Wide Angle 21.3 (1999) 70-81

Toward a Fourth Cinema
prologue: a marginal cinema

Manuel Michel


"Tell me what kind of movies you see and what kind of movies you make and I'll tell you who you are." This paraphrase of a popular saying proves more valid every day, because there is undoubtedly an ever sharper tendency to identify a country with its films. And cinema, in fact, more than literature, music, or dance seems to be the bearer of a complete image in which the particular features of a country's lifestyles, history, and behavior come together. Perhaps it is wrong to assess a whole country by an expression which, such as the filmic one, is subject to so many vested interests, to so many avatars, and to so many circumstances of a technical nature. However, on the whole, it is not wrong and the proof, even though it is contradictory, is the censorship in force almost everywhere, which restricts social and political themes.

Among all the cinematic genres, it is documentary which suffers the most in Mexico. Although it is considered throughout the world, to a greater or lesser degree, as filler for the film program, this is even more so the case in Mexico. Leaving aside educational and scientific cinema that hardly exists for obvious economic reasons; documentary cinema, in which significant sums are invested annually for production, is used simply as filling for programs, as a means of advertising, as business (by the exhibitors and by the producers). Up until now it has been underestimated as an aesthetic form and it has been totally relegated to being a bearer of the image of life, history, art and everything that has to do with the existence of our nation. The viewers in our movie theaters receive, for the price of the ticket, a real assault of advertising and tourist shorts, in which they are obliged to the see the same images repeated till they are sick of them. And if they are foreign shorts, we are inflicted with ancient travelogues by Fitzpatrick or insipid news reports which are not even the least bit topical. [End Page 71] [Begin Page 73]

A marginal cinema; a cinema to fill up space. It is subordinated to many absurd interests, poor distribution; but it is above all badly made and boring, and lacks not only genius but also the least trace of honesty, talent and effectiveness. We can think that deep down it is a problem of the advertisers because, in the end, 90% of the shorts made in Mexico are of a propagandistic nature, for either private enterprise or the government sector. And their efficacy is almost nonexistent thanks to the primitive way in which they are conceived, a problem attributable to financiers and their advertisers. However, we must not forget shorts made for the government sector, which suffer from the same elemental and direct treatment as the industrial and commercial shorts. It cannot be denied that their effectiveness depends not only on their aesthetics but also on their originality.

This marginal cinema, relegated to fulfilling tasks which are way beyond its capacities, could be an unanticipated means of dissemination of a realistic image of Mexico. Due to its very nature, short films-documentary or otherwise-offers many more expressive possibilities than features, which are much more costly and constrained by the need to make box-office profits and are, therefore, less free. Indeed, shorts follow a path with their own laws, as does the short story in literature. First of all, we must not forget that cinema is a language, a means of expression, adaptable to all requirements of thought and culture. Hence, the short can use any one of a thousand ways to experiment with form, content and its very technique. It can be either a documentary "in which the thematic enumeration is endless," or a historical, artistic, ideological or simply formal essay, in which all the technical resources cinema has at its disposition can be used in its making. Thus, we have seen films made with stale footage of old newsreels which give the impression that, thanks to cinema, time has remained forever suspended.

A cinema essay presupposes the use of an appropriate language to express what one has in mind, to suggest internal or external reality. Likewise, it is a witness, conscience and mirror of our times, of the fleeting instant, of actions forgotten once they have been concluded. The inauguration of a dam, an electric power station or a clothing shop, is the same as that of other dams, [End Page 73] [Begin Page 75] power stations or shops. However, a gesture or a look—a child's face, a woman's expression—are unrepeatable and unique. As testimony, documentary cinema produced in Mexico has a fleeting and relative significance. Up till now, rarely have we felt there was a link of solidarity between these so-called actualities and newsreels, and the reality of our own society.

I would like to mention, as an example, the case of marginalized classes. In Mexico, or rather, in Mexican cinema, they do not exist. Neither do the sick. Remedies for poverty and illness, land and food distribution, or availability of live chickens, medicines and clothing in times of national catastrophe do exist; hospitals and their clinics do exist. But the poor and the sick, that is, the permanent crisis, do not exist. According to official decrees and documentary cinema, everybody remembers Los Olvidados. But their filmic nonexistence stems from excuses such as the following: the problems are being fought and solved; the poor are a demagogical issue, they must be hidden because they are depressing and they harm the morale of the country which is on the road to pro-gress; they damage the image of our country abroad; they are melodramatic; they them- selves refuse to look at themselves and want to be entertained; they are vulgar. Those who think like this do not know in what way the force of the working-class could be mobilized if they were made to see their problems, if they were educated and taught to know themselves in order to organize. And what about history, art, the authentic life of the nation, the Mexicans behavior in work and leisure? Are there, by any chance, the same excuses to hide and ignore them?

