Everardo González is a Mexican director, cinematographer, and producer with an accomplished trajectory in documentary cinema. His latest films address different aspects and consequences of widespread violence in Mexico. This violence has proved profitable for a wide scope of media products, ranging from news coverage to big-budget cinema and television. González’s work intervenes in this sensationalist landscape of audiovisual representations of violence, which has emerged since the so-called war on drugs was declared 15 years ago by then Mexican President Felipe Calderón. This warfare approach to national security has led to the highest rates of homicide and human rights abuses perpetrated by state forces that the country has seen in decades.
His 2017 feature documentary, Devil’s Freedom (La libertad del diablo), had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Amnesty International Film Prize. Then, in 2019, a companion piece titled Children of the Narco Zone debuted in the New York Times Op-Docs as part of the series “A Moment in Mexico.” These films portray Mexico’s scenario of systemic fear and violence from the psychological experience of victims and perpetrators, who give their testimonies wearing ominous masks that grant them anonymity and freedom to speak.
I spoke with González in late April to discuss the role of documentary in Mexico today; his effort to examine violence beyond the dualistic frameworks offered by official and mainstream accounts; the constraints that the market imposes on what Mexican filmmakers can represent; and more broadly, the political economy of filmmaking that conditions what people can and cannot see.1
Bárbara Pérez Curiel (BPC): Even though Devil’s Freedom premiered just a few years ago, I think its reception today would be very different. In 2017 Calderón’s war had been ongoing for a decade, but a political transition loomed on the horizon. A lot of people were hopeful for a change in the policy of national security—basically, for the end of the war, which only happened rhetorically with the current administration. In 2017 your film could be seen as a testimony of something that promised to become past. Four years later, that transformation has not materialized.
Everardo González (EG): Absolutely. There were hopes that a process of transitional justice was about to begin. There were even talks—and campaign promises—about amnesty. But not much has happened; on the contrary, the military forces have been given even more funds, duties, and power.
There are two things occurring today that I think would change the reception of the movie dramatically. First, Devil’s Freedom questions the process of militarization that began years ago but has not stopped. Today, massive mobilizations of protestors—like the ones we saw during the two last administrations—are much harder to do. It was easier to question the political decisions by conservative governments than those made by an administration like today’s, which presents itself as the triumph of a historical opposition against reactionary politics.
On the other hand, I think the pandemic and the lockdowns have greatly transformed the conditions for reception: today bad news is touching everyone. Previously, war-related violence affected people differently. It is hardly the same thing to live during this period in a rural area in the north of Mexico as in an upper-class neighborhood in Mexico City. But the pandemic has produced a much more generalized fear of the other and a need to maintain clear boundaries between people.
There is one more thing: in the current global circumstances, people don’t want to be upset by what they’re watching. Now, Devil’s Freedom was not made for entertainment purposes. This is a problem, considering the extent to which streaming services are turning narratives related to politically sensitive topics into entertainment, which provides people with a straightforward moral paradigm. This way, we can, for example, talk about organized crime; but the drug dealers have to be white and attractive, as often happens with very successful cartel shows. A dynamic of racism and classism comes into play. And documentaries, too, are being subsumed by the entertainment logic; we are witnessing, for instance, an explosion of true crime documentaries on streaming platforms in which people can play detective and, more importantly, play judge. Devil’s Freedom doesn’t fit in those new canons; instead, it precisely steers away from reducing the conflict to obvious moral judgments and a paradigm of good versus evil. That turns off a lot of people.
BPC: That is a key theme of your movie: complicating facile divisions that official narratives have produced to justify the war, such as the absolute line between victims and perpetrators. Without erasing it, your movie opens up questions about it. Why did you decide to approach violence from such a perspective?
EG: This is a project I envisioned 10 years before its making—that is, even before the drug war was declared. I wanted to explore violence, but I wasn’t sure how to do it at the beginning.
Then Calderón and his war came along, and narratives about violence began to proliferate. I became even more confused.
I didn’t want to ride the same wave, since I had different questions. I didn’t care about the rise to stardom of any famous drug dealer. My questions began to take form, but only after a long time, and the project began as a sort of essay before becoming a movie.
BPC: So yours was a question about violence, which only ended up being framed by the so-called war on drugs.
