By Mónica Delgado
Since her final project, Son de Artesa (2006-2007), Mexican filmmaker Sandra Luz López Barroso showed her interest in reflecting personal and social dynamics within the Afro-descendant communities in her country. A few days ago, she won the award for best film in the Now Mexico section at Ficunam Film Festival competition, with her first feature film El Compromiso de las sombras, along with Los fundadores, by Diego Hernández. In this first film, she returns to the registry of a territory that she has known for more than fifteen years, but through Lizbeth, a trans woman who directs the funeral rituals of several communities in the Costa Chica, an area of Afro-Mexican towns between the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca.
A few weeks ago I wrote in Desisftilm (spa) that in The Commitment of the Shadows “the funeral and farewell acts show components of social relationship, but also about how communities dispense with the classic governing institutions of the cultic, such as churches or their priests, where the inhabitants assume the leadership of the rhythms, prayers, songs and emotions, of these capital events of spirituality and ancestral heritage. Thus, Lizbeth surprisingly becomes a kind of current curaca, a teacher of farewells, who controls and defines her environment (…)”. In this film, the filmmaker does not appeal to common places or to inquire into personal aspects of her trans character, but she does so in relation to her ties with the community, and to materialize a need for grief and farewell. In this sense, within the recent panorama of independent Mexican cinema, it is a particular and multiversal point of view, that is much appreciated.
In her medium-length film Artemio (2017) López Barroso already made clear her position as a filmmaker using certain documentary and non-fiction devices. There, she explores the relationship between a mother and a son, also located near the Afro community of San Nicolás de Tolentino, a territory that we know thanks to her first feature film. Both characters lived in the United States and now go through a kind of spatial, geographical, idiomatic, but also emotional limbo, of a boy who does not want to return to his sister, or who is afraid of losing his mother, who has a little girl and a new partner. Artemio, the boy who gives the film its title, although it is not the axis of the narrative (from its evident oedipal complex) or of the exposition of economic situations, allows us to delve into some aspects of the Afro-Mexican community, in its mixtures, without exoticism or paternalism, from domestic meetings, parties or games with friends. The look that López Barroso proposes, allows us to focus the weight of the film on the interactions of the characters, on their particular domestic rites, on maternal-filial ties, and that, perhaps, function as a seed for what she later achieved with her first feature film.
By profession a filmmaker and anthropologist, Sandra Luz López Barroso spoke with Desistfilm, as part of the premiere of her first feature film in Ficunam. We talked about her beginnings in the cinema, about her interest in recording the Costa Chica and Afro-Mexican communities, and about the production process of The Shadow Commitment.
Desistfilm: You are an anthropologist with experience in field work. How was the transition to cinema or the audiovisual medium?
Sandra Luz López Barroso: I am from Oaxaca, from the south of the country, and there I studied high school in Arts, at the Center for Artistic Education (Cedart). There are only twelve similar centers in all of Mexico, and there I had my first approach to still photography, to cinema; and cinephilia arose my infatuation. And also thanks to the teacher Francisco Toledo, who created the El Pochote film club. In that space I was able to see and meet the filmmakers there who talked about their work, and that was my local encounter with cinema. There are no film schools in Oaxaca and the public film schools are located in Mexico City, and the two schools I had applied to rejected me at that time. The demand is very high, with fourteen or fifteen students entering each year. And in one of those negotiations with my father and mother, when I was 18 years old, they told me that I could stay in Mexico City as long as I studied a university degree. They are graduates of UNAM and they wanted me to study at the university, but I wanted to study film. A friend of my older sister was studying at the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH) and in a talk she told me that the branch Visual Anthropology existed and that I should go see if I like it, and apply. I went, I met with the coordinator of Visual Anthropology Octavio Espejo and I loved everything he told me. I came to the ENAH and studied Ethnohistory, which is defined as “the history of peoples without history,” and well, I came from Oaxaca, a very diverse and complex place. And the ENAH prompted me to go to the Costa Chica, a territory between Guerrero and Oaxaca, for a subject in Ethnography, where I had to do research on a town, and they gave me paid field practices, and that’s how I got to that place, to San Nicolás de Tolentino.
Once, with colleagues at the School of Anthropology, we began to talk about Afro-descendant peoples and Afro-Mexican communities and there I realized that when I was 20 years old, I had not heard about the subject and that I wasn’t unaware, being Oaxacan, that there were Afro-descendant peoples in my country and my own state as well. That was what led to doing this task of Ethnography on the Costa Chica, in Círuelo, Oaxaca; going to a meeting of black people. But, what I discovered there is another movie; I think I would like to do it later.
