A History of Violence: 'The Devil's Freedom' Meditates on the Mexican Drug Wars
On July 1, Mexicans hit the polls to decide the country's new president amidst widespread violence, including violence against political candidates. In a landslide victory, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (or AMLO), who ran on a platform of tackling corruption, prioritizing the poor and reducing violence, was elected president of Mexico. He will take the oath of office on December 1.
The question on the minds of many in the country is what AMLO and his new government will be able to do to tackle the seemingly intractable violence that has engulfed much of the country. Last year, Mexico recorded its highest homicide rate in decades. What will be done to support those who have been traumatized by this violence?
The trauma around this violence is the subject of veteran documentarian Everardo González's 2017 film, The Devil's Freedom, which Variety called "deeply compelling despite toiling in the grimmest recesses of human behavior."
Despite racking up awards and critical acclaim internationally, however, the film has struggled to find commercial distribution in the US. Gonzalez and I spoke this past April (months prior to the presidential election) via Skype about the film, and we discussed the use of masks in the film, the reactions of different international audiences to the film, and the challenges of distributing independent documentaries about the narco conflict at a moment when big-budget narco-themed features and television and series dominate the media landscape.
This interview, translated from Spanish by Andrea Cordoba, has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the seed for The Devil’s Freedom?
Everardo González: There were many things that gave rise to this film, but there were likely three sparks. The first was working on Backyard, a fictional film about the femicides in Juárez, directed by Carlos Carrera [González worked as a cinematographer, creating documentary segments for the film.] The year we were in production coincided with the "Joint Operation Chihuahua" [a 2008 operation run jointly by the Mexican Army and Federal Preventive Police.] We made that project under very complex security conditions. I lived in Ciudad Juárez for eight weeks under conditions that can only be described as living under a state of siege. That obviously had a big impact on me. It made me better understand the magnitude of the problem—specifically the problem of having the federal police and the army serving as local police. I saw people applauding the arrival of tanks to the city and then I bore witness to how the army played a role in the violation of basic human rights.
As the murder rate rose to frightening levels, outlets began talking about "collateral damage." During that period, every Friday on television, there was something called the "executometer"—a tally of killings. Eventually, there was the media agreement between outlets, which sought to reduce coverage about violence. Given the line of work we are in, I felt compelled to make work that went beyond the superficial media treatment.
Every interviewee in the film wears a mask. Where does the idea of masking all of your interviewees come from?
I once had a dream that featured the mask and it never left my memory. The mask became an enduring image for me. I had many worries about the documentary…about the notion of "truth" that a documentary is supposed to have. This idea can even be imposed on us by viewers who have preconceived notions about subjectivity and bias. At any rate, in the same way that masks are used in Greek tragedy as a way to reveal [a deeper truth], I thought it was a good opportunity to allow for unfettered testimony. It was a way to grant the interviewees anonymity, even though this is not something they asked for explicitly. The mask became a device that in a way unified all of the voices that narrate this film.
Some people question whether it puts victims and perpetrators on the same level, but that was never my intention. The intention was to standardize them and create uniformity in how people express this experience of terror. I wanted a mask that would physically speak of the pain and fear. It had to be made of flexible materials that would take on the personality of the person who wore it.
I found it both terrifying and compelling to see the way the mask changed from person to person—for example, when you see the mask darken with tears in one interview. Can you talk about the motivation of the interviewees to speak or participate in the project? Obviously I imagine that each person has their own different history, their different trajectory, but talk to me about the why: If there is a common thread among all the interviewees, why do you think they wanted to participate?
I think it means very different things to offer testimony from the side of the victim than from the side of the hitman, the side of the army or the police. I believe that on the side of the victim-activists, the groups of victims understand that their testimony is a political act, and also an act of letting others know that there are spaces where you can find consolation from having your story acknowledged, recognized. I initially approached the groups of family members of victims, and then others came out. They understood that this is one of the only ways to exert political pressure. It is the only way to make the problem visible. On the side of the army, the police and the hired killers, I basically asked those who have never been asked. And in that they saw an opportunity to tell their version of the story as they have lived it. So I do not know if it was a search for catharsis, but I think they saw in that an opportunity that had never been given to them, which was to tell their stories. That also somehow allowed for the complexity of the testimony they offer in the film, the complex reflections to which they arrive. But they were all willing to collaborate, even people who are not in the film, because as you know, there are times where you can't make an interview "fit." But it was not hard to find the interviewees. It was quicker than you might imagine, which tells you about the dimension of the problem. And the interviews were done in one-day sessions.
We are at a moment in time where narco-related content abounds, especially here in the United States. Netflix has Narcos; there is seemingly a boom of material about the drug traffickers. I personally feel that there is a lot of exploitation of the subject matter. How do you see this work within the context of this glut of material? Be it telenovela, fiction movie, books, etc., even documentary, how do you situate this film within that context?
My film is an essay. It's a discussion, a reflection. But what I do see is that there is shared responsibility with what happens in terms of violence in Latin America as a consumer of this violence. The hired killers want their telenovela made, right? The hired killers want the series. And in a society like we have today, their violence can be an aspirational act. I think its something you have to work against.
