Cine Acción is the oldest Latino media arts organization in North America. It was set up in 1980 as a non-profit organization to promote the production and exhibition of film and video ‘for, by and about Latinos’. It does this through an annual film festival, monthly film presentations and other programs and services.
¡Cine Latino!, the 7th annual film festival, was held in September 1999 in San Francisco and Berkeley. It included a special program of shorts by Mexican video artist, Ximena Cuevas, curated by Sergio de la Mora. What follows is a brief overview of Cuevas’ body of work and its unique style, and an interview, which first appeared in the festival’s catalogue, and has been published here with the kind permission of the author.
We at Senses Of Cinema are committed to encouraging an awareness and appreciation of ‘third world’, underdeveloped and under-represented cinemas to local audiences. Latin American, Chicano and Hispanic cinemas do not get the coverage, both on local screens and in the pages of film journals, that they deserve. This article is the first attempt to address this problem.
Fiona A. Villella
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Mexican Video artist Ximena Cuevas is the bomb! She is a poet of everyday life, a master of self-portraits, a perpetual explorer of lies under the layers of artifice of the performer. Cuevas is the fairy godmother of a new melodrama, a melodrama as excessive as that of the classic Mexican cinema but boldly defying taboo subjects with a lightness and a self-conscious sense of humor that is changing the shape of Mexican film and video history. Her oeuvre includes over twenty films and videos spanning almost two decades. She examines life’s intimate quotidian pleasures and sorrows with a passion that distinguishes her from all of her contemporaries both inside and outside her native Mexico. With a unique, child-like sense of curiosity and wonder, she invests magic in the familiar subjects that surround her. Her hyper-layered, exquisitely scored, and intensely personal videos are ferociously surprising and imaginative.
Although bestowed with prestigious international laurels, her videos are best known outside of her land of birth. In the U.S. her tapes have screened at Sundance, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and most prominently in the groundbreaking touring film/video series Mexperimental Cinema. Since the early 1980s she has worked in the Mexican film industry, most recently as editor on Arturo Ripstein’s El Evangelio De Las Maravillas (Divine, 1998). However, she has produced all of her own work independently.
Her videos expand the legacy of her father José Luis Cuevas, the leading visual artist of his generation who in the 1950s launched a scathing critique on the social realist aesthetics of the Mexican muralist tradition. The elder Cuevas, best known for his grotesque drawings that recall Goya’s Caprichos and José Clemente Orozco’s sobering portraits of Mexican post-revolutionary society, is considered both a living national monument and monster rolled into a single figure. While Ximena Cuevas inherited her father’s visionary and iconoclastic perspective, she is an extraordinary artist in her own right.
In the delirious Corazón Sangrante (Bleeding Heart, 1993), a multi- award winning music video made in collaboration with the flamboyant postmodern performer Astrid Hadad, Cuevas parodies Mexican nationalist iconography with an intensity akin to religious reverence. Part kitsch, part syncretic baroque, Bleeding Heart takes an irreverent perspective on the mythic masochism of Mexican womanhood. It is a hybrid melodramatic mix of boleros, rancheras, and tropical rhythms. She has also collaborated with Jesusa Rodríguez, Mexico’s foremost cutting-edge feminist performer, on Víctimas Del Pecado Neo-Liberal (Victims of Neo-Liberal Sins, 1995). This tape is both a homage to classic Mexican melodramas and a no holds barred, agit-prop satire of the corruption under Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s presidency, whose administration was notorious for political assassinations, betrayal, deceit and intrigue, the very stuff at the heart of melodrama.
Never lacking humor, recent videos like Cama (Bed, 1998) and El Diablo En La Piel (Devil in the Flesh, 1998) – featured in her new video collection, Dormimundo Vol. 1: Incomodidad (Sleep-world Vol. 1: Discomfort) – pay ironic homage to Mexican visual vernacular forms, in this case melodrama. The first playfully juxtaposes vintage pornography, both straight and otherwise, with an image of the ideally pristine middle class bedroom, while in the latter, a hybrid horror masochistic love story, the artifice of tears which drench telenovelas (1) is exposed for the viewer with a truly arresting effect. While Devil in the Flesh may seem like a throwback to avant-garde works from the 1970s that depict self-inflicted physical torture, Cuevas’ visceral imagery of the artist rubbing Vapo-Rub and chilli in her eyes exceed the shock of emotional manipulation.