On my first visit to the Costa Chica I was received by a priest from Trinidad and Tobago, Glyn Jemmott Nelson, who had worked there for 30 years, influenced by Liberation Theology, and who was the founder of an association called México Negro AC and formed the center cultural Cimarrón, which both continue to this day. And in that place, at the hands of the priest, I met Doña Catalina Noyola Bruno, almost a hundred years old, whom I saw dancing artesa, a traditional music. She was a very concise woman, whom they had to carry so that she could climb to the platform; when she danced she seemed to rejuvenate herself. Being a woman, from that connection and that echo, of this vital and fragile woman, is that I approached her, after the dance, I told her that I wanted to meet her, that I was an anthropologist, that I had never seen the son de artesa. At that time, now that I see everything at a distance, I had an anthropologist’s look from which everything seemed new to me, it stimulated me and perhaps I had a look that exotized the subject. That changed. After her, I lived with her the last two years of her life; she died in 2007 during the anthropological research I did, which is in the online video, Son de Artesa, a history of voices; part of my thesis. Back then, anthropologists said that making a video wasn’t enough to graduate, but it was a way to get a degree. But, for that, I gave it a reading: Doña Cata did not know how to read or write, so she told me “why am I going to write a thesis if the person I am writing about cannot read it”. So I opted for an audiovisual document. And that was part of the need for images and sounds.
Making the video was an encounter with Doña Cata, because in the towns, the people and the relationships that I have formed are strong, since they have been built over time. But, I really got there to San Nicolas de Tolentino, for her. If Dona Cata had lived in another town, I would not have been there. I was very emotionally affected by her death during the investigation process, and understanding that part of the memory of a people or a region died with her; understand it from that place, that her voice and her recordings were the only thing that perhaps remained of her.
She became a very important person not only from anthropology but for who I am; from the people who go through you and make you who you are. When someone dies, part of the memory of a people is lost, damn it. How many doñas Catas are there in the world? That are dying, that no one listened to them, that no one registered their memory; that culture dies a little with the departure of that person. From that feeling, from that responsibility that I acquired, I took the film exam again at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC), thinking about Doña Cata’s film, since I wanted to learn cinema to make that film. I entered, but after four years of studying fiction, in the last year I found documentary filmmaking. It was a very beautiful learning to be there, and towards the end of the film school years, I was only able to return to the Costa Chica. The documentary project that I proposed was choral, where I proposed to interview several Afro-Mexican women who had met Doña Cata, and that was how I met Coco and Artemio, protagonists of my thesis film, precisely called Artemio (2017). Coco is the granddaughter of Doña Cata and Artemio is her great-grandson. My way of approaching them was by showing them the movie I made about their grandmother, Son de Artesa. For Artemio, it was very nice to meet his great-grandmother from that record. To put the cinema at the center, as a way to preserve memory and family ties; this is very significant.
I met Lizbeth, the protagonist of The Shadows Engagement (2020), in 2007 when Doña Cata died, whom I thank for giving me these stories without knowing it. When my father died in 2016, and I couldn’t say goodbye to him, I thought that this film was a way to inhabit these farewell rituals and inhabit my own grief from a very personal place. That’s how the gestation of this film had a bit to do with my formation, which also has to do with the women who raised me, my aunt and my mother, with the women of the Costa Chica. The way in which you approach reality from being a woman is important. The approach would not be the same if it were a man.
Desistfilm: In what context did you meet Lizbeth? You said that with the death of Doña Cata, that is, did you meet her in her work as we see her in your first feature film, The Commitment of the Shadows?
Sandra Luz López Barroso: I met Lizbeth in 2007, when Doña Cata died. I arrived for her “shadow-lift”, I sat near the altar to cry. Lizbeth put her hand on my shoulder, said: “cry, it’s good to cry”, and I cried more. I felt a feminine presence with her, I did not see her at that moment. When I heard her pray, when I saw her move in the ritual, directing, and embraced by the community, I never again questioned anything about her: Lizbeth is Lizbeth and that’s it. From there we built a friendship. I love talking to her, she is an extremely knowledgeable person. Yesterday I was talking on the phone with her, I told her that I was excited about the premiere of the film in Ficunam, and I told her that I would love for her to see it, even though it was impossible due to connectivity problems, since there is no signal, and she said: “But why do you want me to see it if I already lived it, we lived it 24 hours, I know what you recorded.” Her words are precise, exact, then. I formed a friendship with Lizbeth during the filming of Artemio. One night we went to drink some beers in a town canteen, to talk, and in that talk, while she told me what those rituals were like, what her work was like, how the town saw her, that night I told myself that I would love to do one movie with her, I said so to myself. When my dad died and when this sadness and pain was so close, I felt that it was time to make the movie. Lizbeth is an endearing, complex, profound and cinematically beautiful person and character. I was always very clear when saying I was interested in exploring her work, I was not interested in anything else beyond. In some pitching sessions, like the one we had in Doc Montevideo, in Tribeca, which are different markets, almost everyone said that, being this interesting character, she didn’t touch his trans side, her path, her personal life, and I told them that that that was not the movie I wanted to make.
