A new set from Icarus Films invites us to explore the Mexican filmmaker’s twenty-year-plus body of work.
In her spectacular career over the last two decades, filmmaker Natalia Almada has chronicled life on the border between The US and Mexico, past and present, alongside life and death. Always intimate, even at their most overarching, Almada’s films cover a staggering array of topics, including contemporary ballads, technology, petty bureaucracy, Mexican history, and family history. Almada’s work is a realization of the truism that “the personal is political,” giving a human face to political events and politicizing cultural ones. There’s always a little bit of both within each film.
This list celebrates the new collection of Almada’s movies released by Icarus Films by arranging them from the most personal to her more overtly political films.
All Water Has A Perfect Memory (2001)
Almada’s first film, a nineteen-minute short entitled All Water Has A Perfect Memory, is a delicate, heartbreaking, and experimental work about how her family processed the accidental drowning of her older sister when Almada was only seven months old. Using abstract shots and taped interviews with her parents and siblings, Almada excavates how her Mexican father and Midwestern mother, informed by their cultural background, processed their grief. Between this push and pull of Mexican and Western ideas, Almada situates herself as a person and an artist. All Water Has A Perfect Memory is an excellent cipher for understanding the themes of loss, water, separation, and life’s continuation, which will permeate her work.
Todo lo demás (Everything Else) (2016)
The main character in Almada’s first fiction film, Todo lo demás, also lost a young child to accidental drowning. Doña Flor (Adriana Barraza) has been continuing her life, seemingly keeping it all together. But as her retirement approaches, she’s forced to reckon with the void in her life. Using non-professional actors and documentary filming techniques, Almada’s unique brand of neo-neo-realism gives the film an improvisational feel while still presenting the characters in noble, cinematic ways.
As a petty bureaucrat largely looked over by society, Flor isn’t used to having people look at her or find her worthy. Yet, Almada’s camera celebrates the intimate minutiae of her life. She is slow and steady, letting the shot fill with a soundscape and textures that tell a story about this woman’s everyday life. Though a story “without drama,” as Alamada says in the included behind-the-scenes documentary about making Todo lo demás, a story builds throughout life’s little repetitions and the small actions of invisible people.
El General (2009)
Sometimes, grand actions by highly visible people also have their repetitions and repercussions. At the crux of the personal/political divide is Natalia Almada’s film The General about her great grandfather Plutarco Elias Calles, the former President of Mexico from 1924-1928. Using her great-grandmother’s recordings and archival newsreel footage, Almada paints a complex portrait of a human leader beset with contradictions, complications, and convictions. First, Almada unpacks her ancestor’s campaigns for rural education, better working conditions, higher wages, and less US involvement while also turning to his fraught relationships with the Church and labor unions. Then Almada adds a political third perspective, that of the long view of history.
Looking at the divided 2006 Mexican election and the people’s demand for a fair government, Almada shows that many of the issues her great-grandfather cared about still need a champion. In these mass protests and collective consciousness emerging among the “informal merchant” food cart vendors, Almada sees hope for a better Mexican future predicated on embracing the revolutionary folk spirit she locates at the heart of Mexican culture and society.
The most recent film in the collection is 2021’s Users, which is a visual poetic essay about the arteries of maternal, techno, and eco-nurturing. In what could be called a technofeminist treatise on care and maternity, Users looks at the umbilical cords we’re plugged into and sustain us. Natalia Almada’s lulling narration questions and embraces our cyborg reality that has merged humans and land with machines. Her visual rhymes resonate across the past, present, and future, making a quilted argument that celebrates the tremendous generative of human, mechanical, and earth mothers.
El Velador (The Nightwatchman) (2011)
Just as the omnipotent narrator has a macro-view of human history, so do the caretakers of the cemeteries in Almada’s stirring documentary El Velador. As these men watch over the elaborate mausoleums of the wealthy cartels and the paupers’ graves for those caught in the crossfire, they see the entire society of Sinaloa pass by on the dirt roads. As these nightwatchmen continue to build monuments and dig graves, they hear news reports of more violence, which become a kind of perverse job security.
As families come and go from visiting their loved ones, hanging out, playing games, or cleaning their sites, Almada shows us the social life of cemeteries. Contrary to Western belief, these spaces are alive. They are meeting places, working places, and mourning places. Almada’s film is a tragicomic reminder that people can live with the dead. And in a time of increased violence, life and death are more intimately acquainted daily.
Al Otro Lado (To The Other Side) (2005)
Natalia Almada’s most purely political work is this Bush Era story of border crossing and the ballads that sing of it. Following a corrido singer named Magdiel who dreams of crossing the border to make a better life for himself, Almada teaches us about the perils of crossing and the people who write songs about it. ‘Corrido’ is a form of folk music, “street communication,” that celebrates the popular themes and folk heroes relevant to the age. They are songs about oppression and outlaws, constantly updating to suit the times.
The songs we hear in the film are inspired by the adventures of Jesus Malverde and the songs of Chalino Sanchez, outlaws who Robin Hooded for the common people, defied authorities, and took injustice into their own hands. Corrido carries myths back and forth across the border, some of them dangerous. They are songs about the price of glory and its immortal reward. By joining musical content with the political context of its inspiration, Almada shows the corrido as the heartbeat of the Mexican revolutionary spirit.
Watching the collected works of Natalia Almada, you can feel an artist repeating themes, ideas, and characters. You get a committed sense she is a visionary director dedicated to connecting form and message. How she films directly correlates to what she wants to tell us. Her philosophical films take on less narrative shape, and her documentaries build like poems. Through this conscious construction, her movies, like a good corrido, merge the personal and the political.
The set is now available to own from Icarus Films.