ZAPATISTA NATIONAL LIBERATION ARMY
Sixth Commission of the EZLN
To the persons, groups, collectives and organizations of the national and international Sixth:
To the support networks for the Indigenous Governing Council:
To those for whom cinema is a hobby, vice, or obsession:
Part I and only:
THE IMPOSSIBLE MOVIE THEATER
(Opening scene: The Serpent Offers the Apple)
You’re walking without a destination. You don’t know where you’re going, much less why. Behind you is the busy street that runs along the wall whose crumbling facade mocks the also deteriorating poster of the Happy Family. The monumental stadium and its impertinent question lay in the distance: “Who rules?” Anyway, right now you have no idea where you are and you’re starting to wonder if you should turn back…but you don’t know where or why you’d go in that direction either. So you stop, but only for a moment because a little girl grabs your hand and hurries you along: “Hurry up or we’ll be late to the movie.” You don’t have a chance to respond because you’re immediately faced with a colorful sign declaring: “All adults must be accompanied by a child [niño].” But someone has crossed out “un niño” and written “a girl [una niña].” Another anonymous hand has scratched that out to write “unoa niñoa.” Someone else crossed that out and wrote instead, “None of that matters here.”
Someone wearing a ski mask stops you, but the little girl says to the masked face, “he’s with me.” The masked person allows you to pass. You walk down a slope partially covered in cement, through puddles, rocks, and mud. Off to the side there are multiple wood structures with tin roofs. The fog is heavy, so the humble structures appear and disappear with every step you take, like “fade in” and “fade out” scenes. You keep going without knowing where you’re headed. The atmosphere reminds you of an old mystery movie…or a horror film.
The signs marking the various shacks are…how can I put it…disturbing. Straining to see through a fog that could easily be confused with that of London, you read on one of them, “The Lodger”, and, below that, “Room service provided personally by Norman Bates.” Below that there’s a photo of a serious young man who could easily be Anthony Perkins, if it weren’t for the fact that that’s impossible.
At this point you have no idea whether you’re in the Mexican Southeast or in the town of Whitechapel. That’s when you ask yourself whether instead of showing you the way to the movie theater, the little girl might not be taking you to the kitchen of the gastronomist and doctor, Hannibal Lecter…
Calm down, you tell yourself. But this is made even more difficult by the fact that the sign on another shack reads, “Silence of the Lambs Taco Stand. Tacos with buche [pig stomach], nana [pig uterus], tongue, or BRAINS”, written just like that, with the last ingredient in all caps. You start to feel afraid, not of having your skull opened, but of Sir Anthony Hopkins—wearing an apron that says “Let’s go piece by piece, Jack the Ripper style”—rejecting your brain, commenting dismissively, “lacking in consistency.” You don’t really like the idea of your guts in a garbage can, either. And what if, together with your brains, they also remove your dreams? I mean, the thing about the guts is whatever—any old horror movie has tons of guts (that ‘gore’ genre that is so trendy these days, you think to yourself). But what would be able to remove your dreams? “Reality,” you read on a sign of uncertain age on another wood structure, followed by: “Electroshocks, slaps across the face and knocks upside the head free! We poke holes in dreams, balloons, electoral promises and government programs.”
Another sign, a few feet down and on the opposite side of the slope, reads: “The Tercios Compas. We’re not autonomous, independent, alternative, or whatever-you-call-it media, but we are compas.” Below that someone has used a marker to scrawl, “we haven’t finished the documentary, come back for the next uprising and we’ll tell you when it might be ready.”
Then there’s the sign over there: “‘The Joker’s Dental Salon. Why so serious? Get a smile to last your whole life!” accompanied by a photograph of Heath Ledger in that famous role. Below there’s another sign with a drawing of a samurai with his katana and the words “Heihachi – Minuro Chiaki. Lightning course in Hara-Kiri. Fundamentals, basic concepts, specialization, final exam and graduation, all in less than one minute. 100% practical!”
A shudder runs through your body. The little girl stops, turns to you and, to calm you down, explains:
“Don’t pay any mind to those signs, that’s just Sup Galeano at it again. He’s being mischievous as usual, putting stuff like that in his stories, but he’s just being annoying because we beat him out for the last honeybun. Oh, and also because they don’t show the movies he likes—he only wants to watch movies with naked ladies. As if they’re going to show those! Pul-eeaase. He’s asking for a slap upside the head and a political talking-to from the women we are. We’ve already given him several but he doesn’t get it. That’s just how those damn men are. Besides, that taco stand serves turkey, not pork or beef, and they’re not tacos, they’re tamales.”
The two of you continue walking, you still without any idea where you are, not even in what country or what world. The date? No idea. Is it raining or is that the fog that moistens your skin?
“We’re here,” says the girl as you enter a large structure that you imagine must be the movie theater. You pause in the doorway to look around. For a movie theater, it’s pretty strange. The screen, for instance, isn’t at one end but rather smack-dab in the middle, and the audience is sitting on either side of the screen where (one would assume) the movie will be projected.