The experimental documentary Medias Mentiras (Half Lies, 1995) takes us on a tour through her beloved Mexico City. Half Lies is her most self-consciously “political” work to date. Through her car window and through pages in her journal, we get glimpses ranging from autobiographic material on her family to the sights and sounds surrounding her daily life in a dazzling blend of biting satire on Mexican national icons, its political and its popular culture. Using a mixed technique of video inserts and animation, Cuevas weaves together personal and private spaces to comment both on the Americanization and resilience of Mexican culture. For example, in one sequence the figure of Bart Simpson in masquerade as a Mexican charro (cowboy) is playfully juxtaposed with a serene image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint.
Her dystopic perspective on lesbian romance and obsessive, compulsive fantasies, is taken up in Cuerpos De Papel (Paper Bodies, 1997). In this multi-layered video, the rosy romantic bolero heard on the soundtrack is interrupted when one of the lovers mentions how much she loves the particular song. “With whom did you hear this song?” says the off-screen voice as we suddenly see the record loudly being snapped in two, while body parts, such as arms and legs, begin floating across the frame in a surrealist gesture, indexing the disintegration of the relationship and the mounting jealousy.
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(SM) How long have you been working in film and video and what pushed you to work with these media?
(XC) This year is precisely the twentieth anniversary of my professional career. In the summer of 1979 I began to work at the Cineteca Nacional (National Film Archive in Mexico City) “repairing” films. What I mean by “repairing” involved cutting scenes that were going to be censored by Gobernación (2). The supervisors saw the films in a private screening room. When there appeared a scene or simply a word that did not contribute to good Mexican morals, the supervisor, who generally speaking was a very decent housewife, shouted into a microphone “mark!”. With that cue, the projectionist would mark with a white pencil the beginning and the end of the forbidden.
I would “repair” the film in the basement. And there I was with white gloves cutting and cutting films. Before working at the Cineteca, movies entered me through my eyes and ears, but once I began working at the Cineteca I became an addict to the smell of celluloid as I touched each frame of film. Since that moment I haven’t stopped having an absolutely passionate-religious relationship to the moving image.
Three years prior to working at the Cineteca, I saw Busby Berkeley’s “Lullaby of Broadway” and knew that I wanted to live in movies (3). I was hypnotized seeing how Berkeley in less than ten minutes could achieve such ruptures in space and time. I began to see in movies the possibility of the impossible, how everything is possible within a frame, like in the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) where Dorothy stands in front of a window and sees her whole life flying before her. An image is enough to surpass any border between fiction and reality.
Why do you choose to work with video?
When I was a little girl, my favorite game was to climb over fences into other people’s houses, hide under a table and listen to the everyday conversations of strangers, of whom all I saw was their shoes. From down there, where I was invisible, I would reconstruct the life of those people. The video camera continues to exert over me that fascination for secrets. I would not change the private act of video for the big apparatus of film.
Tell me about your relationship to the Mexican national iconography that you so often use in your videos, including Corazón Sangrante.
The mass media in Mexico is full of borrowed images. It appears to them very professional to feel they belong to the first world and to use “American” images. This never fails to surprise me because Mexico is a country rich in images surrounding our everyday lives. Walking down a street one would need to be blind to not see so much richness. Images in Mexico are beautiful while at the same time they are disturbing. It is a country of brilliant colors on the surface and black and white on the inside.
If one isn’t blind, from one’s infancy one can be marked with a certain delirium. I grew up visiting a gigantic marble monument where I would go to see a glass jar in which a president’s hand floated. I grew up with the mummified nuns of the Del Carmen Church. Ever since I was a little girl I would go to Frida Kahlo’s house where the sight of the shape of her body still marked on her bed would fill me with morbidity. I never doubted the veracity of the exhibit at the annual fair of the woman who turned into a turtle because she misbehaved.
When Astrid Hadad and I made Corazón Sangrante in 1993, we were approaching the four hundred year celebration of the meeting of the two worlds, the Conquest. Precisely at that moment Salinismo was at its peak and Mexico was masquerading as a first world nation. For these reasons, the return to neo-nationalism was crucial in order to not die from asphyxia. At that moment, the return to the cactus was like a vital necessity to grab onto any root.
What is the concept structuring your most recent work Dormimundo Vol. 1: Incomodidad?
Dormimundo is a work-in-progress that began with Medias Mentiras. Formally what interests me is to create something like a laboratory of life. Dormimundo is a series of postcards documenting daily life. The camera looks directly at private moments. Nothing is staged, nothing is acted, life is shown in the raw, like it really is. I experiment when I choose a frame. The framing is very specific, it encloses, structures. And that life which in principle is “natural” takes on representational dimensions. While in post-production I explore with different genres to highlight specific emotional states.
