Beyond Documentary?: Archives, Absences, and Rethinking Mexican “Nonfiction” Film, c. 1935–1955

  • David M. J. Wood
Part of the Global Cinema book series (GLOBALCINE)


Mexican cinema scholarship from the 1930s to the 1950s has tended to focus its historiographic and analytical energies on the fiction feature film. Meanwhile the history of Mexican documentary film is largely unwritten or at best exceptionalist and canonical (save some notable exceptions, such as the silent period and the “new cinemas” of the 1960s and 1970s). Recent research, however, has begun to dig around the edges of established ways of conceiving and periodizing Mexican cinema, with film and media historians taking an increasing interest in previously little-known filmmakers or production agencies. This is due partly to changing relationships between scholars and archivists, and partly to an ongoing transition in the ways in which cinema and media scholarship define the criteria and limits of their objects and methodologies of study. It also responds to an ongoing dialogue between researchers and archivists that recognizes the precarious material basis of much film scholarship (the fragility of the archival artifact, the fragility of historical narratives), and seeks to address this scenario by placing non-canonical film materials center-stage. This chapter intervenes in this emerging field, asking how future research might take on board the expanding range of types and genres of moving image production, supports, and media, including cultural/geopolitical identification, to sustain a potential alternative analysis of the Mexican “documentary” or “nonfiction” tradition. This theoretical and methodological mapping will help frame future research aiming for a deeper understanding of the historical dynamics of film production in Mexico.


The history of documentary cinema in Mexico—and in Latin America at large—is a history of precariousness and absence. In a country in which the sustained production of cinema, as well as its commercial distribution, preservation, and scholarly study, has frequently been fragmented, underfunded, limited by the parameters of individual projects, or subject to the vagaries of state or private patronage, this is perhaps no surprise. The intention of this chapter, though, is not to lay out an account of the material conditions (or scarcity thereof) in which films have been historically made, screened, and studied in Mexico. 1 Rather, I intend to account for the underlying implications of precariousness as a structuring discourse in published accounts of cinema in the country, and to offer a glimpse of some creative strategies that present-day filmmakers, archivists, and scholars have proposed to confront it.

As we will see below, writers offering historical accounts of cinema in Mexico—particularly but not exclusively of documentary cinema—have frequently resorted to the language of the precarious, constructing their object of study, following the modern sense of the term, as something “at risk of falling, collapse, or similar accident; unsound, unsafe, rickety.” 2 I will also refer here, though, to a slightly different meaning of the term that alludes to its etymological root: the Latin “precarius,” meaning “depending on the favour of another person,” and by extension, the later English sense of “dependency on chance or circumstance.” 3 All senses of the word have been mobilized extensively in recent decades in critical work on artistic, poetic, and activist praxis (mainly but not exclusively in Europe) that is symptomatic of and/or resistant to the neoliberal regime of individualism, flexibility, and social insecurity. 4 Much of this work draws in turn on Judith Butler’s concept of “precarious life” that equates humanity with an ethical awakenness to the vulnerability and precariousness (dependence on recognition) of the other. 5 Although the idea of the precarization of cultural production and social formations in European neoliberalism can be overlain at least in part onto developments in the cultural, artstic, and social fields in Mexico over the last few decades, 6 the scenario under analysis here reveals a much longer backstory of the precarious nature of film production and scholarship, which goes right back to the supposed heyday of state-led industrial production.

The initial section of this chapter will thus attempt a reading of the way in which early film scholarship in Mexico from the 1940s, as well as later scholarship on documentary film, has often framed its object of study as a lamentably absent or vulnerable artifact, be it in terms of its materiality, its industrial development, or of its capacity to be charted and understood in a historical, scholarly fashion. I will then turn to more recent tendencies in filmmaking, archival, and academic practices that turn the idea of (documentary) film as a precarious object on its head by converting it into a point of departure, reflecting on broader trends in media and cultural theory that focus on the fragmentary and transitory nature of cinema, and on precariousness as a platform for critical praxis.

