Laura Huertas > Text written from the notes of a filming journal (English version)

Freedom – First part
Text written from the notes of a filming journal, developed amongst the Navarro family in Santo Tomás Jalieza, during the Arquetopia Residency in May and June 2015.

Freedom: one of those detestable words that has more value than sense; that sings more than it speaks.[1]

The most commonly represented archetype of “indigenous” women in television, film, and popular media is that of woman’s maternity. The narrative is often heavily focused on the male figures, with the female presences having little opportunity to speak, sometimes standing in the background of the action, taking care of the children, or busy with domestic tasks. Another frequent cliché regarding “native” women is their association with the archetype of exotic beauty; in these cases the “native” naked body is eroticized, reducing once again, the feminine presence to a dichotomy of seduction or procreation- both notions strictly depending on the presence of a man.

In several televisual documentaries, and contemporary fictional films, indigenous communities are portrayed as being united and indivisible, in such a way that a diegetic resemblance, rather than the reality, seems to be the narrative objective. The romanticized iconography of the noble savage excludes the idea of marginality within the community, portraying a significant lack of antisocial behaviour. These narratives depict individuals as happy in groups without a need for private space, narcotics are consumed in groups for transcendental rituals versus individually to escape reality, and the Western heterosexual couple is the norm, thus making maternity the inescapable destiny of women[2].

These concerns weighed on me incessantly while filming with the Navarro, a Zapotec family in Santo Tomás Jalieza (Oaxaca, Mexico). I was worried about letting myself get carried away by a cultural unconscious that would influence my relationship with the people that I was filming. I was also worried that I would film them with a clinical coldness and distance similar to those of the folkloric and popular Western images so frequently depicted of the “natives”.

Prior to meeting the Navarros, I spent a month in Arquetopia Puebla[3] engaging in discussions with the Arquetopia[4] team and teaching a film workshop for teenagers[5]. These engagements allowed me to psychologically prepare and understand the immense complexity of Mexican culture(s), as well as to contemplate responsibility and reciprocity, the two primary focuses of the foundation.

The Arquetopia team, especially Raymundo Fraga, Francisco Guevara, and Roberto Cruz, had made the relationship with the Navarros possible weeks before my arrival to Oaxaca. Mariana Navarro (matriarch), Inés, Crispina, Margarita (daughters), and Gerardo (son), were informed about my project and research before we met, and they graciously welcomed me with open arms. The serenity of the relationship between the Navarro family and myself started with the Arquetopia team, whose support and structure, and discussions around iconography ethics in the pre-production process, made all of this possible. I also want to express extreme thanks to the Navarro family, whose generosity and exquisite hospitality required from me an equal effort and respect.

The Navarros have built an economical and sustainable practice thanks to the backstrap loom, a pre-Hispanic weaving technique. Thanks to its transmission within several indigenous communities, this craftsmanship is still practiced, not only in Mexico, but also in the rest of Latin America and Asia, and has been preserved for more than 500 years. Traditionally it is a feminine task, and that is why the knowledge is mostly passed down through women, even though more and more men have dedicated themselves to the craft. Within the Navarros, Mariana, Crispina, Margarita, and Inés are the weavers. Gerardo used to weave as well, but stopped after becoming a full-time painter.

It was surprising that, from the first moments, our mutual exchange gravitated toward a very specific topic: “Freedom”. A word that, as Valery describes, “sings more than it speaks,” a sensitive field prone to sentimentalism and archetypes. When talking about freedom in weaving, Crispina says,

Weaving is not an employment. It is part of one’s life. As I have been living it, I have it as a part of my life. At home, when weaving, it’s the quietest moments, and one is fully entertained, even forgetting the day and the hour. (…) Someone told me once that I like to do it, that’s why I think in this way. Well, yes, I really like it, because no one is commanding me, but I’m doing it like this, free.”

The words “free” and “freedom” came up constantly during our conversations, not only about the work, but also in reference to marriage. Luciana, the oldest sister, is the only one of the four offspring who started a family and left the maternal home. When asked about their reasons for this, Crispina says, “Because I don’t want to ask for permission all the time.” Gerardo feels that, “It’s not for me anymore.” For Mariana, the matriarch, “I already lived it, and I’m good like this.” In more anodyne conversations on the subject of freedom, anecdotes about couples in Santo Tomás reinforce the Navarro’s drive toward independence. Some of the more troubling cases involve a girl married to a physically abusive man, and the excuses she finds for not leaving him, or another man who yells at his wife daily for her to serve him. These caustic and tragic instances exemplify relationships sliding between submission and alienation.

