Photo: Ficunam 2022

By Nicholas Vroman

Helmut Dosantos’ Gods of Mexico (Dioses de Mexico, 2022) is a startlingly inventive ethnographic meditation on indigenous communities in Mexico. The film is divided into 3 sections – a fourth if you happen to be able to see the longer version at the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City (as explained in the interview). The first part, White, follows a community involved in traditional processing and manufacture of salt – from collecting bucketfuls of briny water to spreading and raking salt as the water evaporates under the sun on big white rooftop “salt pans.” Their activity is intercut with the work of two men who dig a deep hole on the edge of a mesa to create a giant furnace in which they burn stones to make lime – the very lime that is used to line and seal the surfaces of the saltpans. White is shot with striking compositions, highlighting the natural landscape and the gentle human interventions of lo-tech industry – ovens that will disappear into the earth and simple salt making that relies on buckets and brooms. The look and structure of this sequence feels almost heroic and a bit old-fashioned, with a touch of Eisenstein style mythmaking juxtaposed with the heroic visual narratives of Pare Lorentz and John Grierson.

The final sequence, Black, is a slice of fly on the wall filmmaking, digging deep into the lives of miners. This stark and murky section highlights the drudgery of men stuck in the bowels of the earth digging for what? It is never explained. Their labor, of a slightly more contemporary variety than the traditions of the first section of the film, is still old-fashioned, but more of the capitalist extraction of resources and exploitation of labor style. These two sections bookend an astonishing sequence of “portraits” of indigenous peoples from the North, West, East and South of Mexico. Shot at a distance, framing whole bodies. No close ups. No words. No descriptions of who they are or where they are from. No context short of what one sees in the frame. Each portrait is a long, still shot of an individual or a small group, unmoving, with maybe the sounds of the landscape they inhabit, the wind rushing by rustling plants by which they are posing, or the silence of the earth that surrounds them.

The shots are reminiscent of early ethnographic portraiture – think of Martin Gusinde in the Tierra del Fuego in the 1920s or Edward Curtis’ The North American Indian portfolios made from the 1890s to the 1920s. The artificiality is highlighted, yet the collective breadth of this collection moves toward a moving crescendo. These moving, yet still, images of people, the cultures they represent, the presentations of the work and activities they do, flow across the screen allowing the viewer to look, really look at these individuals who become the gods of Mexico. Desistfilm talked with Helmut Dosantos about his journey into making Gods of Mexico, give some context and background and to tell some stories of its production and the people involved.

DesistFilm: Can you tell me a bit about yourself? How you started making films?

Helmut Dosantos: I started – when did I actually start? – Back in the late 90s, I was living in Paris. That was my crib until early 2000s. I was mostly hustling as a photo assistant. But as I began shooting my own pictures, I realized that still photography felt somewhat too constricting for me. So I took the plunge and made my first short film; sent it out to a bunch of film schools around Europe—hoping to get into the Czech Film Academy – and I made the cut! Thus, I packed my bags and relocated to Prague. Later, I spent some time at the EICTV, a great film school near Havana, just to immerse myself in a different environment and gather more inspiration. Then, after Cuba, I jumped headfirst into my own projects, you know, primarily short films and a fictional mid-length that I directed and co-wrote with a friend in Buffalo, New York. A very indie production that took forever to finish! By that time, I had already settled in Mexico, where I embarked on two major projects: a scripted feature and a documentary: Gods of Mexico. The fictional project was one of those undertakings that perhaps most filmmakers encounter especially early on in their careers—a project that never sees the light of day. With Gods of Mexico, on the other hand, I managed to push forward. Two of my classmates from Prague joined as cinematographers and together we ventured deep into Mexico, shooting footage that was then edited into a teaser used to seek additional funding. The effort paid off, as we secured one of the major Mexican Film Funds. And this paved the way for starting principal photography, which began in April 2018. That marked the beginning of Gods of Mexico.

In the meantime, I co-produced three other films. Two of them overlapped with the pre-production of Gods of Mexico, and the third came together while I was editing it. The third project was Atlantis by Yuri Ancarani. I served as one of the Executive Producers for that film and felt elated to be part of it! Atlantis premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Then it toured numerous festivals and museums including MoMA. The other two films I co-produced were Tony Driver, which also premiered in Venice – at the Venice Critics’ Week – and Prayers for the Stolen by Tatiana Huezo that premiered at Cannes and received significant acclaim. That’s my journey summed up so far.

