Through the Looking Glass: Voices in Film

by Cecilia Torres | 5/17/17 2:35am


This past winter term I interned at Ambulante, an annual nonprofit, documentary film festival held in Mexico City. Mexican actors Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna founded the organization in 2005 as a way to showcase documentary film and feature documentaries from across Mexico. Every year the festival accepts over 100 films from around the world that focus on the theme of the festival. This year the festival’s theme was justice, and the accepted documentaries spoke to the complexities of what justice means and how it manifests itself through films that aim to document the lives of people, a moment or a memory. One of Ambulante’s main goals is to make documentary film accessible to everyone without economic, geographic or educational restraints. This is why most of their screenings are free and take place in community centers and national landmarks around the country.

My journey to this internship was not very straightforward. I am a studio art major with a focus on photography, and my initial plan for my off-term was to live in Mexico City and embark on an independent photography project focusing on my grandmother. I was born in Mexico City and immigrated to the U.S. when I was 5 years old. My childhood memories always take me back to my grandmother’s home, but I have never returned to live in Mexico for any long period of time since I left as a child. This was supposed to be a time for me to rediscover my roots and fill in the gap in my identity that displacement often leaves behind. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to work with an art nonprofit in Mexico City, I took it. I would get to work in the sector of the art world that I believe bridges the gap between art and community while still being able to work on my own art.

Having a personal connection to Mexico and having the ability to fluently speak, write and read Spanish allowed me a myriad of opportunities while working at Ambulante. While at Ambulante, I mainly worked on pre-screening and reviewing the films that were to be presented in the festival. My reviews worked as advertising and informational materials for the films for our website or Ambulante’s printed magazine editions.

During my time at Ambulante, I came to the conclusion that we are constantly sharing stories, but we never ask ourselves who gets the power to tell them. I was exposed to an industry I knew from afar but did not quite know from the inside: the world of documentary filmmaking. While reviewing these films, researching the directors and witnessing the administrative processes of distribution, I became keenly aware of the incongruences revolving the documentation of an event, a community, a movement and more.

Through the short time that I was exposed to this industry, I learned that documentation often can turn into exploitation if the people that hold the privilege to tell the stories are not of the community or have not had a first-hand experience with that which they are documenting. For this reason, the communities that often serve as nothing more than the subjects must be given the tools to have agency over their own stories and share them through their own voices and perspectives.

The opportunity to work with an art non-profit has further inspired me to advocate for art making in underrepresented communities. I believe that art has the power to inspire change in individuals and in communities when we create spaces where all voices have the ability to tell their stories. This power that art holds comes from the messages that are transmitted through it. Especially in the current political climate, when the government funding for the arts is threatened by the presidential administration, art serves an even greater role, given that the way we present and share a work of art can work to mold and carry on the cultural and social identity we choose to embrace.

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