Charting Terrain: The Precariousness of (Documentary) Film Scholarship

When the journalist José María Sánchez García set about researching and writing his pioneering “Historia del cine mexicano,” published in its most complete form during the early 1950s, 7 one of the major obstacles he faced was an absence of primary filmic and documentary sources: a problem whose origin, he felt, lay partly in the print media’s traditional “indifference, if not disdain” for the medium. 8 His account (covering fiction and nonfiction production for the entire silent period) was thus written for the most part on the basis of what he saw as the relatively unreliable tools of personal memory and oral history. As he noted in his introduction:

My richest seam of information has been the very people involved (directors, producers, photographers, artists, etc.), but incredible though it may sound, very few of them recall reliable facts, and fewer still had the foresight to retain programmes, press clippings, photographs or other documents that might bear witness to their activities or those of others. 9

Subsequent scholars of the topic came up against similar problems. Critic and historian Emilio García Riera 10 followed on Sánchez García’s heels citing, above all, the inaccessibility of primary sources due to the loss of much of the country’s film production, the lack of a national film archive with a systematic preservation policy, 11 and the exhorbitant fees that private collectors and rights holders charged to view what little film material remained. García Riera, like the amateur critic Francisco Pineda Alcalá, also linked the precariousness of film scholarship to that of the film industry itself in Mexico, which he claimed, at the time of writing, was largely lacking in aesthetic quality, critical insight, and future prospects as either an educational or an industrially viable medium due to monopolistic practices and mismanagement. 12 Moreover, even when research screenings were possible, the conditions were not always ideal. By the early 1970s, when film historian Aurelio de los Reyes—whose work on the social history of silent cinema in Mexico played a key role in the institutionalization and professionalization of film studies within Mexican academia from the 1970s onwards—wanted to write the history of the actuality films shot and exhibited during the Mexican revolution, his training as a professional historian led him to gain extensive access to documentary sources such as newspaper archives and collections of official and private documents. These were sources on which Sánchez García and García Riera had failed to draw in anywhere near as much depth as De los Reyes, writing as they did more from the perspectives of journalism and film criticism, and seeking to write overviews more than exhaustive social histories of cinema. But when it came to film material, things were little better than for his predecessors. For instance, De los Reyes tells how Edmundo Gabilondo, a former film exhibitor and one of the most important private collectors of vintage footage at the time, “fortunately for me, kept a huge archive of films from the Revolution, but unfortunately for me, he guarded it at least as jealously as the other custodians of Mexico’s film heritage.” 13 Gabilondo repeatedly blocked the budding historian’s attempts to view footage in any systematic way during the late 1960s and early 1970s, more interested as he was in chopping the old newsreels up, removing their intertitles, and using them as raw material for the historical compilation documentary on the Mexican revolution that he dreamt of making than in facilitating academic study. 14

Consequently, De los Reyes’ painstaking history of Mexican silent cinema, 15 like many other film-historical narratives across the continent, is constructed mainly on the basis of secondary sources. Rather than simply lamenting the fact, though, De los Reyes built his film-historical research agenda around it, critiquing his forerunners for a lack of methodological rigor 16 and arguing that “film history is not written solely on the basis of films or the process of their production, […but] it also refers to distribution, circulation, exhibition and consumption, so [films] are not indispensible.” 17 That is to say, if the conditions for researching Mexican silent cinema were precarious—both in the modern sense of lacking a solid institutional or methodological backdrop and in the older senses of dependent on chance (the haphazard way in which parts of the country’s film heritage have survived) or on the will or whim of others (producers, collectors, bureaucrats, the fallible memories of surviving protagonists of the film business)—an anti-textual method was called for, which recognized that film history needs to account not just for the film itself but for a whole network of operations, which in turn can be revealed by studying printed materials, archival documents, and other secondary sources.

If the research mentioned so far focuses at least in part on what has become the most canonical and, by now, probably the most extensively researched period of Mexican (and perhaps Latin American) documentary film history—the Mexican revolution of 1910 to 1917—the discourse of the precarious hardly dissipates for other periods. Save a few exceptions (the “new cinemas” of the 1960s and 1970s; contemporary documentary to a limited extent), the wider history of Mexican documentary film is largely unwritten or at best exceptionalist and canonical, focusing on notable films or filmmakers or on singular moments, in the absence of any sense of a more or less continuous production. Back in 1952—at around the same time that Sánchez García was publishing his silent film chronicles—the US critic Richard Griffith stated that Latin America was largely lacking “a will to use the film for public enlightenment” through the production of documentaries, citing what he saw as just a few honorable exceptions: for instance Redes (Emilio Gómez Muriel and Paul Strand, 1934) and, perhaps rather less plausibly, the fiction feature La perla (Emilio Fernández, 1947). Griffith claimed that “while the Mexican fiction film industry has experienced a great revival […], there is no sign of interest among its craftsmen in the documentary form, much less in the public purposes to which it could be put.” 18