DesistFilm: On to Gods of Mexico. What inspired you to start this project, in particular, whether it was feelings about indigenous cultures, images or any sort of ideas that sparked your imagination?

Helmut Dosantos: The initial spark came from an image that Kacper Czubak, one the other cinematographer, and I captured in 2013 during a scouting trip for that film that was ultimately never made. We took this one great shot—this striking black and white Portrait… but unfortunately it didn’t make the final cut due to being filmed with a lower-resolution camera that didn’t match the quality of the rest of the footage. However, the image was so incredibly evocative and powerful that it ended up igniting the idea for the entire film. Gods of Mexico is organized in three chapters. But it wasn’t always the case; at the beginning, I was thinking, maybe I’ll just make another mid-length film of moving portraits—drawing inspiration from a short documentary called Portret by Sergei Loznitsa, a filmmaker whose work I greatly admire. However, as I traveled throughout Mexico, I realized that a film made of only portraits wouldn’t do justice to all the indigenous communities scattered across the country… communities who are constantly hustling to preserve their cultural identities.  Something was missing, and that something was human labor—the representation of labor intricately connected to the land through daily toil, through work routines repeated and honed over centuries. This led me to think that mining, particularly salt mining was a fitting element to begin the film with. Salt has always played an essential role in human existence: people have always sought salt for sustenance, not only using it as food but also as currency—as a medium of exchange.

The middle section that follows the salt flats breaks the linear narrative structure and consists of a large body of black and white portraits featuring indigenous peoples seamlessly blended into their rural surroundings. These images show how vast and diverse Mexico is. That Mexico is in fact many Mexicos. That there isn’t only one narrative, but many. And that it’s paramount to preserve all these different cultural identities. Then, in the last section of the film, we delve deep underground into an antimony mine located in the north of Mexico, bringing the theme of age-old labor full circle. Mining isn’t merely a backdrop; it’s one of the country’s cornerstones that have played a vital role in shaping Mexico into what it is today. There is also a previous version of the film, which runs an additional 40 minutes and features an extra chapter about the Afro-descendant communities of the southern Pacific coast. This version is planned for release in 5 or 10 years as the Director’s Cut. However, we have already had the opportunity to screen it exclusively in Mexico, both at the National Cinematheque (Cineteca Nacional) and the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico City.

Desistfilm: In regard to the first part of the film, is that a lime kiln? The guys who are on the mesa who are collecting the ashes – is that what they’re producing there?

Helmut Dosantos: That is correct. They are making lime, and it’s a clear reflection of the syncretism that occurred after the Conquista. Those salt flats have been around since pre-Columbian times, while the technique of the lime oven itself was brought by the Spaniards. It’s a method that can be traced back to the Egyptians and the Romans. Where we filmed, lime has been essential for making, maintaining, and repairing the saltpans. These two practices have coexisted and relied on each other for centuries. However, this production of lime is facing an imminent demise. In fact, we can already consider it dead since the only two individuals who still know how to make it in the region are too old to continue, and the younger generations don’t want to learn. Cement has now replaced lime. But the interesting thing is that while lime can last for around 80 to 100 years, cement requires frequent repairs as it tends to crack every 10 years. So, when it was finally decided to film the lime production together with the salt extraction, every single salt harvester wanted a sack of lime for himself! This particular shoot was the longest among the 15 we did. In the film, the lime production might seem to happen overnight, but in reality, it takes a full 45 days.

Desistfilm: To me, it strikes me that the first part, White, shows these kind of “traditional” though slightly industrial techniques of producing salt and producing lime. And then it’s juxtaposed at the end with… it’s not totally contemporary… but a more contemporary, exploitive manufacture, or mining of minerals, which strikes me that as indigenous populations, if not indentured into working in mines, were exploited to work in the mines. To me there’s this juxtaposition, as you pointed out, of traditional work and the industrial foundations of the Mexican state that starts in the mines… and continues in the mines.

