The First Mexican Film Society Historiography of a Microhistory

The First Mexican Film Society Historiography of a Microhistory

The purpose of the following text is to shed light on the nature of the famous attempt made by distinguished national artists to found the Mexican Film Club, their relationship with Sergei Eisenstein and the literary magazine Contemporáneos. In order to become acquainted with the origin of the film club movement in Mexico, we will begin by learning of a text published in the May 1931 issue of this magazine.The latter will also serve to prove the subjective nature of the study of history and the abiding quality of printed and epistolary matter. The frailty of group projects must be taken into account as well as the scattered nature of an association which outlined the importance of its leaders as individual figures yielding inconsitencies which clashed with their original goals. And yet, managing to leave a crucial mark in the development of cultural defence and awareness through international cinematography.
During the early years of the motion picture in Mexico1, it was used as a tool for scientific and didactical purposes and was accompanied by publicity and lectures. Yet, inspired by the film clubs and specialized theatres of Europe, in the early 1920s important film journalists pursued the establishment of a film club with the purpose of exploring the creative potential of avant-garde cinema. European film clubs were known for publishing a magazine created by its members and followers.
Their idea was echoed in Mexas not linked to a periodical such as the one Carlos Noriega Hope and Marco Aurelio Galindo took part in but to a literary magazine which would later become a common place name for an entire generation of Mexican writers and painters:
Contemporáneos (1928-1931).
May 1931: The Famous Issue
Contemporáneos was not the only literary magazine which published texts on cinema nor was it the one to do it the most in Mexico2, but it did publish the translation of an essay which was crucial for Mexican film journalism written by Sergei Eisenstein. At the time, the writer/director was in our country filming the incomplete motion picture: ¡Qué viva México! In his article entitled “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form”, Eisenstein explained his theory of montage through dialectical and historical materialism. The text was translated by Agustín Aragón Leiva who published it together with a biographical profile of Sergei Eisenstein. Photographs of the filming on different locations were also published, as well as a portrait by Agustín Jiménez which showed the Russian director smiling and holding a “sugar skull*”.
On the same issue, in the section called “Acera” (Sidewalk), a plan inspired on the work of diverse European film clubs was published anonymously. Its purpose was to place Mexico on an international level3. By stating their goals they enumerated the “essential points” of their program:
To guarantee the exhibit of European, American and Oriental quaility films and avant-garde movies. To introduce didactical films taking special care in systematically showing scientific films. The History of Film [sic] in retrospective exhibits. Lectures which teach the importance of esthetics, science and social awareness in film [sic]. To create an adecquate atmosphere for the rise of Mexican cinematography4.
Clearly, two aspects came together to trigger the formal association of these film buffs. In the first place, they became aware - through certain specialized and literary magazines, specially through La Gaceta Literaria (The Literary Gazette) which was in charge of promoting the Spanish Film Club - of the news regarding certain European and South American circles which got together and discussed films. Secondly, the role played by avant-garde movies mainly from Sweden, Germany, France, USSR and Spain, which brought together the poducers/directors with independent exhibitors. At the same time, some film directors and magazine editors participated as ambassadors in the promotion of their movies and theories concerning the art of cinema, spreading their ideas, and also through their involvement in different esthetic and political movements.
After declaring their sympathy towards the Spanish Film Club, the members of the Mexican Film Club identified themselves with “all the film clubs of the world” but, as stated in their essential points, they would be devoted to promote the “appropriate atomosphere” for Mexican cinematography. Without contradcting the example set by international film clubs, the nature of their goals was thereof defined.
As we go through the goals set in the pages of Contemporáneos we find what may be considered to be the ten commandments of the modern Mexican film club movement or, at least of the foundation of Mexican cinematography promotion, which emphasized its highly social aims and gave their didactical, promotional and exhibition activities a place of their own by differentiating one genre from another, be it educational and scientific or avant-garde. The willingness of that specific magazine to serve as a stand for the film club is worthy of notice. The fame and prestige of Contemporáneos could have been a mirage reflecting a sense of stability which was soon put to the test.
The aims of the group were unlimited. Education and esthetics would go hand in hand despite what educational institutes thought. They were favoured by the freedom which was so much a part of the Mexican silver-screen but in the frame of a new nationalist boom5.