Griffith’s assertion seems understandable given his inevitable dependence on theatrical releases and occasional museum or film society screenings in the US. Indeed, this problem of absent sources needs to be understood, I think, in relation to cultural questions of taste and value judgements about artistic worth. Such judgements are linked in turn to the fact that film history and film criticism (at least for the period beginning with the onset of the sound era) have traditionally focused their attentions on the fiction feature that lies at the center of theatrical exhibition and that until relatively recently has held the attention of film archivists. 19 This has been to the detriment of the study of potentially more abundant materials, albeit less aesthetically pleasing ones, that lie at the margins of the mainstream film exhibition business (for instance advertisements and newsreels), or non-theatrical pictures such as educational documentaries, government propaganda, or travelogues. 20 To cite another foundational work in the field, Emilio García Riera’s almost incommensurably exhaustive charting of Mexican cinema from the onset of the sound era, written and updated over several decades from the late 1960s, focuses almost exclusively on the fiction feature, his cinephile/critic’s eye combining with a lack of sources on nonfiction film to relegate to the margins all but a handful of documentaries that boast artistic merit such as Memorias de un mexicano (Carmen Toscano, 1950) or the documentary shorts made in different regions of Mexico in 1952 by German-born photographer Walter Reuter (El Botas, La brecha ) and Francisco de Villar ( Tierra de chicle ). 21 In 1990 José Rovirosa, whose Miradas a la realidad is still one of the very few books dedicated to Mexican documentary film, ventured that its absence from both movie theaters and the writings of film critics was down to a combination of indifference on the part of audiences and a general association with demagoguery and “official and officious” institutional propaganda. 22 And much more recently, in the most systematic attempt yet to carry out a historical survey of Mexican documentary cinema, film historian Guadalupe Ochoa has noted:

The silent era aside, the documentary film has been hidden, dependent, undervalued, almost unknown by insiders and outsiders alike; its memory has been conveyed only from mouth to mouth, from one documentary filmmaker to another, from teacher to student, from friend to friend. Some even believe that it is a recent development. 23

Ochoa’s complaint is borne out in the entry on Mexico in Ian Aitkin’s Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, 24 which reduces non-fiction production after the revolutionary era and before the incipient new cinema of the late 1950s to little more than Carmen Toscano’s aforementioned monumental historical compilation film, Memorias de un mexicano (1950). 25 Elsewhere in the same volume, Michael Chanan explains that during this period “Latin American documentary was confined, with little exception, to minor examples of conventional subgenres like the travelogue or the scientific documentary,” since the region lacked the confluence of state and private-led enterprise that might have spurred a documentary movement along the lines of, say, the classical British documentary of the 1930s, which grew up on the back of a considerably developed production and distribution network of 16mm educational documentary film. 26 Although Latin America indeed failed to produce anything on the scale of the documentary movements of some of the hegemonic film-producing countries in the 1930s or 1940s, Mexico did in fact have a 16mm production and distribution movement from as early as the 1940s, with one journal proclaiming the arrival of “the era of 16mm cinema” in 1948. 27 At this time and during the following decade, substandard gauges were promoted on multiple fronts: as a way of fomenting the production and exhibition of the fiction feature that was the staple of the country’s film industry; as the terrain on which the country should prepare for the imminent arrival of television; and as a growing tool of audiovisual education, with private funding and government incentives alike being channelled into the adaptation to a Mexican context of existing foreign materials, as well as the local production of new educational documentaries to be screened in schools, churches, clubs, and homes, among other non-theatrical venues. 28 Although the majority of this material has not attained a canonical status anywhere approaching that of classical British documentary, future collaborative work on the topic—together with the findings of Ochoa’s book mentioned above—may well signal a more consistent and less precarious production of non-fiction pictures than previously thought.

Embracing Loss: The Precariousness of the Film Medium

The narrative of documentary/nonfiction film as structurally absent, precarious, and/or lacking legitimacy as an object of study that I have outlined here, though, is now very much under revision. For a start, there is a decidedly media-archaeological tendency among a number of filmmakers, video artists, and other agents in the cultural and artistic fields who have exerted considerable investigative and creative effort in order to expand and deepen audiences’ understandings of Mexico’s audiovisual archive. One of the most prominent among them is director and collector Gregorio Rocha, who came up against precisely the kind of paucity of information and historical sources discussed above in his obsessive search for what he called the “holy grail” of Mexican film history: a lost movie entitled La vida del general Villa (Christy Cabanne, 1914) , filmed on the battlefields of the Mexican revolution and starring both Raoul Walsh and the popular caudillo Villa himself. But for Rocha, the precarious nature of this corner of Mexico’s film heritage was not solely a cause for frustration; rather, he turned it to his advantage. While his self-reflexive, experimental documentary Los rollos perdidos de Pancho Villa (Gregorio Rocha, 2003) is shot with a certain sense of melancholy at the loss of the celluloid records of the past, Rocha finds narrative tension and builds the mock-heroism of his first-person protagonist (filmmaker-as-archivist-as-detective) upon the very slippery nature of Mexican cinema’s historical archive, which is seen as being both elusive (we don’t know where the film we are looking for might be) and expansive (it might be hiding in any number of public institutions and private collections worldwide) (see Fig. 2.1). Rocha’s film is cut through by powerful visual motifs that insist upon the fragility of the film-historical record, and upon the key role played by the subjectivity of the researcher who chases after it in determining its meaning. For those wishing to write a more or less exhaustive history of nonfiction production during a given period, contingency and fragmentation are a problem. For those interested in using contingency and fragmentation as a deconstructive creative platform, less so.
Fig. 2.1

