10 · 28 · 21

Cruz, In the Face of Loss: An Interview With Teresa Camou

By: Gabriela Martínez @Gabmartivel

Teresa Camou Guerrero is a Mexican filmmaker with puppetry roots who is committed to social documentary cinema. That cinema that goes further and seeks to have an impact on the communities she portrays.

After making Sunú (2015), a documentary that addresses the destruction of rural life and the threat on corn in Mexico, Teresa Camou explored the life of Cruz, a Rrámuri leader who from a very young age worked in defence of the forest and the rights of his community; becoming an indigenous governor, an ejido commissariat, and a trustee in the Sierra Tarahumara.

Cruz, the winning documentary of the José María Riba Award in Impulso Morelia 6 during the 18th Morelia International Film Festival (FICM), tells the story of Cruz and his family, dispossessed of their land by narco by refusing to change the sowing of corn for poppy. Since then, they have been displaced and threatened, desperately seeking justice to be able to return to their place of origin.

FICM had the chance to talk with the director prior to the presentation of her documentary on its 19th edition and she told us about the emotional challenge involved in making this documentary, a very close and personal portrait of the implications around forced internal displacement in Sierra Tarahumara, as well as the reasons why she decided to do this documentary work.

Teresa Camou

Teresa Camou

FICM: Could you talk a bit about your career? We know that you have dedicated a large part of your life to working with displaced people.

Teresa Camou: I am a puppeteer by profession, I have worked for more than 25 years doing social puppet theater telling stories, like in the cinema, that somehow need to be heard, to be seen. Later I had an indigenous theater company in the Sierra Tarahumara for twelve years. I came to the Sierra with sticks, cardboard, paint and with a group of young Rrámuris who almost always dropped out of school because the rural education system in Mexico is very deficient in rural areas, mainly. I would work with them, we would build giant puppets and I would tell them “You have to tell a story!” They would ask “How?” and I showed them that we had characters: a hen, a tree, a lady, a man. Then a process began so that they could choose which story to tell, giving the characters a name and job title. They told me: “But birds don’t have names”, but of course they could have one. “Well, his name is Casimiro and he is the one who is dedicated to flying and seeing what is happening in the communities, he is the messenger,” they said.

All of this was very nice because that way they had the opportunity to tell the stories of the reality of their communities. That’s where my love for telling stories through art comes from.

After ten years of doing indigenous theater and being a puppeteer, I decided to conclude my time in theater because it was very difficult and tiring to find resources, and a very large wave of violence took over in Chihuahua. It was the time of the Calderón government, so drug trafficking began to have a great impact in the areas where I worked, everything became more insecure and complex.

In an evaluation closing with them, in 2012, I was very sad because I did not know what was going to happen to them. I was not going to be able to go as often and I wanted to know how they looked to the future. They wanted to continue working the land, planting corn, “we are not interested in leaving the community, we are not interested in working for the narcos. We don’t want trucks or cell phones, we want to keep on living as from the fields,” they said. That hit me hard.

From the films I make, I knew that they would have to migrate, I knew that in five years none of them would be able to continue living in the Sierra. Ten years later, I found out that most of the young people I worked with had had to leave.

At that moment I realized that theater was already very small for me. Theater is ephemeral, you present it to an audience and at that moment it ends. I knew I had to take their stories beyond the community. The story that we always told at that time was about the defence of corn, so that’s when it occurred to me that I should make a movie.

I wondered, what visual art allows you to tell a story that remains and can reach a lot of people? I realized that documentary film was the perfect medium for that. Through cinema, people’s stories can reach many corners of the world and allow the narrative to live for many, many years. There, I decided that I had to switch to documentary cinema, I wanted to continue telling the story of the defence of corn, the subject they always wanted to talk about. For them it was important to continue planting corn, to talk about what it means to them; It is not just about corn as food, but it has a sense of recognition, of community, of dignity, strength and autonomy. At that time I decided to make my first film, Sunú (2015), which means “corn” in Rrámuri.

I have no film training, I have theater training and I have a degree in Visual Arts. It took me five years to make Sunú, it is a very beautiful story with a lot of work. I managed to have FOPROCINE for post production, I overcame all obstacles. I was able to approach various filmmakers, people who have been doing this for many years, and the project got ahead.

During the time that I filmed Sunú, we shot in eight states of the Mexican Republic and I came across several stories that people could no longer plant corn due to narcos and the high level of insecurity and violence that it implies. People were leaving their communities and they were giving up on growing corn. From the beginning I was behind the history of the defence of corn, however, it was a very strong impact to know that the Mexican countryside was not only being threatened by industrialization, by the government that no longer gave subsidies to producers or by the transgenics that were destroying the native seed, but also by this other thing that is narco.

