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Indigenous Cinema in San Miguel
Compartimento Cinematográfico

by Jeffrey Sipe

Sanctorum
Mije with English and Spanish subtitles
Director: Joshua Gil
Saturday, October 1, 8pm
Wednesday and Saturday, October 5 and 8, 6pm

Campesinos struggling to forge a sustainable life in the face of threats from both cartels and the military has spawned a number of Mexican features and short films in the past few years. In 2021, the film adaptation of Jennifer Clement's novel, Prayers for the Stolen, was Mexico's submission for the Best International Feature Academy Award while the Guanajuato International Film Festival has screened shorts that focus on young adults faced with the decision of choosing between a life with the cartels or one of poverty.

Director Joshua Gil's Sanctorum treads similar ground but adds a metaphysical context that is unique within the genre. It is both mysterious and magical without diminishing the reality of the violence and fear that has taken over the lives of those who know little beyond working the land. In the end, the story is quite simple. But its implications are enormous.

Shot almost entirely in mije, an indigenous language spoken near Oaxaca, with mostly non-professional actors, Sanctorum depicts a farming village that is caught between the cartels and the military, with marijuana having now become the only viable crop. The cartel is paying peanuts to the villagers who cultivate the weed while the military casts them as criminals working with the cartels. "It's all I know how to do," says one farmer, referring to farming.

The film opens with an old couple discussing a strange phenomenon – a sound "like a bell in the sky," says one character – that has mystified the entire village. "Something is going to happen," says the old man and, indeed, the sound is a harbinger of things to come. Gil also makes a plea through the character of the village's teacher, the film's moral center, during a community meeting to discuss the deterioration of the lives of the campesinos.

"The pain that we feel is enormous and our patience has come to an end. The government thinks that we are criminals. And that is a lie. We are farmers and we cannot do anything else. We only plant the weed in order to feed our children. We have no other option. Every day the narcos kill us and when they leave, the army arrives. They humiliate us. They treat us like animals. They beat us. They attack our women. We cannot allow this anymore..."

This is the message Gil wants to convey but he does not present battles between the campesinos, the cartel and local officials. Instead, he presents an apocalyptic vision that is the universe's way of putting an end to the inescapable evil that has descended upon the village.

Sanctorum is a film based on violence but there is very little in the way of on-screen violence. We see it from afar; we hear it behind closed doors. We know about the sickening violence. But the lives of the campesinos are front-and-center, lives that were the same for centuries until the cartels moved in.

Sanctorum is a beautiful but challenging film, one that requires serious concentration on the part of the viewer. The effort is well worth it.

***

Nudo Mixteco (A Mixtec Knot)
Mixteca and Spanish with English and Spanish subtitles
Saturday, October 8, 7:30pm

Nudo Mixteco (A Mixtec Knot), actress/director Angeles Cruz's debut feature film about the travails of three Mixteca women who find themselves chafing in the stranglehold of tradition that dominates their small village in the highlands around Oaxaca. Despite its setting in a small village, part of an indigenous culture that is seldom if ever presented on-screen, the challenges, the hurdles and the barriers to women realizing themselves in Mixtec society are universally understood and experienced even if Mixtec rituals, beliefs and lifestyle are unique.

"I made this film mainly for my community," Cruz, a native Mixtec who grew up in a village similar to the one depicted in Nudo Mixteco, explained. "I wanted to raise questions in the manner that questions are raised in the cinema…I arrived in the community, and we spoke about the things that concern me and that I felt a need to reflect on. I took all of this into account when I was making Nudo Mixteco."

In the film, Maria returns to the village from the city to mourn and to attend her mother's funeral, though her father rejects her, blaming her and her relationship with another woman in the village for her mother's death. Chabela, whose husband left to work in the US and returns to find his wife living with another man, defends herself against his demands to return to him, angrily shouting, "YOU deserted ME!", which leads to a shocking act of violence. And Toña returns from the city to take her young daughter away from an abusive uncle who has molested more than one female family member.

"Nudo Mixteco recounts specific events but I think all women have to confront these same issues," Cruz continued. "It is fundamental that the first territory to defend is our body and the right to do with it what we want."

To the outside observer, there appear to be numerous cultural peculiarities to Mixtec life, but Cruz believes that the basics of life are pretty much the same everywhere.
"In a film, when we talk about the specific individuals, " the director said, "we are talking about all of humanity. I treat my own personal experience as a means of connecting with humanity, in general, both women and men."

The film was four years in the making and Cruz credits cinematographer Carlos Correia for understanding exactly what she wanted, providing a play of light and shadows to convey the intimacy of many locations, granting importance to characters as they move in and out of the light. Cruz points to the kitchen in Mixtec homes as a particularly intimate environment where the most personal and profound conversations take place, and she praised Correa for enhancing that truth visually.

Cruz traveled around Mixtec villages in the Oaxacan Highlands screening the film for the very people it was made for, about and with. A collaborative effort with the villagers themselves, the film has six professional actors and counts on the villagers to grant it verisimilitude. Nudo Mixteco is a look at a culture that may, at times, seem unfair and old-fashioned but, in the end, is not so unlike the ones in which we all grew up.

*****

Compartimento Cinematográfico is at Mezcal Art
next to Immigration on Calzada de la estación.
Admission is free.


See more from
Compartimento Cinematográfico
on Lokkal's full
movie schedule

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Jeffrey R. Sipe is a writer/journalist, who, no matter how hard he writes, having grown up in Speedway, Indiana, still can’t get the sounds of race cars rounding Turn 4 out of his head. He has written about the film industry for Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Sight and Sound, The Financial Times and other publications. He also once worked as the “boom guy” on a film that nobody saw, but he challenges everyone to see just how long they can hold a metal tube with a microphone attached over their heads.

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*****

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