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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Trisha Ziff--'The Mexican Suitcase'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next week, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs through September 1 in New York City and through September 8 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Trisha Ziff, director/producer/writer of The Mexican Suitcase.

Synopsis: The Mexican Suitcase tells the story of the recovery of 4,500 negatives taken by photographers Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour during the Spanish Civil War. The film follows the journey of these negatives to Mexico--images as exiles, recovered 70 years later. The Mexican Suitcase brings together three narratives: the suitcase, the exile story and how people in Spain today address their own past, 30 years after transition. The Mexican Suitcase addresses the power of memory, and asks, Who owns our histories?


The Mexican Suitcase


IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Trisha Ziff: I come from a world of photography. I have worked with photographers for over 25 years now, first teaching community workshops in the north of Ireland during The Troubles, then running an agency of photojournalists in London.

I believe that documentary filmmakers and photographers think in similar ways: We tell stories and have the same passions and commitments. Of course, now as technologies change, photographers are becoming filmmakers. Look at Restrepo: It was made by a journalist and a photographer.

These are overlapping worlds, but leaving one world for the other has been an amazing experience. Chevolution (2008) was the first film I directed, and it grew directly from an exhibition and a book.

I had always worked with photographers, but I was never hands-on. I regretted that, so now I have a chance to shape ideas through film; it's the most exciting step I have taken.


IDA: What inspired you to make The Mexican Suitcase?

TZ: So many things inspired me to make this film.

First, I finally got the rights to make the film, primarily because I had been pivotal in the return of the negatives to their respective estates in New York. I had grown up in England, in a liberal family, and I met so many people who had fought in Spain in their youth, in the international brigades. I heard their stories and I always imagined that had I been born in that era, I would have gone to Spain.

So when I got involved in The Mexican Suitcase and I looked at these images, it was not only through the eyes of someone who worked in photography, but through the narratives I remembered from when I was younger. My son Julio is also a first-generation Mexican, the son of a Spanish refugee. My ex-husband, photographer Pedro Meyer, who is in the film, was born in Spain in 1936, and left with his family as a baby and found safe haven, as so many others did, in Mexico.

So telling the story of the suitcase is also very personal. It is the story of exile, which is part of my son's heritage. In fact, Julio traveled with me to New York to return the suitcase to the estates. I thought it was important. Our narratives matter, and making this film for me was an incredible opportunity to bring all these elements together.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

TZ: Every film has its challenges! For me it was how to braid together these three narratives: the story of the suitcase and the photographers, which is, of course, a film in and of itself; the story of the exile from Spain to Mexico; and the story of how Spain today looks at and understands and addresses its own past.

Convincing the Spanish investors about the stories of the exile and of contemporary Spain was not so simple. People wanted to see what was in the suitcase. I felt that was not enough. I wanted to make a film that asked questions and addressed notions of responsibility towards our past. If all you got were the images and the story of the photographers, it would be too simple and it would avoid the issues in Spain, which continue to be controversial. But for an outsider to broach these questions is very complicated. Finding a way to make that work was hard.

I overcame all this by working with amazing people: my editors, Luis Lopez and Paloma Carillo, and my producer, Eamon O'Farrill, challenged me in their specific and very different ways. I have a very strong support group.  In addition, the archeologists were key to the film and of incredible importance to the narrative.  


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

TZ: I remember the exact conversation and location when I realized in pre-production that I had to tell a story that was more complicated than just the journey and content of the suitcase. A conversation on a plane with a Catalan friend, Mar Verdura, shifted my focus away from the literal suitcase to the narratives of uncovering the past going on in Spain as a result of the Law of Memory being passed, giving the Spanish people the right to look at their own narratives--literally to dig for their own answers. I immediately saw the parallel of digging in the earth for answers and holding these old negatives to the light and giving them light again. I knew then the film I had to make.

Obviously docs are made in the edit room and braiding together these narratives was a challenge. But the issue of the three stories--the negatives, the search for the past in Spain, the complexities of exile--emerged early on.  The challenge was how to make it all come together in 90 minutes!


IDA:  As you've screened The Mexican Suitcase-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

TZ: I was at the gala premiere of the film last month at the Rencontres D'Arles in the South of France. It was screened in a Roman amphitheater to 2,600 people. I remember looking around from where I was and seeing all these people absorbed afterwards in the street;  people came up to me and some even wept, thanking me for telling their narratives. It was extraordinary.

A few people were very critical of the depiction of the French, but the story of the camps in France is not well-known. Before working on this film, I had no idea there were concentration camps on the beaches of France, where thousands died during the Vichy government. I realize that showing this causes strong reactions. It's a huge responsibility as a filmmaker to broach these subjects in Spain; there are still so many taboos about speaking of the past. After all, it's the only country in Europe that had 30 years of fascism. These things don't disappear overnight, and people have vested interests in both revealing the past and covering it up.

This film is not neutral. How can it be? The photographers were not neutral either. I guess I am surprised by the strength of people's reactions. Clearly the film has an impact. 


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

TZ: Errol Morris. The way he interviews people is for me inspirational. I guess he is the master. And Werner Herzog. Both those men are inspiring!  


The Mexican Suitcase will be screening August 26 through September 1 at the IFC Center in New York and September 2 through 8 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2011 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for The Mexican Suitcase in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for The Mexican Suitcase in Los Angeles, click here.