"A film about violence without violence," as the production notes put it, El Velador is deliberate, repetitive, and deceptively peaceful. Watching it feels at first as if you're eavesdropping on someone else's daydream, as director/producer/DP/editor Natalia Almada captures the rhythms of daily and nightly life in a Sinaloa cemetery in a quiet flow of images that gains power with surprising speed, breaching the seawall of our preconceived notions to impress upon us the horror of the war being waged on civil society in Mexico by a handful of drug cartels.
Lining the central road through the cemetery and extending several rows back are a forest of elaborate mausoleums that look like high-end haciendas in miniature. A construction crew comes in every day to build more and Almada is there to document their work, her lingering close-ups of bare feet and deteriorating shoes clinging to precarious perches personifying the grace and resilience that are characteristic of Mexico's campesinos.
At the same time, the static-y images and voices from TV and radio news that cut in at intervals to report on the progress of the drug wars ("The body of a young woman was found chopped in pieces," one announces) and the wails of the bereaved that float up from the funerals below as the men work are a constant reminder of the horrors that threaten their way of life.
Almada also films the cemetery's nighttime velador, or caretaker, as he meticulously waters the main dirt road to hold down its dust or settles in for the evening with the two friendly but anxious dogs that live there. She shows us the beautiful young woman who cleans one of the mausoleums and the sidewalk in front of it, sometimes bringing her children to play among the gravestones while she works. She follows the coco vendor as he drives up to yet another funeral to serves fruits and juices to the mourners (one little girl is seen eating a mango almost as big as her head). We see most of these actions done over and over, but rather than seeming Sisyphean, they feel like the last vestiges of a functioning society. Ironically, this city of the dead appears to be one of the last places left in Sinoloa, one of the hardest-hit parts of Mexico, where ordinary people can go about their work without fear of death.
This is observational filmmaking, with almost no talking heads or title cards or interviews with the subjects to clue us in on people's backstories or thoughts or feelings. (In one interesting exception, we hear the workers discuss the death of one of the biggest drug lords, El Jefe de Jefes. They're obviously gladdened by the news, but wary of making too much of it, since they know he'll only be replaced by someone else just as bad.)
That approach feels respectful for the most part, an acknowledgement of the chasm between our relatively safe lives and theirs, and having so little talk to distract us helps keep the focus on the actions that make up the life of the cemetery. But I could have done with a little more information, since some of the things I learned only by reading the production notes would have enriched my understanding of the film if I'd know them as I was watching it. I wondered who could afford those mausoleums, for instance, and guessed that a lot of them might have been drug traffickers themselves, but I didn't know that for sure. And it was interesting to read that the dead policeman whose mausoleum the young woman cleans was in the pocket of the drug lords, and that the young beauty is his widow.
But Almada seems to want us to focus on the dead merely as dead, letting their eyes catch the lens for long moments while zooming in too close to show the writing on their memorial posters. And maybe she has a point. After all, in a country—and a global economy—where the chasm between rich and poor keeps widening and where drug trafficking is one of few reliable ways to become rich, even the foot soldiers in the narco wars may be victims.
El Velador will play on March 27 and 29 as part of this year's New Directors/New Films.