EG: Exactly. And going back to the first thing you said, there is definitely a line between victims and perpetrators. But that line is not essentially determined. Poverty, for example, to which the question of violence is often reduced, can be a condition. However, it is not an inescapable determinant of violence. From that common perspective, the exercise of violence is seen condescendingly and essentialistically.
My thesis, if it can be called that, is that we are all capable of perpetrating atrocious acts according to the dose of hatred, fear, and imposed obedience we are subjected to. The perpetrators featured in this movie are people who were put in extreme situations in that regard.
The line that divides perpetrators from nonperpetrators is conditioned by that capability and, of course, by moral principles. The thing is that, for me, it’s really hard to make judgments of that magnitude. I don’t feel I have the moral authority to question the decisions of a 14-year-old who seeks revenge by his own hand against the person who killed his brother and who lives in a context that is structured by that kind of violence.
BPC: Your movie prompts questions about the sources of the narratives about violence. Normally, besides the official discourse, we only have the testimonies of victims. Victims are the ones who always have to tell their story. Denouncing, narrating, telling the truth: that’s how you become a victim in the eyes of state institutions. In contrast, perpetrators are the ones who remain silent or lie.
But in Devil’s Freedom, the perspectives—the factual truth and the psychological reality—of both victims and perpetrators enter into dialogue for the spectator. Why did you decide to collect testimonies on both sides?
EG: This comes, first, from a genuine need to listen to and understand that other side, the one whose perspective is rarely known. That is something I had done years before in a movie about the career of five thieves in Mexico City in the 1960s. Old Thieves (2007) gave voice to criminals not from a place of judgment, but in order to understand them.
I was also inspired by something Susan Sontag said. Discussing the Bosnian War, Sontag argued that one of the greatest problems with war writing is that usually only the victims speak. And when we hear just the victims, the conflict becomes depoliticized and very hard to understand, as it is filtered through compassion. She talks about this in a great essay called Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), which should be mandatory reading for everyone documenting and writing about violence today.
BPC: Devil’s Freedom was very well received in Mexico. This speaks of an interest in perspectives that are often neglected in a market dovetailed with spectacular representations of violence in the so-called Third World. In that line, I’m curious about the reception of a movie like Devil’s Freedom in the US.
EG: Like you said, the reception of Devil’s Freedom in Mexico was very good in general. It did well in commercial theaters, which, in these times of streaming services and apparently overflowing choices available for the audiences, is a feat for a documentary with its characteristics.
In the US, there was considerable interest coming from the expected circuits. For example, it was presented at 100Reporters’ Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival. Also, it was among the films nominated by the Mexican Academy to compete for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 2018. But it did not make it. The Oscars are … happier.
But the movie was “polyfunctional” in both countries. It accompanied discussions in the Mexican Senate about public security and militarization; it was used for asylum cases in the US, as well as for seminars on immigration and asylum at the University of Texas at El Paso and Austin. In a way, the movie fulfilled different roles. It was seen in theaters with soda and popcorn, and it also accompanied complex discussions on state policy.
BPC: This idea of “polyfunctionality” leads me to a question about the role of documentaries. Documentary cinema has replaced, to some extent, the crucial role of investigative journalism, which is increasingly defunded or dangerous to perform (as shown in your 2015 documentary El Paso, which depicts the lives of Mexican journalists living or seeking asylum in the US). From your experience, how do you understand the relationship between contemporary journalism and documentary cinema?
EG: Their boundaries are blurry, specifically those between documentary and narrative journalism or chronicle, which is a staple of Mexican narrative. In a way, Mexican history has been largely narrated not through reporting but through orality, chronicle, and testimony, ever since the History of the Indies from the 16th century. The facts recounted by these genres first go through emotional filters, as happens with nonfiction literature.
An important difference between journalism and documentary, I think, is their reason for existing. The main motivation of journalism is informing; that is not necessarily the case for documentary cinema. In that sense, documentaries are more closely related to “traditional” fiction cinema.
Similarly, documentarists don’t share the same ethical conditionings as journalists, because journalism requires a solid basis of truth. That’s why, for example, there are fact-checkers, and it is through that informative function that journalism is read socially. That was also the role of the documentary genre at some point. Documentaries used to be a pedagogical audiovisual tool, but not anymore. And I think that the generation of documentarists to which I belong took up that banner.
I like to say that the raw material of documentaries is reality, because reality is also an interpretative exercise. There are positionings that talk about the obsolescence of truth in documentaries. I am still of the opinion that this always depends on what is being shot, where, and also what is the motivation and goal of the film. There is flexibility, too: a documentary such as Devil’s Freedom demands much stronger foundations in reality than others I made in the past and in which I had been able to take some poetic license.
