“A Place Called Chiapas” is an exemplary documentary that vividly and lucidly explores a modern Mexican standoff. It deserves niche theatrical release and is a must for tube programming and further fest exposure.
At the outset, filmmaker Nettie Wild notes that in Canada, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect Jan. 1, 1994, was a matter for debate; in the state of Chiapas, one of the poorest in Mexico, it provoked a revolution.
On the day NAFTA went into effect, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), under the leadership of a mysterious man known only as Marcos, took over five towns and over 500 ranches in Chiapas, ousting landlords, stranding tourists and infuriating the Mexican government, which sent 30,000 troops to encircle the rebel area. A cease-fire ensued almost immediately, and an uneasy standoff resulted.
EZLN is a guerrilla army made up mainly of indigenous Mayan people, but Marcos is neither Mayan nor from Chiapas. Keeping his face covered at all times, this pipe-smoking, poetry-spouting intellectual cannily uses modern technology to push the cause of his people — he sends the EZLN message out into the world on the Internet.
Wild’s crew — whose members have to produce passports to enter the EZLN-controlled area — aren’t the only media people attracted to Chiapas. Marcos is photographed for the French magazine Marie Claire and interviewed by Newsweek. He signs autographs between making speeches.
The New York Times calls this “the world’s first postmodern revolution”; it’s also described as “a post-Glasnost revolutionary Woodstock, without the acid.” But the EZLN revolution is no laughing matter. Outraged landowners and government supporters form the Peace & Justice Group, which forces peasants who are EZLN supporters to leave their land, creating a massive refugee problem. The org also threatens media they see as supportive of EZLN.
Attempting to mediate and keep the fragile peace is the Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, Samuel Ruiz Garcia, known as the “Red Bishop” to the landlords and as tatic (“grandfather”) to the Mayans.
Wild and her camera crew get right into the thick of this tense situation, and come up with a revealing depiction of the tensions and ambiguities of life in Chiapas. The resulting film is undeniably partisan, but is also successful in illuminating the somewhat murky politics of the situation.
Pic was shot on video, and the transfer to 16mm is unusually good.