Redes: El cine mexicano

On Film / Essays — Dec 11, 2013

Redes (The Wave, 1936) was an innovative experiment in a new semi-documentary form, what its cowriter and cinematographer Paul Strand called “docu-fiction.” Produced by the Mexican government, supervised by Strand, and codirected by the Austrian-born Fred Zinnemann and a young Mexican cineaste, Emilio Gómez Muriel, it became an important landmark of Mexican cinema as well as a precursor to Italian neorealism.

The film came at a seminal moment in Mexican history. The nation was rebuilding after a devastating revolution, its burgeoning artistic community had initiated a vigorous nationalistic arts movement, and its film industry was practically extinct. Ironically, part of Mexico’s cinematic resurrection was due to Redes, a film made by a diverse collection of international collaborators—a prominent member of the American avant-garde, a fledgling European filmmaker with a smattering of Hollywood experience, and an aspiring Mexican director. Produced under trying circumstances and for very little money, Redes nevertheless became a classic Mexican film, launched several cinematic careers, and spearheaded a new transnational film movement in the process. The story of its production begins with Strand’s visits to New Mexico in the early 1930s.

By that time, he was already a distinguished American photographer and a major figure in New York City’s vibrant art scene. In the midst of breaking with his mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, and seeking a more socially engaged photographic style, from 1930 to 1932 Strand found himself spending his summers in Taos. In 1932, he reconnected with an acquaintance of his, Carlos Chávez, a well-known Mexican composer and the head of the Department of Fine Arts in the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP), who was in Taos doing research on Native American music. Chávez invited Strand to Mexico and promised him a job in arts education. Taking him up on the offer, the photographer arrived in Mexico City that November. True to his word, Chávez not only found him a position teaching arts and crafts but also organized an exhibition of his photographs at the SEP art gallery.

The Mexico that Strand would call home for the next two years was a nation slowly recovering from a violent and destructive revolution. It had begun in 1910 as a rebellion to overthrow the dictator Porfirio Díaz but devolved into a chaotic civil war, fought among a number of bitterly opposed factions. When the fighting ended in 1920, the revolution’s toll was between one million and two million dead, with an additional four hundred thousand moving out of harm’s way by emigrating to the U.S. (among them my grandparents and their children, including a newborn daughter—my mother).

For all its bloody turmoil and social upheaval, however, the revolution’s original goals—¡Tierra y libertad! (land for the peasants who worked it, liberty for all)—had not been realized, and Mexico would spend the next twenty years trying to achieve them. At the same time, the nation struggled to free itself from First World political domination and economic dependence, and pursued a path toward becoming a truly independent, self-sustaining nation.

There was a simultaneous revolution in the arts. Mexican artists of every stripe declared their aesthetic independence and broke free from hegemonic European and American influences. Painters and muralists like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, composers like Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas, photographers like Agustín Jiménez and Manuel and Lola Álvarez Bravo turned their attention to expressing lo mexicano (Mexicanness). Mexico became a hotbed of creativity, attracting artists—especially visual artists—from all over the world. Among them were the photographers Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and possibly the most acclaimed filmmaker of the day, Sergei Eisenstein, who shot his unfinished Mexican epic, ¡Que viva México!, in 1931–32, and returned to the Soviet Union just before Strand’s arrival.

Though Eisenstein’s film was uncompleted, stills from it had been published in 1931 and were enormously influential, providing ample proof that the nationalistic goals of Mexico’s artistic revolution were perfectly suited to moving pictures. But Mexican filmmaking at the beginning of the thirties was moribund, having nearly vanished during the silent era. Only forty Mexican feature films were released between 1923 and 1930, none of them commercially successful. Mexican viewers preferred foreign, mainly American, films. “From 1921 to 1932,” observed Juan Bustillo Oro, a film aficionado who became one of Mexico’s leading directors, “Mexican films completely disappeared from the daily lives of Mexicans.”

The coming of sound revived the national cinema. At last Mexican movies could do something Hollywood couldn’t: capture Mexicans speaking their vernacular Spanish and singing and playing their popular music. Mexico’s first sync-sound film, Santa (1932), was followed by a raft of Mexican-produced films, as enthusiastic but inexperienced filmmakers scrambled to try their hand at moviemaking.

