“If we can see the present clearly enough, we shall ask the right questions of the past.” Attributed to John Berger, this quotation appears a few minutes into Natalia Almada’s El General, and aptly describes the film’s path.
The titular figure is Almada’s late great-grandfather, her bisabuelo, General Plutarco Elías Calles. Calles was a central figure in the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s who became president of Mexico; his violent opposition to the Catholic Church was just one issue that continues to make him a contentious presence in Mexican history. He was exiled by a successor, but his final resting place is a monument to the revolution in Mexico City.
At moments, the film seems as though it might be an act of reconciliation. Almada incorporates audio recordings that chronicle the beginnings of her grandmother’s attempt to write the general’s biography. These recordings constitute a window into el general, the father. But how can this close familial view exist peacefully alongside the image of el general, the dictator—as some have called him? Ultimately, these conflicting stories are said to be just that—stories. They do not need to be reconciled. As Berger’s words imply, Almada turns primarily to the reality of the present in Mexico City, looking there for remnants of a tumultuous historical past. And therefore, despite the power of Almada’s grandmother’s tapes and of Almada’s use of archive from public histories, private histories, and narrative cinema, El General’s most meaningful images are those of present-day Mexican laborers. Almada intimately interacts with them through interview, and follows them in long takes as they cart commodities through the city. Almada gives them voice and they have various things to say about Mexican history, but their very existence also becomes something of a testament to the general’s legacy.
Michelle Citron’s “Fleeing from Documentary: Autobiographical Film/Video and the “Ethics of Responsibility””
Ella Shohat’s “Post-Third-Worldist culture”