The Makings of a Modern Cinematic Renaissance: The Mexican Cinema Series (4/7)

The turn of the century new wave of Mexican cinema – the Buena Onda – followed in the footsteps of past heralded eras for the nation’s film industry.

From the mid-’30s to the mid-’60s Mexico would enter its golden age of cinema. Yet during the 1960s, filmmakers who’d proven central during this period, the likes of Luis Bunuel, began working outside of the country. Those who remained were often forced to portray unrealistic representations of Mexico in their works. Mora (2005, p. 105) noted that ‘producers of nonexistent social vision in combination with nervously conservative officials were to render the film industry almost totally unreflective of the problems and tensions of Mexican society.’ With films that failed to represent a realistic Mexican society, audience interest would eventually drop and film production in Mexico would almost half between 1958 and 1963 (Mora, 2005, p. 107). With important past cultural figures now marginalised, the industry became almost unsustainable. But events in 1968 would act as a catalyst for a new wave and underline the importance of cinema as part of the nation’s cultural identity.

(For part one of the Mexican Cinema Series, click here.)

1968 student protests:

In 1968 a student-led revolt against the then President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz’s government ended with the mass murder of the student protestors. The protests arose, in part, from the civilian’s anger over the government’s censorship of culture and backwards dealings with money, overly strict censorship of films meaning that the true nature of Mexican identity wasn’t being reflected:

“There was…growing middle-class irritation over the way the administration of President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz censored movies…persecuted independent intellectuals, and summarily jailed outspoken opponents. In the eyes of many Mexicans, the system had become both economically and politically repressive.”


(Mora 2005, pp. 116-117)
1968 student protests.

The day following the protest, for the first time ever the Olympics were scheduled to be taking place in Mexico. The government saw the Olympics event as an opportunity to improve the Western world’s perception of Mexico and show that it wasn’t a ‘backwards’ country (Mora, 2005, p.116). To ensure that this opportunity wouldn’t be lost the government set about eliminating any potential threat to the nation’s image and hundreds of students were killed by their government’s army.

The presidency of Luis Echeverria Alvarez, 1970-1976:

When Echeverria took presidency two years later in 1970, he aimed to resurrect culture in the nation, specifically targeting a dying film industry by giving young filmmakers the freedom of speech needed to make films that struck a chord with Mexican audiences, notably Canoa (1975), which dealt with the events of 1968.

Under the guidance of the president Luis Echeverria Alvarez, the early 1970s saw a prosperous period for the nation’s cinema. Enthused by the industry’s successes, Echeverria set about making it a key way of promoting Mexico throughout the world. According to Wood (2005, p. 8) ‘Echeverria established a relaxed and liberating film-making environment where the emphasis was not on turning out a quick buck by churning out production after production but rather on quality, diversity and freedom of speech.’

Yet, this isn’t where the state’s involvement in the film industry in Mexico ended. Mexico City’s second film school the CCC was opened and funded by the government, meanwhile, film studio facilities were expanded upon considerably. In 1976, forty-two films were produced, and of them, thirty-seven were state-funded. And though the number of productions per year would drop under Echeverria’s government, the quality of the films rose and as a result, they were gaining more international critical acclaim, even if some commentators have since labelled the films of this era as being ‘communist slant’. (Mora, 2005, p. 123).

Portillo’s reign and the end of the new wave:

By the by the end of Echeverria’s reign, there were no co-productions between the government and private producers so it became more difficult for the private producer to get funding and the number of films being made decreased. Wood explained what happened in the film industry after Echeverria’s reign:

“When Jose Lopez Portillo assumed power in 1976 he quickly labelled his predecessor’s term a disaster, taking the view that ‘fewer films meant fewer profits’. Reversing many of Echeverria’s advancements and policies…Portillo’s Sexenio did once again see annual production levels rise…but it also led to ‘lowered production values and an intensified suppression of films dealing with difficult social themes.’”


(Wood, 2006, p. 11)

Portillo’s term became the polar opposite of Echeverria’s in the way it treated culture. With minimal state funding, private production was once again encouraged and the number of productions rose, but with a lack of means for the producers to gain funding the quality of the films dropped and the Mexican film industry entered into a major decline that would last through until the 1990s.

A new wave comparison:

Perhaps the best known new wave in cinematic history is the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) of the 1960s, one which was based upon an agreed aesthetic decision. Hill (2008, p.15) said, ‘it was a quest for the real: to find profundity within the mundane. For the nouvelle vague directors, their films were a plea for reality within the construct of an artificial medium…’ The same can also be said for the Dogma 95 movement, and to an extent the British New Wave of the early ’60s. With the 1970s Mexican new wave, a number of the films were linked by a strong social stance spawning from the events of the student protests in 1968.

Breathless (1960), Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave classic.

Likewise, the Buena Onda acts as a culmination of the cultural events in the decades prior, which imprinted onto the thematic content of the works of the period’s key directors, Del Toro, Iñárritu and Cuarón. Though their films aren’t linked stylistically, thematic links are clear. These are stories of self-discovery, a rite of passage, desire for validation and coming of age. They are joined by the concept of identity.

Filmmaking opportunities during the Buena Onda:

The two biggest challenges faced by Mexican filmmakers throughout the Buena Onda: a) getting their films made, and then b) finding distribution. As a way of combating this, Del Toro, Iñárritu and Cuarón have each worked as producers and developed platforms for new filmmakers in Latin America to showcase their work.

Guillermo Del Toro co-founded the Film Studies Centre and the Mexican Film Festival, and would act as producer on Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona’s first feature, The Orphanage (2007). Cuarón produced his son’s debut Ano Una (2007) and co-produced his brother’s debut feature Rudo y Cursi (2008) alongside Iñárritu and Del Toro, also co-producing Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth as well. Japon (2002) director Carlos Reygadas also credited Cuarón and Iñárritu with ‘thanks’ in his two follow up films and has himself produced films for new Mexican directors.

Rudo y Cursi (2008).

After decades of reliance on state funding, a new self-dependence among these filmmakers was formed, as well as a willingness to work in unison to create opportunities and a chance for their art to express their idea of Mexico and wider Latin America. As Iñárritu (2006, p.142) put it, ‘a country is an idea that can be expressed through images’. The Buena Onda was just this, a series of filmmakers striving to find and portray their nation’s cinematic voice. As Chanan stated:

“In the name of a more authentic national cultural aspiration, the new cinema throws the nation as an imagined community into disarray by giving image and voice to marginal and subaltern who has previously only received the most derisory representation, and who has been systematically excluded from the public sphere.”


(Chanan 2006, p.43)

It allowed the filmmakers to make their mark upon Mexican film culture and to add their piece to the identity of the nation’s cinema.

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Next up:

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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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