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Mexican Journalist Carmen Aristegui: ‘Documentaries Are Great Tools for Our Society’

Carmen Aristegui: ‘Documentaries Are Great Tools
Courtesy of Philippe Coeytaux

A concrete example of IDFA artistic director Orwa Nyrabia’s definition of a Frontlight title, Juliana Fanjul’s angry political sketch film “Radio Silence” started with a much-needed moment of light relief. Entering the auditorium with a backpack, the film’s subject—pioneering Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui—matter-of-factly walked to the front and sat herself down, without fanfare, in one of four chairs set out in front of the screen. It was typical behavior for this no-nonsense broadcaster, but also a happy reminder that this vital force for good in the world was still with us.

Indeed, Fanjul’s film is a harrowing watch at times, featuring footage of political assassinations and haunted by the disappearance of “The Iguala 43,” a group of activist male students who were murdered in 2014. Indeed, Aristegui herself has received so many death threats that she sent her teenage son to study abroad, keeping him far away from any danger.

Interviewed by IDFA programmer Maria Campaña Ramia, the Mexican-born Fanjul explained that she now lives in Switzerland, but used to keep up with her homeland by listening to Aristegui’s broadcasts—until, as the film shows, the reporter was fired by her employers and blacklisted by the industry for blowing the whistle on a corruption scandal involving then-President Enrique Peña Nieto. “As the film says,” Fanjul recalled, “[this project] started when the program I used to listen to ended suddenly in March 2015. I was premiering my first feature [at the time], and suddenly that voice went silent. We were starting to learn about this series of very violent events [that were happening in Mexico], like the disappearance of the 43 Iguala students… It was really shocking. I was lost for words—and I lost the words twice, because Carmen’s voice was the bridge between me and Mexico. I got really mad. So I decided to transform this energy into a creative energy—to find my tools as a filmmaker and go to Mexico and look for her.”

Aristegui doesn’t reveal much of herself in the film, which observes her from a respectful yet still intimate distance, but after the screening she had plenty to say on the subject of censorship in Mexico, even under the rule of recently elected reformist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. “The challenge of the new government in Mexico is basically that the old government was critical of the media in the country,” she said. “[Obrador] has promised that, under his government, this won’t happen, such as happened with me and [others]. So [there will be] no direct censorship cases against journalists.”

Nevertheless, she is not expecting an easy ride. “The president mentioned some specific media as if they were an adversary,” she said. “Like, a counter-party, and I think he is mistaken. A politician needs an adversary, but that is not the media. The president won with by far the most votes, and all the other parties were actually very much debilitated or minimized by his victory. The president chose to take as the enemy some of the critical media, and I think it’s the wrong way [to go]. The president of Mexican society should consider the value that journalists have in that society.”

“I don’t think Obrador will apply censorship as other Mexican presidents have done in the past,” she continued. “But not everything is up to the president. In Mexico, just like in other places in the world, there are very big corporate powers that take control of the media. These companies have influence on the freedom of expression. There are also other local powers—political and criminal—that have more direct control over freedom of expression, and there have been many murders of journalists. [Even] in the last few months, even with a new president, there still have been murders of journalists in different parts of Mexico. We cannot charge those murders to the president, but there is still a reality that is still present. This change of president by itself cannot change the problem. But there is hope, an expectation, for this president and the society that chose him, for a change in the quality of democracy, where we journalists can do our work in freedom and safety and be able communicate our work to the people, not the political powers that be. It’s a big challenge for Mexico.”

Asked whether documentary films could be a useful part of that struggle, Aristegui responded strongly in the affirmative. “Documentary is a very powerful [way] to change reality,” she said. “Especially if we look at the documentaries like this one. [Like] journalism, art and other human means of expression, it influences human lives… They create consciousness, they shape the [outlook] of people, and they get to the point. They’re great tools for our society.”

World sales for the film are handled by Anna Berthollet at Sweet Spot Docs.