Canoa Revisited: Felipe Cazals on His 1976 Masterpiece, Mexican History, Horror Storytelling and Politics in Filmmaking

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In the interim between a Golden Age bogged down with melodramas, stereotypical treatments of masculine and pastoral glorification, and the emergence of the world-class brigade led by Cuarón, Reygadas, del Toro, Escalante, Iñárritu and Franco in the 2000s, Mexican cinema stumbled through several decades of obscurity with a few sporadic dashes of stylistic and narrative enlightenment.

From 1970 to 1976, under the presidency of Luis Echeverría and just two years after the atrocious 1968-student massacre in Tlatelolco, the embers of a so-called “New Mexican Cinema” were ignited through essential auteurs such as Arturo Ripstein, Jaime Humberto Hermosillo and Felipe Cazals. Rejecting traditionalist archetypes, they questioned the institutions that ruled the Mexican collective consciousness and focused on morally challenging subjects involving social justice and the search for the truth.

These directors were able to execute some of the best films in their careers through partial government funding. As paradoxical as that might seem, they crafted rebellious content with resources tied to their very oppressors. The situation changed along with the presidency, yet during those six years, the Mexican Film Academy, the National Cinemateque and the now-renowned Centro de Capacitación Cienmatográfica (CCC) film school were also founded.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory was one of the most significant films produced within this period. While it wasn’t director Felipe Cazals’ debut, it was the film that earned him the most acclaim at home and abroad—though not without detractors. With a cinematic structure unlike anything seen in Mexico at the time, one that combined historical reenactments and first person accounts in the form of a pseudo-documentary, Canoa tackled a violent episode and fearlessly exposed the relationship between the perpetrators’ motivations and the danger at the center of both faith and political influence.

Mere weeks before the massacre on October 2, 1968, a group of the University of Puebla employees decided to climb La Malinche, a famous mountain, as an excursion during the Mexican Independence Day holiday weekend. Unable to make it to their original destination because of the weather, they chose to spend the night in the nearby town of San Miguel Canoa—a costly mistake. There, the locals, influenced by the toxic doctrine of a tyrannical priest, treated them as a threat to their faith and values. Enraged, a mob of men and woman, drunk on hatred, lynched the young men and killed several of them. The priest denied being involved and the case remained a dark episode that, despite taking place in a microcosm, came to represent the malevolent power that extremism had on the ignorant masses.

Speaking from Mexico City and in the occasion of the Criterion Collection’s new 4K restoration and Blu-ray release of the Canoa, the 79-year-old Cazals spoke with MovieMaker (in Spanish, translated here) about his memories of the production, the social climate in which it was made, the narrative risks it took, and the state of Mexico as a country and its cinema—more than four decades after the controversial initial release, which for years endangered his life.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): As Alfonso Cuarón mentions in the conversation included in the new Criterion release of Canoa, the film has inspired many generations of Mexican filmmakers. What were some of the directors you admired as a young artist?

Felipe Cazals (FC): I always liked John Ford before any other director, but I was a great admirer of Rossellini. At the same time, I had great admiration for Luis Buñuel. I had a very diverse education. I was formed by American cinema of the late 1940s and early 1950s. I watched a lot of American cinema that detracted American society and that reflected a critical spirit. At the same time, I was shaped by Mexican cinema, which was a cinema that wasn’t varied and was very thematically formal, which was precisely what we wanted to change when we became filmmakers.

MM: Given the political situation of Mexico in the 1970s, how difficult was it to finance and bring to fruition a project like Canoa, which was so controversial at the time?

FC: It was almost impossible, because the director’s guild demanded that for a movie to be filmed, the production had to last at least five weeks. Back in those years, commercial Mexican cinema was filmed in four weeks. You can understand that no producer would take the risk to debut with a new director in a movie shot in five weeks. It was a clever and underhanded way not to let us, the new filmmakers, in. Canoa had a very sui generis production formula. Canoa is what’s known as a “co-determination movie,” which is a synonym for a “packaged movie.” It means that the creative crew—including the director, the screenwriter and the cinematographer, as well as technical crew and the actors—contribute a large part of their salary to the budget of the film, and the remaining balance, in those years, was provided by the Cinema Bank [El Banco Cinematográfico] though a government-owned company. This is how low-cost films could get made. Canoa was shot in four weeks and a half. This production model had a great advantage: As time went by, if the film made back its budget, the amount that the crew and cast earned increased, while the amount that the government received stayed the same. That model allowed the production of several important movies, but because everything in this country is sexennial, in the following six years the government destroyed this production model.

MM: Did you have a hard time convincing your actors to participate in a film like this, under such a production model?  

FC: No, because they were very young actors and the vast majority of the older actors were first-timers, actors that came from theater. I didn’t have any important name on the marquee, so nobody would refuse to do it.

MM: Did you ever fear retribution or some other negative consequence from groups that found Canoa offensive?