‘‘The History of Cinema” would inaugurate retrospective shows6 where silent movies were the center of attention and subjects for analysis in the midst of the era of sound films. They would probably follow the canonical programs of the Paris film clubs and art theatres which had been in turn exported and enriched later on in Madrid and Buenos Aires yielding great results7. The debates - which had first taken place in 1926 in the Tribune Libre du Cinéma in Paris - and the “propaganda lectures” would simulate the seminars and study groups, also held by the London Film Society, which had gathered aprentices and thriving cinema masters in one place8. The presence of Sergei Eisenstein in Mexico greatly stimulated Mexican intellectuals pointing them towards a serious study of cinematographic language through their national history and their own theories9.
On the eve of the establishment of sound movies, distinguished artists came together in Mexico and decided to form a circle of film buffs in Mexico City. They all agreed to promote, study, preserve, and bring cinema up to date as an art and as a means of human expression through the film club. The founding committee was made up of Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano, art director; Agustín Aragón Leiva, general secretary; Emilio Amero, techincal director; Roberto Montenegro and María Álvarez Bravo, members of the board; Carlos Mérida, advertisement; Manuel Álvarez Bravo and María Izquierdo, treasury. Important attention must be paid to the fact that the project was not exclusively led by writers and that, in fact, the executive committee of the Mexican Film Club was mainly formed by plastic artists10.
Two Film Clubs in One
Unfortunately, their project failed when the magazine publication was brought to a halt in December 1931 due to a sudden withdrawl of financial support which even the editor was unable to prevent on time. Yet, the following year – as some letters prove – Ortiz de Montellano and Aragón Leiva managed to exhibit a few Russian films, officialy openning the circle in the first half of 1932 with Eduard Tissé’s film Natalidad. By that time, there were not only two organizers left but the name of the group suffered a slight change and eventually Agustín Aragon Leiva was completely responsible for the functions of the Mexican Film Club. He became the vehement protector of Eisenstein’s Mexican film and developed a closer relationship with the American journalists Waldo Frank and Seymour Stern in their boycott against producer Upton Sinclair. Aragón Leiva himself got in touch with Giménez Caballero through letters and articles that were published in The Literary Gazette. Giménez Caballero would later get a hold of the movies which were probably exhibited in the Galería Posada de Emilio Amero, founded in 193211.
Looking Back
The European Film Club movement arrived late in Mexico, but the enthusiasm for cinematography among intellectuals in the 1920s did not. The latter was triggered by the films of Chaplin, Geaton, Griffith, Wiene, Linder, Eisenstein, and Greta Garbo’s face. The establishment of the Mexican Film Club of yore was sustained both by the reciprocal support of its members and the publishing opportunities they had12. However, despite the fact that there were no traces left in Mexico of cinematographic projects linked to a film club – which was not the case for Spain and Brazil13 – Eisenstein’s style left deep marks in the photographers, painters and film-makers who knew him and his work14. As far as Contemporáneos was concerned, with Aragón Leiva’s translation they were even a step ahead of the English language magazine Close Up15.
Inspite of it all, the distance between that first Mexican film circle and the European film clubs was overwhelming. The Mexican sessions had little to do with the studio sessions which the London Film Society systematically held and with the film club’s periodical activities inspired by the Spanish Film Club and its Literary Gazette; Light-years seperated them from the French and Dutch associations, and from Paris’ and Spain’s clubs which would continue their activites for years to come16.
The troubled birth of the Mexican Film Club is more than just an anecdote made up of famous names and tragical glory in the wake of left-wing movements17. It was closer to the film club crusade in favour of Eisenstein as well as to taking a stand against fascism. In the end, it is one more of the many doors of our national history which leads us directly into the pulse of world film enthusiasm through movies but, mostly, through magazines and politics finding its background in the violent nationalist climate of the institutionalization of public life in Mexico. A climate which, paradoxically, allowed many artists to thrive and forced many others to bring their activities to a halt.
What they achieved is not as important as what they wanted to achieve and when and why they could not make it happen. In yet one more of the failures of Mexican cultural modernity, cinema was an excuse: writers, poets, painters, photographers, essayists, diplomats, journalists, friends. These enthusiastic spectators were the main characters of its evolution, it was all about how they came together and seperated over and over. Through their conflicts and contradictions shines the love of cinema or the meanings they found in the same word. A word which many consider to be more than just the latest and most modern comunication vehicle of our time.
This article was published in the magazine Luna Córnea 24, Mexico 2002.
Notes :
1. Between 1909 and 1911, the Mexican businessman Jorge Alcalde exhibited motion pictures from the French Film d’art, international novelties and some of the first scenes ever shown from the Mexican Revolution at his Film Club cinema – which was located at the Paris Building on 5 de Mayo, one of the main streets in downtown Mexico City. In 1920, Louis Delluc launched Le Journal du Ciné-club in Paris which managed to show some movies followed by lectures. When Jorge Alcalde arrived in the City of Lights in 1912, he did not realize he had invented a term which would be used in Europe from that moment on.
2. Bandera de Provincias (1929-1930) edited in Guadalajara, Jalisco and El Espectador (1930) edited in Mexico City deserve special recognition.
