A Place Called Chiapas

Written by:
Douglas Konecky
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. Nettie Wild’s documentary about the Zapatista uprising in Southern Mexico was financed by practically every film presence in Canada except Dudley Do-Right. It won the 1999 Genie Award for Best Canadian Documentary, and reviews have been unanimous as to its topicality and excellence. Sorry, folks. This film about "the world’s first post-modern revolution" (New York Times) seems to be little more than a staged media event. The documentarian has been joyfully taken in by the movement’s political correctness and hipness and this reviewer felt manipulated by her approach…

No one can disagree with the politics – landless peasants fighting the entrenched Mexican ruling class. The betrayal of revolutionary ideals. The heartless American agri-business interests who championed NAFTA in order to sell cheap corn to Mexico and put Mexican corn farmers out of business. Who is for starving children? Who is for jackbooted soldiers?

The film begins badly, one cliche following another: the inevitable montage of army tanks and gentle Jesus, incongruous funk music in a film about Mexican peasants, and then Wild herself doing interviews in embarrassingly bad Spanish, with the subtitles botched several times. "Chinos" doesn’t mean "Chinese people." It’s pejorative slang for Indians, for peasants.

"In Canada we debated NAFTA; in Chiapas they went to war over it," says the narrator. Maybe. But as far as war goes, what we see on screen is peasants taking control of a few towns and ranches, leaving when the Mexican army is sent in, and then being unable to return home to their villages because the army and paramilitary forces are angry over what they did. There is a voice-over about a paramilitary reaction later when 45 people are killed. Tragic, but not much of a war. The narrator later quotes someone calling Chiapas a "Post Glasnost Revolutionary Woodstock." Given the crowd of people singing The Times They Are a-Changin’ in Spanish, this seems to be a better choice of words.

Into this festival of world citizens hungry for someone else’s struggle steps Subcomandante Marcos, the guerrilla leader. Erudite and urban, a poet as well as a commander, we can’t help but be impressed by his wisdom and by his ideals. Marcos’ speech about his little brother being murdered and keeping in his pocket the bullet that killed him is very effective. He declares, "Our revolution is for more pockets to keep little brothers in, not bullets."

But as the narrator states, "Zapata was camera shy, Marcos is not." He chooses his

words well and the faithful camera crew is always there to record them. There is a priceless scene where the revolutionaries, with Marcos at their head, cross a rivulet on horseback in order to stop mid-stream and pose for a phalanx of photographers and reporters lined up on the other side. These soldiers are smart enough to understand and use their best weapon for the "first revolution fought on the internet."

A Place Called Chiapas is certainly not the only documentary to be one-sided to the point of propaganda. But this reviewer feels the film goes on way too long simply to prove a point we all agree with. A good editor and some discussion of issues would have helped a lot.


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