Images from Is Guile Worth More than Strength?

Tania Cortez boxing.

Tania Cortez at the gym training.


Laura Serrano boxing. Alberta, Canada.

Tania boxing.


Maribel Domínguez. Mexico-Japan match.


Maricarmen de Lara and Leonardo Cuellar, the coach.


Soccer player in the Mexico-Japan match.


Maribel Domínguez.


Audience at the Mexico-Japan match.


sWorld Women’s Boxing Champion, Laura Serrano


Mexico-Japan soccer match.

Mexico-Japan soccer match.

Andrea Rodenbaugh, technical coach of the Mexican Women’s Selection.

Georgina González, sports journalist

Charlyn Corral, National Soccer Champion.

The Mexican women’s team.

“La Güera,” amateur player.

Iris Mora, Mexican Women’s Soccer Champion.


In analyzing feminist documentaries of the 1970s and 1980s, Julia Lesage has emphasized the importance of an esthetics of political cinema in general and feminist cinema in particular (Lesage, 222). She finds that the narrative structure of feminist documentaries focused on illustrating female lives and experiences is generally linear. In such documentaries, the women almost always speak directly to the camera, often talking about similar themes in films made in different countries: rape, abortion, domestic work, abused women, struggles in the workplace. According to Lesage, these documentaries often focus on the private sphere and frequently show women of strong character. Feminist cinema has depicted familiar aspects of women’s lives and experience in order to define them in a new and non-colonized way; biographical documentaries, for example, serve as both criticism and antidote (233). The critics of this kind of women’s documentary cinema have concentrated mainly on three elements: its appearance of transparency, its naïveté in seeking to capture reality, and the tediousness of the “talking heads.” However, according to Lesage, the filmmakers have had as a priority giving a voice to those who normally lack one. A new iconography of women’s bodies and their space arises, which implicitly defies the visual representation that is traditionally made of them. She underlines that

“the films’ appeal lies not only in having strong women tell about their lives but even more in our hearing and having demonstrated that some women have deliberately altered the rules of the game of sexual politics.” (235, 236).

When dealing with women, it is necessary—almost inevitably—to approach their historical absence or presence in certain fields. Filmmaking is no exception. As the feminist movement got underway in the world, women started to enter little by little into social and physical spaces where they had been practically absent. By the 1980s their presence in Western film production, including Mexico, was already worthy of notice. For example, in the 1980s in France, as Paule Lejeune indicates, although female cineastes did not exceed 6% of the total, they had, nonetheless,

“opened a path for a different kind of expression on film, more subtle, more subjective, and at the same time, more rigorous” (Lejeune, 20).

For feminist film scholars, a series of questions and problems have been articulated consistently in relation to what has been called women’s cinema. For example, Teresa De Lauretis notes that the way in which women directors have expressed themselves and developed both artistically and critically seems to point less towards a “feminine esthetics” than to a feminist de-esthetics, that is, toward styles that challenge dominant cinematic styles. And if the word “de-esthetics” sounds strange or inelegant, the semantic play is nonetheless attractive—could she be right?[7] [open endnotes in new window]

In Mexico, throughout the first half of the twentieth century a scattering of women ventured in different ways into filmmaking, including directors such as Mimí Derba (Herminia Pérez de León), Cándida Beltrán, Adela Sequeyro, Dolores and Adriana Elhers, and the well-known director of feature fiction films, Matilde Landeta.[8] However in the second half of the century, above all from the 1970s onwards, women have entered seriously into Mexican cinema production. Hence, far from being an exception, Maricarmen de Lara should be situated within the context of a group of feminist cineastes (who have made both independent and studio productions) and who have made significant contributions to Mexican cinema.[9]