Dormimundo is also a documentary about the discomfort of being Mexican. The Mexican dream of not being one’s self. We are a country of masquerades, of moral dislocations, of American dreams made of cardboard sets, a servile country, a country ashamed of its own race; where self-destruction is a form of religion in order to reach heaven through martyrdom; a country of American mirrors with fears of growing old, of solitude and of echoes of the American desire for fame. Dormimundo is once again another of my exercises with mirrors so that I can look at lies.
Will you address the concept behind El Diablo En La Piel and your experience filming it? Are the chillies and the Vicks VapoRub that you put in your eyes real?
Of course the chillies and the VapoRub are real! The lie isn’t in those props; the lies are elsewhere. Lana Turner’s palms were full of scars because the technique she used to reach melodramatic heights was to make tight fists and dig in with her own nails until she was able to cry. Today actresses in Mexican telenovelas apply VapoRub on their eyes in order to cry. The audience’s tears follow those false tears.
In El Diablo En La Piel, the camera films the trick, but even then the action appears dramatic. This video is once again about my fascination for artifice, for fabricated emotions; it is about the Catholic search for pain in order to live passionately; and it is also about the discomfort of the family melodrama.
A number of your videos (including Cama) display an ambiguous relationship to the “old” Mexican cinema. What place do those movies have in your sentimental education?
I am melodramatic in body and soul. I’m fascinated by the melodramatic excess of Mexican movies and, as I show in El Diablo En La Piel, also in my daily life. Seeing those movies is like putting chilli in your eyes. It is a pleasure to cry every time el Torito dies in Ismael Rodríguez’s Ustedes Los Ricos (You the Rich, 1948). I kneel before those movies that re-invented an entire nation. It was a cinema with a unique personality. There is no equivalent in the world to stars like Pedro Infante, Katy Jurado, Ninón Sevilla or María Félix. The classic Mexican cinema invented itself, exactly the opposite of today’s sins of borrowing foreign imagery. Movies from Mexico’s golden age give me an infinite nostalgia for something which perhaps never existed.
What is your opinion about contemporary Mexican film? Do you think the Mexican film industry is bound to the Televisa aesthetic (4) and to serve the function of a maquiladora for Hollywood in order to just survive?
First one must keep in mind that Mexico is a country that breaks every six years with the change in presidential administration. The country has absolutely no continuity except in its sexennial collapse. Beginning with Luis Echeverría’s presidency in the early 1970s, film has been basically produced by the state. State-funded film changes according to the tastes and interests of each administration. For me the most interesting state-funded films were those made under Echeverría, works by directors with very personal cinematic worlds such as Arturo Ripstein and Jaime Humberto Hermosillo. I also like the work of Gabriel Retes who began to make independent/quasi-industrial films just after Echeverría’s administration. For me these are the only directors with vision.
I think the so called boom in new Mexican cinema was another mirage produced by the Carlos Salinas de Gotari administration. It’s a cinema fixated on the idea of being part of the “first world,” a cinema divided into two trends. On the one hand there’s the “green card” trend with directors who used the state’s money to go to Hollywood and who today still appear in newspapers portraying themselves as proud Mexicans. On the other hand there’s the more practical trend that sold national folklore as if viewed from the window of a tourist bus. Today it’s interesting to see how producers know that the most important Mexican media for export is the telenovela and so they make films identical to telenovelas, with problems involving idiotic couples, films that offend the spectator’s intelligence. I believe that the interesting stuff is happening in the “other” cinema, in the “minor” cinema, the one that’s made outside of the official institutions, the cinema of visual artists or of the “bad” students trained or rejected by Mexico’s film schools.
How would you situate your work within the field of experimental Mexican film and video? To what generation do you belong and are there any general traits that characterize your generation?
In principal, I don’t consciously belong to any generation. My work has always been done in complete solitude. In Mexico, videos are made as if we lived on islands. There is really no real video culture in Mexico, no place where one can go to screen videos. However, this year I got to know Silvia Gruner and it has been very important to meet an artist who is my age and who is also Mexican. We have begun a very rich dialogue about our work. Out of our mutual desire to connect and out of our shared interests we decided to curate Baño María (Steam Bath, 1999), a compilation of recent videos made in Mexico. Silvia and I, and later Enrique Ortiga (a curator who is a big fan of our generation), would get together with our crazy desire to see videos.