I have nothing against these series, but it is a different approach than what I do. I know some of the directors of these projects, and they have never sat down or had a coffee with a victim of violence. Everything comes from the imagination, from what they read in the newspaper and from what they imagine it would be like to be a warlord. But I think it's strange when we live one of the most violent years in the history of Mexico. In 2018, for example, in election cycles, violence is mundane because it seeks to sow terror in order to change political tendencies.
Sometimes what I question are the decisions of Netflix's marketing people to value a series like Narcos and not a movie like Devil's Freedom. In their argument, Devil's Freedom is too crude. That says that people, or those who do business in the media, accept violence, accept pain, as long as it is not real. When it is real, it ceases to be a spectacle and they no longer know how to place material of this type on a shelf with products. So I do question that a bit because when I'm told that maybe people are tired of seeing these things, I say we have to review the popularity of these series. I do not think that people are tired. What I think is that people are very shocked with the idea of knowing that what happens really does happen and it is not just a story; it is not Pancho Villa. The consequences are still alive.
And within this context how do you situate Devil's Freedom with recent documentary films like Cartel Land or even Narco Cultura?
Devil's Freedom is an essay; Narco Cultura and Cartel Land could be seen as action movies. They have different merits. And they are much closer to conflict journalism. Devil's Freedom is perhaps a more lyrical film. Of course, even though they have deep differences, Cartel Land and Narco Cultura also put the viewer in the middle of the conflict, and that has a lot of merit. Perhaps with Devil's Freedom, it is more the spectator who is being questioned as part of the conflict, so that is different. Perhaps what you see in Cartel Land is much more distant—I mean that as a Mexican viewer. And Narco Cultura is something that happens on the screen, but not necessarily something that happens in each of us. In my case, Devil's Freedom, that's why this direct contact with the eyes is also important because it's a film that speaks from the [perspective] of those who [have experienced the conflict]. It does not put viewers in the situation of conflict so that they live it as one lives in video games.
Audiences are different. When you screen a film in Texas vs. Oaxaca, for example, audiences come with very different responses. What has been the response to the film in those different places—in, say, Europe or Mexico?
Well, for Europe it's always like looking at savagery from a distance, right? Except for societies like Germany, who can recognize their own history in the film. And of course in more democratic states, like Finland, well, this is unthinkable. When it is shown in the United States, it also seems distant, especially in Washington and the north. In the South, perhaps much more is [relatable], especially in the places in which it has played. But in Mexico it has been very well received. I am very happy because in cinema we always use this rhetorical figure of the mirror that the screen creates. And I see that in this case it became a reality, not a rhetorical exercise. There is a strong recognition with what happens on the screen, with the look of who is on the screen. And the film has now been used in academic circles to discuss important preconceptions, such as transitional justice. That for me is the best end-result the film could have: that Mexican reality is seen not only from the political or strictly moral point of view. It's an opportunity to hear what the lower ranks of the army have to say, what the low commands of the federal police have to say, what the disposable troops of hired killers in this country have to say. It is a fundamental moment to listen to it today, with the issues of presidential campaigns and false promises. It seems to me that the most important thing should be to pacify this country.
[In Mexico] the film premiered in commercial theaters. Of course, we have won and lost some. I think that, at least at the media level, the film has had a strong presence in Mexico; it has been discussed a lot. And I could not tell you that we have had millions of viewers, but we getting close, I hope, with some 30,000 viewers in commercial rooms, which is something very important for me
That is fantastic. In the United States, are you looking for distribution? You've had screenings at important festivals, at MoMA. Are you looking on a commercial level?
We tried. Netflix told us no, that they were not interested. And we have not gotten distributors there; I do not understand very well why. It’s probably because it is in Spanish, but we cannot find someone to distribute the film.
I find that very interesting because precisely speaking of Cartel Land and Narco Cultura—without criticizing those films—those are the only high-profile films that narrate histories about organized crime in Mexico that have any kind of presence in the United States. The kind of film you have made is arguably more difficult to digest. The Devil’s Freedom has a haunting quality. I woke up at dawn, and the first image I saw was the one of the woman taking off her mask. What presence would you like to have in the United States as a co-author of this narco conflict?
It would be to have a discussion. It is easily forgotten that the violence of this country is also fed by and nourished in the US. We should rethink the plan Merida [a security cooperation agreement between the US, the government of Mexico, and the countries of Central America, with the declared aim of combating the threats of drug trafficking, transnational organized crime and money-laundering], and we should also discuss the great problem of the opioid crisis in the United States. In short I think there should be much more collaboration. I know that it goes against concepts such as sovereignty, but I think it is something that the two nations should collaborate on. But I think that is the important thing, to continue discussing the issue of having weapons in the hands of civilians, and that justice is also sought against the same group of corrupt people that are in the United States. That is rarely spoken about: Who is getting rich from drug trafficking and arms trafficking?
Everardo, what’s next for you? Are you making another movie with the same theme, or are you going elsewhere?
No, I’m now doing something very simple and very enjoyable—a portrait of six deserts around the world, more on the photographic side. It is an assignment that has lightened my life a lot this year. It is sweeter; it is a celebration of life.
Bernardo Ruiz is directing a documentary about one of the 'drug war's' biggest trials, for Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions. His third feature documentary, Harvest Season, about the Mexican presence in the premium California wine industry, is scheduled for a late fall 2018 release on PBS.