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Guillermo del Toro-Backed Doc ‘Ayotzinapa, the Turtle’s Pace’ Looks for Truth in Tragedy

With the support of del Toro and Bertha Navarro, the documentary delvers a new take on one of Mexico's most tragic and mysterious unsolved crimes

MORELIA, Mexico — Perhaps the most important question asked at this year’s Morelia Festival in Mexico was made by a young teacher in the Impulso Morelia pix-in-progress doc “Ayotzinapa, the Turtle’s Pace”:

“Since when is it more dangerous to be a rural teacher than a drug-trafficker?”

The question has been asked constantly in Guerrero, Mexico since Sept. 26, 2014. On that night, five buses of students from a local teaching college, on their way to Mexico City to commemorate the anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, were re-directed to Iguala, a nearby city. Once arrived, local authorities laid siege to the buses and opened fire on the unarmed students. When the sun rose the next day three were dead and 43 missing. The night’s events have had countless official explanations by local and federal governments alike. Investigations have been conducted and findings presented, but the documentary is the first time that the story is being told from the point of view of those who experienced it, and the friends and family of those who were taken.

The film is produced by Salamandra Producciones S.A. de C.V. Mexico’s Bertha Navarro is executive producing. She also secured additional support from Guillermo del Toro, whose Spanish-language movies she produces and who co-presented the documentary at Morelia, saying it is still a work-in-progress. Director Enrique García Meza has more than two decades experience in the Mexican film industry, and since 2014 has been working for Once TV (IPN) on the miniseries Los niños cuentan.”

“Ayotzinapa” hopes to secure financial backing to finish post-production and sound editing. A means towards that end was supplied when the film took home the Ambulante Award, a 50,000 Mexican peso ($2,500) grant for aid in completing post-production at Wednesday’s award ceremony. García talked to Variety about the difficulties in documenting such a recent and controversial topic.

In the film the victims were attacked by those meant to protect them. In filming, or now that it’s finished, did you ever experience any fear for yourself?

Fear? Yes. Some people who had experienced similar circumstances gave recommendations. At first, I didn’t acknowledge them until one day I received a message at my hotel in Chilpancingo. Apparently the Federal Police, on patrol and in uniform, left a note saying I was “invited to stop playing with the camera.” The next day I started to take head of those recommendations. I learned to notice the people who work in drug-trafficking and the “infiltrators” in the government. There is a fear in speaking out with this documentary as well. I think about the other people who worked on it and worry something what might happen to them, or the people around them. It’s not just fear of death, but of disappearance and torture. These things fall into focus when you see the death of journalists, movement leaders or anyone who raises their voices.

How long was the filming process?

Shooting was three parts. The first began on Oct. 12, 2014 and lasted six months in Ayotzinapa. The second stage lasted about 12 months and my presence in Ayotzinapa and Guerrero was constant. The third stage was to look for interviews or concrete images that answered questions asked in the script. That was a difficult three-to-four months. The images of what happened the night of Sept. 26 are images from the students’ cell phones. Other footage was provided by parents and the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI)

What is your connection here, why did you need to tell this particular story?

My father was an “underground” filmmaker and my mother was a normalist. When the disappearances happened, and I saw the photographs, it hit me. It hurt to see the young students who resembled my childhood friends. At the time I was finishing a miniseries I did with Bertha Navarro. I told her “I’m going to Ayotzinapa.” I remember her reaction then. At the time I wasn’t very politically engaged. She asked me to calm down, analyze and reflect, to plan for everything. I snuck in a few times to try to learn what I could and at that time Bertha talked with Guillermo (del Toro) and he joined quickly.

For me personally these stories happen day by day, and I can’t stay silent or passive. I am sure that all the people involved in the documentary would say the same. Each of us was hurt similarly and choose to take the risk by putting a piece of us in the documentary.

What has been people’s response when they’ve learned about the project?

Many have told me to distance myself. Some say that we are brave or that I am brave. I resent that word, and even more when I see the mothers, the parents and the students. Maybe at the moment when we first decided to do this there was a brave moment, but when you first set the camera “record,”, that word disappears and becomes annoying.

Others have been kind and appreciative of what we are doing. They want to help in some way. That makes all of us happy in what we are doing.

How is this story perceived today outside of Guerrero?

Many people still believe the students were going to a political protest or that Ayotzinapa is a hive of guerrillas and drug-traffickers. They believe that because that’s what they see on TV. It makes me angry but I know it’s just that they’ve never been there. We did this to help change people’s minds on the “official” version. We want people to trust their intuition and say: “Something isn’t right here.”

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