Krakow Film Festival 2024

The privilege of the self-portrait

MEXICO / The intersection of migration and personal identity with Night of the Coyotes and Frida: A Self-Portrait.

Night of the Coyotes and Frida: A Self-Portrait are two films presented at CPH:DOX. The first one is a documentary that takes us to explore a town in Hidalgo, three and a half hours from Mexico City, where the people of an indigenous village where most of the population has migrated to the USA, offers a touristic attraction at a national park to recreate the experience of being a migrant trying to pass the border between Mexico and the USA illegally.

The second one portrays a biography of the world-famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, using her letters and diary as the main source.

Frida Carla Gutierrez
Frida, a film by Carla Gutierrez

Frida: A Self-Portrait

Even if told through an excellent work of digital animation and graphics, Frida falls short of describing anything other than her self-reflection in chronological order of some of the main events of her life. Maybe for the director, giving a strict description of one of the most famous painter’s life was a main need, but Frida has become such an icon that I think there’s often very little to say about her that hasn’t been told yet.

It tells us little about her background and the context she faced. In my opinion, a big part of her life would have been different if she hadn’t had a German father and a mother of Spanish descent. In a Mexican context, a century ago as well as today, being light-skinned and having European kin still represents one of the most important features to determine social class.

The self-made artist narrative loses sense if one cannot explain how and why she was able to become a painter.

Yes, it does account, shortly, about Frida being bisexual and a communist, which not every biography said in the beginning, but doesn’t dare meddle in any discussion about it.

Yes, Frida was allowed to cross borders with her art as becoming a «well-received» artist, even if she pointed out the many contradictions of the social class of those who came to admire her art and her uncomfortable position as the wife of a renowned painter of her time, such as Diego Rivera.

Known worldly by her self-portraits, one of Frida’s strengths was her ability to submerge herself so deeply in her pain and the process of her illness that she was able to portray what, for Breton, was surrealism but for her was her very own reality. I wish every human could be allowed to have this ability. Why can’t we all paint at least one self-portrait? And how many ways are there of doing it?

Frida’s documentary fails to make the pertinent questions about her and the present time that can guide us to the continuity of her art a hundred years after she was born.

Why can’t we all paint at least one self-portrait?

Night of the Coyotes

At first, I thought that Night of the Coyotes would fail in the same way, keeping opinions to oneself while portraying «poverty tourism,» a tendency in modern tourism where people from the global north come to experience the «real life» way of living. Examples of this include visiting poor neighbourhoods or living like a poor local for a while—a way of exoticising poverty and turning it into a show for the privileged.

From living like a real homeless person in New York City to visiting manufacturers’ communities in India, poverty tourism exploits what, for me, is a form of consumerism to allow people who would never otherwise be in real danger the opportunity to feel, for a few hours, the fear and estrangement of being at the lowest level of humanity, fast and hard; a way of commodifying pain and horror.

As a person who grew up in one of the poorest areas of Mexico City, where water and electricity supplies were scarce, and violence was a daily occurrence, this sounded too much like the songwriter Leonard Cohen describes in The Tower of Song: «The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor.»

What Night of the Coyotes does instead is give the needed space for the protagonists to explain in their own words the very making of a process that has given their community not only an economic means but also the start of an inner talk.

Even if it’s, of course, a possibility that some US citizens experience what it means to be the illegal ones trying to cross in this caminata nocturna or night walk, whether it serves them to create empathy or to justify their racist view on migration, the film has made me change my mind regarding what this specific experience meant.

Night of the Coyotes Clara Trischler
Night of the Coyotes, a film by Clara Trischler

A fact of life

Migration to the US is simply a life fact for most Mexican families. Unlike in previous decades, Mexico has been transforming in the last years into a recipient country more than a passing one. Even though migration to the US is still going hard in terms of numbers, it’s important to mention that Mexico has taken more restrictive measures, including rejection rhetoric and police repression towards Central American migrants.

All this is happening while most of the tourist cities of the country are facing a heavy gentrification process that displaces thousands of locals to accommodate both legal and illegal migrants from the US and Europe who live in the country as «digital nomads,» landlords or land retailers.

I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t have at least one family member «on the other side,» including me. Numerous extended family members are over there, and there’s always a story to tell about them. Many don’t make it, and their bodies are forever forgotten somewhere in the Mexican desert; some others do make it for a while until they are deported; the better ones send money to their families and help them get by and obtain professional careers and set up businesses; many supervise constructors on the distance so they can build mansions of a weirdly western architecture that will most of the time remain empty.

The easiest, cheapest and riskiest way of getting to the border is jumping on The Beast, a dozen-meter-long cargo train, one of the few ones that still run in the country, used to transport goods from the south to the north border of Mexico. Getting in is as hard as staying in it.

My best friend lives in the same state where the documentary was recorded. When I visit him, lying on the bed at night, I can hear the trucks transporting the minerals and lime scale needed for construction materials nonstop, crickets, part of the wildlife that languishes every year, and The Beast, whose bells make my skin crawl.

My own family has taken over the care of some neighbour’s kids since November, when the mother of two girls, nine and eleven years old, left searching for a «better life.»

In the words of Virgilio, one of the characters of the documentary, «A better life is a misconception […] there’s only work there, […] you are trapped”.

The youngest members of the documentary present some of the most crucial questions regarding migration. Kids who have been left by their mothers wonder: Why do people have to pass like that, walking?

They question this without noticing that they are questioning the very core of borders existence, of social inequality, and of their destiny.

I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t have at least one family member «on the other side,» including me.

Climate and drugs

Not only poverty but violence and climate conditions are forcing migration. Mexico faces a deep crisis of murders and disappearances since the declaration of the so-called «war against drugs» in 2006.

The official numbers report more than 100 thousand people missing, and many authors have referred to the situation as a low-intensity war. Some even affirm that the level of infiltration of the drug cartels in the government has led, in some of the states of the country, to a NarcoState.

Even if many activists and journalists have dedicated their lives to raising their voices against this violence, it’s not easy to be allowed to tell the story since Mexico is also, outside of the war zone, the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist.

The inhabitants of El Alberto have learned that sometimes the body needs more than words to express what has happened, their collective trauma.

As a need to tell their own story, to portray their reality, the enacting of the border crossing has made the inhabitants of this town reflect on the conditions that their relatives and themselves might face at some point in life. They hunt my people like animals, was all that I could think of when the interviewees described their experience.

Ultimately, I think it’s about power and controlling the narrative. It seems almost like a form of therapy that the once-deported man gets to play border patrol in his town. Having control over the consequences of such acts can, in fact, change the view of the inhabitants and help the community process an everlasting wound that will remain open for generations to come.

Perhaps this is also a way of self-portraiture, one that, unlike Frida Kahlo, can hardly access the legitimacy of Western sites of art.

The essay is written by:

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