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Gabriela Martínez

Translator, Emilio Cervantes

Over the course of five years, director Alejandra Sánchez Orozco interviewed Gabriela López, a former hitwoman working for the drug trafficking industry, who spent 20 years in the Chihuahua Social Readaptation Center. From a very young age, Gabriela was trained to be a hitwoman. She was captured and then released at the age of 43 and now she is trying to find a new way to give meaning to her life. She does not want to go back to jail, nor does she want to die, she wants to reorganize a past from which she continues to be a prisoner.

Placeada. Historia íntima de una ex-sicaria is a testimony where the director explores the possible origins and causes of a violence that has the whole country on edge, which was part of the Official Selection of the 20th Morelia International Film Festival (FICM).

The festival had the opportunity to talk with the director, who told us about her motivations for making this documentary.

Placeada. Historia íntima de una ex-sicaria (2022, dir. Alejandra Sánchez)
Placeada. Historia íntima de una ex-sicaria (2022, dir. Alejandra Sánchez)

FICM: How did this story come to you and why did you decide to tell it?

Alejandra Sánchez: The themes I have dealt with in the documentaries that I have made are themes that punch me in the gut, and the theme of the violence in Mexico, well, it is one that does not stop, that I began to feel really close to it when I made Bajo Juárez (2006), more than 20 years ago, when I was studying at the CUEC [University Center of Film Studies, for its acronym in Spanish] (now National School of Film Arts), and I never imagined that this would become a kind of pandemic, not just only of femicides, but also of violent deaths in Mexico.

I was so eager to tell a story that dealt some way or another with the violence phenomenon. I began to research. There is a specialist I admire very much, his name is Jacobo Dayán, whom I met in Colonia Del Valle. I asked him to talk to me about what I had heard and read in his lectures and papers, and he said that death in Mexico is a business. That made me shudder. He explained to me that every hour about 22 guns enter from the United States to Mexico illegally, and with those guns 80% of crimes are committed. Thus, effectively, every death belongs to a business, to the business of death.

That is how I decided to start developing a story based on a character. I was interested in the character being a woman, a teenager, moreover, because I find that to be precisely the thinnest thread. I started going to where there are teenagers who have committed these types of crimes, and I tried to enter the Social Readaptation Center for Teenage Offenders, in Chihuahua. I spent a year trying to get access from the authorities and there I met a custodian who also worked at the Social Readaptation Center for adult women, and she said to me, “Hey, a woman, who is a former hitmen chief and worked right when she was a teenager from 12 to 20 years old, just came out. I will put you in touch with her.” And that is how I came in touch with Gabriela López.

FICM: It is really interesting everything that she tells through the documentary, with so much ease, and I would like to ask you, do you think cinema can be regarded as a journalistic work, at least documentary filmmaking?

AS: Yes, I believe indeed that journalism and cinema have shared tools. Thus, to be able to make a documentary a lot of research is needed, but also a lot of imagination. I believe that, in the same way, in journalism a solid and thorough research is needed. There are differences in terms of goals.

There are films that are much fuller of evidence, of clues. For me, for example, Bajo Juárez (2006) was a film where I needed evidence that could unveil this machinery of impunity in which these femicides are drawn. So, how do you reveal on screen that the Government is responsible by commission or omission for its actions? In Gabriela's specific case, although I had journalistic tools, I was very clear that I wanted to tell the story of how a young woman at the age of 12 joins the ranks of organized crime. And that no, it is not a decision, as most people might believe, but a series of situations that lead many young men and women today to take that path. Because that story goes back to the 90s, and many have joined willingly, some after being kidnapped or sometimes seduced, or all of them, by these criminal organizations.

FICM: Going over your filmography, you have already talked about Bajo Juárez (2006), but there is also Agnus Dei (2010), and Seguir viviendo (2014), which is more of a fiction work, right? How different was it for you to make, based on these themes, a work between fiction and documentary?

AS: Look, I think that the line between documentaries and fiction films is almost always very vague, right? I mean, cinema started in 1895 as a documentary, but soon enough the paths of fiction and documentary branched off. Thus, the Lumière brothers themselves found out that it could become a show. Also here in Mexico, cinema began as a documentary, with the first shots known as "vistas." For example, the first film shown was of Porfirio Díaz entering the Palace, the Chapultepec Castle with his cabinet.

