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Visually Stunning, Poetic Work by Mexican Filmmaker Natalia Almada Paints a Still, Quiet Picture of Life and Death After Violence
A co-production of Altamura Films, Latino Public Broadcasting and American Documentary | POV; A Co-presentation with LPB
“The Mexican drug cartels have inspired countless films, but never one as final as Natalia Almada’s El Velador. After this experience, everything else seems trivial.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Award-winning director Natalia Almada (Al Otro Lado, 2006; El General, 2010) returns to POV (Point of View) for a third time with a beautiful and mesmerizing new film about her native Mexico. From dusk to dawn, El Velador (The Night Watchman) accompanies Martin, a guard who watches over the extravagant mausoleums of some of the country’s most notorious drug lords. In the labyrinth of the cemetery, this film about violence without violence reminds us that, amid the turmoil of a drug war that has claimed more than 50,000 lives, ordinary existence persists and quietly defies the dead.
El Velador (The Night Watchman), an Official Selection of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival Directors’ Fortnight and New Directors/New Films Festival, has its national broadcast premiere on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012, at 10 p.m., during the 25th anniversary season of POV on PBS. (Check local listings.) It will stream on POV’s website, www.pbs.org.pov/, from Sept. 28 – Dec. 20. POV continues on Thursdays through Oct. 25 and concludes its season with specials in 2013. American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a Special News & Documentary Emmy® Award for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking, two IDA Awards for Continuing Series and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers Corporate Commitment to Diversity Award.
The cemetery of El Velador (The Night Watchman) is located in Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa and Mexico’s drug heartland. Since the war on drugs began, the number of graves in the cemetery has exploded and the opulence of the mausoleums has exceeded the imaginable. Ranging in design from minimalist modernism to fanciful imitations of mosques pictured in magazines, these tombs look more like houses for the living than resting places for the dead. Who can afford such luxuries and dies so young?
As youthful widows methodically sweep the marble floors of elaborate crypts, luxury cars glide silently between tombs and construction workers build new memorials more lavish than their homes. One by one the funeral processions come and go; family and friends weep as they lay their loved ones to rest. A procession leaves, and a new one arrives a day or two later. Through Martin’s eyes, El Velador (The Night Watchman) sees night pass in a place where time stands still.
As the sun sets, Martin arrives at the graveyard in his rumbling blue Chevrolet. The cemetery’s resident pets, El Negro and La Negra, chase his truck down the road and greet him with wagging tails. The sound of construction fades away as the daytime workers leave and Martin is left alone, looking out over the skyline of mausoleums, one larger than the next. Crosses and steel construction bars pierce the pink sky.
As night descends, a comely young widow arrives with her little girl in a pristine white Audi. A portrait of her husband, a policeman holding a machine gun, watches over them as they sweep and mop the shiny marble floors of his crypt. The coconut vendor’s radio blasts a list of the day’s murders: “Culiacán has become a war zone.”
The sun rises, and mourning becomes a kind of work as women return day after day to tend to their deceased husbands’ shrines. They look too young to be widows; their children play hopscotch on tombs as if they were in a playground. The code of silence makes conversation dangerous. The word “narco” is forbidden.
Shortly after taking office in December 2006, President Felipe Calderón declared war on Mexico’s drug cartels and assigned the military the task of fighting the drug trade in Mexico. The drug war has killed more than 55,000 people during Calderón’s presidency, according to Reuters. Enrique Peña Nieto, candidate of the formerly ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was elected president of Mexico on July 2, 2012. In the two days following his victory, a car bomb killed two police officers, gunmen opened fired on a wake near the U.S. border and rival gunmen left 10 dead near the capital. Mexico has become the battlefield for an international, illegal drug trade, with the majority of its customers in the United States.
“When I first went to film at the cemetery where the film takes place in July 2009, there were four new mausoleums under construction and a tractor was digging up the dirt for a new hole to bury another 300 bodies,” says filmmaker Almada. “The ‘progress’ of the cemetery mirrored the violence that was spiraling out of control.”
Lyrical and deceptively peaceful, El Velador (The Night Watchman) lingers at the threshold of violence. Refusing to show the graphic images of murder that have become commonplace in the Mexican press, filmmaker Natalia Almada’s camera instead enters into the intimate and ordinary routines of death with patience and restraint.
“I come from a cattle ranching family in Mexico’s northern state of Sinaloa, one of Mexico’s most productive agricultural states and also the cradle of drug trafficking.” Almada continues. “From corrido songs about traffickers to ‘narco-churro’ B-movies, the contraband life has been part of our culture for decades. But in recent years, cowboys who once boasted about making a few extra bucks on the side are now mourning their children–killed in a drug war.
“With my camera in the back corner of that cemetery, I set out to answer the question of how to look at violence. In making this film, I hoped to gain entry to that world. To experience what it means to live in that context, to work, to mourn, to sweat, to sleep there. I wanted to pause, and I wanted others to pause and be suspended in that place and moment where violence has just occurred and where violence is imminent.”
El Velador (The Night Watchman) 2012 Museum Tour: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Sept. 8; Cleveland Museum of Art, Sept. 12; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, Sept. 26; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Sept. 28; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo., Oct. 19; Yerba Buena Center, San Francisco, Nov. 1-4.
El Velador (The Night Watchman) is a co-production of Altamura Films and American Documentary | POV in association with Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It is a co-presentation with LPB and an Icarus Films release.
About the Filmmaker:
Natalia Almada (Director/Producer/Director of Photography/Editor)
Natalia Almada is the recipient of the 2009 Sundance Documentary Directing Award for her film about her great-grandfather, Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles, El General, which had its national broadcast premiere on POV in 2010. Almada’s previous directing credits include All Water Has a Perfect Memory (2001), an experimental short film that received international recognition, and Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side), her award-winning debut feature documentary (POV 2006) about immigration, drug trafficking and corrido music. Her films have screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), dOCUMENTA(13) and the Whitney Biennial. Almada has been a MacDowell Colony Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, a USA Fellow and a TEDx speaker and was the recipient of the 2011 Alpert Award in Film/Video. She lives in Mexico City.
Director/Producer/Director of Photography: Natalia Almada
Associate Producers: Laurence Ansquer, Charlotte Uzu
Editor: Natalia Almada
Co-editor: Julien Devaux
Sound Designer: Alejandro de Icaza
Running Time: 56:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Executive Vice President: Cynthia López
Vice President, Production and Programming: Chris White
Series Producer: Yance Ford
Coordinating Producer: Andrew Catauro
Awards and Festivals:
- Official Selection/World Premiere, New Directors/New Films Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Directors’ Fortnight, Cannes Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, 2011
- Official Selection, Los Angeles Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Silverdocs, 2011
- Official Selection, Munich International Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Melbourne International Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, 2011
- Best Cinematography, International Feature, Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM), 2011
- Best Documentary, International Film Festival Bratislava, 2011
- SICA Award, Mar del Plata International Film Festival, 2011
- Special Engagement, The Museum of Modern Art, 2012
For a complete list of festivals and screenings, visit http://www.altamurafilms.com/el_velador.html
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