Given that context, it’s a wonder that Redes got made in the first place. After all, Strand’s crew was filming in a remote location, with primitive equipment and under extremely difficult conditions, at the very inception of modern Mexican cinema. Like many others at the time, he must have been swept away by the chance to make one of the first Mexican sound films and play a part in the development of the nation’s cinema. But for all the interest generated in developing el cine mexicano, nobody knew what shape it would take. During this freewheeling era, all sorts of people got involved—private investors, neophyte producers, young aspiring filmmakers, and even government ministers.

At the SEP, Carlos Chávez quickly grasped cinema’s potential. It was, he believed, “the most effective medium for reaching the masses we hope to educate.” He hatched a plan to produce a series of short, SEP-funded movies over a five-year period, about the different peoples and regions of Mexico. Redes would be the first (and, as it turned out, the last). They would be overseen by Strand, whom Chávez appointed director of photography and film, and in addition to documenting Mexico, they would provide filmmaking training for Mexicans. Thrilled at the prospect, Strand immediately began working on a script with Chávez’s nephew, Agustín Velásquez Chávez, and volunteered the use of his Akeley film camera.

Another remarkable thing about Redes is the ambitious scope of the project that Strand and Velásquez Chávez envisioned. Rather than a modest travelogue documenting Mexican life, they scripted a feature-length drama about ill-treated fishermen in the small coastal town of Alvarado, in the state of Veracruz. To make their “docu-fiction,” they would cast villagers in the roles (with the exception of professional actor David Valle González, who played the fish buyer), and gave themselves a generous four-month shooting schedule.

At the same time, Strand assembled his filmmaking team. He brought in Henwar Rodakiewicz, a friend from New York who had just completed his own experimental documentary, Portrait of a Young Man (1931), to assist with the scripting and to direct. Strand didn’t speak Spanish, so to help manage the cast of Mexican nonactors, he asked an up-and-coming stage director, Julio Bracho, to serve as assistant director. Emilio Gómez Muriel, recently returned from four years of working in Hollywood, was hired on as line producer. When Rodakiewicz was called away because of another commitment, he suggested that a friend of his, Fred Zinnemann, take his place as director. Zinnemann had had experience in Germany (assisting Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Billy Wilder on their celebrated 1930 “city film” People on Sunday), and then moved to Hollywood, where he worked in a number of capacities, from bit player to assistant cameraman.

The Strand-Zinnemann relationship was rocky, to say the least. They clashed over the visual style of the film. Given his background, Strand tended to favor static shots of stationary subjects, carefully and symmetrically centered in the frame, while Zinnemann tried to inject as much movement as possible into the film. But despite their bickering, the two styles meshed. Strand’s respectful formalism blended effectively with Zinnemann’s dynamism to tell the story of a young fisherman, Miro (Silvio Hernández del Valle), who organizes his fellow pescadores in defiance of an exploitative fish seller.

Besides the ongoing Strand-Zinnemann tension, the production was beset by numerous other problems. Money was tight and was doled out by the SEP in small increments, a bureaucratic policy that took its toll on cast and crew morale. The final budget (fifty-five thousand pesos, or around fifteen thousand dollars, roughly half what an average Mexican feature cost at the time) was minuscule, especially for a challenging and extended location shoot. The exposed film had to be shipped to a lab in Los Angeles for processing, so it could be as long as a month before Strand and Zinnemann saw rushes. The production progressed slowly, ultimately going three months over schedule. As it dragged on, Bracho dropped out, due to sickness, he said, and Gómez Muriel stepped in to codirect.

When shooting ended in November 1934, both Strand and Zinnemann returned to the States, leaving Gómez Muriel and Gunther von Fritsch, a boyhood friend of Zinnemann’s who had done some editing in Hollywood, to edit Redes. They faced problems at this stage too. Because Strand’s Akeley was a silent, hand-cranking camera, all the sound had to be added in postproduction, complicating the syncing and delaying the editing. Finally, Redes was released theatrically in 1936, accompanied by an impressive score by Silvestre Revueltas. Though David Alfaro Siqueiros would later call it “a work of dynamic realism, emotional intensity, and social outlook . . . a masterpiece,” it was a box-office disappointment in Mexico. (This, along with the cost overruns and unexpected technical problems, no doubt contributed to the cancellation of the SEP series that Chávez had planned.)

