Maquilapolis was screened on Sunday at the Laredo Center for the Arts -- a last stop in the most recent border tour for the filmmakers and activists involved in the project. The film project is an inventively collaborative one, in which the subjects -- women maquiladora workers in Tijuana organizing into a small, tenacious community environmental advocacy group (the Chilpancingo Collective for Environmental Justice) -- were given video cameras with which they contributed their own footage, stories, interviews. The ways in which this approach avoids sentimentality where it is most tempting are obvious, but welcome; in one scene, a prominent figure in the film talks -- no pride, no shame, either -- about the house she built for herself and her children from discarded garage doors from the United States. Mostly, she can't understand why we throw all that away, up here.
Given its construction, the film is filled with the imagery of what we consider in the United States to be unlivable urban poverty: floorless houses constructed of discarded garage doors, bathwater heated over an outdoor fire, wires -- delivering pirated electricity -- snapping and popping in streets muddied with raw sewage; but its having been shot this way (I think about a third of Maquilapolis is shot by its subjects) complicates the anthropological-voyeuristic perspective we've come to expect in films that mean to raise awareness about working conditions or living conditions or, in this case, both.
More importantly, the blurred boundaries between filmmaker/subjects resonate with other elements of the film: yes, for example, the maquiladoras are "outsiders," but then so is that fringe population (overwhelmingly women) who have built rambling colonias (at the rate of an acre per day, according to the film's director, Sergio de la Torre) on the outskirts of Tijuana and other border cities to earn around US $60/week. The whole thing seemed like a moving picture response to Helmut's question, way back when (also called "2005"): What is Globalization?
Maybe the most compelling collapsing-boundary theme has to do with the film's subtext regarding the complicated relationship between global capital and the individual self (may Helmut forgive me for using such stretched-out terms). The film emphasizes the idea that maquiladoras were constructed with the confidence that masses of nameless, uncomplaining women, most of them from poor rural communities in the south of Mexico would readily arrive to become color-coded ("blue smocks are for operators") components of the factory production of other components. That mass anonymity makes them cheap, it makes empathy with them difficult; it makes invisible their role in the construction of the computer monitor with which I am currently blinding myself. Maquilopolis counters that anonymity by giving these women cameras, and they in turn show us who, individually, they are, lead-sick, weary, and, on the whole, apparently happier than the guy who almost ran over me in a Hummer earlier today.
And yet: their most remarkable achievement in the film is a community achievement: in forming a coalition of women literally sick of pollution caused by the factories for which they work or have worked, they accomplish quite a lot. They piss people off. They get the US EPA to fork over many thousands of dollars.
That story of the individual, striving, capitalist self is twisted round -- and not necessarily dismantled -- in weird and beautiful ways in Tijuana. Be sure to see it if you get a chance.