Even though movie theaters are closed during this pandemic there are other ways to see films, such as via Netflix and many streaming options. For those who would like to see first-run films which would be in theaters now, Albuquerque’s own independent Guild Cinema is offering a home viewing option. You can find a wide list of films at www.GuildCinema.com, and a portion of the screening fee goes to support the Guild.
Unless otherwise noted, all films reviewed here are available at that link. This is a time to support each other and local businesses (including newspapers), if you can! The Guardian of Memory HHHHH Written and directed by Marcela Arteaga. Starring Carlos Spector. Plugs: None. Available via GuildCinema.com for a limited time. The Guardian of Memory is a bleak but beautiful Spanish-language documentary on the consequences of violence at the U.S./Mexico border, where brutality has taken an inestimable toll on innocent citizens, not only in Juarez but also in small towns nearby.
The film’s testimonials are powerful, with stories of people being harassed, threatened and murdered by police. Journalists, civil rights activists, teachers and others fear for their lives, often justifiably. The main subject in the film is Carlos Spector, a Jewish Mexican immigration lawyer now living in Texas who helps immigrants escape the violence in Mexico.
He traces the problem to 2008 when the Mexican army was ostensibly brought to the border to fight drug cartels. Instead the action led to rashes of kidnappings, arsons, murders, extortion and beheadings as it became clear that the police were in league with the criminals.
Spector argues that by international law Mexicans fleeing violence in their homeland are eligible for political asylum, since their government can’t or won’t protect them. He calls this a form of “authorized crime” since most of the violent crime is conducted with impunity; those charged with enforcing laws and protecting citizens are indifferent at best (and complicit at worst) in the plague. His success is decidedly mixed, but a literal lifeline for many. He suggests that the violence is tacitly encouraged by powerful (if shadowy and vaguely defined) political and economic interests on both sides of the border. This intriguing idea is raised and quickly dropped, leaving the audience to wonder if it’s a half-baked quasi-conspiracy or a serious underlying issue; if the former, it should have been edited out; if the latter, it should have been further explored and explained.
Like its subjects, The Guardian of Memory is caught between two worlds, that of art piece and documentary. These motivations are not necessarily at odds, of course, and many excellent films find a way to express beauty and artistry within the confines of a documentary format. The film is partly, as the title suggests, a visual representation of lives left behind, an attempt to guard or preserve the memories of those lost.
Sweeping shots of personal items —shoes, cups, luggage, photos, CDs and so on— presumably left behind by those killed (or abandoned by those fleeing) are artfully placed on the Samalayuca sand dunes of the Chihuahua desert, in images that might be found in an art museum. A small house out in the desert (clearly and somewhat jarringly artificially constructed for the film) reinforces the feeling of desolation and abandonment, later burning dramatically in the night sky while a small model of the same house appears in the foreground as the camera pulls back. There are many slow-motion shots of vecinos and neighborhoods: honest, hardworking Mexicans just trying to earn a living and raise families.
It’s all beautifully shot by cinematographer Axel Pedraza but has the unfortunate effect of at times drawing attention away from the victims’ stories to the film itself, inviting us to admire how creative and artistic it is, interspersed with terrible accounts of personal tragedy.
The rampant violence in Mexico has been the subject of many recent documentaries. The September 2014 abduction and massacre of 43 students in Iguala, Mexico, allegedly by local police working with the drug cartels, was examined in the 2019 Netflix documentary series titled The 43 —not to be confused with the 2015 documentary on the same subject titled 43, by former Albuquerque sportscaster Charlie Minn.
The 2020 Netflix documentary The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo examines the life and death of Marisela Escobedo, who became a relentless activist and investigator following the 2008 killing of her 16-year-old daughter, Rubi, in Juarez. Other documentaries have focused on the drug cartel angle, including The Last Narc, about the 1985 slaying of DEA agent Kiki Camerena and how it sparked waves of violence across Mexico that continue to this day; it’s available on Amazon Prime, and a fictionalized version of the story appeared in the Netflix series Narcos.
The Guardian of Memory, though not a fully-realized art project nor a fully-realized documentary —nor, certainly, a film that offers real answers— puts a personal face on the border violence in Mexico.