Mexico's Film Industry Sees Hope In Recent Hits
Director Alfonso Cuarón’s Academy Award for Gravity brought a flurry of excitement about his nationality. Cuarón was the first Mexican — in fact, the first Latin American — to win an Oscar for best director.
Cuarón studied film in Mexico, but left for the U.S. because of limited opportunities in his home country. Mexican cinema was in the doldrums then. But it wasn’t always like that, and now some observers are seeing a renaissance in a string of box office hits and international awards for Mexican filmmakers like Cuarón.
Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema flourished in the 1940s and 1950s with comedies and melodramas like Mujeres Sin Mañana, about a group of prostitutes who work in a classy, seaside cabaret.
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The pull of Mexico’s film industry was strong enough to attract Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel away from Europe and Hollywood. Buñuel lived in Mexico and produced more than a dozen films there from the 1940s to the 1960s.
But the industry began to peter out in the 1960s. As globalization took hold, fewer and fewer Mexican films were made, and quality suffered.
Then, Mexico got rid of a law that required theaters to reserve 50 percent of screen time for national films. This was done in preparation for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in 1994, said Ignacio Durán, former director of the Mexican Film Institute.
The country’s economy was also in bad shape at the time, leading Mexico to cut most financial help to the film community.
“That had the result of a very tough 10 years after that,” Durán said.
The country’s film industry shrunk in the 1990s. Production dropped from more than 100 films per year at the beginning of the decade to less than 25 films per year in the second half of the decade.
At the same time, Hollywood films flooded into Mexican cinemas — and still do.
“Every summer you get an Avengers film, Spiderman,” Durán said.
Most Mexican films have to wait in line behind these blockbusters for screen time because they rely on the same U.S. distributors, Durán said.
But Mexican films are started to gain ground at the box office.
The romantic comedy Instructions Not Included set the record last year as the highest grossing Spanish language film ever in U.S. theaters. The growing Latino population here and the film’s well-known telenovela star and director, Eugenio Derbez, helped make it a success.
Prominent Mexican actors and directors, like Alfonso Cuarón, are also bringing buzz to the film industry back home — even if they have moved on to Hollywood.
These successes are infusing new hope into the Mexican film industry, said Ethan Van Thillo, founder and director of the San Diego Latino Film Festival, which started last week.
“We’ve just been talking about this with the directors and actors who have been here the past few days at the film festival,” Van Thillo said. “Everyone’s just really excited, they actually see a potential of selling their film.”
Several Mexican films in this year’s festival lineup are gaining international attention. Heli, a stunning, sobering portrait of the drug war’s affect on a rural Mexican family, won director Amat Escalante the prize for best director at last year’s festival in Cannes.
In the film, a budding love between an adolescent girl and a young Mexican army recruit has horrific consequences for both.
On a much lighter note, Qué le dijiste a Dios parodies Mexico’s 1 percent in Bollywood style, to the music of the iconic Mexican singer, Juan Gabriel.
Maria Teresa Suarez, director of Qué le dijiste a Dios?, said she hoped the recent successes of Mexican films would help her and other filmmakers attract more funding and negotiate for better conditions.
Suarez said a new program that allows Mexican companies to write off taxes in exchange for financing Mexican films is also helping kick start the industry again.
The San Diego Latino Film Festival runs through Sunday.