Desistfilm: You tell us about this closeness with Lizbeth from the death of Doña Catalina, the consolation she gave you, your friendship with her, but this is not reflected in the film. That is, you record her from a distance, you follow her in her rites, in her connections with the community, but the camera is there accompanying all that, without much intervention. How was this process of following Lizbeth, in this period of filming these rituals, or in the community?
Sandra Luz López Barroso: In the end I think that Lizbeth attracts me cinematographically speaking as in life, since she has an ancestral knowledge of nature and of the human being. Things happened to me with her, such as predicting a small earthquake from a loose wind, predicting a storm from seeing the clouds or predicting that someone is going to die because they dreamed such a thing. I asked myself: “Cinematically, how do I do it, how do I communicate that this person has wisdom.” And I think this has to do with filming the intangible. If you say “this is my pain”, how does that materialize? I think that Lizbeth materializes things on a non-visual level but on a level of feelings, and that helped me a lot to put her as a kind of presence, with her connection with nature, magical. That was the guide to the film. I wanted to convey that about her, who is a person who can navigate in this world, from the intangible and tangible, from what she says: “death has secrets that not even we ourselves know.” I feel like it has to do with that, with putting her in the center. I always said that Lizbeth is the guide, she is the person who will take us to this world of shadows and who will return us from there. The camera is always there, following her, waiting for her, but there are moments of great freedom, and that I found at the same time in the process, which had to do with when I stopped thinking about the frame, the light or the narrative itself, when I could connect with the person in front of me, when that person looks at the camera, since they look at me, since the film is beautiful in that sense because it is the mark or testimony of that encounter, the look that returns has to do that encounter. And I feel that in the film there are moments where that intuition and that emotion exists because it is back and forth, and not only with Lizbeth but with the choreography of the ritual, and it is something that has to do with the emotion as a filmmaker around the reality that is going through and that is giving you something very powerful.
Desistfilm: Now that you mentioned this “shadow-lift” as a part of the ritual, what was it like to enter and record the duels and wakes? In the film you can see various rituals, and everything seems to happen naturally and fluidly.
Sandra Luz López Barroso: The ritual in The Commitment of the Shadows is as it is, but I asked Lizbeth to take walks, for her to sit on a tree, there is at times a staging. But, the rituals were recorded as they happened. Lizbeth is the one who directs, she was the director at that time.
Desistfilm: And how was the recording process during the rites? How many people were on the production team?
Sandra Luz López Barroso: There were only two people, the sound engineer Isis Puentes and I in the camera and direction, and it was very heavy. The first stage of filming was a month, and I remember that we started recording from the first days we arrived. In those days, we had sequence I really like, that we did at Lizbeth’s house, where there was a complete direction with her: “you walk this way, when you pass the camera, you walk to the right. I need you to do this again or eat here. ” And on the third day, she told me: what you want is someone to die so that you can continue making the film. It was very funny, because those days we were very focused on the filming and suddenly Lizbeth said that so directly. And calmly, as she is, she told me: “Don’t worry, there is always someone who dies.” And on the fourth day is when Don Gonzalo dies, the first deceased to appear in the film. And it was a shock. One can write a project for two years of a film, or live ten years in the community and have experienced these ceremonies, but the beauty that the documentary offers you or these processes will never exceed what reality offers you. So when we were there in front of Don Gonzalo’s body it was very strong and complex. Lizbeth introduced us to Dona Adolfa, her widow, and her family. We told them what we were doing, and she was very generous, as she let us film everything. And when we were there recording, recording the sounds, I said to myself: “what am I doing here, at what moment did it occur to me to make this film”. And I felt like all these questions were going through me at the same time I was filming: how much to show, what is the appropriate distance, how close do I get. All those questions that filmmakers ask ourselves, or “why am I invading such an intimate space, with people I don’t know”. And I think that is why the novena is a beauty, since we were able to meet Don Gonzalo through Doña Adolfa, his family, his grandchildren, Lizbeth, accompany their mourning by being there, not only recording, but also talking with them, when eating with them, when they told us what Don Gonzalo was like.