Nevertheless, rejecting the attention paid to women cineastes, in 1986 established film critic Jorge Ayala Blanco wrote an arrogant and devastating critique of both the first female directors and their works (Lesage points out that such a critical attitude is often the response to women’s endeavors and feminist scholarship). According to him, in 1986, radical feminism was already on the way out without having created any feminist culture. In passing, Blanco decreed the death of feminist cinema and also took the opportunity to exterminate feminism as a whole. For him, Mexican feminist cinema was purely and simply extinguished (Ayala Blanco, 20).  However it continues to flourish. In the 1980s ten full-length feature films made by women were shown theatrically (of course, not all the directors and themes were feminists); and Maricarmen de Lara’s four medium-length films, for example, are not included in that account (Castro, 188). More than twennty years later, feminist cinema and documentary are being produced in Mexico—transmuted into a different version of feminism, of course—and have enriched the cinematic output of this country. De Lara’s career is a clear example of this.

One of the principal threads running through de Lara’s work is the attempt to throw a new light on the different faces of violence directed against women. Notwithstanding, in her latest video ¿Más vale maña que fuerza? she takes up the question of the violence that women footballers (soccer players) and boxers voluntarily partake in as a result of the sports they choose to practice—which are among the most violent ones. The title, “Is Guile Worth More than Strength,” plays upon the meanings and implications that physical “strength” has within society. Both the narrative and images of this film offer viewers something of a paradox, in that here the people administering punches and kicks are women. This documentary also represents—and this is important nationally—an homage to the pioneering and triumphant women who have made these sports their own in Mexico.

The culture of sport is extremely important in Mexico, especially football and boxing. The interviewees in the film describe the difficulty faced by female boxers and footballers when devoting themselves to activities traditionally undertaken by men, and the narrative is structured to contemplate the existing violence and inequity in the sports world with a sense of humor. Women who are initiated in these professions tell their stories: Laura Serrano (known as the poetess of the ring), Maribel Domínguez, Iris Mora, Charlyn Corral, Thania Cortéz. Boxing and football have always welcomed individuals of working-class origin. In addition, the documentary broaches the issue of race as its main characters are, in general, people of mixed race at a remove from “whiter” Mexicans of European ancestry.

This video, which explores the sportswomen’s lives, casts a feminist glance at what is a macho endeavor par excellence. The speakers emphasize that there’s a scanty participation by women in football and boxing and offer testimonies regarding the discrimination they experience on account of their sex. At the same time, de Lara shows clearly the process of the sportswomen’s empowerment as they realize their ambitions by converting their passion into professional activity. The video is feminist because, besides casting light on a situation of injustice, it shows the possibilities of transformation on behalf of women becoming active, autonomous and freer subjects. In this sense it is similar to No les pedimos un viaje a la luna (“We’re Not Asking for a Trip to the Moon”), in which a massive earthquake that devastates Mexico City in 1985 also triggers a struggle by working-class women displaced from their jobs. The seamstresses were one of the sectors most affected by the earthquake. The workers lost their jobs and in some cases, their lives. This eventually led to a discovery of the wretched conditions in which they worked. This documentary was made shortly after the earthquake, and shows the seamstresses’ struggles to denounce their situation, and create an independent union. Here again we see the empowerment of women through (political) action. As they become more autonomous through political organizing, they gain a greater liberty.

De Lara’s filmmaking process

De Lara constantly repeats that she would like to do things “another way,” but this is precisely one of the main challenges facing her. There is in her, incontestably, a formal search, a seeking after a new way of talking about, often denouncing, unjust situations that women face. However, she has not always wholly achieved this goal; it is not easy to find that “other way” for women to tell their stories—other than the simple recourse of putting them on screen and having them talk. If the women themselves are not doing the talking, there has to be a scripted narration, often delivered in voice over, and this characterizes one of the most traditional forms of the documentary, “the expository mode” (Nichols 1997, 68) with an omnipotent narrator that de Lara does not like to use. Nevertheless, in the series, Las que viven en Ciudad Bolero, for example, she combines different forms, using the voices of interviewed women interspersed with a narration. Though she often uses mixed forms her preference would be the “participatory mode”(Nichols, 78) in which the filmmaker interacts with interviewees.

