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Have Docs, Will Travel: Mexico's Moveable Film Fest

By Rossy Eguigure

A stage with several people people on it in a theater full of people. Courtsey of Ambulante Gira de Documentales

Imagine being able to enjoy documentaries in small and large places from Oaxaca, Mexico City and Tijuana to Norway, Spain and Tanzania. Well, there is a touring festival of about 50 documentaries that travels around many cities in one country, as well as to other continents. The festival is called Ambulante Gira de Documentales, or Traveling Documentaries. Although the organizers don't credit themselves as pioneers in this model of festival, they are one of a kind. As executive director Elena Fortes puts it, "I wouldn't say that we started it, but I do think that it was new for a lot of people in other countries. I knew that there were a lot of traveling showcases for a very long time."

However, what Ambulante has done in the past five years is to create a different forum for promoting documentary and documentary filmmaking. Says Fortes, "You have the filmmakers there, you have the audience, the workshops. It's a constant flux of people sharing ideas, watching the films, speaking to the filmmakers and generating feedback between industries--national and international. That is really important for us." It is important because the Ambulante team wants to inspire its audiences to confront the realities that they see on screen, then criticize, analyze and transform them.

And what better way to do this than to take documentaries showing environmental or social issues that are affecting that specific town, and then help audiences form alliances to transform their reality? Fortes confirms that Ambulante basically exists to promote the exhibition of documentary films in Mexico, spark awareness of this genre, reach out to people that have no access to these kinds of films and help with distribution and production of documentaries.

Ambulante was founded five years ago by producer Pablo Cruz and actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna. It was the documentary Tropic of Cancer by Eugenio Polgovsky that inspired Garcia Bernal to launch Ambulante. He, Luna and Cruz felt that it made no sense that this film was winning prizes internationally, yet had not been screened in Mexico.  

"Gael saw a documentary of a mutual friend and he liked it, and then he proposed that we get together to support and promote the documentary," explains Luna. "In a way, we wanted to do what had happened with Y tu Mamá También, when, in its premiere at the Guggenheim in New York, Julian Schnabel presented the movie. In a way, he was sponsoring its launch. We talked more about it, and since we were working on our film production company [Canana Films], we were thinking about doing this with more and more documentaries. In one of those long meetings for Canana and its projects, we designed the Ambulante idea.

"We didn't exactly want to make a festival," Luna continues. "The idea was to do a tour that traveled around the country. We wanted the documentaries to move out of the small elite places where they were and bring the audiences closer to their own stories. And it was instant. Without a doubt, this was the project that was the fastest to be developed, and thanks to the team that works on it every day, today Ambulante has a life of its own." Luna believes that Ambulante is the most successful of the Canana Films projects because people in Mexico are watching more documentaries now, and the audience recognizes the festival more for what it means to them and not because of Garcia Bernal and Luna's involvement.

In that regard, Fortes compares what Robert De Niro has done with Tribeca Productions and the Tribeca Film Festival. "Yes, having their names definitely helps. We do get a lot of media attention, and we are very lucky to have both of them behind the project." But she also credits their strategy and mostly the work of her team, a group of about 10 people who work passionately throughout the year.

Despite Garcia Bernal and Luna's presence, one of the big challenges the festival faces is fundraising. Fortes says that her team had to come up with creative ways for making the festival happen, like support from volunteers, as well as with such works-in-progress as On Demand, an online platform where people can access documentaries without having to go to a festival site.

Fortes was hired as executive director when she was just 24 years old. Although her degree is in graphic design, she grew up in the movie industry; her mother and her sister are both filmmakers. One challenge that she faced when she started was that the small cities perceived her team as outsiders from Mexico City. "Everything is centralized in Mexico City," she explains. "You don't get big cultural events happening anywhere else, and that's a big problem. So in the beginning, they thought we were sort of invading them with something coming from Mexico City. But our work has been also to integrate every city into the creation of the festival, so we customize the festival depending on where we go. We take advantage of whatever cause or interests are predominant in that city, and then ask as many people as we can to become part of the festival as it's being created and before it gets there. In some places, it's the only festival that comes by to show these films, and there's been a very positive reaction for us. It definitely inspires me to keep making the festival."

Ambulante travels for more than three months with a group of documentaries, showing them in 16 cities across Mexico. Ambulante screens documentaries at theaters, plazas, gas stations, prisons, museums and universities; the team even stages concerts after showing some of the films. Ambulante representatives also participate in 15 other festivals around the world to promote the distribution of these films outside of Mexico. In its fifth year, the traveling showcase will run from February 12 to May 6, 2010. Sections of this year's festival include a focus on the theme of revolution, since this year marks the centennial of the Mexican revolution; the Ambulante team will feature films from different countries that address this theme.

Also part of this year's Ambulante is Dictators Cut, which explores the concept of censorship in film and which includes documentaries or filmmakers that have been censored; Sonidero, which looks at the relationship between documentaries and music; Injerto, featuring experimental works that depart from the confines of the documentary genre; and the Official Selection of the festival, which this year includes La Cuerda Floja by Nuria Ibáñez, Presunto Culpable by Roberto Hernández and Geoffrey Smith and El General by Natalia Almada.

Ambulante produces workshops throughout the year, and they have a partnership with the Mexican Film Institute. In some of these workshops, the goal is to produce a film by the end of the course. Ambulante also conducts a special workshop in Chiapas for indigenous women. Another program of which Fortes and her team feel proud is the Gucci-Ambulante Grant Program, which promotes documentary production.

Says Fortes, "For me, the most rewarding part of Ambulante is not just sharing it with a great team that I would have never dreamed of being with; it's about watching people who have never seen a documentary before say, ‘Oh, I didn't know this could be a documentary,' or, ‘This totally changed my entire perception.'"

Luna hopes the Ambulante model gets replicated around the world. Indeed, the festival has expanded its horizons by presenting programs from past editions in Argentina, Norway, Cuba, Spain, the United Kingdom, Japan and Tanzania. "It is very important that today, more than ever, documentaries get more and more popular, that people have more access to these types of topics and to this level of reflection and questioning," says Luna. "And that we use film as a tool for change."

Rossy Eguigure is a writer, producer and Hispanic media consultant based in Los Angeles.