Shorts have a double educational aspect, with regard to the audience and with regard to their creators. The former is already more than suggested in the context of the above paragraphs and includes the dissemination of knowledge, a stimulus to reflect on our problems, the audience's aesthetic education, entertainment without debasement, the possibility of seeking other horizons through the marvelously suggestive doorway of the screen. A rational production of shorts and documentaries would allow us, by improving their aesthetic and expressive qualities, to have an exchange with other countries and even to program their dissemination coherently and efficiently. Another educational aspect is the possibility of experimenting, practicing and affirming knowledge, which the cinema calls for. New groups and new generations of [End Page 75] [Begin Page 77] cinematographers would thus be formed without the demands and limitations imposed by features. It is obvious that many filmmakers of shorts and documentaries would not have access to the feature industry. So much the better.

The authors of essays and story-writers have no reason to try another genre such as the novel; neither are the authors of science-fiction going to believe that true consecration is writing nouveau roman or sonnets. Already it would be an advantage if, from a movement of renovation begun by the genre of short cinema, some directors emerged to break the doomed situation in which merchants posing as filmmakers exploit documentary cinema with no other aim but profit.

Moreover, there is nothing as well-suited as documentary cinema to uphold representative images of everything Mexican: from natural beauties and manmade works, to the literary works which reflect our life and problems. Those who have any travel experience abroad can testify about the void which exists in our filmic image overseas. If it is often the case that some tourists with literary pretensions express their views of Mexico in terms that are erroneous and too subjective, then it is not with denunciations nor shouts that we can modify the prevailing ideas about our national life. But neither will it be through industrial propaganda films, because shoes, steel, cars and tinned food are produced all over the world and especially in those countries in which we wish to relay an authentic image of Mexico. Neither will it be through mediocre shorts made by crass amateurs. If we have the formidable means of making our art, customs, problems, and social reality known, it is absurd not to use them in a serious, audacious, educated and conscious way. This suggests a cinema of shorts, in which not only documentaries, but of all genres and subjects.

If feature-length films have harmed the image of Mexico, both abroad and in our own territory, the remedy is at hand. It is an efficient remedy, if applied with intelligence and ambition. Specialists in all fields of culture, in collaboration with cinematographers of proven taste, originality and sensitivity, may join together to make cinematic works worthy of showing the image of a multifaceted Mexico. [End Page 77] [Begin Page 79]

It is distressing to see the waste of so much energy and so many intellectual and economic resources.

The history of cinema in other countries may serve as an example and model of exploitation of filmic resources in the documentary field. Bear in mind the movement begun in 1918 in the Soviet Union which created the propagandistic documentary series Kino Pravda (Cinema of Truth) and Kino Glaz (Cinema of the Eye). The history of this fascinating period is found in images to which no verbal description can do justice. In England the creation of a vast documentary movement over two decades (30s and 40s) gave rise to illustrious works by authors such as Grierson, Paul Rotha, Cavalcanti, and many others. From this classical movement and opposed to it as a result of vital dialectics, another movement was to arise, in many cases helped by the masters who preceded it, which for a period of fifty years would capture the live image of Great Britain. Many series were made, including "The World of Children," "The Dynamic Frame," "The New Documentary," and above all "Free Cinema," from which emerged the regenerators of current British feature-length cinema. Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, and Walter Lassally did not come out of nowhere. They were formed in a propitious milieu; for them this milieu was the English documentary tradition and the Free Cinema movement fostered by Lindsay Anderson.

This list of examples could be endless: France, the United States, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Sweden, and Belgium: all of them are countries in which official state-sponsored productions or works sponsored by private capital devote significant efforts to experimental shorts and documentary cinema, to aid in the dissemination of culture.

The demands of distribution and screening, which have relegated the short to the condition of marginal cinema, have nevertheless not prevented it from flourishing. Many official institutions have fostered the production of this type of cinema. There are many viable solutions in Mexico, not only to stimulate and organize the creation of experimental shorts, but also to solve problems of distribution of both national and foreign ones. [End Page 79] [Begin Page 81]

Therefore, the need and manifold benefit of paying attention to a cinematographic genre which, in all fairness, is considered of vital importance in other countries is hereby established.

To the extent that documentary or essay shorts are developed, new fields of activity will open up, not only for those who wish to express themselves through cinema as cinematographers, but also for many intellectuals and artists who could discover a new means of communication working collaboratively with filmmakers, an efficient way of bringing the results of their research to a large audience. I am thinking, above all, of anthropologists, historians, poets, economists, geographers, art critics; that is, of all those whose activities and thoughts have a direct bearing on the development of our society. Therefore, deep down, it is only a question of updating a marginal cinema which has been vegetating, and which is decades behind what has been going on in other countries.

Taken from Revista de Bellas Artes, No. 3, 1965, with the author's permission.