It was a very demanding job, emotionally and physically for us, since the prayers began at four in the afternoon and lasted until dawn. And get to download material at 7 or 8 in the morning the next day, and then review everything we had recorded at noon, and continue again in the afternoon. And from Don Gonzalo, there were more deaths in the community and in nearby towns. In the film there are four deceased, but it seems that it is only one. And so was that dialogue and that approach with the rituals.
Desistfilm: What did the process demand after filming, post-production, laboratories, consultancies?
Sandra Luz López Barroso: I am sure that when the processes are lived from such an honest and emotional place, you find a bit of magic along the way. My father had died on a Saturday, and by Friday of the following week I was already in Doculab receiving an award to participate in a pitching to the Tribeca networking, which was a month later. When I had the idea, I had to speed up the process, get a production company, prepare the pitching, prepare it in English, it was a fast race. We realized the power of attraction of the project in the market, and for this reason, we enrolled in DocMontevideo, since we know Martha Andreu, who teaches at the CCC, and we needed a return from such a space. My father had died in March and this was in July and the duel was very much alive, I cried, in the conversations I had about the film, even Marta told me: take your time, breathe, since it affected me. And this was a great learning, since one needs to stop a bit, respect their own times, and have a clearer look. We realized that the workshop we put the project in was accepted, so we had to write it better. And I had to clarify many things on an emotional level and Marta Andreu did this Walden residency, in 2017, and in which we were able to participate thanks to FONCA, and there in the writing process she was exclusively there to make the project’s production portfolio, and I discovered in the process that the center of the project was about the importance of goodbyes, the importance of being able to say goodbye and that was the compass.
In 2017, Ambulante with the Kellogg Foundation launched a call, one of a kind, that has not been repeated and that was given only one year, and that was for productions around Afro-Mexican culture, something very specific. And a friend told me and said as a joke: “Look, this call seems to have been made for your movie.” They gave us the background, so the film is a production with Ambulante, and it was a privilege to have the resources, the time and the right people, like the producers Karla Bukantz and Maricarmen Merino who gave me the necessary time. I had that freedom of production, and when we got to editing we realized that we had to pay the musical rights, for the use of a song at the end of the film and there was no money. It was that we applied to a Sundace fund, and that allowed us three months of work on sound design, paying for music rights, and making some color corrections. I saw the background of Sundance very unattainable, but my production company encouraged us. The same happened with Tribeca, and we applied to Development, even though we had doubts, I thought that with a first film I would not be able to achieve it, or because I was a woman and was at a disadvantage, but it was possible, and that is how we finished the movie.
Desistfilm: How do you see the panorama of independent productions in Mexico? Even more so when you come from the south of the country, and it seems that the cinema that is more well received is the one from the north, the closest to the United States and its industry. Is that so? What do you think about this?
Sandra Luz López Barroso: I don’t know what it is like in Peru, but South America shares this vision that we are diverse, and Mexico does the same. Mexico is many Mexicoes too. From a sociopolitical point of view, the Mexico of the north has been more prosperous, more industrial, at an economic level, than the south of the country. There is a very clear division. And as far as cinema is concerned, it is different, since there is a very diverse cinema, the cinema is very different between the north and the south and that of the peninsula. There is a generation of young filmmakers from indigenous peoples, from the Costa Chica, who are making the voices of Afro-descendant and indigenous peoples known and that seems valuable to me. Now I am planning to work with Dinazar Urbina, I would like to work with her, and that seems motivating to me. Those voices interest me a lot, the fact that we can see those movies. One way to support and promote ourselves is to be able to form teams, accompany us, embrace that and from the fact of being women, make our work visible. On the Costa Chica, I don’t know if it has to do with the UN’s decade of African descent, but there are more projects that are being supported, films have been made in these areas, but if we are not from the community we have to be very careful and self-critical, because we might just have a superfluous glance. I have worked there for fifteen years, but perhaps it is only a short time, because it is immense. If I had made a film, as an anthropologist in 2005, it is very likely that it would have taken an exotic look, and I think there are works from anthropology that exoticize the other, which I find terrible, an immense lack of respect. And it seems terrible to me that there is no return of the work to the people. For this reason, the commitment to bring the film to the community, where the people who made it, is important, to continue building bonds of trust and respect.
For me, there is a deep infatuation with the people I portray and I suppose that is why the friendship fabrics continue beyond the movies, it is a job choice and it is also my way of assuming and taking care of my affections.