The Politics of Culture: The Mexican Cinema Series (2/7)

In looking at how modern Mexican cinema has been shaped it’s important to track back through the nation’s political, cultural and filmic history. In doing so we can see how Mexico’s past has impacted upon its culture and perceived national identity through the decades up to the twenty-first century new wave of Mexican cinema; the Buena Onda. We begin in the 1800s.

(For the first post in the Mexican Cinema Series, click here).

A Spanish conquest, the Mexican Revolution and Political reform: 1810-2000:

For hundreds of years, right up until the nineteenth century, Mexico was controlled by the Spanish; one of the lasting effects of this being the language the nation inherited. From 1810 through to early 1821 Mexico battled Spain in the Mexican War of Independence, ultimately persevering to finally once again become its own independent national state. And yet this would only mark the beginning of another difficult spell for Mexico, wherein the country would be run by the dictatorial leader General Diaz. It was during Diaz’s reign over the country that Mexico’s first ever film would be produced.

The film, a fittingly political documentation of the life of General Diaz, was as Adres de Luna (1995, p. 171) puts it to instantly give the ‘first national cinema a markedly propagandistic character’. Political influence would go on to have a major impact at several key moments in the history of Mexican cinema from this point onwards. Diaz’s leadership would last for over thirty years, eventually coming to an end in 1910, during the Mexican Revolution, which would again act as a defining moment for Mexico, affording the nation a ‘democratic’ system of leadership lacked for decades.

In the wake of the Revolution, a new political party was formed: the PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution). Following Diaz’s reign, a sporadic series of presidents ruled the country for various lengths until the PRI took control in 1929. Elections were to take place every six years, these six-year cycles being known as sexenios. A change in tack, but one which failed to bring an end to the political turmoil. It wouldn’t be until over seventy years later in 2000 that Mexico would be governed by a different political party, evidence suggesting fixes by the PRI in numerous past elections.

The Mexican Revolution, a war for change in a political system which had become markedly dictatorial, ended with the nation under the control of the new PRI party for the majority of a century; a dictatorial party operating under the guise of democracy. These events were reflected in the work of Guillermo Del Toro with The Devil’s Backbone (2001). Although set during the Spanish Revolution the initial setting was to be the Mexican Revolution, until Del Toro (2006, p. 110) ‘realized that the Mexican Revolution had never ended.’

The Devil’s Backbone (2001).

In 2000, elections for presidency took place and the seventy-year reign of the PRI ended. The new president of Mexico was to be Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN), and it would be his presidency under which the peak of the Buena Onda would occur.

The knock-on effects of Mexico’s political instability:

Choices made by General Diaz throughout his dictatorial leadership have had a lasting effect on the ways in which Mexicans would live for decades. Geographically Diaz had been very centrally fixed, deciding that modernisation should be focused around Mexico City. This decision, in turn, led to the nation becoming fragmented and areas outside of the city becoming impoverished, whilst French culture became prevalent within Mexican aristocracy (Noble, 2005, p. 9).

The ramifications of these decisions could still be seen at the turn of the twenty-first century, with seventy percent of the country’s population living in urban areas, Mexico City being one of the world’s largest cities. This led to many of the remaining thirty percent living in poverty, highlighting a steep contrast in the ways in which Mexicans live.

The 1800s and 1900s were both defining centuries for the nation of Mexico, in which it’s people saw freedom from Spain followed by a dictatorship and corrupt government bodies. These centuries of uncertainty, corruption and international control and influence can all be seen as major contributors to Mexico’s supposed identity crisis. Culture in the country, however, consistently remained to be a key part of its makeup. Yet, for cinema to play a role in defining the nation’s cultural output its creators would need financing; something which would remain an issue.

The misuse of culture: 2000-2003:

Vicente Fox and his political party PAN (National Action Party), took control of Mexico in 2000 (coinciding with the release of one of the central films of the new wave, Amores Perros). And early support for the film industry looked likely through new tax initiatives, plans which consisted of putting a 10 cent tax on each movie ticket sold. A boost for the country’s filmmakers, though notably still less than the tax incentives countries such as Argentina and France had in place at the time, as Mora (2005, p. 254) explains the scheme ‘would have raised about $15 million a year’ that would be put back into the film industry.

But these plans were scrapped immediately after the president of the Motion Picture Association (MPA) replied with hostility, fearing that film distributors would be losing out on money (Wood, 2006, p. 158). Yet, if the money from films isn’t going to be put back into the creative side of the industry then how can creative progress be made? Agraz (2006, p. 161) argued: ‘the producer, the party that has taken the most risks, receives the least. That’s why there are no producers who want to risk their money in such a disadvantageous manner. It means the only sectors growing are the cinema owners – in their majority linked to American chains…’. Instead of money filtering back into Mexico, it was being syphoned back to corporations.

In spite of the awareness and attention that the Buena Onda brought to Mexico, the likes of which were unprecedented for the nation’s industry, financial backing was lacking. Agraz (2006, p.161) quoted Fernando Del Paso in stating that:

“We (Mexico) have a government that does not know what culture is…That is unaware that the various manifestations of Mexican culture are – and have been for many years – the most valuable of our exports. And the part that is the most precious and the most appreciated by people around the world.’”

If the merits of Fernando Del Paso’s opinion of the government needed highlighting further, then we needn’t look any further than Vicente Fox’s 2003 proposal to shut down three major state-run departments of the film industry. In an attempt to cut costs, Fox intended to close one of the key funding sources for Mexican filmmakers, IMCINE (Mexican Film Institute), film studio ‘Churubusco Studios’, and finally, one of Mexico City’s two film schools the CCC. Mora (2005, p.254) noted: ‘the government’s proposals would only save $10 million a year’. Despite these savings, the cultural cost would have been overwhelming. The majority of Mexican filmmakers come through one of Mexico’s film schools, and IMCINE was one of the few sources of state funding available to Mexican filmmakers. Iñárritu commented:

“When it was suggested to Churchill that he should close the museums and stop the funds for every cultural project because the country needed money for the war, his response was that if we sell this and close that, then what are we fighting for?”

(Iñárritu 2006, p. 159)

The importance of IMCINE for Mexican filmmakers is considerable. Alfonso Cuarón in his reaction to the events surrounding IMCINE said that he wouldn’t have got the opportunity to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) if IMCINE hadn’t funded his first feature Solo Con Tu Pareja (1991) and supported him through making it (Kraul and Munoz, 2003). Despite the clear importance of culture for the nation, and the fact that IMCINE and the CCC had proven track records for developing profitable talent within the cultural field, the government still refused to concede the importance of the film industry to the nation’s identity, and as will be seen in the next post, this resulted in much of the talent from the Buena Onda beginning to make their films elsewhere: Hollywood.


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Many hours of reading and research were conducted to ensure that events are described as accurately as possible. To see the full reading and viewing list for more Mexican cinema goodness, hit up the following link.


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