Helmut Dosantos: Indeed. The Europeans came and settled primarily to exploit the land, to extract valuable minerals like silver and gold. They exploited the local populations, brought African slaves, but also many of them came to work in those mines. Especially the mines in the north of Mexico. At the salt flats, the native population still identifies as indigenous: the Popolocas. They may no longer speak their native language, but in other parts of the Mixteca, you’ll still find people who do. And even though they lost their language, they still proudly consider themselves Popolocas. Whereas in the north, where the mine is, it’s a whole different story. People are predominantly mestizos. There aren’t many indigenous working there or in any other mine of the entire Sierra de Catorce, for that matter. Workers are all locals. And life appears frozen in time. They rely on donkeys to transport themselves and their equipment to and from the mines. This is  something that, in Sicily, for example, was happening in the sulfur mines back in the 1950s. As an Italian, it felt like taking a leap into the past. The people living in the sierras have very limited infrastructure. No proper roads, mostly narrow paths, and occasional bumpy gravel roads that regular cars can’t handle. People get around on foot, donkeys, motorcycles… the most fortunate may have a pickup truck. But trucks can’t access many places in the sierra. When we were there in 2014, 2016 and 2018, there was no telephone line or cellular reception either. Our way to communicate with the miners was by leaving notes at the small office located at the mine entrance. Whoever came across the note would pass the message along. Essentially, we would leave a list of people we wanted to work with the next day and relying on word of mouth to get the message out. You can imagine how often that worked.

Desistfilm: The film, at least the version I saw is bookended by the White and the Black sequence and then there are the portraits in the middle. My feeling, when watching it, was that it felt almost like an improvisation that took me along with it, in this beautiful way. Did you have this film set – we’re going to do a more traditional documentary realism at the beginning and then have a set of these retratos, these portraits of these people and then move back. Or was this more organic? How did the structure of this develop in your mind?

Helmut Dosantos: It was a combination of both planned and organic elements. We worked closely with all the communities to understand how they wanted the rest of the world to see them and how to show their essence onscreen. We engaged in extensive conversations to meticulously plan the dynamic and mechanic of each shot. Sometimes these talks lasted months, but they were crucial, especially since we were collaborating with individuals who have endured neglect and marginalization for generations. Also, it is very human to desire to leave a legacy, to transmit who you are and who you were, to pass on one’s traditions.

I used to carry with me a loose outline to guide us while filming, but we made constant adjustments based on people’s input and always considering locations that held personal or spiritual significance for them. I carefully observed and took into account their tools, animals, vegetation, and the overall environment that surrounded them. As a filmmaker, it was my responsibility to consider the aesthetic aspect and ensure that it complemented their portrayal. I wanted all the characters to be well aware of the camera’s presence, connecting directly with the audience by looking at “us,” to show who they are and how they occupy their space, reflecting their past, present, and future identity. But most importantly I wanted to make sure that they were portrayed with dignity.

Desistfilm: The people chose their dress, the things they were carrying… a lot of definition of people and their work, what they do. I’m a farmer. I’m a fisherman.

Helmut Dosantos: There are several kinds of cultural workers as it may be… musicians. And then there are some people who are just posed in landscapes. Was everybody given a choice as to how they represent themselves? Each character is and represents something unique, even though it may not be explicitly evident in every portrait. The end credits of the film provide a glimpse into the background of each one of them, intentionally preserving the poetic essence of the film itself. I wanted to convey emotions without relying on captions, texts, or dialogue to explain or reveal too much. The end credits still hold significance and contribute to the overall storytelling experience, particularly in this film where you can sense the collective effort of the many people involved. I took special care to provide additional information in each portrait, not only regarding their activities but also the indigenous communities they belong to. As for of the White and Black chapters, people’s identity is more straightforward.

Gods of Mexico
Director: Helmut Dosantos
Screenplay: Helmut Dosantos
Producers: Helmut Dosantos, Pilar Goutas, Marta Núñez Puerto, Gerardo González Fernández
Cinematography: Ernesto Pardo, Martín Boege, Helmut Dosantos, François Pesant, Peter Eliot Buntaine, Fernando Muñoz, Diego Rodriguez García, Kacper Czubak
Editing: Yibrán Asuad, Helmut Dosantos
Music: Enrico Ascoli
Sound: Enrico Ascoli, Martin de Torcy, Erick Ruiz Arellano, Aldo Navarro, Bernat Fortiana, Ariel Baca, Gabriel Villegas
México, EE.UU., 2022, 97 min