Festival Screening: 'One Day in September- El Patiente Interno'
Documentary About Would-Be Assassin
On a beautiful day in September, 1970, Carlos Castañeda de la Fuente, 29, did the unthinkable. He brought a revolver to the Fiestas Patrias celebration in Mexico City to shoot then Mexican President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz.
“Everyone wanted to know how he could have failed,” says Alejandro Solar Luna, director of a new documentary on Castañeda. “Diaz Ordaz was like our Pinochet…this would have changed everything.”
Fail Castañeda did and disappeared into the void that was the Mexican prison system and psychiatric wards- for 23 years.
“El Patiente Intierno (The Convict Patient),” Solar’s debut documentary on what happened to Castañeda, is making its U.S. Premiere at this year’s San Diego Latino Film Festival. A powerful examination of one of the fallouts of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) crackdown on the student uprisings of 1968 in Mexico City, this documentary is a must see for those interested in the turbulent years of Mexico’s student uprisings. And it is timely as well. Past seems to be prologue-the party in power at the time, the PRI, is back and Mexican students are once again organizing for their rights with Yo Soy 132.
For director Solar, the documentary is not just the story of Castañeda, but also the story of Mexico- a story he feels must be heard “so that we don’t go back to then.”
Solar is clearly influenced by Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line”) and the portrait of Castañeda is painted in increasingly overlapping fragments. To the civil rights lawyer who dug up the details of his case in the 1990’s, he is a victim of human rights violations; to the social worker, a broken homeless man; to his brother, a source of confusion and pride; to the government that tried to break him, a mad man.
“The government spent days torturing him, they tortured his brother, arrested his sister in an effort to find co-conspirators,” says Solar. But, as the documentary makes clear, there were none.
“They (the government) couldn’t conceive of someone doing this alone,” says Solar. So, they declared him (criminally) insane.”
When asked in the documentary if he regrets what he did, Castañeda says no.
The documentary lays out in stunning detail the horrific student massacres of 1968, in particular the Mexico City massacres, known as the Tlatelolco Massacre, in which possibly more than 250 people, mostly students, died.
Then Mexican President Ordaz Dias took full and defiant responsibility (or credit, depending on how you look at it), paving the way for ever more repressive crackdowns.
Castañeda was at the demonstrations that day and more than forty years later, his eyes fill with tears as he describes how the government attacked the university students. As he speaks and as the narrator picks up his description when words fail Castañeda, Solar drops period stills and footage into intriguing half frames as if recreating a newspaper archive or old film reel. The effect is arresting and disturbing at the same time, suggesting as it does, tainted history and disappeared memories.
It took two years for Castañeda, an aspiring priest, to turn the events of 1968 over in his mind, two years of religious reading, two years of redefining himself as a defender of the faith.
When Castañeda finally made his move, says Solar, he saw himself as defending Catholic Mexico against the anti-clerical government which had already proven its disdain for the faithful by massacring them in the street.
According to Castañeda, he sees himself not as a victim but as a martyr, someone ready to die for the good of his countrymen. It is this position, says the documentary’s director, which allowed Castañeda to endure first physical then psychological torture at the hands of the PRI.
What happened next to Castañeda is told not by him but by various psychologists, guards at the jails, and his social worker. That there is anything to tell is a miracle. There are few if any government records of his trial, incarceration, or stays at the mental detention centers, says Solar. It is as if his gun had gone off without a sound.
The few documents that do exist were saved by Norma Ibanez, the human rights lawyer who had worked on his case in the 1990’s. Concerned the PRI would erase all records of Carlos Castañeda as they had tried to erase him, she explains she kept records of what she could find. The psychologists and guards easily remember Castañeda - for years he was the only prisoner, stupefied by psychotropic drugs, in a small prison house built just for him.
After more than two decades in the government’s psychiatric wards, Castañeda reappeared only to disappear again. A TV interview at the time of his release shows a man in his late 40’s, old before his time, psychological dim, but still with no regrets about what he tried to do.
In 2004, with a new party, the National Action Party or PAN, in power, journalists and activists started looking into the cases of disappearances linked to the student uprisings of 1968. According to the documentary, human rights advocates considered Castañeda a key piece to the puzzle- if only they could find him.
Solar saw the articles and started his own investigation into Castañeda. A graduate of the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos or CUEC, Solar had studied political science and then made the transition to documentary filmmaker.
“At first, this was about looking for Don Carlos,“ says Solar. But when his former lawyer Norma Ibanez bumped into a now homeless Castañeda on the street, the focus changed.
“It had to,” Solar says. “Norma found him and it wouldn’t make sense to do it as a searching for story…we had him here, it was like I had invoked him.”
Solar spent four years in total on the documentary, two years looking for Castañeda and two years putting the documentary together. He credits his editor, Ernesto Contreras, with the tight structure and creative use of archival footage. In addition, Solar was able to complete the complicated research and editing thanks to a grant for alumni first projects from his university.
“I was lucky,” he says modestly, “I didn’t get it the first time, but the second time, I got full funding.”
When asked if he worries the PRI will object to his documentary now that they are back in power, Solar smiles slightly. “Let’s just say I couldn’t have done this project while the PRI was in power.
As for the documentary’s reception in Mexico, audiences were shocked, says Solar, but responded well. “It’s our story,” he says. “It needs to be told.”
And the Castañeda brothers?
After a stint in an assisted living center, Carlos Castañeda chose to go back on the street. “Don Carlos’ brother didn’t seem to want to see it (the documentary)” Solar says. “He wants to forget.”
“El Patiente Interno” plays again at the SDLFF Sunday.