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AFI Fest: New Order/Nuevo orden

It’s Marianne’s (Naian González Norvind) wedding day and as her elite circle of friends and family celebrate this joyous event, chaos and disorder descends upon their quiet community. The tables have turned in nearby Mexico City. Protestors armed with green paint are taking over. The disenfranchised are now in control and they’re exacting revenge on the privileged. There is a battle going on between the poor and the rich, the brown and the white. When Marianne leaves her reception to help former employee Rolando, she narrowly escapes the orchestrated attack on her home but is soon captured by a violent militia who are hell bent on torturing the rich and draining them of their wealth. In this war between the haves and the have nots, who will win?

Directed by Michel Franco, New Order/Nuevo orden is a brutal and unflinching study in social and racial inequality. Franco wrote the film four years ago but it feels so prescient that it might as well have been written this year. According to an interview with AFI Fest, Franco initially delayed the release of New Order/Nuevo orden to 2021 but changed his mind when he learned of the Black Lives Matter protests back in June. Franco calls the film a “cautionary tale” and while some aspects of the film are strictly dystopian, the latter half in particular is frighteningly realistic.

New Order/Nuevo orden is gritty and real. The film was shot on location in Mexico City, uses subtle visual effects and over 3,000 extras, all of which give the film a sense of merciless authenticity.

Social inequality is a huge problem in Mexico and there are some excellent films that explore this subject including Roma and Las Ninas Bien. New Order/Nuevo orden breaks down the protective shield of wealth and status to lay bare the true cost of privilege.

“It shouldn’t be fun to watch all this violence.”

Director Michel Franco

New Order/Nuevo orden was screened as part of the 2020 virtual AFI Fest.

Fantasia Festival: Diabla

When 17-year-old Nayeli (Ruth Ramos) is raped by the neighborhood gringo Rayan (Cesar Mijangos), she seeks help from her brother Uri (Daniel Fuentes Lobo). Uri sides with his friend rather than his sister calling her a whore. Spurned by her brother, she visits the local coven of witches to enact her revenge. Not only is Rayan about to pay the price for his violent act against Nayeli but Uri will have to watch it all go down.

Directed by  Ashley George and set in present day Mexico, Diabla packs a punch in a mere 17 minutes and will linger in your mind long after the film is over.  For female viewers especially, Diabla will serve as a visual representation of all of the revenge fantasies that we have for the men in our lives who have hurt us in one form or another. In this way, Diabla is highly gratifying even when it shocks and disturbs.

Ashley George’s impressive short horror film speaks directly to women who have been hurt physically and emotionally by men.

Diabla is part of the virtual 2020 Fantasia Film Festival.

This is Not Berlin

Set in 1986, writer and director Hari Sama’s newest film This is Not Berlin follows Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon) a teen trying to find his own place in a world that doesn’t seem to have a place for him. He and his best friend Gera (Jose Antonion Toldano) attend Catholic school in the suburbs of Mexico City. Carlos is disinterested in his soccer friends’ rivalry with another school. Instead he spends his time tinkering with electronics, hanging out with Gera and getting advice from his uncle Esteban (Hari Sama).

One day Gera’s sister Rita (Ximena Romo), the lead singer of a local punk band takes the two friends to a club, as a thank you to Carlos for helping fix her synthesizer. Both Carlos and Gera are thrust into the underworld of Mexico City. The drug and booze fueled scene is where rebellious youths escape for the freedom to express their sexuality. There Carlos meets Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro), a photographer who is attracted to Carlos. Through Nicho, Carlos becomes part of a community of artists whose unconventional forms of artistic expression including outlandish performance art. As Carlos and Gera drift apart and tragedy befalls Carlos’ family, will his newfound rebellion help him find his true self? Or will it keep him away from what truly matters?

Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute

This is Not Berlin is inspired by director Hari Sama’s teenage years in Lomas Verdes, a suburb in Mexico. About the writing process, Sama says “the research took me to painful places of my adolescence but also allowed me to revisit the moments that made me a filmmaker and musician.”

One of my favorite aspects of the film was Sama’s role as Esteban, Carlos’ uncle, mentor and confidante. Esteban seems to be the only one in Carlos’ who truly understands his struggles. They have some wonderful moments together and some deep philosophical discussions.

“Have you ever felt like you want something but there’s something inside you that won’t let you do it? Like a voice that doesn’t shut up and it’s not even yours.” 

“Love is very wacky… but when you find it, when you have that moment of silence with someone… taking that leap is worth it.”