We began to find similarities, threads that joined diverse points of view from a single country at a very specific historical moment. Even in their differences, in their various dislocations, there are points of convergence so that one can speak about a generation, one that seeks reflections about identity from islands with closed doors. It is a generation with a lot of emotional intensity, one which obsessively seeks to confront the mirror-camera.
What kind of support is available in Mexico for the production, distribution, exhibition, and promotion of independent film and video?
The most support for the exhibition and research of independent media comes from outside Mexico. The film/video-makers and scholars Rita Gonzalez and Jesse Lerner, who curated the Mexperimental film/video program, came from California to Mexico to view material that in Mexico nobody seemed to give much importance. They dug out from under all these rocks a series of underground works that have begun to rewrite the history of Mexican film and video. So now there is much more interest in independent media. There are also some precedents, for example for a number of years now the Mexican Government sponsors scholarships for media artists. Especially important is a scholarship fund targeted toward young artists (Jóvenes Creadores) because it provides a vital space for video as a mode of expression. There is also an annual video-art festival held in Mexico City which every year becomes a bigger event; there is also a short film festival also held in Mexico City that has now been expanded to include independent feature films.
But I believe that one of the great values of video and of independent film is that one can do this with or without financial support. It bothers me a lot to have to depend on someone else. With video one doesn’t need to be dependent. You can film with very basic equipment out of your home. And I very much believe in home-based distribution. The work of an artist nowadays doesn’t end with production. The circle closes once the work is screened. This entails hours of work on the computer, making copies of photos, written texts, running to Federal Express. The external support structures are like winks of complicity, but they shouldn’t be what determines if one continues to work.
What are some of your future projects and what’s this I hear about you being the future Mexican Leni Riefenstahl?
Just as I don’t hold onto the past, I also don’t have future projects. My most important project is in the present. I’m developing Dormimundo with this idea about a response to the everyday. Today I have a cough and so I’m doing an expressionist exercise about the gesticulations one experiences when coughing. I’m always working. I don’t screen everything, but I sharpen my eye every day.
Leni Riefenstahl?! Orale! (5) The thing is that I was awarded the biggest scholarship sponsored by the Mexican government and so my best friend stopped talking to me because she said I was a corrupt sell-out. So I imagined myself making propaganda for the Mexican government…Actually, now that I think about it, I wouldn’t mind making something in the public gymnasiums. And I’ll use music by Wagner.
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Cuevas’ tapes are distributed by Video Data Bank, 112 South Michigan Ave, 3rd Floor, Chicago, IL 60603 US. Fax (312) 541-8072.
Ximena Cuevas’ videography
1983 – Antes De La Television (Before Television)
1984 - Las Tres Muertes De Lupe (The Three Deaths of Lupe)
1989 - Noche De Paz (Night of Peace)
1990 - Profanando Al Ambrosio (Profaning Ambrosio)
1992 - Cuaderno De Apuntes (Appointment Book)
1993 - Corazon Sangrante (Bleeding Heart)
1994 - Para Quererte (To Love You)
1995 - Victimas Del Pecado Neo-Liberal (Victims of Neo-Liberal Sins); Medias Mentiras (Half Lies)
1997 - Cuerpos De Papel (Paper Bodies)
1998 - El Diablo En La Piel (Devil In The Flesh); Cama (Bed)
1999 - Dormimundo Vol 1 : Incomodidad includes: Cama, Estamos para servirle, Contemporary Artist, Hawai, Destino, Natural Instincts, Almas Gemelas, El Diablo En La Piel, Calzada de Kansas.
Noriega, Chon (ed.), 1992, Chicanos and Film: Essays on Chicano Representation and Resistance, Garland Publishing, New York
Noriega, Chon A., and Ana M. Lopez (eds.), 1996, The Ethnic Eye: Latino Media Arts, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London
- Telenovelas are soap operas that unlike their U.S. counter-parts are aimed at both female and male audiences, are also aired on prime-time, and on the average are composed of a series of episodes which run for no more than a handful of months.
- Gobernación is equivalent to the State Department, the government branch which before ex-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s regime was responsible for all activities related to mass media.
- “Lullaby of Broadway” is a 10 minute musical number in Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers (1935).
- The dominant aesthetic of the television branch of the multi-media giant Televisa is best characterized by its sleek production values and its conservative mode of entertainment.
- “Right on!”