Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Arts & Culture

Guest Blog: Tijuana's New Wave Of Cinema

Aaron Soto's "Omega Shell."
Aaron Soto
Aaron Soto's "Omega Shell."

TJ Filmmaker Screens At Comic-Con International Film Festival

Tijuana's New Wave of cinema was represented at the Comic-Con International Film Festival this past weekend. Guest blogger and filmmaker Aaron Soto provides some insight into the movement.

México's has been called a land of mystery and magic.  It's ancient myths and tales of folklore have influenced a whole culture through writers, painters, photographers and especially, filmmakers.  From phantasmagoric legends of La Llorona ("The Weeping Woman") to the myths of the iconic mysterious heroes the Luchadores Enmascarados (Mexican masked wrestlers), the power of the Mexican fantastic or 'fantasía mexicana' has been the essence of  it's art and culture. 

It's well documented that filmmakers from outside of Mexico -- like Spain's Luis Bunuel ("Los Olvidados"), Chile's Alejandro Jodorowsky ("El Topo") and England's Alex Cox ("El Patrullero") -- have all been so inspired by Mexican mysticism that they have travelled to Mexico to create some of the most iconic and powerful films of the art. Mexico's own Aztec auteurs  -- filmmakers like Chano Huerta ("El Espejo de la Bruja"), Carlos Enrique Taboada ("El Libro de Piedra"), Felipe Cazals ("Canoa"), Juan Lopez Moctezuma ("Alucarda"), Rene Cardona Jr. ("Tintorera"), Cristian Gonzalez ("The Zodiac Killer") and Guillermo Del Toro ("Cronos") --  have been essential in Mexico's own visual history of the fantastic. Through the years, Mexico's contribution to genre cinema has manifested itself in many forms across the cinema landscape,  from cult films (El Santo films) to art house hits ("Like Water for Chocolate"),  and even epic blockbusters  ("Pan's Labyrinth"), for the most part,  the Mexican film industry and community emanated from  Mexico's own capital in the center of the country.  National cinema  institutions and films schools were located in Mexico city as  were the film industry infrastructure .


But there is a new breed of genre filmmakers, spreading throughout the provincial cities. Industry rejecters, that could either not afford film school or that could not conform to the system.  Most of them, create stories of horror, fantasy and science fiction, and most of them, come from an unexpected place, the city of Tijuana.

Why the unexpected place? Because Tijuana has been  cut-off from the rest of the country's own culture for years. Despite being  the world's most-visited border city, Tijuana was considered by Mexico City's centric culture as that bizarre border town that did not  seem to have it's own identity, but boy were they wrong!

Abraham Sanchez's "Sanguijuelas" played at this year's Comic-Con International Film Festival.
Abraham Sanchez's "Sanguijuelas" played at this year's Comic-Con International Film Festival.

The first seed of 'Horror Culture' and Fantastic Culture' that emerged from Tijuana was in the form of cult legend Juan Lopez Moctezuma, the director of nunsploitation features  like "Alucarda" and "The Mansion of Madness." He spread the world of horror through radio across the city. While working in Tijuana's  jazz scene for many years, Moctezuma left the city so impressed and shocked by it's own bizarre surreal culture, that he even went on to produce Jodorowsky's "Fando and Lis" and "El Topo," but no genre films were made by locals until the boom of 'exploitation' and 'grindhouse' films.  Low budget B-movie producers produced action-packed  sexploitation films  with the legion of new stars emerging  after the demise  of the Mexican Golden Age Cinema.  From badass Mario Almada movies to ultra sexy Lyn May vehicles, the city was presented as sensationalistic, with border cliches like prostitutes, drugs, illegals, violence and the downtown bar scene populating the new genre.  This was really cool stuff from the kitschy side of the universe but the films were missing their own local voice and most of the time missing  their own local directors.

 It was in the late 90s that the spirit of Tijuana's own cinema auteurs begsn to rise. Third world rebels were experimenting with old broken super 8 and 16mm cameras and videotape, similar to New York's transgression movement.  Directors like Fran Ilich, Giancarlo Ruiz, Omar Ynigo and myself, started what would become  known as the DIY movement from the 00's down in Baja. Editing with two VCR's and creating our own stars, like actor Hector Jimenez ("Nacho Libre") and our own cult short-films like "Omega Shell," we started to make films about our everyday life,  the contradictory chaos of the city; sex and religion, the comprehensible and the esoteric, the uncivilized and the technology, pleasure and pain, English and Español and most of all, the culture of violence. On screen, most of the subjects mix the aesthetics of many genre and sub-genres of the fantastic -- like cyber-punk, surrealism, steam-punk, and science fiction.  

