had before it the possibility of fulfilling a revolutionary function, to the extent in which it was part of a political process of the working class. It was no longer something abstract, but rather something concrete. It was no longer a problem of taking sides, of making common cause with, but of becoming radical. [End Page 55] [Begin Page 57]

Becoming radical implied devoting all their time to working and no longer only using spare moments, time stolen from everyday life. Becoming radical also meant overcoming technical difficulties, the limitations of the cinematographic language then used. Becoming radical meant trying to analyze

the political fact correctly, being informed, filling in the blanks, discussing, learning from the movement, becoming sensitive to, and understanding critically what was taking place. This need to become radical, in practice, at a time when it was required to become more concrete manifested itself especially in the problems that Guanajuato raised. Guanajuato, a Comunicado on the I Regional Concentration (Central Area) called by the STERM on January 26 in Guanajuato City, State of Guanajuato, a prototype of reaction, and which was attended, in addition to the electricians, by peasant delegations and the FAT (Authentic Workers' Front), railway workers and supporters of Vallejo (MSF), and some students, presented problems in the editing. In general, the image was poor, there were very fast trackings that were not descriptive and which did not lead to anything; the abusive use of zoom, which did not lead anywhere either; there were certain magnificent shots of details, but these were too brief and scarce; an abundance of shots of ensemble of the march and the congregations. Altogether the material filmed managed to trans- mit the magnitude of the act quantitatively; neither the vitality, the atmosphere, nor the heat experienced in all demonstrations and protest meetings were captured.

What at an emotional level, first of all, implied a gathering to which workers and union groups, independently, flocked physically—and even, politically—the fact, for the electricians who had called for this meeting, now knew themselves not to be alone, but in a struggle of many for a common aim: union democracy, the struggle against charrismo, none of this was captured in the image. It was necessary to resort to text in voice-over, the support of speeches, part of which was given at the end in songs, which are one of the achievements, one of the successes of Guanajuato. All this meant a problem of language, of communication and political effectiveness. The problem was more serious in so far as it was not limited to the purely formal level, but had to do directly with that of the political view: what was sought, what had to be shown, what was essential to the Concentration as a political act of the masses and as a stage in the process of union struggle? Knowing this before the filming would have contributed to a better rendering of and a conscious search for visual elements. [End Page 57] [Begin Page 59] But the problem remained in the making of the text; doubly so as it only had to give a minimum interpretation, concise information, but in addition had to make up for faults, to correct for defects of the images, which were unable to give this information by themselves. Was the struggle for union democracy against charrismo being reformist? Or, to the extent that charrismo is the main instrument of the State to exert control over workers, was it a struggle against the State, which was therefore inscribed in a process of class struggle, ceasing to be reformist and becoming revolutionary? What was it? What was the history of unionism in Mexico, of its struggles, of its leaders?

Was there something new, historically speaking, in the STERM's struggle, such as tactics, such as strategy? Why and how had the experience of the workers' struggle of '58 and '59 been assimilated? Who was in a strong position, the STERM or charrismo? Would the State intervene formally and in what way and for what reasons? All this required information, historical knowledge, political conception, which in this case was solved empirically, resorting to the personal experience of the most advanced Cooperativa members. They managed to mud- dle through but the future problem was not solved. However, they made some progress. With Viento del Istmo [Wind from the Isthmus], a Comunicado on Demetrio Vallejo's tour to Matías Romero town, more progress was made: they managed to transmit the atmosphere of welcome, of fiesta and of combat, as well as the aim

of the visit, in Vallejo's own words: "the need for organization and struggle as the basis of the process."

During this new stage, which goes from December '71 to March '72, the Cooperativa filmed over ten Comunicados and finished two features, carried out an average of 14 screening-debates per week in Mexico City and the provinces, and had about thirty works being edited. After this stage, the Cooperativa faced the fact that there was a social or political clash every day to be filmed in Mexico; some were recorded but they could not film all of them. This is a problem which was approached from two standpoints, two conceptions: one proposed better organization to cover a greater number of conflicts; the other established the need, within the concrete conditions of the Cooperativa and within the concrete conditions of class struggle at that time in Mexico, to distinguish between the [End Page 59] [Begin Page 61]

main issue and the secondary ones, according to what the conflicts expressed in this struggle. By discussing and corroborating in practice the need to act, according to the second approach, the Cooperativa took on the possibility, in principle, of not being unconsciously dragged along by the events, but of acting critically.