Cruz (2021, dir. Teresa Camou)

Cruz (2021, dir. Teresa Camou)

FICM: How did you meet Cruz?

TC: My great friend Cruz is a Rrámuri who worked for eight years with my mother, a human rights defender in Chihuahua. She has worked all her life in the Sierra Tarahumara for the defence of food sovereignty, for indigenous rights in a small NGO that she founded called CONTEC. I met Cruz, through my mother.  I gave theater workshops and Cruz was a technician, he was an indigenous leader who specialized in the defense of the forest and indigenous rights. He was going to give workshops throughout the Sierra Tarahumara and that is why we met many times, while I was giving workshops to young people and he to adults. We’ve had a strong friendship for over 20 years.

From the age of 18, Cruz was an indigenous governor, later he was an ejido commissariat, a trustee; he always had a very important role in his region. He finished his job at CONTEC but continued his leadership career.

He was super young when I met him, just married. I saw how each of his five children came along and had a lot of fun with him. A year after finishing Sunú, I found out that one of his sons was killed and after three weeks the entire community had to flee. So all these situations, which are the beginning of the displacement and his family and community’s great tragedy, I live them with them because my mother has been receiving all the calls for help.

When these tragedies began to happen, I was already living in Mexico City, my mother was telling me about it and I couldn’t believe that this was happening to him. I couldn’t believe this was happening to someone I knew with great strength, fighting for his people, with unbreakable ethics. At that moment, speaking with my mother, she asked me “why don’t you make a film about forced internal displacement in the Sierra Tarahumara?”

That’s the legal name: Forced Internal Displacement. It is not recognized by the government, people do not know that this exists. Everyone thinks that when people leave, they emigrate to another country and the reality is that there is a great internal displacement of people who get trapped in the country not because they don’t want to leave, but because they never thought they would have to. They have nowhere to go, there is no way to find a safe place where they can live. This happens in most indigenous communities.

I saw Cruz again after many years, just when he went through this tragedy. At that time Sunú was already finished, it was already being seen at festivals.

Sunú was a very beautiful experience, it was a lot of work, but I understood the scope that a film can have. I said to myself: “I’m going to do another one”, everything I didn’t know with Sunú I would like to do again. Apart from that, the most important thing for me is to make those stories visible, the ones we wouldn’t know about otherwise. I believe that documentary cinema is an alternative to give people a voice because otherwise, they wouldn’t be heard, they would be totally anonymous people.

When I arrived with Cruz, he was already living in exile, he was already displaced, his second son had already been killed. The entire community was already exiled as well.

I saw him in Chihuahua, at a Sunú screening. I invited him over the phone, told him to bring the whole family. I already had the plan, I wanted to tell him that I intended to tell a story with him. When Cruz saw Sunú, he was very moved because he saw the life that narco had taken from him. We filmed half the film in the Sierra Tarahumara, his life was corn and they had taken away the opportunity to continue planting it.

After the screening, we had coffee and I said: “You knew my work in the theater, you saw how I told the stories with the boys there in the Sierra, you just saw my movie and I think you realize what it is I do. I am very angry about what is happening to you and I would like to tell your story because I don’t know if there will be justice one day, but we can make justice by making it visible. If we do not tell it, you become invisible and all the demands and complaints that you’ve made will end up a number in a folder in a police station. I don’t want that to happen.” He told me that he would talk to his family and the next day he called me to say “Yes, we are going to do it.”

Cruz (2021, dir. Teresa Camou)

Cruz (2021, dir. Teresa Camou)

FICM: How was the filming process for Cruz?

TC: It was a five-year job. I lived in CDMX, but I traveled to Chihuahua once a month for two weeks and did that for two years. Cruz and his family live separately because they have precautionary measures, they live in “safe houses”. They are called like that not because they have cameras or bars, it doesn’t really mean anything.

I went from house to house to speak with each of the family members, I reconnected with all of them. In addition, I contacted another family from the same community who had been displaced. In total, about 145 people fled. From there I began to see how and where to begin to tell the story of Cruz.

FICM: One of the things that stand out the most in the documentary is the emotional repercussions that displacement entails, which represents leaving your whole life behind. How was it for you to face all this sensitive situation?

TC: I think I’m just processing a lot of what happened. After making a film about the defense of corn, where you know that what you want is for people to leave the room with their heads held high, with the pride of knowing that Mexico lives, that Mexico resists … I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started making Cruz. I knew that it was a sensitive subject, with a lot of violence, where everyone’s life was threatened. All this I understood, but I didn’t know how to tell something so complex, situated in the moment in which it was happening. This didn’t happen ten or twenty years ago, it is not a situation in which the characters no longer exist or that they now live in another country, and so on.

