El Valeador (2011) MIFF Film Review

Can you tell a story without actually telling a story? That is a question that comes to my mind whilst watching El Velador. El Velador translates as ‘the watchman’ and he is one of the people who appear in this documentary. However, there is no interviewing, just lots of long shots of mundane events happening in a cemetery in Mexico during the current out-of-control drug war and which it don’t reveal much about anything.

Not a lot of things in this film are really clarified. In fact, I cannot recall it being mentioned that this is actually a cemetery – outside of the blurb in the festival guide. You’d think it would be obvious, but there are few shots of graves in the traditional sense. There are a lot of shots of building the large mausoleums of the drug lords, complete with their pimped-up flashing lights and photos.

El Velador is the style of documentary that seems to be quite popular at the moment – lots of footage of the minutiae of life without any clear explanation or investigation.  This style tends to avoid bias in reporting, but is rather a snapshot into life at a certain time in a certain place.

I’m not a fan of this style. I like to walk away from a documentary with a clear understanding of what the documentary maker is showing and why. The situation in Mexico at the moment is horrific with hundreds and thousands of people being killed each year, yet this documentary does little to shed light on what this means either to individuals or to the country.

In fact, it does little to show anything about the cemetery either. It is just a series of long shots of people with no apparent connection to each other except that it was all filmed in the same place. And if anyone can explain to me why I’ve spent at least five minutes watching a man water a road, I’d love to know.

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