On the one side are the people who make films: those who act, direct, produce, edit, create soundtracks, teach, analyze, critique, screen, and circulate films, as well as all the other jobs needed to make a movie.
On the other side is the public, the spectators, although these people have their faces covered such that you can only make out their eyes. In many cases you can’t make out their age or gender, as if on that side of the screen those things don’t matter and who they really are is a gaze that looks and listens. It’s not clear whether they’re smiling or blushing, angry or festive. What’s more they comment among themselves in incomprehensible languages.
In addition to the screen being placed in such an absurd position, it seems to be transparent because those who make films are looking and listening attentively to the reactions of the audience, as if in this movie theater they are able to observe what they never could otherwise: the effect the movie has on the public. They can observe this effect from what is perhaps the best possible perspective for filmmakers: from the screen itself. From there they can see people’s expressions and hear their reactions, something that can tell you more than their actual words and certainly more than you learn from the sales at the box office, the ratings on streaming services, those little gold statues, or niche media reviews.
For their part, the audience watches and makes comments, but it seems that they’re not paying attention to the screen so much as to those who are watching them. In some inexplicable way, it seems like the public isn’t interested so much in the movie being shown as in the gaze of those who did the work so that these stories called “cinema” could be shown—that is, told. There are even some masked people with cameras trained on those who they call “filmmakers.” It’s as if the theater scene in “The Carabineers” (Jean Luc Godard, 1963) were inverted, and instead of seeing the soldier scared stiff by the arriving train or trying to peek to see a woman undressing and bathing in a tub (all shown on a screen that’s been torn to shreds, revealing a shameless, arrogant wall behind), we wanted to see not the gaze of the projection operator, nor that of the woman being watched, but the gaze of the Lumiére brothers.
“Looks like here the tables are turned,” you are thinking to yourself when the little girl, who tells you that her name is “Defensa Zapatista,” tells you to sit down because the movie has started.
A little boy who you are told is “Pedrito” appears behind you and murmurs: “Look, Defensa Zapatista is a hopeless romantic. She thinks movies get lonely if they don’t have anyone to watch them or to applaud, laugh, cry, boo, get scared, be moved, celebrate or lament them. What do you think movies do if no one sees them? You think they cry? That they get sad? That they give up? We don’t know and Defensa doesn’t want to find out. That’s why she always comes to the film showings, no matter what movie it is. I already explained to her that this is an impossible and irresolvable mystery because in order to know if a film cries if no one watches it we’d have to watch it. We might see it cry but then it wouldn’t be because nobody saw it, because now somebody watched it to see if it would cry if nobody watched it. So even if we see it cry, it might be because the plot line or the editing or the acting or the soundtrack or the set design or the production is bad, or because a critic gave it a negative review, or all of the above. You see the paradox? The only way to prove the hypothesis is to interfere in the hypothesis itself, thus annulling the possibility of demonstrating the hypothesis. I call this, ‘The paradox of the sad film.’ I explained this all to Sup Galeano too but the Sup said he doesn’t know anything about movies, but that if there’s no popcorn it isn’t cinema and thus all speculation is useless.”
You’re trying to follow the kid’s logic and you think that this guy they call “Sup Galeano” might be what the great teacher Jorge Ayala Blanco[i] would have deemed “a popcorn mentality,” but upon sitting down you hear the little girl whisper clearly, as if it were a prayer:
“Don’t worry little friend, I’m here. I’m going to watch you and applaud you even if I don’t like you, even if you show me scary snakes and spiders that frighten me and give me nightmares—I’ll just close my eyes during those parts. If your story is sad, I’ll cry but not too much…well, likely actually a good bit but it all depends. If you tell jokes I’ll laugh a lot because they have to be better than the dumb ones Pedrito here tells. And if you explain the fuckery of that damned capitalism I’m going to take notes. And if you talk about a struggle I’m going to rally the crowd with ‘I say people, you say power, People! Power! People! Power!’ If you dance I’ll dance. If you sing I’ll sing. If you say dream, I’ll dream. If you say wake up I’ll wake you up. So here I am: look at me looking at you and let your heart be happy.”
Pedrito looks at you with a “told you so” face and grins mockingly. The little girl catches him and gives him a knock on the head.
“But I didn’t say anything!” he protests.
“Well, you thought it,” she responds.
“I’m not thinking anything at all!” he replies, giving you a complicit wink.
By this point there’s a whole crowd of boys and girls huddled up with you on the same bench, all with red handkerchiefs around their necks or ski-masks covering their faces. Without anyone apparently guiding the process, they introduce themselves one by one: “I’m Esperanza,” “I’m Pablito,” “I’m Amado.” Then with a kind of meow-bark, a strange little animal a little like a cat and a little like a dog jumps onto Defensa Zapatista’s lap.
