March 6, 2009

Juarez Femicides on the Big Screen

Frontera NorteSur

Directed by Carlos Carrera (“The Crime of Padre Amaro”) and written by Sabina Berman, the Mexican-produced film “Backyard” is the latest fictionalized story of the Ciudad Juarez femicides to hit the big screen. Distributed by Paramount Pictures and first showing February 20 in the major Cinepolis chain of theaters scattered across Mexico, the movie begins in the Ciudad Juarez colonia of Lomas de Poleo where the bodies of at least eight women were discovered during the 1990s. A haunting scene in which police recover the remains of yet another brutally murdered woman sets the tone and pace of the gritty imagery that follows.

Filmed in Ciudad Juarez and neighboring El Paso, Texas, “Backyard” is set in the 1990s during the governorship of Francisco Barrio, who is Mexico’s new ambassador to Canada. Barrio’s response to the femicides, which first became public during his administration thanks to the efforts of activists like Esther Chavez Cano and Vicky Caraveo, has been highly criticized. The issue is even following Barrio to his new post in Canada, where the Quebec Federation of Women and other organizations sent a letter to their government this month questioning the former Chihuahua governor’s appointment.

“Backyard” establishes the femicides within the bigger context of the global assembly line, migration from southern Mexico to the northern borderlands, deep-rooted gender violence and a dangerous proximity to a consumer wonderland that harkens back to dictator Porfirio Diaz’s oft-quoted lament of a Mexico “so far from God and so close to the USA.”

According to script-writer and co-producer Berman, the English name of the Spanish-language film derives from Ciudad Juarez’s “pocho” culture in addition to its socio-economic function as a dumping ground for junk cars, second-hand clothes and sex perverts from the US. Viewers are visually swallowed by a scene displaying the giant used tire pile on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez which, if set afire, would blaze environmental catastrophe across the borderlands.

In its theme, message and plot, “Backyard” bears many similarities with the ill-fated, 2005 Hollywood production “Bordertown” starring Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas. In both films, an outsider arrives in Ciudad Juarez to investigate the women’s murders only to stumble across corruption, complicity and cowardice.

Masterfully played by Mexican actress Ana de la Reguera, “Backyard’s heroine is a state policewoman, Blanca Bravo, who sets about fearlessly hunting down the multiple killers of women. In Spanish, “bravo” means brave or aggressive. Prodding along the conscience of Blanca Bravo is a woman who uncannily resembles prominent women’s advocate Esther Chavez Cano.

Unfortunately, no Blanca Bravo existed in the real-life saga of the Ciudad Juarez femicides.

In “Backyard,” Bravo gets a rude wake-up call when she realizes evidence is being fabricated to frame “The Egyptian” for a string of murders. “The Egyptian” was, of course, Abdul Latif Sharif Sharif, who rotted to death in a Chihuahua prison after being incarcerated for crimes he vowed he did not commit.

A major sub-plot revolves around Juanita, an indigenous young migrant from southern Mexico who arrives wide-eyed to Ciudad Juarez only to experience something far different than she could have possibly ever imagined. Portrayed handsomely by actress Asur Zagada, Juanita is like thousands of young women who entered the export assembly industry in its boom years. An important character is interpreted by US actor Jimmy Smits, who plays an El Paso businessman and family man with a very disturbing side.

Although maquiladora workers have accounted for a minority of Ciudad Juarez’s femicide victims, “Backyard” mimics “Bordertown” by zeroing in on the industry. In a chillingly cold scene, foreign businessmen calculate how much a woman’s life is worth in dollars and cents in Mexico, China, Bangladesh, and Thailand. Press freedom and responsibility, another important issue of the times, is examined when the Governor of Chihuahua castigates the media for giving Ciudad Juarez a bad name and supposedly driving away tourists. “What tourists?” asks a bewildered reporter.

Like “Bordertown,” the makers of “Backyard” reportedly suffered threats while filming in Ciudad Juarez and even suspended production until security was guaranteed. Unlike “Bordertown,” however, the producers of “Backyard,” enjoyed high-level support in Mexico.

Backing for the movie came from the non-profit Mexican Institute of Cinematography, Carlos Slim’s Grupo Inbursa and the Coppel department store chain. Interestingly, the film credits mention the city and state governments of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua, including the state attorney general’s office long blamed for bungling and/or covering up numerous femicide investigations. Perhaps finally, through the fantasy personage of Blanca Bravo, pangs of guilt and confession dribble from the consciences of Chihuahua police officers who were in the know but did not or could not stop the rapes and murders.

Never genuinely prosecuted, the Ciudad Juarez femicides became institutionalized in the border city and soon extended across Mexico. Amid a backdrop of impunity, a final and sure-to-be controversial scene in “Backyard” depicts a solution to the murders an increasing number of people are advocating.

Flashing a gallery of images and places where women’s killings have tarnished the earth, “Backyard” reminds its viewers that femicide is a global problem.

The same week “Backyard” opened in Mexico, police were digging up the remains of at least 11 people in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Law enforcement authorities have so far identified two of the victims as women who were on a list of at least two dozen women quietly reported missing in recent years.

Unearthed by a random hiker rather than by systematic police investigation, the discoveries on Albuquerque’s West Mesa plant another flag of femicide on El Camino Real, the old Royal Highway of Spanish conquistadors. Today’s El Camino Real is marked by the killings of women that begin in and around Mexico City, move north to Chihuahua City, cut through the heart of the Paso Del Norte, stain the desert of Las Cruces and then continue north again.

As in Ciudad Juarez, no major investigation was initially launched into the disappearance of women in Albuquerque. And as in Ciudad Juarez, Duke City authorities were seemingly too busy wooing outside investors, gentrifying low-income neighborhoods, beautifying medians, building plush new government offices and monuments, and chasing seat-belt law violators and curfew-breaking teens to take much notice of scores of missing women. After all, whether in the US or Mexico, femicide victims were just poor souls with no voice.

Ultimately, “Backyard” is about ethics, said script-writer Berman in a recent interview aired on Mexican television. “When people leave the theater, their sense of right or wrong will be strengthened,” Berman assured the interviewer.

Whatever impact “Backyard” eventually will have is hard to say, but movie-goers at a recent showing in Mexico left the theater speechless.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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