Had the plot shifted and focused more on the friendship with Carlos and Gera with Esteban as the anchor, essentially making in a buddy movie, it would have been a stronger movie. Like Y Tu Mama Tambien but with a much different ending. I was particularly drawn to the theme of loyalty and the difference between those who stick around and those who abandon you when times get tough.

This is Not Berlin is a deep exploration of artistic expression and finding your true self. The opening scene is quite breathtaking. Carlos stands in the middle of a fight between the two rival Catholic school soccer teams. It’s clear that Carlos is lost in the chaos around him. He doesn’t participate in the fight and eventually it overwhelms him. The performance art scenes are quite provocative. I hope we see a lot more from Hari Sama.

This is Not Berlin recently premiered at Sundance and had it’s New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

SXSW: La Mala Noche

Dana (Noëlle Schönwald) is a prostitute living in Quito, Ecuador. She’s beautiful and smart and a favorite of her clients. But Dana harbors dark secrets. She sells her body to make enough money to support her terminally ill daughter and her own addiction to pharmaceutical drugs. And most of her funds go to her pimp, mob boss and human trafficker Nelson (Jaime Tamariz). On one visit to Nelson’s secret compound, Dana witnesses a child being transported from room to room. The young girl was kidnapped and about to be sold into sexual slavery. With the help of Dana’s client Julian (Cristian Mercado), a handsome young doctor who is in love with Dana, they concoct a plan to save the child.

“She is the perfect woman until she decides to be free.”

La Mala Noche is Ecuadorian director Gabriela Calvache’s narrative feature-length debut. Calvache is known for her narrative shorts and her documentaries. She and her producer Geminiano Pineda decided to make this as a fictional film to have the freedom to explore the subject without inciting the potential retaliation of the mob and to protect the survivors.

Calvache’s film is a heart-pounding thriller that will leave you on the edge of your seat. It’s brilliantly directed with some terrific cinematography and excellent story telling. Lead actress Noëlle Schönwald delivers a powerful performance. The child trafficking scenes are difficult to watch but also mercifully brief. While sexual slavery is grim topic to cover in a feature film, Calvache delivers the story in a way that is captivating but doesn’t diminish the gravity of the situations depicted.

Beyond having a female director and producer and focusing on a female character, 80% of the filmmaking crew were also women. I appreciate the fact that they didn’t translate the Spanish title for the English-language market.

La Mala Noche had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Global series. Stay tuned as I’ll have a follow-up piece on La Mala Noche on Cine Suffragette.

SXSW: Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy

“She is a prophet for Mexican food.”

Nick Zuckin

Cookbook author and chef Diana Kennedy is the leading expert on traditional Mexican cooking. For over 60 years, Kennedy has immersed herself in Mexican culture and food, learning and respecting the traditions of one of the most celebrated cuisines. This feisty and unapologetic British woman may be an outsider looking in but because she has lived in rural Mexico, in Zitácuaro, Michoacán, for most of her life and sticks to the tried and true approaches to different dishes and recipes, she’s become what one of her friends calls an “adoptive daughter of Mexico.” 

Director Elizabeth Carroll, in her debut documentary Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy explores the life and work of this outspoken advocate for preserving Mexico’s culinary history. Nothing Fancy is a reference to one of Kennedy’s cookbooks but also speaks to Kennedy’s approach to cooking and to life. There are no variations, twists or updates. She sticks to the old ways. Kennedy is a fascinating subject. She’s scrappy, resourceful, and is a champion for organic gardening and sustainable living. She’s always on the road exploring different parts of her adopted country. Kennedy isn’t afraid to tell you what she thinks in her abrupt and frank manner.

In the film we mostly hear from Kennedy herself but Mexican chefs, including one of my favorites Pati Jinich, and other experts also chime in on Kennedy’s legacy. My favorite scene shows present day Kennedy making guacamole with spliced in archival footage from decades earlier of her making the exact same recipe. Kennedy is a free spirit who does not change and is true to what she believes in. 

Perhaps the only flaw of the film, which the director hinted at during a screening of this documentary at SXSW, is that the relationships Kennedy has with people in the film isn’t explained. In one case, she is very close to another chef and there is a lovely scene where they have their portrait taken together. But we really don’t find out much about who she is and how they bonded.

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy is a charming documentary that allows its subject’s vibrant personality shine through. It also serves as one way we can ensure Kennedy’s contributions to preserving Mexican food culture is appreciated for decades to come.

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Documentary Feature Competition.

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