Maricarmen de Lara and and soccer placer Maribel Domínguez.

Images from Paulina in the Name of the Law.

Paulina speaks about her case.

Paulina’s brother being interviewed.

Superimposition of Paulina and area where she lives

Paulina remembering her situation

Paulina’s brother recounts the rape event.


Images from Difficult Decisions

Mariana Velasco buys abortion herbs in a market stand.

Fictional reconstruction of an abortion.

Images from series: Women Who Live in Ciudad Bolero

Maria Grever: Singer Janet Macari.

Maria Grever: Poet Tomás Segovia.

Emma Elena Valdemar: Emma Elena Valdelamar as a child.

Emma Elena Valdemar: Emma Elena Valdelamar in a concert.

Images fron the series “Women who live in Bolero City.”

La voz pasional—Amparo Montes: Amparo Montes being interviewed.

El mejor dueto de America—Las Hermanas Aguilar: Paz and Esperanza

El mejor dueto de America—Las Hermanas Aguilar: Paz and Esperanza sing their last concert together after 57 years.

El mejor dueto de America—Las Hermanas Aguilar: Paz being interviewed in the dressing room.

Genders and feminism in the films of Maricarmen de Lara

by Eli Bartra, translation by Christopher Follett

Paulina, rape and abortion

In Mexico on July 31, 1999, thirteen year old Paulina was raped by a heroin addict who broke into her modest home in Mexicali, Baja California, to rob her family, taking away about one hundred dollars in cash and leaving behind a terrorized family bound with rags and a very young girl destroyed by what had happened to her. This state had a governor from the strongly Catholic political party, Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), yet abortion was legal in cases of rape. Paulina became pregnant.

In a country where violations of human rights are commonplace, the story of Paulina Ramírez Jacinta’s rape and its aftermath, nevertheless, stands out as particularly deplorable, a personal tragedy that has had a deep impact on the question of abortion rights. A thirteen year old girl in this terrible situation should have been straightforwardly able to satisfy her wish to avoid becoming the mother of an unwanted child: she had inner strength and unwavering conviction and the support of a loving mother and an older brother. She had the legal right to an abortion—even in a state where certain restrictions applied—early detection of the pregnancy (nineteen days after she was raped) and an order from the State Attorney’s Office to Mexicali General Hospital to perform the abortion (issued thirty-four days after the rape).

But things did not work out the way Paulina and her family had hoped. Two and a half months after the rape, Paulina was admitted to Mexicali General Hospital to have the abortion. She was kept there for an entire week while doctors debated who would perform the abortion. All of the hospital’s gynecologists refused; the director could not find another doctor to perform the procedure. She was released from the hospital. After another week of stalling on the part of the hospital administration, Paulina was admitted once again for an abortion. While in her hospital room, on the day the procedure was to take place, she was visited by two unidentified women claiming to represent the state’s Family Development Agency (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, DIF). They showed her a grotesque anti-abortion video, The Silent Scream, used by the ProLife organization for proselytizing, and had her concentrate on an image of Christ. That same night, moments before the scheduled abortion, the hospital director pulled Paulina’s mother aside to tell her of the supposed risks of an abortion, grossly exaggerating them. The director thus effectively scared the family to the point of retracting their request for a legal abortion. The family went home in indignation.

Women’s rights defenders from the Alaíde Foppa organization in Mexicali found out about the situation from an October 16th newspaper article and immediately contacted Paulina to offer their help. On October 25, 1999, they submitted a complaint about the violation of Paulina’s rights to the Baja California Law Offices for Human Rights and Citizen Protection and have offered constant support in the legal suits and proceedings that have been underway since, but they could not secure the legal abortion Paulina sought. Overwhelming public support had been raised in Mexicali and throughout Mexico with unprecedented media coverage of the case. At the same time, certain interest groups took up the case for their own ends, disregarding the family’s unfaltering desire for an abortion. Indeed, the ProLife group that sent unidentified women into Paulina’s hospital room boasted of its triumph in “saving the life of an innocent child.” To the great indignation of Paulina’s family, the anti-abortionists made public announcements falsely claiming to have gathered large amounts of money to support Paulina yet never gave any money to the family.

Reproductive and sexual rights advocates mobilized for Paulina; they drew attention to public authorities’ abuse of power and prioritizing personal religious belief over legal responsibility, trampling on women’s rights for the sake of a political goal. On the state level, since 1998 the panista state governor and legislators had been trying to amend the state constitution in order to “protect life from the moment of conception.”

