El General (2009)
Directed by Natalia Almada
Distributed by Women Make Movies
Run Time: 83 minutes
Based on audio taped interviews of her grandmother, Natalia Almada's documentary £/ General stands as a fascinating and lyrical portrait of Mexico's revolutionary past and of the formation of historical memory. The tapes were recorded in 1978 by Alicia Calles, Almada's grandmother, along with her friend, Mauricio Gonzalez de la Garza, to serve as the basis of a book. While the book was never written, Almada uses the interviews to narrate a visual history of post-Revolutionary Mexico that extends from the 1920s through the turmoil surrounding the contested 2006 presidential election. Calles's personal reminiscences would be of interest in their own right, but they take on even greater significance for the history of the nation, given that their focus rests mainly on the life and political career of her father, former Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles, or "El General." The presidency of the elder Calles occurred at a crucial moment in Mexico's post-revolutionary history, and his legacy is often mired by his overreaches in power and anti-clericalism. What is fascinating about the younger Calles's memories of her father is the way in which Almada presents them as being fluid, rather than fixed, and subject to change in response to the process of their telling. These conversations are juxtaposed with Almada's own interviews of contemporary Mexicans. What results is a stunning portrait of the multiple, overlapping ways in which Mexico's recent political history gets woven into narratives of an essentially unknowable past.
Serving as narrator of her film, Almada presents excerpts of Alicia Calles's remembrances - along with family photographs and films, both fictional and archival - of revolutionary Mexico. Calles's story begins with the end of the Mexican Revolution and her family's relocation to Mexico City. During this part of the tapes, she recalls a father who was rarely home and who she seems to hardly know. Many of these early reminiscences are played over scenes from Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished film Que Viva Mexico! The footage allows Almada to imagine what the Mexican Revolution meant to Eisenstein and the young Calles, given that they both lacked first hand knowledge of revolutionary events. Like the film, which is missing key scenes, Calles's memories preserve a narrative that is "full of silences and half-said things." Her stories contains starts and stops, repetitions, and apologies where she admits that she cannot seem to remember everything that she would like to say. As Calles continues her story, she seems to mourn for the parts of her life that remain forgotten, and worries that she is "inefficient" at saying what really she means. By presenting Calles's tapes as they are, incomplete and fragmentary, Almada makes a valuable point about the difficulties inherent in preserving our own personal narratives and calls in to question what we can learn from oral history. The tapes may reveal a story that is more fragmentary than most, but they should give historians pause and serve as a reminder of the vagaries of memory in their subjects of study.
Alicia Calles's story though is not just one of omission but of creation. She forgets, but she also presents conclusions about her father and about herself that seem to solidify through the act of conversation. Particularly illuminating is an exchange between Calles and de la Garza, as they talk about the elder Calles's relationship to assassinated ex-President Alvaro Obregón. Here, Calles states clearly that she has concluded that the two ex-presidents deeply trusted one another but that she imagines her information comes from half remembered, overheard things. …