El General

2009
Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606
Produced by Daniela Alatorre and Natalia Almada
Directed by Natalia Almada
DVD, color and b&w;, 83 min., Spanish with English subtitles
Sr. High - Adult
Latin American Studies, Political Science, Sociology


Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 7/8/2010

El General refers to General Plutarco Elías Calles, one of the “strong men” (caudillos) of the Mexican Revolution who served as the President of Mexico during the years 1924–1928. The film’s director, Natalia Almada, is the great granddaughter of General Calles. Almada inherited audio recordings from her grandmother Alicia Calles (the General’s daughter). These audio tapes contain Alicia Calles’ reminiscences of her father. The great granddaughter and director Almada transforms a personal legacy into a collective one by sharing it in the multi-layered El General.

Almada’s documentary includes contemporary images of political rallies in Mexico City and brief interviews with working people (street vendors, taxi drivers, and others). She sets the film in modern day Mexico City during the 2006 presidential election between the conservative Felipe Calderón and the populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. She deftly travels back in time, blending these modern images with recorded fragments of her grandmother’s recollections, family home movies, newspaper archives, and newsreel footage of her great grandfather. This affords her the unique opportunity to compare and contrast Mexico’s presidential politics of 2006 with those of the 1920s.

This impressionistic film is part atonement, part memoir, and part socio-political commentary. Almada’s voice-over is interwoven throughout; as narrator she abstains from judgment, stating that time itself is the judge. Yet, Almada doesn’t flinch from portraying controversy. She juxtaposes painful photos of 1920s anti-clerical violence with footage of current-day pilgrimages to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She describes General Calles’ futile attempt to end caudillismo and his eventual expulsion from the country. The filmmaker uncovers gaps of personal memory and then probes further to expose the chasm in Mexican society between idealistic hope and harsh socio-economic reality. Almada comments on the pervasiveness of Mexican social institutions and the tenacity of idealism, religious belief, and political cynicism.

Ultimately, Almada’s documentary questions Mexico’s system of representative democracy; is the power in the presidency or does it manifest in the people? El General is a fascinating look at the tension between public persona and private reality. It exorcizes the specter of authoritarian leadership. It is a paean to the strength of common people, presenting a vivid contrast between a strong man of the revolution and the strength of millions of working people. The film should be required viewing for courses in Mexican and Latin American Studies and would also support curriculum in history, sociology, and political science.

Awards

  • Sundance Film Festival, Directing Award, U.S. Documentary
  • Cine Las Americas, Audience Award, Best Documentary Feature