The Catholic Church itself also played a large role. Before the family waived their right to a legal abortion, the State Attorney General took them to see a priest who warned Paulina that abortion is grounds for excommunication and persuaded her to desist. Mexico’s cardinal, who had made public proclamations against abortion under any circumstances, claimed this case as a success.

Maricarmen de Lara’s documentary, Paulina, en el nombre de la ley (“Paulina, in the Name of the Law,” 17 min., prod: Gire/Calacas y Palomas, 2001), is a simple, small kaleidoscopic video with four female voices describing Paulina’s rape and the string of bureaucratic infamies aimed at preventing the girl from aborting as she herself had wished. Paulina speaks in an articulate and coherent way, although with a rather flat voice. The editing produces a somewhat claustrophobic effect as the soundtrack cuts from one voice to another: between Paulina, her sister, her mother, and the lawyer, and occasionally her brother. There are a few cut-aways of a desert location filled with rubbish. These scant audiovisual resources are used to build up an atmosphere of impotence, the absence of any possibility of resolving the problem, a situation with no way out. In terms of Paulina’s life, she gave birth to Isaac in April, 2000; he is now nine years old. She got married, has a store and another baby, and her mother has since died.

Maricarmen de Lara uses documentary as a tool for getting close to a social reality that touches her and giving it visibility. She tries to get the person interviewed to reveal herself through her testimony. De Lara doesn’t work out a text previously, but allows the life histories or narratives of the event to unfold by themselves. In making Paulina, her goal was to draw the attention of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to Paulina’s problem while also raising public awareness about it. Each of de Lara’s video has a different intention. Consistently as a director, she likes to show the person interviewed because in that way viewers can appreciate not only what she is saying but her body language as well:

“To see people’s attitudes and the expression in their eyes has a particular weight with the audience.”[1] [open notes in new window]

Paulina did not want to be interviewed for this documentary about her situation, but Maricarmen de Lara convinced her to because the filmmaker believed it was important for the public to understand what Paulina had gone through. In doing this, however, de Lara has said that she “felt like a vulture trying to draw Paulina’s testimony out of her,” even though “we are not the kind of journalists who go raking up the dirt or pouring ridicule on other people’s lives.”[2]

In terms of the film’s visual style, the cut-aways showing the rubbish dump, an abandoned car tire, a baby-buggy indicate the surroundings that formed part of Paulina’s life—they show where she lived. The filmmakers did slightly interfere with this environment: they set the buggy wheel spinning in order to give visual movement. If what we see is thus a mixture of documentary and fiction, that is what the director intended from the outset.

In terms of her filming process, de Lara prefers to work with a small crew, which varies to some extent according to the subject matter. With Paulina only two people were involved, since the director wanted the filming to be as unobtrusive as possible. Here, she says, they felt like “dancers in a china shop” partly because of the small size of the house. Normally, de Lara works with crews of between six and twenty (except when she filmed the feature En el país de no pasa nada /“In the Country where Nothing Happens,” which had a crew of 80).

Also made about the theme of abortion, Difficult Decisions (20 min., prod: Gire, 1995), is a fictional video which tells the story of four women in Mexico City who decide to have an abortion, at a time when abortion is still illegal. They are different ages (17, 36, 33 and 40) and from various social strata. Two of them have rather a bad time of it, the third dies, while the fourth comes out perfectly well. The script was derived from interviews, on the basis of which de Lara built up her characters. Difficult Decisions is, above all, a militant video aimed at making the public aware of the need to legalize abortion. Finally, in 2007, abortion was made legal in Mexico City—although in the rest of the country it generally remains a criminal offence. Currently, seventeen states in present-day Mexico continue to penalize abortion, even in cases of rape, under the pretext that life is to be “protected from conception until natural death.” And when individual state law permits it for certain cases, right wing governors prevent the law from being applied, as happened in Paulina’s case. [3]

Difficult Decisions includes the metaphorical image of a woman in a pool of blood. To create such images and to depict abortion, de Lara needed to incorporate acted material and thus used fiction, in spite of her opinion that drama is a much more difficult genre to execute. However, she sees what the genres have in common. In both her fiction and documentary work, her purpose is always to tell a story. That is her way of leaving a record, a piece of evidence as it were, of an event or situation—usually involving women. Her work stimulates discussion and thus has been used on countless occasions for workshops in schools and universities, shown on television and exhibited, primarily in cinema clubs.

In her filmmaking strategy, Maricarmen de Lara always carries out initial research, both for writing a script and for establishing a basis for obtaining finance. She uses documentary as a tool for approaching, understanding, and making known a social reality that affects her. To do so, she uses both testimonies and life stories. Whether her intention is to bring certain problems to the notice of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights or simply to make the general public aware of a problem or a particular kind of event, the stories she tells are always the ones that the mass media ignore.