Still, I think that the commitment of the documentarist lies with the artistic product, unlike the commitment of the journalist. Some interpret this as a utilitarian, extractivist aspect of documentary cinema; I know this can generate ethical debates.
But in the end, I’m not a journalist or an activist. I’m a filmmaker, and my commitment lies with the film. And I think this is what brought a new relevance to documentary cinema in Mexico: the aesthetic commitment to the work, formal decisions, the interest in engaging an audience and preventing them from leaving the theater.
BPC: About this new relevance of the genre, what’s the time frame you’re referring to?
EG: I’d say the first decade of the 21st century, with the latest technological revolution and the first exercises of digital cinema. While fiction cinema was still pondering the virtues of traditional film stock versus the shortcomings of digital supports, documentarists had no choice but to embrace digitalization.
The effect was a democratization of cinema in Mexico—and abroad. Suddenly you no longer needed to be part of established families of filmmakers or be located in the cultural nodes of the country, like Mexico City, or abroad, in places like New York or Madrid. Instead, we are now fed with stories told by people based in places like Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Veracruz, Arkansas, or Virginia. This transformation, which hardly would have been possible in the structure of traditional industrial cinema, occurred more dramatically in the case of documentary filmmaking.
It is no coincidence that there is a greater gender balance in documentary cinema than in fiction. There are several great women documentarists: directors, cinematographers, producers, editors. This was also an interesting change that my contemporaries and I went through.
Now we are facing a new technological and formal sea change brought about by streaming services and the episodic narratives these favor. That is something my generation will have a hard time adapting to.
BPC: I read that you were working on a documentary about different deserts. Would you like to talk about this new project?
EG: Yes, it’s titled Yermo, and I finished it. The problem is that I finished it during a pandemic. So I hope it will premiere eventually this year.
This project came from an invitation a land-art photographer made to me to travel throughout 10 deserts around the world. I was supposed to shoot a sort of behind-the-scenes testimony of his work. We later realized that we could instead formulate a playful parody of the documentarist’s profession and its extractivist history: of how it exploits difference. Those whom the ethnographic documentarist frames as strange (that is, people from nonhegemonic cultures) see us as the actual strangers. We are intruders in those places where people are fed up with being depicted through a condescending and folklorizing gaze. The movie poses questions in that line, about how we are seen by those who tend to be portrayed in ethnographic filmmaking.
BPC: These issues have also led to important discussions in academia.
EG: Exactly. And they are fundamental for my profession as well, considering that documentary cinema has its origins in a colonialist tradition. Related to that, an issue with the movie is that, of course, the world is not interested in seeing a film shot by a Mexican in Mongolia. That is a job for a British man, for the BBC, for National Geographic. Not for a Mexican filmmaker.
We Mexicans are still, for the most part, confined in niches. And if we behave as is expected from us, then we can aspire to a place in the market. I reckon that if my movie had been made by, I don’t know, a man from Germany, the same product would have a different fate, which is dictated by the canons imposed by the market.
BPC: And these market-curated canons are often disguised as straightforward reflections of the choices—or the taste—of the audiences, as if these were not conditioned by the political economy in which filmmaking is embedded. Maybe by being less successful commercially, and even because of its conditions of production that make it less apt for the market, documentary cinema enjoys, in a sense, a greater degree of freedom?
EG: Yes. Documentarists have much more freedom in many senses. There is an implicit agreement that working with reality entails risks that fiction doesn’t know. It is very fragile and unpredictable.
Some producers, coming from television and advertising, are becoming more and more interested in producing documentaries, but they push too hard in demanding the certainties of fiction. It is hard for a documentary to provide certainties. It’s a bet. It needs to be so.
That has been really difficult for producers who recently have become interested in documentary cinema to understand. You cannot provide them with a storyboard, a solid script, and a cast who will guarantee turnout by talking to the press and appearing on red carpets.
This will be a fraught convergence as documentaries become increasingly profitable for the entertainment industry. As of now, they are probably among the most-watched genres on streaming platforms, where the offerings are enormous: from documentaries about barbecues to Devil’s Freedom. The ones about barbecues tend to sell more.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- The following is translated by Bárbara Pérez Curiel from a conversation held in Spanish. ↩