Photographs by Toumani Camara

Elena Fortes is the director of a festival that is strongly linked with the exposure of circumstances, moments, spaces and transit (as its name Ambulante -Mobile- indicates). Her project goes all of Mexico year after year, reaching more cities every time.

We asked her: Can you name a space in the city that you live in where you think diverse realities converge in a significant way?

Using that question as a starting point, Elena chose La Habana Café to do the interview:

Elena Fortes: I though it was interesting to select a place because I find that when reflecting on “Mexican-ness” it is impossible to reach a generic definition of the term or any signifier of identity, as it has been tried countless times throughout the history of the country. I think identities are always mutating and I though that instead of searching for a physical space where these so-called facets and realities converge or are demonstrated to get closer to a Mexican identity, it would be interesting to think of a more abstract place: a space of ideological exchange, where identities and realities are built. A constant exchange of ideas implies that the “identity” is destined to eternal permutability. This café, and in a way, all cafés, represent that historical space of exchange. The revolutionary vision that grew between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara right here deeply permeated the Latin American way of thinking. The conversations between Bolaño and the infrarealists, for example, as well as their motto “to blow up the official culture’s brains out,” have inspired my work. I do not see myself in a specific field of action, the one better known as “official cultural field,” because I believe that individual and collective actions have to be irreverent, permeate into diverse fields and reinvent the rules of the game to create a real transformation. I also find it interesting to look at this place in the context of the Historic Center where it is located. Diverse manifestations of architecture, history and art coexist in this space (that range from the pre Hispanic cultures to modern ones); socioeconomic and political (the conquest, the massacre of Tlatelolco, the civil and political protests); extreme wealth and poverty (shopping centers and luxurious hotels a few blocks away from the neighborhoods of Tepito and La Merced), as well as the surrealism of the markets and the lucha libre (wrestling). This spatiotemporal, sociopolitical and economic palimpsest by itself is a more accurate approximation of identity than any other government speech on the unification or annihilation of differences.

L: You mention certain decisive and historical moments for society. In that sense and in relation to what you do, how do you think the documentary genre can modify certain social paradigms?

EF: A documentary offers certain points of view of various realities, it portrays them differently and is important because it encourages thought and critical reflection regarding situations of our social, political, global, etc., context. I’m not saying that a documentary by itself leads to a kind of transformation or total change, but it does create that reflection.

I also think it’s important to highlight that documentary production has increased significantly as well as its public. I don’t know if it has to do with the evolution of technology. On one hand, documentaries have become easier and cheaper to produce; on the other, there is a need or search for other points of view in the media.

L: How would you interpret Ambulante’s growing expansion in Mexico?

EF:  It’s been an experiment since the beginning. We started off with the hypothesis that there was a public for documentaries and that the main problem was basically the lack of exhibition. Ambulante 2012 would not have been possible if it weren’t for the 7 years prior to it. Over the years, we got to know the states better as well as our public, we recruited a large group of voluntaries around the country, who would take the festival, personalize it, and make it theirs. We didn’t want them to feel like it was an invasion because our headquarters are in Mexico City.

Our public has grown 650%. The way the states receive the documentaries has changed a lot. The festival accepts diversity, it adapts and it changes. Ambulante has a mutating identity, which is how it transforms in each of the states during the same tour.

L: Could you give us an example of different reactions to one same documentary depending on the region or area of the country?

EF: I could give you El velador (The Night Watchman) as an example, a documentary by Natalia Almada that addresses violence in Mexico peripherally, and talks about life in a cemetery in the city of Culiacan, where most of the young drug lords’ mausoleums are found. In the US, the Mexican population didn’t have a positive reaction to it: “we always hear such horrible things from Mexico, why watch them here?” In other places it was well received. It varies a lot. Some documentaries have a political message and, for example, in Oaxaca, which is a state of strong social movement, they are well received, whereas Monterrey, a few years ago, had very little public.

L: What cities have surprised you?

EF: Tijuana, always. Every year it’s a surprise. Oaxaca, Hermosillo, Jalapa, especially places where this initiative didn’t exist. Not only documentaries but also independent film in general. I think the response has been good, including the productions that are being made in those states.

L: What other places would you like Ambulante to go to?

EF: Honestly, everywhere. We’d like to go to Campeche, to Yucatan, because it’s been many years since we’ve been. We have a lot of requests from Tamaulipas, Coahuila and Sinaloa. The problem there is the insecurity. We can’t jeopardize the safety of our international guests. But it’s important that we go some way or another, at least by sending the documentaries. But it is necessary to create those cultural spaces.

L: As for the reactions of these niches, have they changed your opinion on the audiovisual format of today?

EF:  Yes. On one hand, it’s a calling to be more cautious in the way we reveal the message and how people can interpret it. It is a big responsibility as a filmmaker. From our experience with the festival, in addition to bringing the documentaries, it is also important to take the production tools to the places where they do not exist. Lastly, even in Mexico, the offers of professional training for national productions are very scarce for documentaries and they have a specific agenda. So we’re looking to differentiate these offers with another project called Ambulante más allá (Ambulante beyond). It consists of taking the equipment to the southeastern part of the country and training groups of indigenous youngsters so they can make their documentaries from a different perspective, unique, and not the result of an imposed agenda by some organization that works with them at a community level, but to truly allow for total creative freedom. We also want to offer the festival to them as an example of aesthetic, visual and narrative references from other countries.

L: Can you recommend three Mexican documentaries that have influenced or impacted you in any way?

EF: I can recommend many. In terms of content, of portraying the main problems of the country, I’d recommend: Presunto culpable and De panzazo!. This year’s [2011] exceptional documentaries in my opinion are: Drought/Cuates de Australia, Everardo González’s latest documentary which addresses countryside and the unfavorable conditions it faces, poverty, drought, climate change and migration. El lugar más pequeño (The Tiniest Place), which is a Mexican documentary on the guerilla in El Salvador, and El velador (The Night Watchman).

L: Where would you picture yourself if you weren’t in Ambulante?

EF: That’s a tough one [laughs] but probably in something related to design, which is what I was heading towards. Yeah, I think I’d be involved in something visual and I also feel I have an activist side. I like to get involved, not necessarily in politics, but try to do something to improve the conditions in Mexico wherever I maybe be. I’d combine that visual side with that other more activist side.

L: Which undoubtedly is what you do today, right?

EF: Yes, sort of [laughs].

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