Documentary Interviews

Director Luciana Kaplan on the Making of “The Spokeswoman” Documentary and the Struggles of Indigenous Communities in Mexico

In 2017, María de Jesús Patricio, also known as Marichuy, became the first Indigenous woman to ever run for president in México. In her latest documentary, “The Spokeswoman”, filmmaker Luciana Kaplan not only follows her political campaign as an independent candidate, but also the collective Indigenous movement around her.

“It’s a portrait of México, a country that is fighting all the time and is starting to organize,” said Kaplan. “The Indigenous movement is trying to give visibility to the situation in the communities and to create a system that changes the perverse dynamics that political parties have.”

Marichuy was chosen by the Congreso Nacional Indígena (National Indigenous Congress) to run as president and be the head of a collective that is fighting to preserve nature and defend their territories against corporations and megaprojects threatening to dispossess and displace them.

“It’s not your typical campaign where there’s one figure and everyone responds to it. This is a collective journey, a call to think of new ways of organizing,” said Kaplan, who uses the documentary to give voice to the movement and explore the meaning that the society has given to the word “progress.” To this effect, “The Spokeswoman” branches away from the campaign itself to bring to light the stories of Indigenous activists facing injustices and threats throughout the country. It’s a tool to fight against prejudice, take action, learn about the Indigenous situation in Mexico and witness how small steps can go a long way in raising awareness and change the system.

Before the film’s international premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival, I had a chance to speak with Luciana Kaplan about the rage in the communities, the displacement threats, their ideals and the universal message of the documentary.

How did you plan the documentary knowing that this story wasn’t only about Marichuy, but about a collective trying to raise the voice of Mexican Indigenous communities?

That was the big dilemma of the film. There had to be a common thread, a main character that would take us through this story and give us an intimate approach. Along the way, we branched into important parallel stories; through them, you realize that this is not only about her and, at the same time, you manage to understand why they are fighting. Yes, it’s one voice that is leading us, but there are other characters who are talking to us about the community and their struggles. Balancing these two worlds was quite difficult during the editing process.

How did you approach the National Indigenous Congress to convince them to let you shoot the documentary? What kind of access did they give you?

Producer Carolina Coppel approached me when she learned that there was a possibility of an Indigenous candidate being chosen. We didn’t even know who she was. Before starting the project, we spoke with the Council and explained how important it is to document such an historical event. They agreed and let us shoot all the public stuff, but they didn’t want to give us full access to private meetings. I’m used to working very closely with the characters of my films, but in this case it wasn’t possible. We had to be very patient to get closer. As we recorded, we had to gain ground and win people over. It was a slow approach, because they wanted us to send the specific message that this is not about just one woman, but a collective voice. As a result, we spent almost two years recording.

During the tour of the communities, what would you say was the common feeling of the Indigenous population? Anger, hope, enthusiasm?

Mainly rage. There is enormous anger and hopelessness, but also a general feeling that there’s something very wrong in the country that needs to change. In every community we visited, people were denouncing something caused by either a company, the government or the narcos. People are ready to fight. It was a somewhat devastating vision, but at the same time there are organizational processes, collectives and an increasing number of people involved or generating their own collective spaces. 

Just as there is a lot of anger, there are strong organizational principles and hope stemming from the idea that the only way out is to organize and fight for what belongs to them. They are saying, ‘If we don’t do something that shakes this country, we are going to disappear.’ And it’s not an exaggeration, it’s a reality. “The Spokeswoman” presents the question ‘What are you going to do?’ to the audience.

“The Spokeswoman” | Courtesy of Hot Docs Festival

This documentary talks about the Indigenous experience in México, but what can other countries learn from it?

The film doesn’t only speak about Indigenous communities; it speaks about the idea that if we don’t do something big, the planet will disappear. The communities are safeguarding the territories, the waters, the crops. And we should all be responsible about them too. 

It’s clear from the beginning when Marichuy says: ‘We are fighting for life because otherwise, this planet won’t survive for much longer.’ It’s a call to question what progress is. If it destroys, is it really progress? Progress for whom and at whose expense? If we don’t change our vision or convictions, we are all in danger. It’s not just them, it’s everyone. This is a film that can be seen in any country because we are all living through this. With the pandemic raging right now, it’s a good moment to rethink the way we live and in what kind of world we want to live in and leave to our children. It’s a critical moment.

I think that the U.S. still struggles in dealing with their past of Indigenous genocide. You can see it in their media; it’s difficult for them to talk about it. How far or close is Mexico to acknowledging its own racism and terrible treatment of Indigenous communities?

In México, the genocide was enormous, but in the U.S. and Canada, it was total. Over there, 

some communities live on reservations; here, communities live in their spaces but are fighting against dispossession and racism.

Here, there is a much larger, stronger and varied population of Indigenous groups. If we neglect the issues and the communities stop fighting for their rights, it could lead to genocide, or a homogeneity which translates to thinking that we all should be Mexican in one way by ceasing to be who you are. In the U.S. and Canada they have decided to hide them, and here, the idea is for them to be Mexican. These are ideas that should be reconsidered. Who said that we all should belong to the same state? Who said that things have to be like this? It’s an identity supplantation issue, and we need to rethink this nation-state idea. 

With its arrival in the U.S. and Canada, I hope the film can become a tool to discuss and reflect about what is happening with their own communities. In México we have a history of organizations, but in the U.S. they are barely existent. The Congreso Nacional Indígena is an important example to other countries. 

For you, what was the most impactful moment of the shooting process?

The moment when Marichuy arrived at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM, or National Autonomous University of Mexico) was very exciting for me. It was a very powerful experience to see that the students and young people of this country are desperately looking for change. It was very exciting and vibrant. It gives you a sense of hope. This country needs another type of guidance, because we have already lost it. The left doesn’t exist anymore; it has disappeared, and the young people are the only thing that resembles a left. That thirst was one of the most exciting moments, and I think it’s also an essential part of the film. 

Also, being able to accompany Carmen, who is from the Yaqui community, and go to jail with her husband, was very strong and it affected me a lot. It’s one of those stories that end up being part of oneself.

“The Spokeswoman” will compete in the ‘Persister’ category of Toronto’s Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival, which will run from April 29 through May 9. Also, the film will make a sneak-preview stop at the San Francisco International Film Festival from April 9 through April 18.

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