“Because I want to be free” is a recurring phrase among the family when talking about migrations, in addition to relationships, especially about deciding to permanently stay in Mexico instead of leaving for the United States. The death of Mariana’s husband, due to a cerebrovascular accident 18 years ago, was a devastating shock for all of the members of the Navarro family. After his father’s death, Gerardo went to Los Angeles as a “wetback” (as he phrased it), for four months working as a dishwasher, among other casual jobs. He came back to Oaxaca and started painting classes on the recommendation of a family friend. Soon it became his main activity, followed by exhibiting in shows and selling his pieces. Leaving Mexico again stopped making sense once his artistic career launched. He is now one of the source income for the household as a working artist.

Freedom is also associated at the Navarro’s with decisions linked to everyday life, especially regarding basic necessities: where to live, with whom, or what to eat.

The house has a backyard with a pen where hens and turkeys are raised. The Navarros also have a milpa[6] near the village where they grow corn. The harvest is not consumed immediately, but is kept for the following year. This maintains the seed reserves for a year, and protects the family through dry seasons and low-production harvests. Using their corn as the raw material, each week they spend several laborious hours, making tortillas: grinding, kneading, toasting, and filling the baskets for meals. The same day they prepare the tortillas, they cook quesadillas with squash blossoms, served with guacamole, and red beans with cactus or ground avocado leaves. They drink homemade tejate, a cacao-based beverage inherited from pre-Hispanic epochs.

Crispina remembers her childhood, when she carried baskets filled with food, or tejate pots on her head, taking them to the adults working in the fields, “I didn’t realize the responsibility that I was carrying.” Working out in the open milpa is never easy; it requires physical persistence and endurance. Because it depends on the climate and the stability of sunny and rainy periods, it is fortuitous as well. Talking about her youth and the countryside labor, Crispina recalls, “They were periods of economic poverty, but of absolute happiness. You don’t think about the money, and the person sowing is doing it with the illusion that time or God will allow the harvest, because it is not a sure thing, not for them nor for you.”

Economy and money are recurring topics as well. Autonomy and sustainability are essential for the family and each one of its members on a personal level. Everyone has a given space and responsibilities (housekeeping, cultivating, etc.), which are inescapable and connected to the basic necessities for survival.

Several spaces of the house are constructed in adobe and metal, the architecture is simple. Each of the spaces has a specific decoration, interior design in accordance with utility, where pragmatic minimalism and a refined sense of the color combine. In the kitchen, for instance, a series of beautiful and coloured utensils, handmade in clay, are exhibited over a whole wall. They animate the interior, a simplified space that is dark and fresh, built without windows so as not to overheat during the warmest hours of the day. The house sustains itself with few economic resources. Accumulating material goods or commodities does not seem to be the aim, but rather to live well with what is already owned. Throughout various moments, Crispina and Gerardo said, “I may not be rich, people may think that I am wrong, but I’m happy like this.”

Freedom is not an abstract construction here. It is a network, a constellation of decisions, of affective positions, of movements: acts that build an ethic. It is a well-being at this critical moment, precarious and vulnerable, as any human condition, and not yet fully self-sufficient to be an accomplished ideal. It is still a well-being considered as the purpose of daily life, again, considered as an ethic.

It would be fairly plausible, romantic, and idealistic to affirm the absence of conflict between the members of the family. In several instances, Inés, Crispina, and Margarita declared that there were no fights amongst them. I suppose that it wouldn’t have been a confession to make to a complete stranger, as I was. The Navarro would spontaneously share some of their problems to me, and did not share some others. Mariana, for instance, didn’t want to be interviewed, and she never wanted to talk about her feelings, whereas Crispina or Inés would do so fluidly. Thus, it is impossible to pretend that my mental picture of the house and the family, which were developed out of mere impressions, would be the reality. It was an approach, a shared experience, in which each one of us controlled a certain degree of what was being exposed and given. It is impossible to pretend that it was more than a relationship, as one has a friendship or a love: our mutual presences were determined by tacit frontiers that we would be placing, taking away and re-placing, as time was passing.

