Film Review: El Velador

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El Velador
Directed by Natalia Almada
POV, premieres Sept. 27 on PBS

Death carries with it a heavy responsibility. That’s one profound lesson we can glean from Natalia Almada’s POV documentary El Velador, which chronicles a side of the Mexican drug war many viewers are not accustomed to seeing. In Culiacán, death has become an industry, a way of life, a way of surviving. The documentary follows a young woman sweeping a family member’s mausoleum, cemetery workers constructing gravesites for another 300 expected customers, and a lone cemetery night watchman who protects the sprawling memorials. The people in Almada’s film each have a daily connection with the dead.

There is no physical violence in El Velador, but it is a strikingly violent film. In one scene, a young girl buys a piece of fruit from a vendor as a woman (just off camera) wails loudly during a funeral. In another, explosions ignite the starlit sky just behind the night watchman, who is so unfazed he doesn’t bother turning around. We’re left wondering whether the thunderous flashes were fireworks or gunfire, but it seems for the watchman, neither would be particularly remarkable. The violence of El Velador lies in these contrasts, where the effects of brutality and absence are powerfully present in mourners, families, and communities.

Almada has written that the mausoleums and memorials in her film function in the community as “a grand expression of remembrance, a refusal to be invisible, anonymous and forgotten.” This is certainly true for the small army of mourners, cemetery workers, and watchmen that maintain and protect that memory. But at the same time, Almada has hidden that memory from her viewers. El Velador is itself deeply anonymous, with no named characters, no conventional narrative, and only a couple of hints at the story’s geographic landscape.

Most of us understand the drug war through the mechanical details of news media–who, what, where, when–along with value judgments and prescriptions for change. El Velador obscures all of these, in favor of a unique intimacy that can only be produced through familiarity, repetition, and deceptive silence. What the film conveys most forcefully are these heartbreaking details, how a culture of violence has seeped into ordinary life in what seems like every possible way.

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