A series of interviews at the heart of the barbaric violence ravaging Mexico explores the psyche of both executioners and victims, building a crude portrait of the fear that dominates society. Devil’s Freedom, is a psychological documentary on a harsh topic, somber in tone, presenting a bold style that intrudes reality through a bold formal proposal.
It is the seventh documentary by Mexican filmmaker Everardo González after La canción del pulque (2003), Jalisco is Mexico: charro, mariachi and tequila (2006), Los ladrones viejos (2007), El cielo abierto (2011) —on Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero—, Cuates de Australia (2011), and El Paso (2016) —about journalists who escaped from Mexico due to threats.
Devil’s Freedom was awarded at the Berlin and Guadalajara film festivals, and has received eight nominations for the Ariel awards, the Mexican Oscars, that will be awarded on June 5.
The documentary is presented at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on Friday, May 11 at 7 p.m. as part of the series ‘Made in Mexico.’ More information: roxie.com/hecho-en-mexico/
We talked with Everardo González at the Guadalajara Film Festival about how he selected his interviewees, his decision to use masks and mirrors in the filming, and what he understands by documentary genre.
You filmed Devil’s Freedom in the states of Mexico, Puebla, Hidalgo and Chihuahua, and in Texas, United States, for a year and a half. How did you select the subjects?
I turned to many sources that I have known over the years: the lawyers of some of them, human rights organizations that see for the rights of the victims or for their health, organizations that work with hired guns to get them out of it, journalists who have covered violence for many years and who resorted to their own sources.
I would receive profiles of people and then decide if I thought they could give me what I was after. Because not everyone has a discourse or a complex story. There were certain triggers in the profiles that told me ‘it’s worth listening to him or her.’ And not because it’s not worth listening to everyone, but because I was making a movie. There was a conscious criterion as to who I spoke with.
And you looked for victims and executioners, children and adults …
I was looking for a universe that would give a face to the big problem we have here in Mexico. Above all I was interested in listening to people who had never thought about the matter before. The trigger for this film was when I asked myself if a young hit man is aware of the damage he causes, of the orphans he leaves behind, of the widows he leaves behind, of the relatives of the disappeared who cannot find consolation. Or if it’s just someone who pulls the trigger and forgets. I was very interested in hearing the violent person’s point of view.
One of the interviewees says that he is telling it for the first time. Is it true?
He says so, and he says it with conviction. I would not know if he had talked to someone about it or not.
But he says it in front of the camera and you decided to include it in your film…
Well yes… It’s an act of faith too. I do not know if the forgiveness he asks for is sincere or not, but… The interesting thing here is that while a hit man asks for forgiveness, the victim wants to torture him. It is where the thin line of separation lies between being a victim and becoming a victimizer. That is why it is included, not necessarily because of its sincerity. It is a slightly more complex discourse. If the hit man asks for forgiveness and the victim wants to torture him, it is all that is needed for the roles to be reversed.
When and why did you decide to use masks in your movie? And I understand that you also used a mirror at the time of interviewing so that the subjects would see themselves.
I wanted to do an exercise of freedom of testimony, and understanding what a mask provides to the person who carries it I decided to use them. The mask reveals much more than what it conceals, that’s why the carnival is so free, because you do what you really are, you say what you really think. Anonymity gives that freedom. That was the first reason why. Then the concept grew: the design of a mask without gesture that makes everyone uniform. And then the idea we are all victims of the same circumstance pops up.
The masks homogenizes them…
And they link the viewers with them.
As a spectator, my attention gets stuck in the eyes, the painted lips…
That’s right, how the mask gets wet, the earrings… The mirror game has to do with that frontal connection with the spectator, with looking at the viewer’s eyes where I believe lies the empathy. When you look in the eyes. Hired killers do not give shots of grace frontally, they give it from behind in the neck. Because they say that if they look in the eyes of the victim they do not pull the trigger. There is an exercise of compassion when one looks at the other’s eyes, many things are understood because the gaze is the mirror of the soul, as they say. An identification is generated through the gaze, an interesting exercise aesthetically speaking, in much more philosophical considerations, than what stories themselves sometimes achieve.
Then the masks were not for safety. And one of the interviewees takes it off.
The mask has all that sense that we are talking about. The possibilities of truth offered by the testimony, the homogenization of the discourse, the fascination with how it mutates, how the mask is moistened… It gradually becomes uncomfortable. The image of the mask is inserted into your psyche, it is very difficult to take it off your head after having seen this movie, very difficult to eliminate it from your conscience.
That mask is a representation of fear. A woman who takes off her mask is a woman who breaks with fear. Her face being the face of a mother, the face of a sister, the face of a land, that stares straight ahead without fear. Not only to the one who is going to pity her, but to the one who affected her, who hurt her, who hurt all her surroundings.
You call your film a psychological documentary. The questions you ask the interviewees are kind of different, point towards the feelings, pose assumptions…
I wanted to do an exercise not based on the anecdote, but on the consequence of the psyche. What the psyche gives away in this movie is a portrait of fear. Much of the phenomenon of violence in Mexico, beyond drug trafficking and politics, is supported by fear. It is because of fear, because of threat that people react the way they do. And the only way to approach fear is to talk about the psyche, which is suffering it. That’s why I refer to my film in a psychological way. It is an essay on fear.
When you join the different segments, you do it with images of landscapes, fog, little ants, or people posing with weapons. Why?
I wanted to generate a series of vignettes that would provoke the feeling that something terrible was going to happen or had just happened. So, I searched in an improvised way…
… to contribute to the atmosphere, to the tone…
… to the atmosphere, to the tone, and to the emotion. We traveled around and I looked at the landscape and said ‘here, this car in the distance can provoke some reaction.’ That person going up in the distance carrying a bag of grains, the feeling it causes is that something else is going on. A truck parked in the middle of the road, in the psychosis that Mexico is going through, is not a truck that broke down. It is a truck that has the engine on, that is empty, giving the feeling that something just happened or is about to happen. A house in construction, nowadays in the psychosis of the Mexican, is not only a house in construction in full construction, but possibly a house of security in which someone kidnapped is kept. The way Mexicans relate to things has changed a lot.
Because of the situation of violence…
Exactly. A lonely road is not bucolic, but dangerous.
There are documentary schools such as the one called ‘fly on the wall’ in which an camera observes without intruding reality. Your film is not in that fashion…
I have never been interested in that.
What is documentary for you?
Provoked situations where things are discussed. I believe that it is necessary to intrude. The other style is something that worked back in the day but a different discussion about documentary that we have today.
What am I after? To generate chronicles. With cinema in general what I try is to be a testimony of the time it touches. I understood that when I made a movie in 2007, Los ladrones viejos. I was left with a strange feeling. There was a very famous thief in Mexico who was called Chucho El Roto, with a legend, but there was never an interview with him. And I would have loved to hear him, see him how he moved, how he spoke, what was the language used at the time.
It is then that I understood the value of the documentary beyond the cinematographic work, as a historical document, as a material that can even be useful for filmmakers of the future, as I sometimes work with materials from filmmakers of the past. Mexico has reconstructed much of its history from these materials. The Mexican Revolution was one of the most filmed revolutions in the world and our identity is very based on those materials that were filmed.
Are you working on a new project?
It is a portrait of ten deserts of the world. The life of the man in the desert, the relation with the beasts, the desires for the children, the construction of a family. The man living in his environment, or fighting against his environment. A little more anthropological, something more observational.
(Interview originally published in eltecolote.org)