It fared better in the U.S., however, where it received a five-page pictorial spread in Life and garnered endorsements from Archibald MacLeish (who proclaimed it “a magnificent achievement”) and Clifford Odets (who called it “distinguished”). In addition, composer Aaron Copland praised Revueltas’s score in an article he wrote in the New York Times. “Anyone who is interested in the development of music in the Western Hemisphere,” Copland wrote, “is now able to hear the music that Revueltas has written for Paul Strand’s memorable film of Mexico.” Redes also had a successful run in Europe, and did particularly well in France.

Its collectivist, pro-union story about the consciousness- raising of exploited fishermen resonated with the left-leaning politics in international artistic circles in the 1930s. As such, it is a fascinating document from an era when artists championed the rights of workers everywhere. For Strand, in particular, it was the realization of the kind of socially aware art he was searching for. (He would go on to be one of the cinematographers on Pare Lorentz’s 1936 Dust Bowl documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains and was director of photography on Native Land, a valiant, semidocumentary defense of unionism that he codirected, cowrote, and coedited in 1942.)

But Redes is cinematically noteworthy as well. As I’ve said, both Strand’s and Zinnemann’s styles were compellingly employed. Strand’s primary goal was to honor the fishermen and villagers, and his careful compositions centering them in the frame convey that. The funeral of Miro’s daughter, near the beginning of the film, is a good example of his deferential style perfectly capturing downbeat emotional content. That scene’s matching bookend— the fishermen’s impromptu procession carrying Miro’s body to the boat—is another. It culminates in one of Strand’s most memorable compositions: an impressive deep-focus shot that stretches from a cactus plant in the foreground to the dramatically placed low horizon line in the far distance.

As for Zinnemann’s dynamism, it is clearly evident in the fish-catching scene, for example, and in the film’s stirring ending, where the fishermen’s gathered boats form a memorial fleet in tribute to Miro, a martyr for their cause.

Another sort of dynamism comes from the editing. Two sequences in particular—cinematic nods in the direction of Soviet montage—skillfully underscore the film’s political point. The first occurs during Miro’s speech and begins with a rapid succession of shots—ranchers herding cattle, crops of corn, a weaver at his loom—that not only suggest the fishermen’s solidarity with workers across Mexico but also hint at what Chávez’s SEP film series might have looked like. The passage continues by tracing the fish from sea to marketplace and demonstrating how the middlemen’s price gouging raises the price beyond what average Mexicans can afford to pay. The second montage sequence comes at Miro’s murder by a ruthless political candidate. After the fatal bullet, there is a rush of shots—Miro falling, close-ups of the candidate, his image on a campaign poster, and the stack of coins collected by the fish merchant—a visual jolt to convey the slaughter of Miro by greedy profiteers in league with corrupt politicians.

Redes’s impact on Mexican and international film history was significant. For Mexican filmmakers in the thirties and forties, Redes and ¡Que viva México!—films that told Mexican stories about Mexicans in a Mexican context, without imitating Hollywood—stood as exemplars of what an authentic mexicano cinematic aesthetic might look like. Moreover, Redes began the film careers of Gómez Muriel and Bracho, who both became prolific directors during Mexico’s cinematic golden age (1935–57). It jump-started Zinnemann’s career as well, by giving him his first directing credit, which got him work back in Hollywood. Looking beyond Mexico, Redes was a major antecedent to Italian neorealism, predating the movement by a decade and sharing its key tenets. So much so that, in depicting downtrodden characters whom society has neglected, using nonactors, shooting in real locations, and addressing social injustices, Redes could stake a claim as being the first neorealist film. Indeed, its story, theme, and semi-documentary approach are identical to those of La terra trema (1948), Luchino Visconti’s celebrated neorealist classic about exploited Sicilian fishermen. Redes’s legacy, then, is considerable, establishing a model for independent, reality-based, and socially mindful cinema that endures to this day.