One of the kids, Amado, asks, “Did it start already?”
“Yeah, it’s been playing for a while,” Esperanza answers.
“And the popcorn?” Pablito asks.
“Sup Galeano kept it all,” Pedrito responds, “He says that the gods created popcorn strictly for subcomandantes and that anyone who tries to take it away from him is asking for a machete to the neck, with a blunt blade so it takes awhile and rusted so it gets infected and requires injections.” The whole gang of kids shudders with the word “injections.”
“Save a spot for Calamidad [Calamity] in case she comes,” Defensa Zapatista instructs. “And the Sup too,” she adds.
“I could see in his eyes that he was pissed,” you hear Pedrito say, narrating what happened when he told the Sup that he had to share his popcorn.
“So here they look at your gaze,” you think to yourself, “and they make you look at the gaze that looks at you. What a problem.”
Someone calls for silence and kid-gang goes quiet. Now you have time to look around more carefully at this incomprehensible cinema. Other than the absurd location of the screen and the strange disposition of the audience, everything seems to be progressing normally. But this is merely surface-level. You don’t remember anymore what movie was shown; in fact, you don’t even remember if a movie was shown at all.
But you do remember that, all of a sudden, a little girl with a masked teddy bear (“My name is Esperanza and my last name is Zapatista,” you remember she said) stands up and, heading toward the screen, crosses over to the other side and sits beside those who made the film. She gestures to the rest of the kid-gang to join her. All the other spectators follow, and since there aren’t enough seats over there, those who made the film have to get up and look for a seat on the side where the spectators originally were.
At that point you realize that not only is the screen transparent, not only can vision pass from one side to the other, but also bodies, as if it were a window, or better yet, a door. But that’s impossible—there are no movie screens that work like that.
You continue to watch what happens, and it seems the roles are reversed: the spectators watch from the side usually inhabited by those who make films; and those who make films watch from the side of the spectators. They stay that way a good while, and then trade places again. This exchange happens over and over again. You are off to one side where you can appreciate this anachronistic dance.
Those who don’t cross over, changing up their seats and perspectives, dedicate themselves to that ancient sport of throwing popcorn at the screen. Here though the projectiles don’t bounce off the screen, but pass through to the other side. Thus a popcorn battle is established: the public against the filmmakers. The filmmakers win, not because they have better aim or there are more of them—there were fewer of them, actually, and they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn—but the public, despite having more people and better aim, ran out of ammunition because, naturally, they ate it.
“Brutal,” you hear one of the filmmakers say, “here you don’t watch people watch your movie; you watch them watching your heart. They take it out, take it apart, rearrange it, and put it back in like nothing happened. I’m definitely not coming back here. Actually maybe I am. I just don’t know. They do all of this without uttering a word. It’s enough to make me yearn for the niche media that destroyed my directorial debut.” The guy beside him doesn’t respond, as he’s busy adjusting his jacket so that you can’t see the wound in his chest.
While the popcorn commotion dies down, the movement doesn’t. It is clearly chaotic, but also has a kind of involuntary choreography, like that of very first cartoon drawings.
There were two sides: those who showed themselves from behind ski-masks, and those who showed themselves from behind films. Outside of that, they had nothing in common, but the screen brought them together. It was the screen that defined their respective places, movements, and the ongoing exchange.
The screen was like…what could we call it? Yes, like a bridge.
But that’s not possible.
Or is it?
Given the above, the Sixth Commission of the EZLN invites all of the men, women, others, children, and elders of the Sixth, the CNI, and the CIG Support Networks all over the world, as well as, of course, all the cinephiles who can and want to come, to a FILM FESTIVAL:
“PUY TA CUXLEJALTIC” (“Caracol of our life”)
The first edition (we imagine it will be annual) will be held in the Zapatista Caracol of Oventik, in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast (with alternative showings at CIDECI in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas), November 1-5, 2018.
The films to be shown and activities held during this festival (which apparently include, among other absurdities: a non-roundtable discussion—a “rectangular-table” perhaps—on…soccer? But isn’t this a film festival? There’s a film that will be read and directed by a schizophrenic beetle?) and will be announced in the coming days (we hope).
(to be continued)
From the movie theater “Comandanta Ramona”
For the Sixth Commission of the EZLN
Sup Galeano, smoking irresponsibly in the projection booth.
(Look, I’m not irresponsible. Well, maybe, but that’s not the point here. What I’m doing is helping out with special effects—what about those days when there’s no fog? Ah, I’m right, am I not? By the way, they didn’t win the honeybun away from me; I was dispossessed of it, which is not the same thing. And, I don’t watch movies with naked ladies; what they’re referring to are my distance-learning anatomy classes. The thing is Defensa Zapatista is always self-criticizing me for being macho, but it isn’t that simple, it depends…what? This is over? Oh, fine.)
Mexico, October 2018.
[i] Film critic and historian, as well as professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.