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

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MM: How did the film become such a success in a Mexico that was still very conservative and under a repressive government?

FC: The film was filmed in 1974 under the shadow of President Diaz Ordaz. We have to consider that the events of 1968 dug much deeper into the country than you might think. It’s not only the story of a student protest with different political principles. It’s a deep cut in Mexico in every way. I believe that those that watched the film in 1974, and who were in their 20s in 1968, understood that their country had changed, because the film talked about things that were usually never discussed in Mexico. If you watch Mexican cinema before Canoa, the figure of the priest in small towns and ranches that appear in films is always good-natured. In those films, priests are the ones that organized parties, they are the ones who comfort widows, they are the ones who fix conflicts between people. This was the first time they were presented in a different way. The film managed to be successful because both audiences and the country were changing at the same time.

MM: The film won the Silver Bear in Berlin and received a lot of acclaim at the time. Do you feel that the success helped your career afterwards? Was it easier or more difficult to make films after Canoa?

FC: Every movie is difficult to make. Canoa didn’t change that, because the government under which it was made ended, and an even more disastrous one followed it—for which Margarita Lopez Portillo was head of culture and cinema. She didn’t understand anything. My films Las Poquianchis and El Apando were shot immediately after Canoa. At that point the government changed and the party was over. I managed to make these three films during that government, and I had other projects that fell apart when the new one came in.

MM: After this short-lived period, Mexican cinema fell into a slump of trashy erotic comedies and the like. Why do you think this dark period in Mexican cinema lasted so long?

FC: Precisely because Margarita Lopez Portillo, the First Lady then, didn’t care about cinema, and because those around her were in charge of facilitating the production of these horrendous, low-quality movies without any relevance. What’s even worse is that they provoked the emigration of many Mexican filmmakers to other countries.

An angry mob in Canoa: A Shameful Memory

MM: Your films were shot on film, as was the standard at the time. What’s the difference for you between shooting on film and digital filmmaking?

FC: There is a great difference. The excellence of what Criterion has done [with Canoa], which is indisputable in terms of restoration and color grading, is so impressive because it came from a 35mm negative, from a photochemical product. If Canoa would have been filmed on digital, I don’t know if Criterion could have achieved the quality they have achieved. I believe that the 35mm negative is still important and definitive. Digital filmmaking is advancing at a nearly unstoppable speed, and there are extraordinary things about it from a creative and technical standpoint, which one can notice when you see the work of Lubezki, for example. But in general video is ugly. On video or digital you can see everything; there are no different degrees of depth of field or half tones in color, unless they are developed afterwards in post-production. That’s when the costs increase to amounts that Mexican cinema can’t afford.

I want to say that the work of Criterion is mind-blowing, because their edition looks like if it had been shot the day before yesterday, but all the properties and values came from Alex Phillips’ 35mm negative. That’s indisputable, and without those original properties and values on the negative, Criterion wouldn’t have been able to restore the movie as amazingly as they did.

MM: What are your thoughts on Mexican cinema today? What’s positive about it and what troubles you?

FC: What is good about it is that today there is at least a dozen solid filmmakers, each with three or four films under their belts that can be considered professional works. That’s very important, because a baseline of 10 or 12 filmmakers, and maybe around the same number of cinematographers, represents a burgeoning industry. The important thing is that hopefully the next government doesn’t prevent them from working, because if that happens they will likely leave Mexico. As you know, the way it works changes every six years depending on what the person that sits on the presidential chair likes. Either that person likes Mexican cinema or doesn’t. Sadly, the future of this incredibly important cultural expression depends on that. Mexican audiences love their cinema and watch their cinema. Among the many films produced recently in Mexico, I’m sure there are at least four or five that are here to stay and mean something. At the end of the day, there are films that are forgotten and there are others that stay.

MM: You’ve had a long and prolific career and your films are canonical, to say the least. What continues to inspire you or discourage you about moviemaking?

FC: I’m about to turn 80. I don’t know when my time will be over or what I can still do now, but what I do know is that there is a different kind of cinema today, and that’s logical because each generation has a different way of expressing itself. Each generation has a unique style and language. Of course, I’m speaking about good cinema. I’m not sure I’m still a part of the way of expression that is in fashion now and what audiences watch. Mexico is not one singular country. Mexico is very big. There are many countries within Mexico, and each one of them has its own way of speaking and of behaving, A Mexican movie today has to satisfy a large number of very different people, and most people are never satisfied. That’s why I don’t know if I’m still in shape or not to make movies today. That’s the truth.

MM: What can younger audiences that have never seen the film before get from it today? In your eyes, what’s still relevant about this film, 40 years after its initial release?

FC: Today such lowlifes still exist. They haven’t disappeared, and even if they are not the same as the one in the film, they look very similar, if you know what I mean. MM

Canoa: A Shameful Memory was released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD on March 14, 2017. All images courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

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