Executive Director Daniela Michel, the Morelia International Film Festival, one of the most prestigious and respected festivals in Latin America; and he has championed a number of films that have helped shape national debates about social issues.
Ramirez spoke with the Film Watch from the Cinépolis offices in Mexico City about the history of the festivals and organizations he supports, the challenges that still face Latin American filmmakers and what it’s like to be sued for $24 million after helping an innocent man go free.
SHEERLY AVNI: You first started planning Morelia at a time when many of your peers had pronounced the death of Mexican cinema. What inspired you to start a festival?
ALEJANDRO RAMIREZ: I met Daniela Michel! It was over ten years ago at a cocktail party, and she told me that she wanted to start a small festival to highlight the work of young Mexican filmmakers who were producing strong short films. I thought a festival for shorts was a great idea, and I also liked the notion of holding it in Morelia. I think most of the best festivals are not in a metropolis but in small quaint towns—like Cannes, Sundance, San Sebastián…and Telluride.
But I told her I wanted to also include a documentary competition, because that is something that our filmmakers do very well, and there really was no festival in Mexico that gave an important space to documentaries. Fortunately she agreed. And then we added a third part: a section for first and second-time filmmakers but out of competition.
You’ve also made a point to include international guests like Werner Herzog, Quentin Tarantino, Béla Tarr....
We thought it was important for our young talent to be able to meet and interact with the masters. Our first year, Werner Herzog and Paul Schrader came, and their conversations with the young filmmakers lasted for hours and hours. It was a magical thing, right from the start.
The seeds of Ambulante, the travelling documentary festival co-founded by Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, were also first planted at that very first edition of Morelia. How did it happen?
That year, the winning documentary was a wonderful film by Eugenio Polgovsky called Trópico de Cáncer. The film is about poor families in the desert of San Luis Potosí who try to survive by hunting wild animals and selling them on the freeway. Gael and Diego saw the film, loved it and immediately began trying to think of ways to make sure it would be seen by more people. Diego reached out to me, hoping Cinépolis could help him host an annual festival in Mexico City, to highlight that documentary as well as a few others. He was picturing something small, a few days once a year, and I said, “We can do more than that. We can take these films all around the country.”
You were involved with Presumed Guilty, a documentary about a 24-year old man sentenced to 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
I saw a first cut and thought it was such a brilliant exposure of everything that is wrong with our justice system, and I thought: “Every Mexican needs to see this.”
You even invested Cinépolis’s resources heavily in its exhibition and distribution, right?
As much money as I thought I could get away with losing and not get fired! It never occurred to any of us that we had any chance of actually making a profit. But before opening, I showed the film to every opinion leader, public intellectual and journalist that I could. I hosted over a dozen private screenings in my home, just to show this so that we would get all the media and opinion-makers on our side.
And then a week and a half after we opened—and we were doing very well —a judge issued an order to censor Presumed Guilty. It’s ironic, right, being censored by a judge in a film about the corruption in the judicial system?
Ironic, but great publicity.
Absolutely. It became the biggest documentary in Mexican film history, and we were able to donate all our profits to a nonprofit that fights for the rights of the unjustly accused, so yes, it worked out. On the other hand, the box office was $1 million, and we are being sued for $24 million. But we are counting on the fact that we didn’t do anything wrong. And so we are hoping… (laughs). We are, ahem, confident that in our country, justice will be served.
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based writer.