El General

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

Production Journal

POV: Talk a little bit about the film in terms of style -- the devices you use and the way you tell this story.

Natalia Almada: I have a background in photography, and that's what led me to film. I've always been very committed to making visually beautiful films, and a lot of this film, in particular, was about texture. To start I had these unbelievable archival films. I had a 35-millimeter reel of Pathé News that's exquisite. It's absolutely beautiful. So, I thought, how can I make footage today that somehow holds up to that archival material and then edit them together in such a way that you have a texture that works throughout the film, that flows in and out, that's not a jarring contrast between that 35-millimeter black-and-white silent film and blown out digital video? That wouldn't work. It was a concern from the beginning. I played a lot with these textures and tried to make them work and I hope it works.

El General: Natalia AlmadaNatalia Almada filming at whole sale market in Mexico City for El General. Photo by Daniela Alatorre, courtesy of El General.

As for filming in Mexico City, it's great fun. I would just grab the video camera that I keep by my door whenever I felt like it, maybe I was stuck editing, so I would go shoot and get in a taxi and start taking my camera out to film the taxi driver. If something was happening, I would go to the place where it was happening. If not, I would go somewhere that I hadn't been or that seemed interesting. I was very interested in using the camera as a kind of mirror, so the relationship between the camera and the subject would also be kind of a reflection of who I am. People often ask, "Why aren't you in the film?" I say, "Well, because, we don't see ourselves walking through life -- we only experience ourselves through our interactions with others and the way others see us." In a sense, that is how I was using the camera out in the streets. It's a playful tool; it's a mirror, in a way. Shooting in Mexico City is an adventure, for sure.

POV: You certainly captured the beauty of the place. There are images from the film that will stick with me forever. I think it's the opening scene where you're on a delivery cart or a delivery truck with blue canisters.

El General Gas Canisters shot jpg
Gas tank delivery truck traveling through Mexico City streets. Courtesy of El General.

Almada: That's an interesting shot for a couple of reasons. I had just moved back to Mexico City and gotten my own apartment there for the first time, and I didn't have hot water. I knew that the gas man came around to turn on the gas, but I wasn't quite sure how it was actually going work. I would hear the gas men in the morning. They'd wake me up every day -- they go around my neighborhood at about 7:00 a.m., and I thought, I have to film these men who carry these massive heavy gas tanks up to all the rooftops. The noise they make is kind of the music of the city and also everybody's alarm clock. I really wanted to film them, and I had this feeling that I could create the sense that you're kind of floating through the city with the vendors, so that you're in that moving cart and so that the thing they're selling becomes a character, in a sense. But I find that a lot of people in the United States don't know that those are gas tanks. So to them it's a completely illegible image that doesn't make a lot of sense.

POV: How would you characterize your voice in the film's narration?

Almada: The hardest part of the film was the narration. I'd never done one before and I was really afraid of all the ways it could go wrong. So it was really tricky. It kind of came out one sentence a month, that was the feeling. It was so slow. But the narration was necessary to link all the elements of the film together, because otherwise, there's no stitching -- it would just fall apart. It's also the reality in my position in a way, that I am the filmmaker and that I'm also the granddaughter in relation to my grandmother, so in a sense, the character of the narrator has that duality of being family and of being the filmmaker, so I wanted to talk about the process a little bit.


Cinematographer Chuy Chavez and director Natalia Almada Filming archival materials at the Calles archive for strong>El General. Photo courtesy of El General.

POV: Then tell me little bit about your process. How do we go from the beginning of discovering these tapes into making the final film, El General?

Almada: Well, I feel like I'm a bit of a disaster in terms of process, because I have a very intuitive process and it's not very organized. It's hard for me to break down my process into a pre-production research phase and then go out and shoot and then go edit the film. I don't really have a pre-production and research phase. I kind of have an idea and the research happens as I'm making the film. I find that taking out my camera and looking at things and seeing where that takes me is actually how I research. That's how I figure out what the film is about and figure out what it is that I want to say. Then, because I edit and I shoot -- well, I don't shoot the whole film by myself, but much of the film -- I have the advantage of being able to go out and shoot for a morning and then come back and edit the footage and immediately start deconstructing it, massaging it, integrating it into what I think is going to be the film. And that, in turn, is what leads me to the next thing I want to shoot. So it's much more like a sculpting process in a way, which I find to be perfectly normal. It works well for me and I love it. It's hard to make that process work with the fundraising process and the business aspect of making a film. It's harder, perhaps, for others to deal with my process.