Armed with only a stuffed jalapeño wearing a sombrero, a Corona Light, and a pistol, Judge Diane Wild leads the revolution against barebones DVDs.
Catch a glimpse of what the New York Times called "the world's first postmodern revolution."
Vancouver filmmaker Nettie Wild (who I have no connection to, despite her cool last name and place of residence) went to Mexico in 1996-97 to chronicle the Zapatista uprising in the southern state of Chiapas. A Place Called Chiapas is the result of her journey with a 16 mm camera, and it's generally a balanced look at a revolution that captured imaginations worldwide. Though a lot has changed since then, the documentary is a good primer for that point in history.
On January 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. That same day, an indigenous guerrilla group calling itself the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) descended on the capital of Chiapas, San Cristóbal de las Casas, armed with AK-47s and sticks. They were partly protesting NAFTA, which was the catalyst for the Mexican government to stop distributing land to the campesinos in order to make way for large farms for exported crops. The roots of the revolution go far deeper than that trade agreement, though Wild's film touches on (but gives short shrift to) the complex social issues around self-governance, education, and the unequal distribution of resources.
The EZLN seized several hundred ranches, and in the resulting conflict with the federal army, up to 500 people died before the Zapatistas fled to the surrounding mountainous jungle. (A warning for sensitive viewers of this unrated film: though shot long after the uprising, there are graphic pictures included of the dead and wounded, including children.)
A charismatic leader emerged from these shocking events—the balaclava-clad Subcomandante Marcos, who stood out from his Mayan cohorts due to his height, lighter skin, and impeccable Spanish. Later revealed to be a professor of communications and philosophy from Mexico City, Marcos was initially a mysterious figure who acted as an eloquent spokesperson.
Marcos headed an Internet-savvy, merchandising-era revolution. EZLN demands were posted to their website, which was also used to enlist the support of the international community. A Place Called Chiapas shows Marcos posing for Marie Claire magazine and signing autographs. "The media is Marcos' long range missile," Wild claims.
Dolls representing Marcos and the other comandantes were sold to supporters, and today, semi-aware tourists lap up these dolls while wearing their Che Guevara t-shirts. (Yes, I admit, I bought one a couple of years ago, for the same kitsch value as the stuffed jalapeño wearing a sombrero, sporting a moustache, and holding a Corona and pistol I picked up.)
If Marcos and his followers are selling a revolution, Wild is not quite buying it. Her subtle thesis is that the Zapatistas' ideals, while noble, haven't translated into concrete improvements for the people the movement purports to speak for. She captures some supporters expressing exhaustion at the constant dialogue and peace talks with little action. After many rounds of negotiations, a single agreement on indigenous rights was signed, with provisions for self-government and control over education. In the documentary, we learn that five months later, nothing had been implemented. That did not change for years, and even then, the original agreement was watered down.
Though the documentary is obviously sympathetic to the Zapatista cause, if critical of their results, Wild also interviews a family whose ranch was seized by the EZLN in the uprising. They point out that in the three years since the Zapatistas took over, the land and buildings have declined into disarray, and the schools, churches, and recreation fields the Zapatista villagers dream of remain dreams.
Marcos himself says the movement is more about ideas than bullets, and as proof of this, Wild follows the plight of Zapatista-supporting refugees from a village taken over by a paramilitary group whose sympathies lie with the federal army. After one of his speeches, she asks Marcos on camera whether the Zapatistas can protect their supporters, and is denied a one-on-one interview because of the challenge. She eventually does get a brief interview, but Marcos is condescending and dismissive of the filmmakers, and unable to sell his ideas in a soundbite.
Wild trivializes the revolution somewhat with her focus on the Encuentro, a 5-day festive gathering in the course of a years-long rebellion. Hundreds of people from all over the world came together in support of the Zapatistas, including international media. As Wild puts it, the visitors were "searching for something new to believe in….For them, the encuentro is a kind of post-Glasnost revolutionary Woodstock—without the acid."
Shot in rugged conditions, it's not surprising that the source film shows a fair bit of visible damage. The DVD transfer does a decent job, and there are some nearly pristine scenery shots showing off the gorgeous Chiapas landscape mixed in with the grittier and grainier action shots. The DVD is presented in an odd aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with a black bar at the bottom of the screen, allowing space for the mandatory subtitles. The narration is available in either English or Spanish. The sound quality is good, rendering the dialogue clearly, but it's barely a basic stereo separation.
Because the documentary itself is now dated, this is a release that was crying for extras explaining later developments. In lieu of that, we get an insert called "Zapatista History and Chronology" included in the DVD case, and covering events up to January 2005.
Despite an obvious sympathy for the cause, A Place Called Chiapas is no cheerleader of the Zapatistas and offers no easy answers about victims and heroes, which makes it a good introduction to the complex history of this most modern Mexican revolution.
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