Let's say that, for me, making films does not make much difference in terms of the limits. Thus, I think that to make fiction you also require a lot of research and a lot of imagination. I believe that, just as in the beginnings of cinema, the limits in contemporary cinema became very vague. Many documentaries rely on the tools of fiction and vice versa. Cinema is just that to me, an exercise of reality interpretation, where the call to interpret it is similar to what scientists do from their own discipline by asking a series of questions, of concerns, of perspectives, about what is going on.

Once you have sort of clear what to do, you have to deal with it, and there are diverse ways and styles of doing it. That is why I believe that filmmaking overall is a complex craft, and to me there is not much of a difference between documentary and fiction, apart from the way of producing it, because sometimes it is much more expensive to make a fiction than a documentary film. It is much more complicated to build imaginary worlds by any means. But well, these imaginary worlds always rely on or come from, at least conceptually, the same genesis, which is to stand in front of the window of reality, to behold it and to find a way to tell it.

Placeada. Historia íntima de una ex-sicaria (2022, dir. Alejandra Sánchez)
Placeada. Historia íntima de una ex-sicaria (2022, dir. Alejandra Sánchez)

FICM: In your work as documentarist, have you ever felt at any time that your security has been violated or that in some way your integrity is at risk?

AS: All the themes I have dealt with so far in cinema, have been themes that could put me in that situation, but I do not know if it is because of how stretched the subject is, right? I mean, in Mexico there are many problems with murders of journalists, and I think they are the ones who face much more risk, they chase a news story, they precisely pursue an investigation that becomes deep and that threatens them.

I have not made a film that so far has resulted in threats or such things. Specifically in this last project, I knew I had to protect Gabriela's integrity, mine, and my team's, so I focused more on the intimate, emotional aspects and avoided referring to any specific cartel, any date, or any geographical information. I received much help from David Peña, a lawyer who sat down with Gabriela and me at the Churubusco Studios to watch the film and see if there was anything that could threaten us or put us in a risky situation.

FICM: I just wanted to ask you, what are Gabriela's thoughts on the documentary?

AS: Gabriela really liked it. In the end she did not see the last cut. Actually, when she saw a previous cut, she told me, “Hey, I would like to have another interview if possible.” And that is how we got to the final interview. I believe that for Gabriela it was also an exercise of awareness, of revisiting her own adolescence and her actions. I think it allowed her, at the end of the day, to have this reality check that we see in the final interview of Placeada (2022).

FICM: Have you received any feedback from the audience about this documentary?

AS: Yes, I did. Most of them empathize with Gabriela. I want to clarify that this documentary does not seek to justify or condemn her. Nothing justifies killing people. In this case, I told the story of a woman who was a hitwoman, and the audience had the same feeling as me, a feeling of vertigo faced to the idea of empathizing or feeling mirrored in a woman that one might think has nothing to do with ourselves.

FICM: What challenges did you face during the process of making this documentary?

AS: Look, it was a tricky documentary, which was not easy to finance precisely because the character is very stigmatized. I struggled a lot to put it out, to get funding and to produce it. That took me a long time. Most of the documentary was made thanks to the generosity of Fernanda Valadez's team, Erika Licea, Ana García, and the people who worked for a long time without resources.

In the end I was able to pay the crew because I got a fund for the postproduction and that is how we did it. So, it was a documentary that took me a long time, obviously it was also a character that I had to analyze deeply in order to free her from this stigmatization and my own prejudices, to be able to understand her from another point of view.

FICM: You talk about prejudices. What prejudices did you have regarding the character or the character you wanted to portray?

AS: Everyone can have prejudices against those who have dared to pull the trigger, because one has a noticeably clear limit where one says, “I belong to the good part of society, and they are the bad part.” I think that, unfortunately in a society as complicated as the Mexican one, it is a consequence of the irresponsibility of the citizens that we have allowed the Mexican Government not to provide different living conditions, not to offer spaces and alternatives. It is an unorganized Government that does not give them opportunities, but organized crime in a certain way does, so these types of prejudices or stigmatizations are reduced by understanding that Gabriela, for example, comes from a very disintegrated family, from a very violent father, from a community and a society with a very worn-out social structure. Seeing it this way allows you to understand beyond these phenotypes that project the heroism of the shows of streaming platforms where they try to humanize them and ultimately make them somewhat heroes and protagonists. A woman is meant to create life, not to take it away. So, breaking that paradigm and from there telling a story became quite a challenge