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Diego Osorno on ‘1994,’ Netflix’s Doc Build in Mexico

LOS CABOS  —  Netflix is proving a boon to documentary creation in Mexico. That boon has not yet yielded a fully-fledged boom. The U.S. streaming giant has just released the first results of  its documentary drive. The build in cinematic standard non-fiction works in, however, palpable, the biggest case in point to date, Diego Osorno’s milestone doc series “1994,” produced by Netflix and Vice Studios Latin America.

Osorno’s masterclass on “1994” proves one of the highlights of the 2019 Los Cabos Festival.

The rise of the documentary is also related to “superficiality” social media. Osorno said in his masterclass. “You go on Twitter” and massacre in Kenia, rebellion in Bolivia,  slaughter in Chihuahua an you see 140 characters and think you’re keeping up to date with the new, but you don’t go into any event,” he said.

“People are seeking out non-fiction works and documentaries to understand what we thought we understood but didn’t really.”

The Cabos masterclass came, moreover, as Everardo González presented at Los Cabos his latest independently-produced fiction-feature project, “A Wolfpack Called Ernesto,” turning on the social-context-forged psychology of Mexico’s young sicarios.

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Meanwhile, “The Irishman’s” producer Gastón Pavlovich announced two fiction works, with stars and screenplays but based very closely on the non-fiction investigative books of Jesús Esquivel. One, “The Trial,” analyzes the (often U.S.) government departments, banks, and institutions exposed during the trail of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán as colluding in the Mexico-U.S. drug trade.

“The documentary movement is very strong in Mexico,” Osorno said at his masterclass. “Netflix is strengthening it as well,” he added.

Released by Netflix in May, “1994” suggests key elements in that build.

One, and the most obvious, is resources. “1994” dissects the year of largest crisis – and that’s saying something, Osorno said to laughter un his masterclass – in recent Mexican history. It began with a bang, on Jan. 1 , with the double whammy of the entry into force of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Zapatista rising; on March 6, a speech by PRI presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, seeming to signal his rupture with President Carlos Salinas, tears into the corruption and paralysis of change of PRI, promises reform, most probably signs his death sentence.

On March 23, campaigning in a working class district of Tijuana, Colosio was shot dead in the head, in images captured on camera, Mexico’s JFK Dallas moment, as masterclass moderator, SensaCine Mexico’s Carlos Gómez Iniesta noted in a rousing introduction.

In December, Mexico suffered economic collapse, the result of a huge dollar-tagged deficit run up by outgoing president Carlos Salinas’ government.

“Mexico suddenly became brutal, violent and dark,” says one commentary over early images of modern Mexico. It has stayed that way, in many ways, until this day.

Documentaries in Mexico can cost Pesos5 million-Pesos10 million ($260,000-$520,000). Though Netflix does not reveal production costs, “1994,” a five-part series, obviously cost much more. That money is on the screen from “1994’s” get-go as drone shots sweeps away and then past the towering art deco Monumento a La Revolución, a mausoleum to Revolution leaders such as Pancho Villa, before cutting back over 20 years to the March 6 rally held by Colosio a stone’s throw from the Monumento.

Osorno used drones to pull out from a scenes especially loaded with information, he told Variety after the masterclass. Here, the opening shots are the work of a cineaste, placing Colosio, tragically, in a lineage of leaders who set out to change Mexico, and failed.

The major cost of “1994” must have been, however, the extraordinary weight of licensed documentary footage assembled by Netflix and Vice to illustrate, explain, or comment with sometimes acerbic irony on the escalating events, such as when Colosio promises PRI reform in a speech and the series cuts to shots of PRI’s gnarled old guard, siting in a podium behind him,  taking in his words with a pointed lack of emotion.

In total, “1994” assembled and structured around 800 hours of archive or interview footage, the latter from nearly 50 interviews, Osornio said. In an elementary exercise in democratic diversity of opinion, these play out throughout the entirety of the series, coming in at the year, its defining events,from multiple angles.

The initial sequences before the credit roll captures an enthused Colosio at the March 6 meeting, declaring famously that “Mexicans have a hunger and thirst for justice.” It also includes a snippet of audio interview which his imprisoned assassin, the then 22-year-old Mario Aburto. Interviews take in not only Carlos Salinas but Comandante Marcos, now Galeano: A feat to get them into the same documentary.

Colosio’s assassination was captured famously by one camera, in images which still hold Mexico under a spell. To come in at the event in depth, in a climactic Ep. 3, Osorno recounted in Los Cabos that he sought out another 13 video records, footage shot by police, journalists, rally attendees which had been impounded by authorities after the crime. “Its action takes place over just one day, unlike other episodes, Ep. 3 is the climax of the series, and the climax of our current reality as a country,” Osorno said.

“I feel amphibian, I don’t know if I’m a reporter, documentarian or screenwriter. [Most of all] I feel like a narrator, a storyteller,” Osorno confused at Los Cabos.

Elegantly shooting scenes, the camera slowly coming in or receding from its subjects, using choicely scored music to gently suggest the sense of a scene, “1994” is the work not just of a documentaran but a director. It’s also an extraordinary feat of editing to prioritize a sense of story.

To tell the story of 1994, and create a sense of audience engagement, for international audiences to care for Colosio or  at least grasp what he represented to Mexico, meant delivering a lot of information in a very short time. It also required Osorno to get at the human heart of the story. The three most important interviews which Osorno managed to shoot in “1994,” he argued, were of Salinas, Galeano and Colosio’s son, Luis Donaldo Colosio Riojas, caught in archive footage as a child when his father was officially named PRI presidential candidate.

A political saga, “1994” is also a story of human tragedy, a family broken by the father’s assassination, the valiant mother’s death from cancer soon after. One of the most touching scenes of anything seen at Los Cabos this year was maybe shown by mistake when the masterclass screened the final stretch of the series and son Colosio Riojas is asked to sum up his feeling about tragic past events. His reply brings “1994,” a model for investigative journalism of the future, to a piercing end.

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