Spanish helmer Fernando Leon de Aranoa, best known for his award-winning feature films, has crafted "Walkers," a simple-seeming docu of a small town in Mexico on the occasion of a visit by a band of Zapatistas. These masked "walkers" traverse the countryside in defense of the rights of indigenous peoples, gathering support along the way.

Spanish helmer Fernando Leon de Aranoa, best known for his award-winning feature films (“Mondays in the Sun,” “Barrio,” “Familia”), has crafted “Walkers,” a simple-seeming docu of a small town in Mexico on the occasion of a visit by a band of Zapatistas. These masked “walkers” traverse the countryside in defense of the rights of indigenous peoples, gathering support along the way. Pic’s unpretentiously striking compositions and effortless intimacy have already made it welcome on fest circuit, though its short, hour length will probably limit commercial exposure to small-screen venues.

Jordi Abusada’s camera, often focusing on hands or faces, establishes an immediacy that breaks down the “otherness” of his subjects, imbuing the villagers of Noria with dignity. This puts the local schoolteacher or farmer on the same level as the amazingly articulate and charismatic “Subcomandante Marcos,” the legendary masked Zapatista spokesperson whose interview is sprinkled throughout the pic.

Loudspeakers invite the townspeople to help construct a platform, schoolchildren rehearse a play, the band runs through its favorite numbers, and everyone, including a relaxed, pipe-smoking Marcos, welcomes the opportunity to talk.

Aranoa creates a neat balance between the conditions of these individualized P’uerepecha people and the wider aspirations of the faceless “walkers.” While Marcos speaks of the ongoing learning process of the Zapatistas, his interview is crosscut with scenes of a teacher helping her pupils write letters to absent parents in the States.

Apparently unsolicited, a distinguished gray-haired man, whose garb wonderfully reflects the color of the surrounding fields, takes out his guitar to play.

Talking heads don’t dominate the landscape of this docu. Rather, people inhabit the frame, seemingly inseparable from the town. Aranoa’s compositions are carefully color-coded: In reprised images of a lone figure wandering the long gray, narrow road that links Noria with the rest of the world, the road is seen in sunlight or at dusk or emerging from the mist. Crowds of increasingly familiar men and women fill the wide beige streets of the town itself.

The extreme weirdness of armed, black-ski-masked strangers filling the first row of a school auditorium to watch little children hop, shuffle or mince, does not seem ominous.

Pic ends with a huge 2001 Zapatista rally in the center of Mexico City. Somewhat overextended finale has Marcos start to take off his mask only to cut to a succession of widely disparate folk de-masking in a flurry of cross-cultural solidarity.

Tech credits are first-rate.

Walkers

Spain-Mexico

Production

A Plural Entertainment/Pentagram Films production. Producers, Luis Fernandez, Jose Ibanez. Directed by Fernando Leon de Aranoa. Written by Aranoa,Angel Luis Lara.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Jordi Abusada; editor, Mariela Cadiz Poppoma; music, Alfonso Arias; sound, Eva Valino. Reviewed on cassette at La Cinema Fe, New York, Feb. 17, 2003. (Also in Sundance, L.A. Latino film festivals.) Running time: 57 MIN.

With

Juan Chavez Alonso, Guadalupe Samaniego, Juan Romero Orozco, Ignacio Romero, Subcomandante Marcos. Spanish dialogue.
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