She is from the Jean Rouch school of cinéma verité, which in Mexico is called “direct cinema,” and she continues to express the certainty “that in some way the fact that people talk to you face on has strength, because the story belongs to them, and that is still valid.”[10] In effect, because she wants to tell a story to support her involvement in the “causes” she films or records, she is closer to Rouch or Dziga Vertov, who mix documentary images with overt narrative structuring. Thus her style is far less like US cinema verité and a director like Frederick Weisman, who thinks the filmmaker should not let him/herself get involved, that the camera should be like a fly on the wall. In this regard, de Lara emphasizes,

“It’s not a matter of giving women a voice. I don’t give them a voice; they already have one, they have stories to tell, and I document them precisely because they have a voice; the thing about giving them a voice seems to me a paternalistic position.”[11]

De Lara chooses subjects that move her, make her angry or attract her attention because they represent some act of injustice. She begins by investigating and looking for images, animation resources, newspapers, and graffiti. She also tries to uncover real grassroots leaders, because the people who seem most self-assured in front of the camera are sometimes false leaders. She also carries out interviews with other, cooler, informants—academics for instance, who know about the subject in question (who, one might add, tend to be the least interesting, the most boring).

“The medium is so intrusive that, particularly when matters to do with sexuality are being addressed, it is difficult; I therefore generally begin with a simple digital camera, just me. I formulate a hypothesis and then try to prove it. Sometimes I confirm it and other times I have to modify it.”[12]

When violence is the topic of her documentary, sometimes she treats it directly, other times indirectly. In No es por gusto (1981), the leitmotif of violence returns to the way prostitutes are beaten and mistreated by their partners and by the police. Nonetheless, despite showing the hard life of these women in Mexico City, de Lara also shows in an interesting way the gaiety and the playfulness in their lives with their children. As de Lara says, she detests “miserabilismo,” a celebration of misery, as a close relative of “dolorismo,” the exultation of pain, of suffering. This film attempts to offer a different kind of ending, giving an impression that prostitution is a story that has no end, but just goes on and on, like life itself. But for me that attempted ending does not really work and the film seems incomplete.

It is a characteristic of de Lara’s films to lack a traditional beginning and conclusion. In much of her work one has the sensation of coming in on a conversation and not knowing what it’s all about. Then, little by little, one starts to catch the thread of it, and just as often it comes to a sudden halt. It is as if we were just looking at a slice of the cake of life, from which the director might have wanted to cut out for us a segment of reality. A recurrent trait of her videos is that they begin abruptly (sometimes with a slight introduction) and likewise finish with a jolt. It would seem that the idea is to present “reality” just as it is, unadorned, without artifice—obviously impossible since actual social reality cannot be relayed by the cinematographic text “just as it is.” Everything passes through the filter of the direction, the camera, the editing. As Eric Barnouw concludes his text on documentaries:

“The essential task [of documentary makers] has been, as Vertov defined it, that of capturing ‘fragments of present reality’ and combining them in a meaningful way. It is still, as Grierson said, ‘the creative treatment of reality.’ Such formulations place the accent on two functions: (1) recording (with images and sound) and (2) interpretation.” (Barnouw, 287).

De Lara enjoys using mixed genres. For example, AIDS has been a major concern for her, and she made an interesting animated video Estamos rodeados de tentaciones (“We are Surrounded by Temptations,” 38 min., 1995) to inform about the pandemic. The film is based on a song by Lora called “Enmascarado de Latex” (Masked Latex), and the condom comes out of the package while the song refers to something “hidden under the pants”; the video shows how to use the condom with a couple making love, and then it even shows how to discard it.  Decisiones difíciles seems to me an excellent video about abortion; it is a mix of fiction and documentary, since it is acted, although perhaps the documentary part of the ending (a “talking head”) is not completely articulated with the rest. At times in de Lara’s work, the mixture of fiction and documentary turns out very well.

The videotapes that make up Las que viven en Ciudad Bolero, have a historical importance of first order in the task of preserving popular memory. There is a series of three, Trilogía de la Inspiración, (Trilogy of Inspiration) that focuses on the lives and work of famous Mexican women composers and singers. These women (María Grever, Consuelo Velázquez, Emma Elena Valdelamar) are a fundamental part of  “sentimental education” in Mexico and throughout Latin America. The videos were not made for the television, but they have the structure (the required length) in case there is an opportunity to show them on television. 