Los rollos perdidos de Pancho Villa (Gregorio Rocha, 2003)

Rocha’s two documentaries based on his quest for the Pancho Villa film (Los rollos perdidos and Acme & Co., 2006), together with later projects on non-standard gauge amateur footage ( Amateurs , c.2010) and on early documentary cinema ( Toscanito , 2010), resonate strongly with the work over the last two decades or so of audiovisual and media artists such as Ximena Cuevas, Jesse Lerner, Bruno Varela, María Inés Roque, Andrés Pardo, María José Alós, and Michael Ramos (see Fig. 2.2). Over that period these and many other moving-image creators have amassed a considerable corpus of feature-length and (predominantly) short documentary and experimental films that obsessively unearth, research, celebrate, interrogate, undermine, refigure, falsify, or otherwise appropriate a whole array of film, television, and online moving-image material both from the cinematic mainstream (the commercial fiction feature) and from lesser-known, overlooked, or traditionally disparaged corners of media history such as amateur footage, advertising films, pornography, newsreel and television news reports, or institutional documentary. 29 Given the relative difficulty in both obtaining such variegated raw footage and in exhibiting their own work to a wider audience, many such media creators have become deeply embedded in both preservation and exhibition activities, with a symbiotic relationship developing between alternative media production, the preservation of non-standard and non-hegemonic media-archival artifacts at both established and new institutions, and the forging of new virtual and physical exhibition spaces. Some of the artists mentioned here and many others have converged in recent years around projects such as the Archivo Memoria collection at the Cineteca Nacional, which has acquired, digitalized, and exhibited all manner of amateur footage since its establishment in 2010; the new Permanencia Voluntaria film archive, recently set up in Tepoztlán, Morelos, by filmmakers Viviana García Besné and Michael Ramos and academic Paulina Suárez to preserve and exhibit Mexican popular genre cinema; the Jornadas de Reapropiación, founded by Michael Ramos in 2012 as an alternative exhibition space for both newly unearthed footage and new found footage films; or the Encuentro Internacional de Archivistas Audiovisuales in Oaxaca in 2014.
Fig. 2.2

Evangelina, belleza en tres actos (Michael Ramos, 2008), made with found footage from Los platillos voladores (Julián Soler, 1956)

In a sense the instigators of such cultural projects are the heirs of earlier collectors such as the aforementioned Edmundo Gabilondo, for whom the production of montage film (in his case, a historical compilation documentary on the Mexican revolution) was intimately linked with the physical conservation, scholarly study, and, on occasion, exhibition of old footage. But while Gabilondo wanted to erect a linear cinematic history of the Revolution, following in the monumental footsteps of Salvador Toscano’s Memorias de un mexicano (Carmen Toscano, 1950) or Gustavo Carrero’s Epopeyas de la Revolución (1963), today’s filmmakers are participants in a broader trend towards the archival that Hal Foster identifies in contemporary art since the early 2000s, in which artists “are drawn to historical information that is lost or suppressed, and they seek to make it physically present once more.” 30 Such artists, Foster observes, take for granted the fragmentary, chaotic, incomplete, and unstable nature of the artifacts with which they work, and the often arbitrary connections that they create between them: a non-totalizing “wish to relate – to probe a misplaced past, to collate some of its traces, to ascertain what remains for the present.” 31 For many of the Mexican artists mentioned here, though, this is not a wholly aesthetic concern. Precisely because of the state of institutional precariousness in which the materials they wish to resignify are (or are not) preserved, their attempts in their artistic praxis to find non-structured and non-hierarchical points of contact between diverse fragments of media history often coexist with a pragmatic interest in following established institutional archival norms, adapting them to local circumstance, and developing new ones as they seek to bring material stability to and create public knowledge of the media artifacts with which they work.