3. Even though nothing else was heard of the Film Club in Contemporáneos during the following months, this brief text promised to provide a manifest followed by a call for general cooperation in order to establish and run the Mexican Film Club.
4. Anon., “The Foundation of the Film Club”, Contemporáneos, May, 1931, FCE, facsimilar edition, Mexico, 1981, vol. X-XI, pp. 187-188.
5. Even though this could have hindered their commitment to bring non commercial films to México, the political stance provoked by the country’s situation determined the achivement of their goals or the need to modify them and to adapt them to new personal circumstances without being affected by state censorship.
6. In 1926, Jaime Torres Bodet, a.k.a. Celluloid, proposed to establish a film library.
7. Prestige was added to the sessions by the use of the authors’ voices or of famous poets and activists such as Rafael Alberti, Federico García Lorca, Ernesto Giménez Caballero, Luis Buñuel and Ramón Gómez de la Serna, to mention the case of Spain, and could have been thought up for the Mexican case as well.
8. The presence of Eisenstein in the London Film Study Group was an unprecedented experience which had a very positive balancing effect on this sort of academic and scholarly exchanges.
9. Film clubs were probably conceived as they were in the twentie according to the formula the French journalist and critic, Léon Moussinac, had come up with during the La Sarraz meeting in 1929: “We are living the film club tradition – or mainly the memory of a tradition – according to which it is regarded as a place of retrospection and compensation. The text [Moussinac is refering to a document which was read during the first session of the meeting] clearly states that the function of a film club at that time was to exhibit and promote contemporary cinematographic creations. It was a place where, for instance, the exhibition of movie fragments which were judged as exemplary was a common resort, as well as lectures offered by cinematographers.” Roland Cosandy et Thomas Tode, “CICI 1929 – Le Congrès à l’oevre: quatre séances plènières.” Le 1er Congrès International du Cinèma Independent; La Sarraz, 1929. Archives, Núm. 84, Perpignan, April 2000, p. 12.
10. Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano was, without a doubt, outstanding. He was a poet, essayist specializing on Mexican literature, and editor of Contemporáneos. Agustín Aragón Leiva was an engineer, he wrote articles and worked closely with Eisenstein in Mexico. Emilio Amero was an engraver and avant-garde photorapher who had recently organized film discussion circles with Federico García Lorca in New York City. He also wrote the scipt of an incomplete short with Lorca and María Antonieta Rivas Mercado, who was a recognized cultural promoter and art critic. In addition, the Executive Committee was also integrated by the photographer Manuel Álvarez Braco and his assistant Lola Álvarez Bravo. The painters María Izquierdo, Roberto Montenegro and Carlos Mérida, who were internationally known, were also present and could almost be considered to have been honorable supporters, I believe. Except for Lola and Aragón Leiva, everyone had published in Contemporáneos previously: Emilio Amero published lithographs and rayograms in the late 1930s. The following year, Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s Leaves, Study of a Tree and a Curtian (Hojas, Estudio de Árbol y Cortina) was also published.
11. Later, Aragón Leiva wrote to Eisenstein about the activities and failures of the film club in his letters to him. He lets him know that there were special yet erratic exhibits of Soviet films in sessions which were not very successful.
12. With the arrival of the Vitaphone and the following technological developments of sound films as a setting, the Mexican Film club’s first steps established the immediate antecedent for a film club linked to the LEAR (Revolutionary Writers and Artists League)and its magazine Frente a Frente (Face to Face) in the first half of the 1930s.
13. Ernesto Giménez Caballero, editor of The Literary Gazette and head of the Spanish Film club, produced Esencia de verbena (The Essence of Verbena)and Noticiaro del cine club (The Film Club News Bulletin). Mario Peixoto, who was linked to the Chaplin Club of Río de Janeiro, filmed Límite (Limit) in 1931.
14. Some of the members of that Executive Committee practiced photography and filmed documentaries, essays and “commercial” films. Such was the case of the Álvarez Bravo couple and even of Agustín Jiménez, who was close to this group of artists. Roberto Montenegro made portraits of the film-maker while accompanying him in his trips through Mexico.
15. Eisenstein introduced Aragón Leiva to Seymor Stern, editor of Experimental Cinema. Aragón Leiva wrote to him frequently and told him all about the film club project.
16. The laws of each country also affected these processes. In Mexico, the term was not linked to laws concerning independent exhibitors until the 1960s. In France, the 1901 bill already considered the possibility of supporting this sort of civil enterprises.
17. When the LEAR (Revolutionary Writers and Artists League) was founded in 1934, the film-club was included amongst its acitvities. However, unlike the plastic art workshops, the film club was not one of the group’s priorities for their political project. The LEAR entrusted Lola Álvarez Bravo with what Carlos Monsiváis would later refer to as a “rudimentary film-club” and which Lola called “the first film-club of Mexico”in her memoirs. In her testimony published in Recuento fotográfico (Penélope, 1982), she left out comrade Aragón Leiva from the list of founders giving no explanation for this.
Translator’s Note :
*Traditional Mexican candy in the shape of a skull which is usually decorated with bright colors and is used for the November 2nd holiday when deceased family and friends are remembered.

Tr. by Adela Ramos

--Gabriel Rodríguez Álvarez

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