On the same subject and as part of the series Las que viven en Ciudad Bolero she also made several videos El mejor dueto de América, Las Hermanas Aguila, La voz pasional, Amparo Montes and Las voces, las épocas, (María Luisa—Marilú—Landín and Avelina Landín). The works are all very well scripted by Alfonso Morales; he is an extremely imaginative and creative intellectual. I speculate that the male hand is noticeable in these videos, both in the co-direction (Leopoldo Best) and the screenwriting. Perhaps this is why we see little of the personal, domestic, loving and everyday aspects of the artists depicted; instead of their family context we are given the national and international socio-political context of their work. In this, a different approach to a character can be appreciated; a woman’s way of observing can be quite different from a man’s. It seems to me that in the case of Maricarmen de Lara’s work I can easily detect when a larger part is being played by men and when not.

Sometimes de Lara works with mostly women on a project. Other times she does not. It should be pointed out that most of the people who have been behind the camera in her work or have edited for her have been men. She has only had one camerawoman, Maripí Sáenz. There is no doubt, for instance, that in No es por gusto, there is a stereotyped male gaze behind the camera observing the prostitutes, gliding over their legs, their bodies; the cameramen were Alejandro Gamboa and Vicente Blanchet. For editing, she thoroughly discusses the ongoing structuring process with the editor, who is often Leopoldo Best, also a director and her husband. She listens to his proposals; if they strike her as good ones she accepts them, otherwise not; she has the last word. (She has only had one female editor, Ximena Cuevas; the rest have all been men.) To the extent that cinema is a collective labor par excellence, it is not always possible to detect clearly the voice of gender in filmmaking. Or perhaps it is necessary to rethink cinematic direction itself. At specific moments in the process or in particular works, direction by a woman does not necessarily show a “feminine view” but is also determined by the male viewpoints which, in the end, all of us, both men and women, have learnt.

A perennial problem faced by Mexican filmmakers that needs to be mentioned—though it is by no means exclusive to this country—is the question of finance and distribution. De Lara has chosen to work in video because she is convinced that it facilitates greater circulation (De Lara, 463). Distribution, according to de Lara, is the bottleneck. Even when the government itself has given financial support for a project, filmmakers often cannot get television distribution, in particular on the state television channels. Acute differences within national political culture put enormous barriers up for documentary distribution. There is now, however, a program on the state-owned Canal 11 which transmits films by graduates of the film program, CCC, while TeVeUNAM also broadcasts shorts made by the national film school, the CUEC.[13]

Nowadays, de Lara is engaged in a perpetual endeavor to open new doors in the search for alternative sources of finance. At the same time, she is not neglecting the Mexican Government or international foundations such as the Ford or the MacArthur Foundations, where she competes for funds. Likewise, she often works for women’s NGOs that commission her services in the making of videos.[14] Furthermore, in the past, she often hired external filming and editing teams, but now she has her own team in the producing company “Calacas y Palomas.” She has also worked for television companies such as the private corporation Televisa, and Channel 11, for which she made Sida, enfermedad de nuestro tiempo (Aids, illness of our time).

 En el país de no pasa nada is a feature-length comedy that brings together characters from greatly different social classes, and offers a critique of the corruption and double life of politicians. A woman married to a corrupt politician has money but her family life leaves her unsatisfied. One day she discovers that her husband is cheating on her. He is kidnapped by a naïve couple, and his employees have also come up with a plan to revenge themselves for his pernicious conduct. The film has some good actors but it also has a Spanish actress who is awful. The plot is not well developed, and the genre probably does not suit the director.  One observes that the constants of her work are present: violence, and also a very important social problem, in this case, corruption. Nonetheless, I was not impressed by the most ambitious of her projects, the only one in 35mm.

Go to page 3

To topPrint versionJC 52 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.