The manner in which audiovisual artists simultaneously embrace loss and try to prevent the material and semantic decay of media artifacts is in some ways echoed by film scholarship. While film archives and film scholars have always collaborated to varying degrees, in recent years a number of initiatives originating both in academia and in the archival sphere have sought to further bridge the gap between the vast holdings of the film archives (whose catalogues have been—and in some cases still are—incomplete and/or inaccessible to researchers) and the scarcity of historical research (and even more so, of theoretical elaboration) on them. These include the “El cine y el archivo” seminar held at UNAM and UACM from 2011 to 2014, with the participation of both academics and archivists from the Cineteca, Filmoteca UNAM, Televisa, and elsewhere, and the ongoing “Seminario Experiencias del Archivo,” at the Cineteca Nacional since 2015. This confluence of interests has at least something to do with Mexico’s local inflection of the “orphan film” moment from the late 1990s (as well as the more recently coined “bastard film” movement), 32 in which a global interest in legitimating the preservation and study of “neglected,” “alternative or nondominant media” 33 has dovetailed with a traditionally strong and dominant historical tradition within Mexican film studies. The adoption of “orphans” into Anglophone film and media studies came on the back of the so-called “archival turn” of the 1990s, in which previously dominant traditions of textual analysis and “grand theory” 34 gave way to a discipline-wide understanding that “history itself intersected significantly with film theory and deserved the serious attention that, for a long time, it had not received.” 35

But in Mexico (and in much of Latin America), that text-centered tradition was never predominant, partly due to the very difficulty in locating study prints I have outlined above: textual analysis and theoretical elaboration is a more recent development emerging out of communication and literary studies, as in the case of the Sepancine seminar run by Lauro Zavala at UAM-Xochimilco in Mexico City from 2004. 36 As moving-image scholarship in Mexico turns its attentions towards all manner of mainstream, alternative, and previously overlooked audiovisual sources, the ongoing challenge now is to ask how theoretical and textual-analysis methodologies that have previously been seen as alien to film history—not to mention other fields such as visual anthropology or cultural studies—might be selectively appropriated so as to fruitfully intersect with the more established historical strands of enquiry, as the range of potential sources grows exponentially. This expanding filmography is due in large part to the increasing popularity of film as an object of study by film scholars, historians, anthropologists, and researchers from other neighboring fields of study (such as sociology, law, and philosophy), and a greater openness on the part of archives to working with academics.

As we face the evident impossibility of preserving and, even more so, of viewing the great majority of material that is now potentially available to us, we might bear in mind archivist and theorist Paolo Cherchi Usai’s 37 reflections on the materially and semantically unstable and precarious nature of the cinematic medium itself. In Cherchi Usai’s account, film’s physical survival is deeply dependent on both time and external atmospheric conditions; and the viewer’s understanding of it is contingent on a series of material, physiological, and cultural mediations: “If the object to be analysed is not the evidence […] of a visual phenomenon but rather its simulation in the form of a reproduction (in itself the reflection of a current technique or taste), then making meaning of it is, at best, a fascinating yet empty exercise, at worst, another kind of ideology: false consciousness, false representation.” 38 Although much criticized among his fellow archivists, Cherchi Usai’s reflections on the supposed “death of cinema” serve as a useful reminder of the complex series of operations and dependencies that need to be accounted for in order to come to at least a partial understanding of (if not indeed to “make meaning of”) an inherently elusive and precarious medium. It also suggests a method that tends to cast its net rather wider than would a canonical approach to film history whereby the scholar attempts to probe in depth the various levels of meaning of a select few “great” examples of cinematic art. Much work in the field of media archaeology has confronted these difficulties in historicizing the moving image by raising—in Vivian Sobchack’s words—“the possibility of the ‘presence’ of the past in the present” through the excavation and rereading of archival fragments. That is to say, rather than trying to pin down and idealize the fragment’s meaning in its original context, a media-archaeological approach asks how “metonymic and material fragments or traces of the past […] can be activated and thus realized once again in our practical, operative, and sensual engagement with them.” 39 While such insights about cinema’s vulnerability on several fronts permeate many pieces created by some of the media practitioners mentioned above, scholarly studies of non-hegemonic media artifacts torn between, say, historical contextualization and textual analysis, would also do well to face up to their implications for future studies.

