Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 04, 2023 11:01 am 
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STILL FROM GODS OF MEXICO [Courtesy of Oscilloscope Films]


A collaboration in which peasants become avantgardists

The title of this extraordinary, strange, yet somehow classic documentary, a vast collaborative effort made over a nine-year period (2013-2022), is a poetic one. When filmmaker Helmut Dosantos says "Gods of Mexico," he is thinking of ancient and native traditions as holy, and their representatives, however humble and plainly clothed, as like deities, one supposes. The special aspect of the way these people, in different northern, southern and western regions of the country, involved in different tasks, are displayed is that their appearances are not caught on the fly, as documentaries usually are done, but arranged and posed and with the collaboration of the individuals involved. In doing this Dosantos takes us "through salt pans, deserts, highlands, jungle, and underground mines," and to two women in mountainous highlands posing with a plant bearing a single "elephant's ear" leaf as big as a VW Bug.

Sometimes the collaboration is surprising, to say the least. What possessed this old lady with straw baskets and traditional skirt to pose topless? Or this couple in the womb of a rocky cave to appear wrapped in each others' arms, immobile, in an erotic pose, naked?

Mostly these figures are motionless, so unmoving that it is hard to tell if we are looking at a motion picture or a still photograph - except that the banner dangling from a stick over a shoulder waves in the wind; or turkeys gobble and wander around at a man's feet. The lack of dialogue or explanation make more effective the extraordinary use of sometimes rather terrifying natural sound effects. Oscilloscope's Dan Berger [url=""]declared[/url] "this is a sensorial experience to be watched big and loud." It is immersive, and wow-inducing. The editing by Yibrán Asuad and Dosantos himself is adventurous and arresting. But it may be the sound design and original music of Enrico Ascoli that will linger most in the mind: they are next-level. T

In a long introductory passage men are clearly moving, drawing a circle marking it, then digging deep, and then many men digging and sorting and arranging plots of white salt. Later they load it in big baskets and carry it to burros they take on a long and difficult trip across a small mountainside to an open space where they reload it, this time onto a truck. This too is clearly planned by the participants as we see when they move their long paddles in the salt ponds in harmony, as in a dance. This is a quiet passage. Watch instead later a hair-raising sequence shot in a mine, with men crawling and digging in narrow, crumbling passages, loud clanging sounds, and a decided sense of danger for both participants and observers. Is it safe to be smoking down here? In a moment of men shooting craps, the camera sweeps in and out: closeups of toothy grins bring an air of hilarity to a film that before was still and austere.

Dosantos' sequence of alternating black and white and color images, because of their intense clarity, their uniqueness to place, their stillness, is hypnotic and beautiful. The way in which rural and ethnic people participate intensively links this work with the classic pioneer of "ethnic" films, Robert Flaherty of Nanook of the North and Man of Aran himself. But since there is not a word of commentary and nothing is explained Gods of Mexico reads more like a museum-ready art piece, not a film for the naive or the curious to view in a theater to receive conventional ethnographic lessons. Dosantos seems to have invented a new form here: the motion picture still photograph. In coverage of groups in action, he utilizes multiple camera angles, also in that departing from the conventional, flat style of a purely "informative" documentary film.

The blurb for IMDb says "It follows the resistance to modernization in rural Mexico. It is a reminder that it is still possible to live in tune with our essence as human beings." Whatever that means exactly, it does seem that the numerous and varied individuals the filmmaker has befriended and worked with to create these arresting images, however rural and remote their habitations, have a store of craziness and originality in their souls, waiting to be let out.

An astonishing and truly original film, recommended for the adventurous.

Gods of Mexico/Dioses de México, 97 mins., had its debut at the True-False Festival in Columbia, MO in Mar. 2022 and also shown at Santa Barbara, Melbourne, Calgary and Denver. Distributed in the US by Oscilloscope, it opens in New York Mar. 3-6, 2023 at Firehouse: DCTV's Cinema for Documentary Film.

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