Both the above short films (Paulina and Decisiones difíciles) were produced by GIRE (Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida)—a feminist NGO for reproductive rights created and directed by Marta Lamas, who appears speaking at the end of Decisiones difíciles. These two works were financed partly out of the profits of the feature En el país de no pasa nada, and partly by GIRE. The filmmaking company, Calacas y Palomas, owned by Maricarmen de Lara and her partner Leopoldo Best, co-produced Paulina. As consciousness-raising media aimed at denouncing the circumstances surrounding rape and abortion in Mexico, the two films have played an important role in workshops organized by GIRE throughout the country. It is difficult to assess how much impact the films have had, but what cannot be denied is that the general public is becoming gradually more aware of both rape and abortion as problems.

In the early 1990s changes were made in the Mexican laws covering sexual offences under which sexual harassment became a criminal offense, while rape became subject to prosecution by the state with automatic refusal of bail. Nevertheless, rapists are rarely brought to trial. The country has many good laws but fails to apply them because of the poor quality of criminal arrest and legal prosecution.

De Lara and women’s cinema in Mexico

Maricarmen de Lara was born in Mexico City (1957). She studied at UNAM’s national cinema school, starting to work in filmmaking in 1980. She has made three feature films and five medium-length films, as well as some forty short and medium-length videos. Among the latter are two important series: Géneros e identidades (“Genders and Identities,” 2002), consisting of four tapes, and Las que viven en Ciudad Bolero (“Women who live in Bolero City,” 1993-95), with six videos. One of her first co-directed films, No es por gusto (“It’s not for Pleasure,” 1980), was on the subject of prostitution, and among her latest videos is ¿Más vale maña que fuerza? (“Is guile worth more than strength?” 2007) about sportswomen. She has also made a series of three videos about some of the most important social movements in Mexico City: De la protesta a la propuesta (“From Protest to Proposal” 2009, about the feminist movement), Del Cabildo a la Asamblea Legislative (“From town hall to the Legislative Assembly”) 2009, and De la inquisición al México desnudo (“From the Inquisition to Nude Mexico”) 2009. None of these works were shown on television.

Más vale maña que fuerza is a documentary about female football (soccer) players and boxers. That kind of subject matter indicates not only that de Lara chooses to work about social problems such prostitution, but also that she prefers to develop narratives about “strong” women. If we look across her whole career this preference is amply borne out. She has researched various fields in terms of issues concerning women. Those issues include rape (the case of Paulina); infrahuman working conditions; domestic work; sexual health and reproductive rights—specifically AIDS, abortion and menopause. She has taken pains to publicize the lives of female personalities who are part of Mexico’s popular culture such as boxers, football players, and recognized composers and singers of boleros.

She also has gone looking into the rather unconventional lives of women and homosexuals in Juchitán. Gender relations in Oaxaca and identities are rather special, and quite divergent from those in other parts of the country; women have a very strong assertive social presence, and with significative social roles; they like to dance together at the velas (local festivities) and drink beer. Gay men (muxhes) are socially accepted, respected, and their role in the families is highly appreciated—unlike lesbians (nguiu), who are rarely accepted and even discriminated against.

Given the difficulties of making a living from independent cinema de Lara today is also a full-time teacher at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Xochimilco, and, for her good fortune, once again a member of the National System of Creators. The System offers competitive fellowships for prominent artists and writers; successful applicants receive a monthly stipend for three years.

Although cinema is one of the cultural activities that have been most widely studied in different parts of the world over recent decades from the point of view of neo-feminist[4] theories, [5] for those writing in Mexico in Spanish, writers oriented toward women in film have paid more attention to classic Hollywood cinema and Mexico’s golden age of film, while rarely dealing with films produced in the last twenty years.[6] At this point, I should like to consider the work—both fictional and documentary—of Mexican filmmaker, Maricarmen de Lara, focusing attention on her very particular feminist vision of the world and treatment of genders, one of the fundamental aspects of her movies. Despite her long career in cinema and video, no major critical article or monograph has yet been published on this director although some reviews have appeared, and also fragments of interviews. I am guided by the idea that—to quote Maggie Humm—one of the “tasks of a feminist esthetics is to study and promote women as producers of art.” (Humm, 9) Since for a long time this has also been an interest of my own, I shall offer a few more small pieces of this great jigsaw puzzle which is feminism and art in Mexico.

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