Recent and ongoing work within Mexican film studies is facing up to such problems through methodologically rich case studies of materials as heterogeneous as newsreels, amateur and experimental movies, travelogues, pornography, advertising films, community workshop films, and institutional pictures made by state bodies and international organisms. 40 Whether or not much of this production amounts to “documentary,” “nonfiction,” or “propaganda” cinema is open to discussion. Without having time here to rehearse a set of now well-established debates on the issue, 41 we can safely say that a good part of the footage that archivists and scholars are unearthing in state and private archives fall well short of Ian Aitkin’s humanist, Lukácsian definition of the documentary as a realist form that “possesse[s] the ability to render the ordinary as beautiful, mysterious, enchanting and resonant with human meaning.” 42 Indeed, discussions of such material seem to throw up terminological uncertainties—is this or is this not a documentary; does it or does it not follow the strictures of propaganda; is this a newsreel, a reportage, or an actuality film; is this really pornographic? Isn’t this “fiction” film every bit as instructive or propagandistic as that “documentary”? Doesn’t this “documentary” try to interpellate me through its construction of narrative point-of-view every bit as much as that “fiction” film? I would argue that the discourse of the scarcity or precariousness of Mexican “documentary” film—at least for the period that is my main center of attention here (c.1935–1955)—has a lot to do with the fact that the terms that define what we are looking for are too often normative and imposed from elsewhere. Rather than trying to write a new grand narrative that might presume to declare what we can or cannot canonize as new finds in national “documentary” history, we might do better to construct new definitions and new lines of enquiry from the actual dynamics of the materials that we study.

Here we might take a cue, for instance, from Vicente Sánchez-Biosca and Rafael Tranche’s study of the Spanish Franco-era newsreel NO-DO, which constructs a critique of the existing terms of debate (propaganda, instructive or informative film, etc.) out of a detailed understanding of their source material, rather than imposing preconceived terms on an existing set of audiovisual documents. 43 Paulo Antonio Paranaguá, who has done more than anyone to stimulate new research on Latin American documentary, has put it quite simply: “The first difficulty lies in the very definition of documentary, which often leads to philosophical digressions about reality. Without wanting to get tangled up in these debates, we prefer to outline a historical perspective to try to bring clarity to the problem.” For Paranaguá, this entails a focus on newsreels that constitute “the mainstream of institutional production” in the region, since they were “the only [local] competition offered week after week on the screens of Latin America.” 44 That is to say, we need to rewrite media history from the point of view of what there is, not from that of an unrealized ideal. If this is what has been produced and if these are the mediations that have codified “Mexico” or “Latin America” for generations of audiences, then this is what needs to be understood. This involves researching and writing on moving-picture artifacts that are often hard to access or methodologically difficult to “read” following established film-analysis paradigms—although this is not necessarily cause to advocate the “film scholarship without films” whose potential is tapped, in a different academic context, by Smoodin. 45 I would argue, rather, that a historically informed version of textual analysis might be best equipped to understand this kind of media artifact, and eventually, perhaps, to theorize on the particular types of relationships that it bears to the real.

Such an approach may allow emerging studies in the field to address important questions about newly available “documentary,” “nonfiction,” or “orphan” films without feeling the need to justify their objects of study against the humanist yardstick of what documentary film “should be” (or “should have been”). Rather than worrying whether established methodologies for historicizing, analyzing, and theorizing documentary are appropriate or not for the materials we study, we need to work through, understand, and appropriate those methodologies in such a way as to shed new light on the ways in which moving-image and audiovisual technologies have been used in a whole range of settings during the twentieth century, and on the contemporary resonance that research on them might have for the present day. For instance, a detailed study of some of the holdings of the Cineteca Nacional’s new and already sizeable “Archivo Memoria” project, mentioned above, might reveal valuable information about the ways in which developments in film technology brought about shifts in the relations between aesthetics and discursive power during the twentieth century. Although further research remains to be carried out on the topic, the commercial propaganda films that constitute a good part of the sizeable Luis Osorno Barona collection (within Archivo Memoria) suggests that Osorno, a prolific cinematographer who worked both within and on the margins of Mexican Golden Age cinema, was extremely skillful in his use of color film during the 1940s, shooting commercial travelogues on different regions of Mexico in vibrant tones. While both domestic and global film festival audiences were enthralled by the monochrome tonalities of Emilio Fernández and Gabriel Figueroa’s nationalist melodramas, Osorno Barona was encoding stereotypes of Mexican folklore and modernity through innovative and vigorous uses of polychromatic film stock in far more mundane one-reel travelogues aimed at potential tourists from Mexico, the USA, and beyond, such as Mazatlán (1943), Guadalajara (1943), Ciudad de México Antiguo (1945), and Veracruz, Garden City (1949). Many of the stereotypes that Osorno mobilized some 70 years ago still persist to this day.

