El General

PBS Premiere: July 20, 2010Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Statement

Natalia AlmadaI wake up at 5:00 a.m. It is election day in Mexico. I drive from Los Angeles to Tijuana. The sun is rising over the 405 South. At 8:00 a.m. I arrive in San Ysidro, and then I park my car and walk across the bridge to the other side. It smells different. It is hotter. I am always amazed by the way the arbitrary wall has become part of nature's subconscious.

I wait in a winding line for three hours to cast my vote, and when I'm done I start the trip back across the border — another eternal line in the hot sun. A man offers me a ride for $5. I can't resist. I climb into a bus only a few meters from the checkpoint. It is hot as hell. It smells. Children are screaming. The bus doesn't move and I wish I were still standing in line.

The bearded man next to me turns to me and says, "You are not Mexican." "Of course I am," I reply. He insists that I am not. With pride I show him the brown ink stain on my thumb — proof that I have just voted. It has no effect. I can't change his mind about my nationality and I have the familiar sensation that I do not belong in any place. I remember a passage from Isabel Allende's book My Invented Country: "I have been a pilgrim along more roads than I care to remember. From saying good-bye so often my roots have dried up, and I have had to grow others, which, lacking a geography to sink into, have taken hold in my memory." And I realize that film is the memory around which I am wrapping my roots.

My first film, All Water Has a Perfect Memory, is about my sister, who drowned when she was two years old. Through film, I created a visual memory of my sister, as I had no real memories of her, and explored how my Mexican father and American mother faced the death of their child. I found that the memories we fabricate are unique to our individual experiences and perspectives, making it nearly impossible to have a truly collective memory, especially within a bicultural family.

My second film, Al Otro Lado: To The Other Side, which aired as part of POV's season 19, looks at immigration and drug trafficking through the 200-year-old tradition of corrido music. The films that I saw in the United States about immigration and drug trafficking were always from an outsider's perspective and approached the issues as moral dilemmas rather than economic realities. I felt a need to tell the story of how Mexican individuals, confronted with the reality of an economic crisis are compelled to risk their lives with hope for a better life. I gained an appreciation for the power of the human spirit to deal with hardship and tragedy by relying on humor, cultural heritage and grace.

El General - Filming archival materials at the Calles archive for El General

Filming archival materials at the Calles archive for El General

My most recent film, El General, is inspired by six hours of audio cassette recordings that my grandmother made about her life as daughter of Plutarco Elías Calles, a general in the Mexican Revolution and president of Mexico from 1924 to 1928. She wanted to write her father's biography, but all that remains of that intention are the audio recordings that were handed to me, presumably so that I might finish what she left incomplete.

The film moves between my grandmother's fractured memories of her father, a contentious figure in Mexico's history, and my present-day wanderings through Mexico City. It is both a family memoir and a portrait of Mexico then and now.

In the film, a woman buying orange cempaxúchitl flowers for the Day of the Dead says, "We love the dead, but they are too expensive." I have come to understand how she speaks for me and for Mexico.

To me, film is a tithe for memory, a cost I gratefully pay in order actively to make sense of the world. Making a film is a way to find a language to express what I see and think. It is a way to question how we reconcile the contradictions between our personal family memories and our country's collective memory. How are these memories and history fabricated? How do I reconcile my reality with my family history? How do I, a Mexican, understand Mexico today through a historical lens?

In the opening of the film, Sans Soleil, the narrator says, "I do not know how those who do not film remember." For me, making films is a way of remembering and creating a memory where one is absent or where one is needed for tomorrow. It is an avocation inspired by my urge to explore how the past defines who we are today and to create a visual memory that reflects my view of the world.

Natalia Almada, Filmmaker