A Place Called Chiapas
Zeitgeist Video // Unrated // $29.99 // May 17, 2005
Review by Matt Langdon | posted June 8, 2005
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On January 1, 1994 thousands of armed indigenous peoples in the southeastern part of Mexico calling themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) took control of hundreds of ranches and communities in Chiapas. The uprising intentiionally happened on the same day that NAFTA took effect. The move surprised Mexico's ruling class as well as the international community.

Since then the EZLN and the people have been trying to attain control of the land they have lived in for many generations. Yet, ironically many have called this the first Postmodern Revolution - if only because it captured the imagination of the media and because that have used some modern tools like the internet [which in 1994 was nascent] to communicate their needs. But also because the movement became iconographic the week it happened.

No matter how essential and real the movement is [and has been] it has a romantic air about it. One reason is because the uprising was headed by a man who is called Subcomandante Marcos who - along with the other Zapatistas - wears a black stocking cap over his face. What distinguishes Marcos is that he smokes a pipe everywhere he goes.

Filmmaker Nettie Wild was one of those who got caught up in the movement. She and her Canadian crew went to Mexico in 1997 to get footage. The documentary she ended up with is everything you expect it to be; immediate, interesting, troubling and informative.

What Nettie found were many indigenous peoples who who have been left behind and live in third world conditions exploited by the upper classes in the region. She also found people - many of whom wear bandanas and caps over their faces - who believe so strongly in their dreams that they will fight for their rights until the governent recognizes them.

Very clearly, their leader Marcos is a shrewd man. Mostly soft spoken he has a silent but effective presence. A few times he is interviewed and he doesn't have as much rhetoric as Fidel Castro did and he doesn't seem bent on power like Hugo Chavez of Venezuala. Instead he is the mastermind [he was supposedly a professor in Mexico City] who has lived with the people for 12 years and has done his part to make the world aware of the plight of the indigenous peoples in Mexico.

Filmmaker Nettie and her crew also got good footage of a group of people North of Chiapas who became exiled from their home by paramilitary groups who threatened them for supporting the Zapatistas. Nettie's crew follows these poor people for a few weeks as they wait out their time deciding what to do. And finally back home where the camera crew become their only source of protection.

For the most part the filmmakers follow the Zapatistas and the indiginous peoples. But on a couple occasions they interview some land owners for an alternative [and fair] view. They also get up close with the paramilitary, which lay down their arms when the cameras are on and then take them up again when the camera is off.

The film was shot in 16mm, which is a bit of a feat considering the wild conditions they shot in. The documentary unfolds seemingly in real time and - while it is not harrowing - it does have a sense of urgency to it.

A Place Called Chiapas is not as immediate as it was when it came out in 1998. Much has happened in that part of Mexico since that time and it would be good if there was an extra that would give us a good update. There is one rather minor extra that addresses this but the DVD would be a lot better if it had an interview with the filmmakers. Still it is a very good documentary and worth a look.

Most importantly is the fact that even though it would be easy to label Marcos and EZLN a leftist group of revolutionaries this documentary shows that the people at the heart of the indiginous communities are people who simply want to be able to be recognized by the government, treated fairly and be able to provide for their families. They have aligned themselves with the only group who will fight for their rights to have that.

The film is presented in 1.66:1 although the image is higher up in the frame of the television and subtitles are below the image. It may have been shot 1.33:1 and cropped but it is hard to tell. The image is mostly grainy and has a lot of soft focus, which is to be expected under the circumstances. Still it looks good and the transfer is very good.

Audio is in stereo and consists of Spanish, English and a few native languages that are not translated. Subtitles cannot be removed. There is also an option for a Spanish voice-over in place of the English one and an option of English subtitles for this Spanish voice-over.

There are no extras on the DVD. There is a two page Zapatista Uprising chronology booklet that is good but mainly informative in a trivial way. There is a mention of a web site www.mexicosolidarity.org that has a good amount of information.

A Place Called Chiapas is a good documentary that captures a rebellion at the grassroots level. Informative, immediate and well put together it covers a lot of ground in 92 minutes. The film was made in 1998 and so much has happened since then that it is too bad there are no significant extras giving us this information. Still the DVD is worth a look.

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