Friday, January 01, 2010

MEXICAN CINEMA—Backyard (El Traspatio, 2009)

"The voice of the woman is a reflection of her condition on Earth. Air echoes in a chest that is smaller, vibrates vocal cords that are smaller and that produce a higher, thinner sound. It requires twice the energy, twice the intensity of a man's voice to be heard. This is why I learned to shout for those who couldn't ... and to cry so many times for and with so many women, girls and boys whose voices and whose lives have been crushed by the impunity of our state and our nation."Esther Chavez.

As detailed in the press book for
Carlos Carerra's most recent feature Backyard (El Traspatio), the film's narrative is based on actual events that took place in 1996 in Ciudad Juárez: a Mexican border city sustained by American-owned factories, or maquiladoras, that sprang up on the Mexican side of the border after the NAFTA agreement went into effect. "1996 was the year when people on both sides of the border began to grow accustomed to the fact that every month or every week in Juárez, a young woman would turn up dead. The screenplay was written in the year 2001 as the murders continued: three or four bodies appeared like clockwork every month, while the author [Sabina Berman] was writing her screenplay in the local Holiday Inn. Backyard was filmed on location in 2008, when each week murdered women continued to appear—in keeping with what is now a local Juárez custom."

As Diana Sanchez specified in her program capsule for the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (where Backyard saw its international premiere in the Contemporary World Cinema sidebar): "This ongoing tragedy remains a painful stain on Mexican history and has been the subject of numerous films, articles and books", including the 2006 Jennifer Lopez vehicle Bordertown and Lourdes Portillo's 2001 documentary Señorita extraviada (Missing Young Woman), in which Portillo sought to give voice to the many victims and to understand how these awful crimes could take place. In her onstage interview with Variety critic John Anderson at the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival, Portillo detailed the death threats she received after making Señorita extraviada and the debilitating effect it had on her.

Similar threats were levied at the cast and crew of Backyard, as outlined in Guy Adam's report to The Independent: "Last year, the makers of … El Traspatio (The Backyard) reported that an actress from Ciudad Juárez, where they were shooting, had found a slaughtered lamb on her doorstep, with a death threat pinned to it. She was replaced, for her own safety. Several other crew members on the film, about local drug murders, reported receiving sinister anonymous phone calls." Carrera's crew shot their film surrounded by two bands of armed men. One of these rings was formed by agents from the government Division of Investigation Specializing in Organized Crime (SIEDO), the other by soldiers with rifles. Two police commanders assigned to security duty were slain and a third had to flee in fear of her life. Although the governments of Juárez and Mexico ultimately decided to provide protection to Carrera and his film crew, they first tried to dissuade Carrera from the project, hoping he would instead shoot a romantic comedy in Cancun; but, Carrera and Berman remained committed to the subject of femicide in Juárez. As reported by Tracy Wilkinson to the Los Angeles Times, "Local government officials do not come off well in the film, having often preferred to downplay the murders of easily replaced female factory workers in order to prop up business interests."

Perhaps best known for El crimen del Padre Amaro (2002), which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Carlos Carrera is expected to attend Backyard's screening at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), where it has been included in PSIFF's Modern Masters sidebar. Backyard is likewise Mexico's entry this year in the Academy Awards® foreign-language film category.

As Diana Sanchez has written: "Presented as a fiction, Carrera's film is all the more moving given that the events he recounts are based on true stories and touch upon the various theories that have been put forward as to the cause of the murders. Hypotheses range from a serial killer, to drug cartels, to the more abstract pains of globalization, and it is easy to see how any of these factors could be at work in this Mexican town, which is a backyard to El Paso, Texas. Through his film, Carrera is able to denounce culprits who have never been brought to justice. However, the most devastating truth he illuminates is that these murders continue to happen because they have become commonplace. Today, some men kill women in Ciudad Juárez simply because they can."

The topic of femicide is unquestionably important and Backyard aims its statistics of sex-related murders from other Mexican cities and other South American countries with stern verve, pointedly wrapping up with sobering statistics from New York City where 3,200 murders of women remain unsolved. A worldwide issue, femicide is clearly not exclusive to Juárez; yet—though conceding the necessity of keeping the issue in public focus to counter its statistical frequency—I have mixed feelings about Backyard. Though it has high production values, with a strong turn by Ana de la Reguera in the lead role of Police Captain Blanca Bravo, I have substantive concerns with Berman's script which—though it informs through dramatization—offers questionable solutions, primarily through a revenge scenario towards film's end that has been both applauded and deplored by audiences. Though Berman has defended her scriptural choice as morally unambiguous, it remains excessively dramatic and—oddly enough—counterproductive. As Marilyn Ferdinand opines at Ferdy on Films, the dramatic violence of the subject scene provides the audience cathartic relief from their frustration but possibly sends them home "without really taking the message of the film to heart." In this instance, cathartic release falls far short of viable solutions. It's too easy to kill the killer and be done with it. Not to say that Berman should pretend she has solutions, but at the same time she shouldn't really defuse their absence through compounded violence. Acknowledging that the wall of indifference and denial in Mexican society is a horrible problem, there's a defeatist edge to Berman's vision: "We can't solve it," she said to the L.A. Times, "let's change the subject." I'm not criticizing her defeatism. I think it's a healthy and honest response. I'm not so sure, however, about her dramatized solutions which offer false remedy.

Ferdinand does a solid job of synopsizing Berman's narrative and endorsing the "important message of this grave film", even as she stages a cogent complaint that despite Carrera's disclaimer that Backyard is not intended as "entertainment" certain "touches—particularly the attractive lady detective in the Law & Order mold—are right out of the Hollywood play book." Ferdinand's concern that reviews that read and critique Backyard as a thriller "underplay or ignore its message—a rather chilling commentary on how even the most hideous violence against women has so completely infiltrated the entertainment industry." Again, no solutions appear ready to present themselves. For now, a sober eye on the information is in order.

Cross-published on

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