Personal and Political: The Films of Natalia Almada (Icarus Films, NR)

One of the best things about living in the age of home viewing is the access it provides to films and filmmakers who aren’t exactly multiplex material but are all the more interesting for it. Case in point: a new box-set release from Icarus that introduced me to the work of Mexican-American director Natalia Almada, whose films often explore her dual heritage and who mixes traditional and non-traditional styles of filmmaking in her work.

Personal and Political: The Films of Natalia Almada includes four feature documentaries, one narrative feature, one short film, and three video extras. The most approachable film in the set is Al Otro Lado (To The Other Side, 2005), a documentary which uses corridos (a style of ballad popular in Northern Mexico and the American Southwest that focuses on storytelling) to explore the social and cultural implications of the border between the United States and Mexico. No matter how grim the topic, a good corrido is simply irresistible, and Almada includes a lot of performance footage alongside interviews with a variety of stakeholders from both sides of the border, including Mexicans planning to cross, those who have already done so, U.S. Border Patrol agents, and members of a group of self-proclaimed citizen border protectors.

El General (2009) delves into an aspect of Mexico’s past and Almada’s ancestry: Plutarco Elias Calles, who fought in the Mexican Revolution, became President of Mexico in 1924, and founded the Institutional Revolutionary Party, was also Almada’s great-grandfather. Family loyalties don’t get in the way of a sober examination of Calles’ legacy: he was credited for his populist reforms but was also known as “the priest burner” for his anti-clerical actions. Almada put archival materials to good use in El General, although you may (like me) find yourself rolling your eyes at how frequently she employs Ken Burns techniques to add movement to still photographs. 

El Velador (The Night Watchman, 2011) is organized around a phenomenon that encapsulates several aspects of contemporary Mexican life: elaborate mausoleums constructed to hold the remains of Mexican drug lords. Because the drug war is ongoing, night watchmen are paid to guard these elaborate structures, which are larger and better constructed than a lot of homes living people live in. There’s a lot of them also, and collectively they form a small town of the dead, complete with roads and billboards displaying portraits of the departed. During the day, widows and children come to mourn, while workmen (so poor you can see their feet through the rips in their boots) labor to construct new monuments to the well-heeled dead.

Todo lo demás (Everything Else, 2016), the lone narrative feature included in this collection, showcases the considerable talents of Adriana Barraza as Doña Flor, a civil servant who does everything so absolutely by the book that she appears more machine than human. In the hands of a lesser actress, Doña Flor  would be the villain of the story, but Oscar nominee Barraza (for Babel, 2006) makes the character explicable and even sympathetic even as she gradually lets us in to her life and history. Almada’s documentary roots are evident in the matter-of-fact cinematic style of Todo lo demás, as is her choice to cast non-actors in most of the roles, giving the film a very unfussy and real-to-life feel.

Users (2021) is the least traditional film in this collection, and also the hardest to describe. It’s a documentary more about ideas than story, a sort of meditation about technology and how it is changing humanity, personalized by the director’s ruminations about her young son and the world he will face. Don’t come looking for a well-developed thesis, however: this is the kind of film you need to sink into, allowing yourself to become immersed in the stunning cinematography by Bennet Cerf and the hypnotic score by the Kronos Quartet.

“All Water Has a Perfect Memory” (2001, 19 min.) takes its title from a Toni Morrison quote about the futility of bending the Mississippi River to human desires. The style is experimental, the subject the death of Almada’s younger sister by drowning, and the focus on how her parents (one Mexican, one North American) deal differently with the life of their child. Personal and Political also includes three documentary extras: a video interview with Almada (3 min.), a featurette about the making of Todo lo demás (15 min.) and a Project 360 short (17 min.) in which various people respond to a quote from Mark Twain: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” | Sarah Boslaugh

Personal and Political: The Films of Natalia Almada is available on DVD as a 5-disc box set from Icarus Films beginning Sept. 5.

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