Gaining insight in to Mexican and Venezuelan society through film
Audun Solli is doctoral candidate at the Interfaculty research area Cultural Transformations in the Age of Globalization (Kultrans) at the University of Oslo. His research analyzes Mexican and Venezuelan cinema to answer questions about the nature of modern states and how they are best conceptualized.
Luis Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
– Where did the idea for your current research project come from?
– My Master’s thesis was about processes of state formation and how states are conceived. Through this research I came to the conclusion that to understand states it is imperative to understand the stories which are told about the state and its nature. The initial idea for my research came from wanting to understand transformations in the state from the point of view of popular culture. I also wanted to explore the ways in which popular culture can influence narratives about what the state is and means to people. Analyzing popular culture is useful because it is available to everyone regardless of education or economic standing; it is capable of telling very big stories and exploring very large themes, says Solli.
– I have been interested in working with film since I first began thinking about these sorts of problems because of its direct nature, which is to say that cinema has been known to present characters and ideas in terms of straightforward dichotomies; for instance, good and evil, rich and poor. A common example of this can be observed in the representation of authority figures such as police officers who tend to be either absolutely noble and just or completely corrupt and evil. While this sort of representation may be characterized as rather simplistic, it is useful in that it allows identifying distinct narratives which in turn present very different representations of society.
Solli has been interested in Latin America for quite some time, but before his Masters research this interest had not been of an academic nature. After his bachelors he travelled to Venezuela where I worked for ten months at an agricultural school. His interest in Venezuela stems greatly from the political project of Hugo Chávez. Noting that media seems to treat Chávez as either a complete charlatan or a saint, he was curious to go there and see what regular Venezuelans thought about their president. Solli has also travelled to Mexico on many occasions.
Methodology from media studies
Despite their many differences, Solli considers that Mexico and Venezuela share many features which make them ideal candidates for a comparative analysis of this nature. For instance, after the Second World War both Mexico and Venezuela experienced a period of fairly stable economic growth and social stability. However, with the economic crisis of the 1980s both countries were confronted with grave devaluations and the rise of social tensions between political classes and society at large. Furthermore, for both states the early 2000s represented a period of regime change, which saw the rise in power of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Vicente Fox in Mexico.
The methodology Solli utilizes in his investigation comes from the field of media studies and involves analysis of film which treats source materials as if were of a documentary nature. This is to say that whatever happens in the film is taken as is; pretending in a sense that depicted characters and events are presented as credible news items or articles. While the meanings and lessons drawn from these stories tend to be quite similar, the ways in which the stories are presented can be quite different.
– For example the Mexican films of la India Maria and Héctor Suárez, while both comedic in nature, tend to address issues such as immigration in very different ways. While the message conveyed in both series of films clearly suggests that it is better to stay home and not migrate, the adventures of la India Maria are undertaken in a clueless and naive fashion which usually sees the protagonist getting away with most everything, while the characters presented by Héctor Suárez tend towards the tragic and melodramatic, says Solli
– The selection of source materials is conducted on the basis of their popularity at the box office, and the analysis pays special attention to their representations of common themes and stereotypes. I made this decision because I wanted to analyze the films which were most widely seen by audiences and thus had likely the biggest influence on society and contemporary discourses.
Cinema and changing socio-political discourses
Solli argues that with regard to Venezuela, film has in a sense aided in the construction of a narrative framework which challenges neo-liberal assumptions regarding social phenomena such as poverty and inequality.
– Venezuelan films most often have portrayed the plight of the poor as the result of corruption and greed. This interpretation fits comfortably into the political narratives presented by Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian Socialist policies. For instance, while Mexican films of the same period often depict scenes of misery and poverty, it is typically hinted at that these deficiencies are the consequence of the characters’ own ignorance and backwardness (which is often directly associated with their indigenous identity). However, in Venezuelan cinema these same circumstances are more often than not depicted as being the result of failures inherent in the structure of the state and society. Furthermore, the period between 1980 and 1999 in Venezuelan cinema seems to represent a framework which is particularly critical of the state and emphasizes the prevalence of insecurity and everyday violence. While it would be a bit of stretch to suggest that there exists a causal relation between the depiction of the state in Venezuelan cinema, and the election of Hugo Chávez; there is a strong argument to be made for the idea that the values and lessons communicated through Venezuelan films paved the way for the Chavista movement, claims Solli.
– Would you say that Mexican cinema has traditionally been more conservative than its Venezuelan counterpart?
– Yes, I would. This could likely be explained by the fact that despite the early arrival of cinematic productions to Mexico in the 1920s, control of the Mexican film industry remained strongly in the hands of the state. However, with the defeat in the elections in 2000 of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), which governed Mexico for 71 years, many of the old restrictions were lifted. However it is interesting to note that Venezuelan state-funded cinema has remained more state-critical than Mexico’s privately funded film industry.
Solli points out that the 1990s and 2000s saw an increase in Mexican films which depicted the normalization of wealth and the minimization of social problems such as poverty, although this is not to say that depictions of poverty are ever really absent from Mexican cinema. These films also tend to present storylines which can be characterized as extremely melodramatic and characters which Solli describes as leaving the impression of a privileged Mexico, in which individualism is the proper response to any challenge. This archetype is probably best represented by the hyper-melodramatic film Sexo, Pudor y Lágrimas (Mexico, 1999) which depicts the lives of two superficial upper class couples in Mexico city. Interestingly, despite their treatment of controversial subject matters, Solli says melodramas have historically played a politically conservative role supportive of the Mexican state´s ideology.
Depicting crime and violence in Latina American cinema
Since the 2000s and the release of Amores Perros (Mexico, 2000), Solli has observed a considerable increase in the number of Mexican films released which highlight a vision of a Mexico in crisis. These "crisis" films present a vision of Mexico in which all Mexicans (regardless of class) are affected by serious issues such as corruption, impunity and insecurity. Upon closer inspection the victims portrayed in these types of films tend to be of the middle class; unlike in similar Venezuelan productions, which present the victimhood of “el pueblo” or society in general.
– In what direction do you see film in Mexico and Venezuela going? Is there a tendency towards more openness and criticism of the society and the state?
– In both the cases of Venezuela and Mexico the period roughly following the year 2000 saw the cinema become much more heterogeneous. For instance, under the old regime of the PRI it would have been difficult to imagine the wide release of a film such as El Crimen del Padre Amaro (Mexico, 2002), which deals with issues regarding corruption in both state and religious institutions (as well as explicit sacrilegious scenes of a sexual nature). In the case of Venezuela this same time period has corresponded with the release of films which take diverse positions regarding the roots of this nation’s problems; pitting capitalism vs. socialism, populism vs. free market solutions and Chávez vs. the opposition.