FC: I can tell you what happened a posteriori. For three years I received anonymous messages—which I still keep—letting me know that my life wouldn’t last long. People never imagine what something like this could do to one’s daily life, especially when they mention your family in these messages. You get into a terribly anxious state.

MM: Did you regret telling this story? If the film was made today it perhaps wouldn’t be as polemic, but back then it was playing with fire.

FC: I never regretted anything, but you should know that in the year 2002, Puebla’s clergy sung the national anthem on the atrium of the church of San Miguel Canoa under a massive banner that read, “The movie is a lie.”

MM: Forty years later, has the world changed? Has Mexico changed? Or is all still the same?

FC: The world has, Mexico very little.

MM: Watching the film today, it’s impossible not to see parallels between Father Mesa, played by Enrique Lucero, and current world leaders who prey on ignorance and abuse their power. It’s incredibly relevant today.  People commit horrible crimes in the name of faith or ideologies.

FC: Yes, but it’s important to consider that religious fanaticism is always directly related to illiteracy, to the lack of resources and to ignorance. At the time, Canoa was a small village. Today it’s a suburb of the city of Puebla. The population has grown, but there is still atavism. In the case of Father Mesa, the person responsible for everything that happened in Canoa, we are talking about a cacique, a political boss; we shouldn’t forget that. He has all the power, and even beyond that, he is the center of all power because everything converges towards him. He is basically the center of faith, and faith is an instrument that has been installed in Mexico for centuries. A lot of people who participated in the events that took place denied to us they had participated. We carried out a discreet investigation before arriving and we knew that there were people who participated and who then denied the truth.

MM: I understand that you met both the survivors of the lynching and Father Mesa himself. How important was it for you to hear the story in their own voices and for them to relive that fateful night?

FC: I didn’t just meet the survivors, I took them to the shooting. They were present during the entire production. They would confirm how they were seated, where they hid, where they were when they were beaten, as best as they could remember. The purpose of this was for my actors to feel the weight of what this movie meant. In regards to Father Mesa, Tomás Pérez Turrent and I interviewed him a year before we started filming the movie. He was a very astute and dangerous man, and he somehow realized we were investigating. He looked very similar to Enrique Luero. In 1984 one of the survivors committed suicide. He was never able to overcome the events of that night.

MM: Tell me about the pseudo-documentary format used in the film and how this related to the way you shot the film and where you shot it. Where did the idea for these innovative storytelling devices come from, and were you concerned about whether they would work our or not?

FC: We didn’t shoot in San Miguel Canoa. We shot in a small village that’s very close to San Miguel Canoa called Santa Rita Tlahuapan. In terms of the cinematic format of the film, what I explained to Alex Phillips, the cinematographer, and which the screenwriter Tomeas Pérez Turrent also understood, is that I didn’t want the film to highlight anything. I wanted the camera to always be at a distance, as if it wasn’t participating in what we were shooting. At the same time, I didn’t want camera movements or long-focus lenses. I didn’t want to highlight any situation in any way, in order to create distance between characters and the spectator, which makes the latter want to be closer to the events: to reject them or to know more about them. That’s why we had the farmer witness, who is himself being filmed by a camera crew. There is a moment in which fiction and reality intertwine, but the different times remain sharply separated. It’s about not having continuity, which can bring satisfaction to the spectator, but instead to slow it down so that he or she can reflect. I had no idea whether it was going to work or not. I think that when the three of us watched it together for the first time, we were disheartened because we thought it didn’t work. That same afternoon, after we had seen it together, the film was screened at the Roble Cinema in Mexico City, as part of a film showcase, and there were hundreds of spectators. At the end the applause was unanimous and endless.

MM: In other conversations about Canoa you often refer to it as a horror film. Can you elaborate on why you see it in that way?

FC: Because it has the structure of a horror film. It’s fundamentally about creating in the spectator the anxiety of not being able to escape the events. In horror films, what keeps the spectator intrigued is that he knows the characters won’t be able to escape, and the threat is going to come true. Remember, this is a movie that announces its ending at the very beginning. At the time distributors and exhibitors advised against its production because they thought a film for which you knew the ending from the very beginning wouldn’t be of interest for audiences. They didn’t know the structure of the movie.

MM: Violence is another theme that often comes up when discussing your work. Is Canoa a violent film or do people make it violent through their own interpretations of what’s on screen?

FC: I think people add a lot of violence to the film on their own, violence which doesn’t exist. Over the last 40 years I’ve heard comments about certain sequences. People say specific scenes are unbearable. I ask them what exactly is it that bothers them, and I discover that they added images that are not in the film. That’s very frequent from spectators. We have the tendency to indulge in watching violence. That’s why what’s important in cinema regarding violence is to put half of it and let the spectator contribute the other half. If you present the images that take place before a violent act, and also include the images of what takes place after the violent act, the spectator, based on his or her own moral code, fills in what’s in between, and which is not in the film.

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