The path that I am tracing through the Mexican mediascape of the era sees these apparently frivolous and transitory moving-image products as existing alongside far more solemn “documentary proper” projects such as World Without End : a 1953 picture filmed under the auspices of UNESCO by acclaimed British documentarians Paul Rotha and Basil Wright, who assembled respective film crews in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, and Thailand to make an uplifting paeon to postwar internationalism, promoting the coexistence of modern hygiene and education alongside respect for local tradition and cultural self-determination. Previously published work on this film shows that its production was not an isolated incident, but rather that it formed part of a much broader film production and exhibition program in 1950s Pátzcuaro and the surrounding indigenous communities, in which a wide range of instructional films, travelogues, poetic documentaries, newsreels, cartoons, and even colonial adventure pictures were screened to local audiences as part of an early experiment in grassroots audiovisual education and technology transfer. 46 Further research on this film unit, based at the Cooperación Regional para la Educación de Adultos en América Latina y el Caribe (CREFAL) in Pátzcuaro, promises to reveal the ways in which the still-imperial gaze of 1950s internationalism filtered down to indigenous communities who themselves were encouraged to participate in the production of new documentaries on their local problems to be screened both locally and globally via the United Nations. It should also shed light on a little-known episode of the historical backdrop of today’s community and indigenous video networks.

Such “alternative” or “non-dominant” productions as those mentioned here, then, are not mere historical curiosities or “gaps” waiting to be filled in an ever-expanding grand narrative. They can be seen as part of the underbelly (or the unconscious) of more dominant modes of documentary or fiction film production, which in turn have been partly dependent on the production and circulation of the relatively “minor” travelogues or community documentaries that I have mentioned here. The problem that scholars are increasingly beginning to face is not so much a lack of sources or information characteristic of a precarious object of study, but rather an overwhelming volume of film-historical material waiting to be studied; the many hundreds of hours of footage already digitalized and readily available for research viewing within the Archivo Memoria project are testament to this. But rather than feeling a sense of anguish at the enormity of the task of cataloguing or even mapping this kind of footage available for study in the film archives, researchers might learn something from the approaches of some of the filmmakers discussed in this article: the fragmented nature of our knowledge of such production calls on the researcher to be less exhaustive, more creative, and more involved ourselves in the debates and challenges that archivists face. Although precariousness is still very much a part of contemporary archiving and scholarship, the challenge is to take the transitory nature of the materials with which we work as a point of departure and to work with, not despite, the fact that we are trying to account for what might be seen as both a crumbling and an unfathomable edifice. If precariousness is a sign of the neoliberal times in which we live, to take part in the rescue and reenergizing of scraps of an inherently precarious medium might be taken as a small act of resistence.


  1. 1.

    For recent historical accounts of the material conditions of film production, distribution, exhibition, and censorship in Mexico, see Carmona Álvarez, El Estado y la imagen en movimiento.

  2. 2.

    Peter Gilliver, “Precarious,” Oxford English Dictionary Online, last modified September 15, 2016.

  3. 3.

    Gilliver, “Precarious.”

  4. 4.

    Lorey, “Becoming Common.”

  5. 5.

    Butler, Precarious Life.

  6. 6.

    García Canclini, “Precarious Creativity.”

  7. 7.

    The first version of Sánchez García’s “Historia” was published in 1936–1937; here I refer to the expanded and updated version published in serial form in the journal Cinema Reporter from 1951 to 1954, reproduced in Sánchez García. For information on the many different versions of this work published between 1936 and 1957, see Federico Dávalos Orozco and Carlos Flores Villela, introduction, xv–xxxiv in Sánchez García, Historia del cine mexicano (18961929).

  8. 8.

    Sánchez García, 2. All translations to English are my own unless stated otherwise.

  9. 9.


  10. 10.

    Emilio García Riera, El cine mexicano and “Medio siglo de cine mexicano.”

  11. 11.

    The country’s two main film archives had not yet been established when Sánchez García was writing, and were only beginning to be a reality at the time of García Riera’s writings cited here: the Filmoteca UNAM was founded in 1960, and the Cineteca Nacional, Mexico’s legal deposit film archive, not until 1974.

  12. 12.

    García Riera’s argument here is profoundly linked to his participation in the Grupo Nuevo Cine that aimed to shake up and renew the Mexican film industry in the early 1960s, and echoes earlier critiques of the perceived mediocrity, confusion, and backwardness of Mexican cinema such as Quiroz, Méndez Berman and Mar, and Contreras Torres, all of whom offer different proposals to restructure the Mexican film industry. On the discourses of crisis and renewal in Mexican cinema in the context of the 1960s, see Baugh, “Developing History/Historicizing Development,” and Wood, “Renovación, patrimonio y cultura cinematográfica.”