What were the directors' intentions? I'm not sure, but if you asked about influences, in Mexico's academic system, filmmakers answer with cliches like Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard. If you ask the border town filmmakers, they will answer with names like David Lynch and Lucio Fulci for sure, but why not? The Tijuana border is 15 minutes from California's cinemas. Dozens of newsstands and libraries, plus the local mom-and-pop video stores insured that Mexican Gen-Xers grew up consuming America's pop culture and it's indie roots, including B-movies, sleaze,  horror, and the macabre from publications like "Famous Monsters of Filmland"  and  "Gorezone" magazine, and from writers like Tim Lucas and Pete Tombs. With the injection of their own Mexican culture, how many children grew up watching "El Santo vs Las Vampiras" as well as David Cronenberg's "Videodrome" on the same evening?


For me, Giancarlo Ruiz's short-film "IV" (1998) was the first horror film or the first genre film made in Tijuana. Ruiz, a middle class student from the Playas sector, explored the pleasure of violence in a country where life doesn't mean shit and technology can give you better ideas with which to experiment with your own demons.  "IV" was the first example of a good 'technic' film that respected the values and ideas of the genre as well as Tijuana's  relationship with death and religion. But it is Ruiz's own "Los Zetas"  that is the perfect example of the horror of the border town, exploring what Mexicans are for the Americans and the Americans for the Mexicans. "Los Zetas" is a insane zombie musical a la Troma, too bloody to be really  funny and too self conscious to be consider arty, but also too intelligent and personal to be described as simply trash. Tijuana Cinema mixed DIY aesthetics with social themes and American-style fantastic genres to create a phenomenon  of post-apocalyptic short-films ("Antropofagus" and "The World Went Away"),  ghost stories tales ("Before The Cradle") and urban nightmares ("Zilema"), all with original scores,  art direction and  sublime home-made special effects, all made by non-professional  but deeply passionate artists, that are really knowledgable of the history of the genre.

Omega Shell - Cyber Punk Film. Part 1.

San Diego film critic and film festival curator, Neil Kendriks, compared the scene to "the early Punk rock days, Tijuana filmmakers aren't willing to say no, they believe in violence as poetry" but KPBS' Beth Accomando said it much better. In her review for "Omega Shell" (2001), the first Tijuana scene short-film to enjoy success in the international festival circuit, she said, "It's like Luis Bunuel and Clive Barker in the desert, disturbing and fascinated at the same time".

It's hard to talk about the Tijuana cinema scene as a critic, because I am very much involved in it.  I still remember the long starving days shooting "Omega Shell" and "BeforeThe Cradle"  in the isolated sector of La Mesa de Tijuana, and still remember the day Guillermo del Toro offer me a meeting pitch, thanks to those two shorts. I'm really proud of what became afterwards, young filmmakers like Jorge Sanders and Abraham Sanchez.  Both from the digital revolution, both involved in  "Sanguijuelas," the vampire short-film that played at this year San Diego Comic-Con Film Festival. "Sanguijuelas," the second Mexican short to ever play the Comic-Con InternationalFilm Festival, is a non-stop action splatter fest made with love as a celebration for the genre.  So, pay attention to director Abraham Sanchez,  you will hear more from him. The first one was the disturbing "Algesia" (2007),  proudly produced by yours truly. 

So far the short-films from Tijuana have enjoyed a decent ride on the international circuit. From a retrospective in Canada's Fantasia film festival (my own Escandalos Productions) to Cannes, they even have their own copy cat ("Sleep Dealer"). Tijuana's influence on the genre will increase and will surely get more notorious along the way. It's no coincidence that Rue Morgue magazine creator Rodrigo Gudino was born and raised in Tijuana and I might agree with his intriguing views of this underrated Mexican town:

"Tijuana made a huge impact on me, it's the place where I entered the world after all, I am very methodical in how I make movies and even how I live my life, but in my heart I like a little chaos. Maybe that little bit I took from Tijuana"

Amen Rodrigo, now let's start with the new wave invasion of horror en español.

Aaron Soto is the award-winning director of "Omega Shell" and coordinator of Rue Morgue Mexico.