It was decided that the peasant demonstrations of Puebla and Tlaxcala should be filmed. The character and content were discussed, what it expressed, its possible development; from this they decided on which elements were to be filmed, what—through film—could and had to be captured to give a clear vision of the real content of the demonstration. During the process of editing a Comunicado in 16 mm, the work-in-progress was screened and debated, which tested the Cooperativa's capacities.

During this new stage, the repressive prohibition of the Teachers' Demonstration, on April 15, the official parade on May 1, and the authorized students' demonstration against the Vietnam War were recorded. At present some statements can be made and some problems can be raised: the political duty of cinema is at the level of ideology, as an instrument of politici-zation and consciousness-raising, and that the film itself is not sufficient here; debate is fundamental. Hence, among other things, the Cooperativa insists all screenings and debates be organized by its members, because it is from here, from the meeting of the Cooperativa members with its audience, where not the theme but the problem to be filmed emerges; it is here that the members can see the effectiveness of their work, both at the level of language and of political orientation. The best critiques, the most useful ones, are obtained in the direct confrontation with the audience to which they are addressed. It is also here that the Cooperativa member, to an extent, is transformed.

The social forces which are being expressed as class struggle have created conditions in which the Cooperativa can develop; conditions toward which it was sensitive thanks to the work undertaken up to then. The development of political cinema is linked to the process of class struggle, not to good intentions, nor to subjective conceptions; only by participating from within does this cinema have a revolutionary content and function, but [End Page 61] [Begin Page 63] only if one has a critical conscience of this process, through which it is possible to overcome populism, spontaneitism, and other isms, which can destroy the continuity of the work.

It must be said that the Cooperativa is not a political trend group, in the sense that it does not seek in any way to set itself up as an organization of the masses. However, it does have a political position, as its members take on a political stand as social individuals who carry out a job in the field of culture within the process of class struggle. The Cooperativa is not apart from the social, cultural and political reality of the country, but it divorces itself from a class: the bourgeoisie, to join up with a revolutionary class: the proletariat. The Cooperativa does not seek to make a cinema for the masses, but one of class, which, in practice, and in the concrete conditions in which this struggle takes place at present, is a cinema of factions.

To document, to bear witness to and to provide another view-this is not enough. To go behind the events is not enough, though it is useful and necessary to create a historical memory, through film, of the revolutionary struggles of the country. It is necessary to go not only at the same pace as, but to keep ahead of events. The task of political cinema is to relate, to show the main issue and the secondary ones in their essence, to put the facts and the political situations which the film deals with in context. The work, the commitment, the struggle to reach an ever greater political knowledge of Mexico, a critical understanding of it, are essential.

All of this does not mean that the contradictions within the Cooperativa have disappeared or been postponed, they still exist, but now at another level, higher than at its beginning. What at first was posed, above all, as an existential problem, now is posed as a historical one. Contradictions between the author and the collective conception still exist. Can they coexist? Can there be a critical relationship?

How can it be transformed or overcome? Hence, these problems imply a conception of the world, as internalized structures, as real existing conditions, they must be assumed in a real way, as problems. [End Page 63] [Begin Page 65]

Problems unspecified, or falsely assumed ones, and theoretical insufficiencies become existential crises, not historical problems which can be overcome.

The Cooperativa de Cine Marginal is not revolutionary cinema, it is a possibility for revolutionary cinema. The work carried out up to now is what allows it to be a real possibility and not a mere project. Its future-not that of revolutionary cinema, which sooner or later will crystallize, but that of the Cooperativa-depends on its overcoming its contradictions

 



This sentence and the previous one make use of slang of the era. "To burn" refers to smoking pot. "Cement" means chemical inhalents, and "cookies" are pills. Méndez is referring here to the way in which differences in social class are reflected in different patterns in drug use.