I said: “My axis is going to be the moment, whatever they want to tell me.” I decided not to recreate anything because they are not actors and I want people to understand what loss implies that’s why I included a second family that lives in the Sierra Tarahumara, I wanted to portray their uses and customs. When Cruz says, “I lost everything” or “Everything I was no longer exists,” and you contrast it with the images of this other family in their daily life, with their animals, at home, dancing to “step on the Devil,” that is what Cruz and his family once were, but not now, it is what they would like to recover, but they never will.

I didn’t know how he wanted the film to end, I was very clear about the harshness of the story. I let the end come depending on what happened in those 18 months that I was filming.

In short, that was my first story arc and that is why the story doesn’t have a happy ending, because it is a great example of a real situation where there is no security because there is no justice in this country.

The film closes with a dance, a yumare, which was very emotional because suddenly, during the filming, Cruz said “I want to dance, we need to dance because we are disintegrating and we have to recover who we are, even though we are in another place.” That made me cry, I filmed them in the most painful moment. It is very sad because it is the last thing they have left; they do not want to lose their identity. It was really difficult because I had not lived so close to people’s pain. You end up appropriating it. I was figured out many things on the go, I speak on an emotional level. I think that because of the closeness I had with Cruz and his family, we had sustained each other. It was very difficult to film such a painful situation.

Cruz (2021, dir. Teresa Camou)

Cruz (2021, dir. Teresa Camou)

FICM: What was the interview process like?

TC: I reached out to psychologists to find out how to approach them without reliving the trauma during the dialogue. I did a lot of research before every interview. Each of them lasted up to six hours because I didn’t just want to talk about pain. I wanted to start a conversation where they too could get the joy of talking about who they were and who they are now. When they felt safest was when I asked the hardest questions. We always talked before, I told them “let’s talk about this, how do you want to do it?”, So what I did was create a very great complicity with them.

When editing was finished, I came to Chihuahua to present the film to Cruz, his mother, and his daughter Nubia. I rented a movie theater so that everyone could see the movie separately, I didn’t want them to see the movie together and I wanted them to see it on the big screen because I wanted them to experience what a movie is. If it was difficult for them to achieve this film, I want them to look great so that they understand the dimension that it can have.

I decided that they would see the film separately because later if they wanted to sit down and talk. I thought they might feel self-conscious, and besides, they say things in the film that hadn’t been said to each other.

After they saw the film, I connected via Zoom with the editor, Lucrecia Gutiérrez Maupomé, to be able to talk between the three of them. It was to see what they liked, what they didn’t like, and to know what we should change or not. We expected the worst, but it ended up being one of the most beautiful moments of the whole process because there was a lot of complicity between everyone. Their opinions were very important to the closing of the edition.

It was cathartic for Cruz, he cried a lot. He told me: “You just summarized the pain in 90 minutes. It is very sad because I feel that I have not done anything, I feel that I have lost everything and I haven’t achieved anything.”

Nubia was very concerned about the fact that she talks about taking pills to “relieve pain” in the documentary. That sequence was the most difficult, we didn’t know whether to include it or not. In the end, Lucrecia and I bet on including that part in the film. Here the challenge was to figure out how to handle the subject without falling into something too dramatic that could hurt her. This sequence, for me, is one of the best worked in the film. We relied on a psychologist, I asked her how I could introduce Nubia to the film, what she could do in case she had any reaction to reliving that moment. He told me, “Teresa, calm down, talk to her, find out more about the fact that she took the pills.” Because this wasn’t a suicide attempt, for Nubia, this was an attempt to calm the pain in a moment of crisis where she didn’t know how to stop everything she was feeling.

When we presented the film to Nubia, Lucrecia and I were very nervous, but she was always very tough, her eyes were strong and she said: “I’m worried about my dad, what might happen to him.” She was always the clearest and most direct, from the beginning. I asked her what she thought her dad shouldn’t say in the movie, she said “I don’t know, it’s not what he says, it’s us.” I told her that the objective of this film was not to hurt them, but rather that we sought to make their situation visible and to help them, not only them, but other families too.

When we presented the pill scene to her, we asked her what she thought about it. She said: “The Nubia there was 16 years old. I’m not her anymore, I’m already 19.” She agreed to let that part of the interview be included.

FICM: What did it mean for you to have participated in Impulso Morelia?

TC: With Sunú I decided not to make the whole film alone, I asked for help, because I didn’t want it to be canned as if it had been made by an NGO. For this reason, with Cruz, we looked for a way to pitch it from the beginning, including Impulso Morelia, where we won. Being part of Impulso was a great opportunity, a catapult. Being able to listen to four jurors and Andrea Stavenhagen was great because I got very good feedback. I was a little scared because Cruz was the only documentary project selected, the rest were fiction. In the end, that was what I wanted, for the documentary film to grow to achieve the impact that I was looking for.