Some documentary or fiction directors work throughout the shooting on the abolition or the infringement of the frontier of the other, looking for a fusion between the one filming and the one being filmed. Many directors have sought a redefinition of the subjectivities and identities through violence and/or passion, such as Joshua Oppenheimer, John Cassavetes, and Stanley Kubrick while filming Shelley Duval. Fascinating films have resulted from this method of psychological intrusion and justly deal with matters of immersion, fusion, annihilation and rebirth, or annihilation and death.

Here at the Navarros, I wasn’t searching for fusion, nor passion- that was neither the theme nor the appropriate form. I was looking for something less evidently visible, something that doesn’t necessarily manifest itself. The first weeks I filmed exclusively with a hand-held camera, and as time was passing, I stopped feeling the need to film at such a close proximity. I increasingly wanted to film with a tripod, to have stability to give space to the dim phenomena that the movement of my body would have erased.

I began to reduce the depth of field, and to open the frame. At the beginning, I was only using long-focus lenses and close-up shots, as if I was desperately trying to get closer. By the end of shooting, I was doing the contrary: using long-focus lenses to be able to put myself away. To reduce the depth of the field is analogous to a sculptural gesture, a piece of matter is chosen to be moulded. I thought about the Rodin Museum in Paris (where I live), where unfinished sculptures are exhibited in which human body parts are only sketched, a salient movement coming out of the stone or marble. I thought about the reduced depth of field in these terms, as an allowance to dig a plane into the real, a sharp fringe of visibility, or as a microscope, allowing the viewer to choose where to place the gaze and observe the profusion of details.

The decision to reduce the depth of field was also generated in order to focus on the threads of the weaving produced at the Navarro’s home. If their economy and ethics are constructed on the act of weaving, the threads can therefore be considered the raw material founding the entire sustainability. The thread is made of cotton, it is an organic matter changing with time. It is fragile, and when it is hanging on the backstrap loom, it acquires qualities of constant movement. The purpose of my presence among the Navarro family evolved into being able to catch that vibratory movement. The oscillation of the fibres, invisible to the naked eye, is the best representation that I could find on that context of freedom as it was shown to me, and as I was perceiving it. Freedom is present in its movement, its rhythm, its delicacy, and its composition by several invisible and virtual filaments: gestures and decisions, acts that do not leave an immediate trace. With time and perseverance these acts form knots, and structure an image, a coherence, and an extension of matter.

[1] Paul Valéry, Regards sur le monde actuel, Paris, Gallimard, 1938.

[2] My current PhD thesis project “Eclats et disparitions, enquête sur des fictions ethnographiques” as well as the performance project “Cannibale-le musée anthropophage” (2015) develop in detail some exemples of ethnograhic films and popular culture objects that reduce an otherness to fictional symbols as is the word “indigenous” itself.

[3] My film Journey to a Land Otherwise Known was awarded in the 18th Videobrasil festival (2013) with the Resartis Residency Award. The prize was the possibility of developing a project in Arquetopia over two months, June and July 2015.

[4] Founded in 2009, Arquetopia is an award-winning, Mexican official nonprofit foundation promoting Development, social transformation and productivity through artistic, cultural, and educational programs. The core of the Foundation is Sustainable Development through four principles embodied in all of Arquetopia’s programs and activities: social awareness, shared responsibility, innovation, and local networks development. Arquetopia is experienced in negotiation and reinvestment of resources for local arts development in Mexico with the following features: social scope; quality; synergy; collaboration; innovation; viability; reciprocity; and respect for local knowledge.

[5] “Less is more” was a cinema workshop that I created, on the invitation of the Arquetopia team, for teenagers studying at the Bachillerato 5 de mayo, in Puebla. A further post in this blog will develop more on this experience.

[6] [6] From the Nahuatl word mil-pa, “towards the field”.

About Laura Huertas Millan

Born in 1983, in Bogotá, Colômbia. Lives and works in Paris, France / Nasceu em 1983 Bogotá, Colômbia. Vive e trabalha em Paris, França.

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