  13. 13.

    De los Reyes, 1995, 135.

  14. 14.

    The Gabilondo collection now forms the backbone of the Filmoteca UNAM’s collection of Mexican revolutionary actuality footage.

  15. 15.

    De los Reyes, 2013.

  16. 16.

    De los Reyes, 1983, 25–39.

  17. 17.

    De los Reyes, 2010, 29.

  18. 18.

    Road and Griffith, 341–342.

  19. 19.

    There is also a clear hierarchy in both archival practices and scholarly studies of the fiction feature that favors a perceived tradition of quality over less prestigious productions such as the popular low-budget fiction features known as churros; see, however, works such as De la Vega, El cine de Juan Orol, and, more recently, Ruétalo and Tierney, Latsploitation, Exploitation Cinemas, and Latin America, for serious endeavors to gain a complex understanding of low-grade commercial cinema in Mexico and Latin America.

  20. 20.

    We might add underground experimental work to the list of under-studied materials in Mexican and Latin American film history: this is also due in good part to the scarcity and scant distribution of the original prints and the absence of a systematic preservation policy. González and Lerner, Mexperimental Cinema, and Vázquez Mantecón, El cine super 8 en México, are pathbreaking studies of the topic.

  21. 21.

    García Riera, Historia documental del cine mexicano.

  22. 22.

    Rovirosa, 9.

  23. 23.

    Ochoa Ávila, 13.

  24. 24.

    Aitkin, The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film.

  25. 25.

    Arredondo, “México.”

  26. 26.

    Chanan, 525.

  27. 27.

    “Características del cine de 16mm,” Club 16mm, vol. 1, no. 1 (March 1948): 25.

  28. 28.

    My own research on this topic is still at an early stage and falls beyond the bounds of this chapter. For more information, see the journal Club 16 mm, published monthly in Mexico City from 1948 to 1951 by Producciones EMA (España-México-Argentina, producer of the Noticiero Mexicano from 1943).

  29. 29.

    Key examples include De cuerpo presente (Marcela Fernández Violante, 1998), Cama (Ximena Cuevas, 1998), Papá Iván (María Inés Roque, 2000), Una piedra en el camino (Carlos Cuarón, 2011), Autorretrato apropiado (María José Alos, 2013), and Manifiesto México (comp. Michael Ramos, 2013); for a more systematic but by no means exhaustive discussion of this filmography see Fernández, Wood, and Valdez, “Apuntes para una filmografía de las prácticas del reempleo.”

  30. 30.

    Foster, 32.

  31. 31.


  32. 32.

    According to the official website of the Bastard Film Encounter, held since 2013, “The Orphan Film Symposium introduced us to films that had been orphaned by their creators or caretakers. We hope to expand on this idea by looking at films that are bastards—ill-conceived or received; embarrassing or beyond the bounds of acceptability; poor in conception or execution; undesirable to those who should be caring for them; proof of something that should have never happened,” accessed September 18, 2016.

  33. 33.

    Streible, 124.

  34. 34.

    Bordwell and Carroll, Post-theory: Reconstructing Film Studies.

  35. 35.

    Smoodin, 2014, 96–100.

  36. 36.

    For a detailed account of the history of film studies in Mexico, see Zavala, “Los estudios sobre cine en México.”

  37. 37.

    Eric Smoodin, 2014, 96–100.

  38. 38.

    Cherchi Usai, 85. As Laura Mulvey subsequently observed, Cherchi Usai’s theses on the death of cinema, which themselves emerged out of an existential crisis around the nature the film medium brought on by its centenary in 1995, were “complicated aesthetically by a crisis of the photographic sign as an index” (Mulvey, 18) induced by the transition towards digital technologies.

  39. 39.

    Sobchack, 324.

  40. 40.

    See, for instance, Vázquez Mantecón, El cine super 8 en México, Acosta Urquidi, “Harry Wright y el Cinema Club de México,” and Solís Ortega, “El cuerpo del delito, los delitos del cuerpo.”

  41. 41.

    For discussions of “documentary” and “nonfiction” film see, for instance, Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, and Weinrichter, Desvíos de lo real.

  42. 42.

    Aitkin, 69.

  43. 43.

    Tranche and Sánchez Biosca, El cine super 8 en México: 1970–1989.

  44. 44.

    Paranaguá, 16–25.

  45. 45.

    Smoodin, 2.

  46. 46.

    Del Moral González, Cine documental en Pátzcuaro.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • David M. J. Wood
    • 1
  1. 1.Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAMMexico CityMexico

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