Bertha Alivia and Brian Maguire (Blood Rising)
Sarah Griffin talks to Mark Mc Loughlin about his powerful documentary Blood Rising, which examines the phenomenon of femicide in the Mexican city of Juarez.
The film screens on Friday, 4th April at The Light House at 20.30. Director Mark Mc Loughlin will introduce the film. After the screening there will be a Q&A with the director, artist Brian Maguire and musician Gavin Friday.
With frightening constancy, the desert sands surrounding Ciudad Juárez give up their terrible secrets in so-called ‘body dumps’. Lomas del Poleo, the Valley of Juárez, Campo Algodonero and Lote Bravo lay bare the exposed bodies of the brutalised and murdered women of Juárez. In No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy paints a vivid picture of desolation and fear in the deserts surrounding this city, and it was an image Brian Maguire carried closely with him when he brought his art there in an attempt to make some sense of the horror. Brian travelled to Juárez with a view to getting to know those who had been lost, and think about how art might work towards bringing the story of these women, abandoned to the desert sands, to life in some way.
Mark Mc Loughlin began documenting Brian’s work, and considers his participation “an extension of what [Brian] has done in celebrating the lives of the murdered young women.” As Mark points out, Brian’s artwork “is limited to exhibitions, so the film brings the exposure a step further into other areas.” And so he joined Brian’s journey into one of the most dangerous cities in the world, bravely taking his camera into streets where, as he puts it, “…you work on a knife edge all of the time.” Families of victims have suffered retribution when they chose to speak out on their disappeared daughters – something we are shown in the brutal murder of Rubi in August 2008, and its aftermath. Rubi’s brother Juan tells us of how the family knew who had killed Rubi, how the police did nothing, how they campaigned for a trial, then a retrial, how they marched through the city, how they never gave up in the face of wilful governmental ignorance. He tells us of the indomitable spirit of his mother, Marisela Escobedo, who brushed death threats aside in her yearning to seek justice, right up until the moment a hit-man gunned her down in broad daylight. Mark had to take all of this into account when visiting the families of victims with Brian as they worked on the documentary. “We looked at covert ways of walking, and always had a ten-to-fifteen minute rule of filming in any location outdoors”, he notes, “…after that period it is too dangerous – you have to keep moving.” “You become more confident over time”, he continues, “but also more revealed. One of the drug cartels issued a death threat to anyone caught filming in Juárez during our final shoots there.” Understandably, this meant that filming took place surreptitiously on tours of the city streets and desolate outer areas, from the back of a car, and with minimal fuss on entering people’s homes. The threat to visitors is very real – nearly one hundred journalists and media workers have been murdered in Mexico in the last ten years.
The ever-present danger accounts for the at-times shaky camerawork, and the interviews with journalists and family members that can often feel intense and rushed when they take place outdoors. Indeed the starkness of the footage is echoed in the starkness of the subject – and Brian’s art does not exist, as you might expect, to lighten the tone in any way. His response to the murders is one of anger – something he calls, “the spirit of revenge” – and his paintings of the lost and murdered women can sometimes droop in his hands in the face of such systematic evil. Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, a prominent human rights lawyer who has exposed the crimes of both cartel and government officers in Ciudad Juárez, puts the escalating crisis in context. In the mid-’80s it was decided to allow the drug cartels to solve their own problems internally – crimes of torture and murder, when committed within the ranks of the cartel, were not investigated, and cartels began operating with impunity. Since 1993 ‘justifiable homicides’, that is the murder of those with ties to the drug cartels, have been happening with staggering consistency. Gustavo points out that pre-’93 the murder of a woman was investigated and followed through; now, they will instead ‘justify’ why this particular woman was murdered through her supposed ties to drugs, what she wore, where she was kidnapped, and her own behaviour. The majority of these women were on their way to or from the many maquiladoras surrounding Juárez – factories operating in the low-tax base of Mexico, paying a pittance to workers producing goods for the global market. They provide unskilled and meagre employment for this sprawling working-class city that could touch the affluence of El Paso, Texas if not for the 14-foot-high concrete and steel fencing that lines the border.
Mark has always been motivated by human rights issues, and when a “mutual friend” told him about Brian’s work in Juárez he “felt compelled to make a film.” The end result has been scored by Gavin Friday in what feels a very personal way, hauntingly evoking the slim line between America and Mexico, and the desolation of the surrounding desert. Using art as a weapon to aid the fight for justice in Juárez was a step that felt natural for both Mark and Brian – their own skills could be put to use in a way that might be meaningful to the families. It’s important for both of them that the symbiotic relationship of exploring the artists’ response to such horror was one that aided the families in a tangible way – hence the effort to record the process. “The emotional impact of working there was very strong”, explains Mark, “We screened the film for MEP’s in the European parliament three weeks ago, so that was a first step in an international human rights campaign to bring the story to the attention of the wider political sphere, in the hope that pressure from outside may help to bring about change.”
As Brian sits with each family, passing on his version of their daughter to hang on their wall, it seems like a promise that they will not be forgotten – not by Brian, not by Mark and his camera, and not by the audience who sees them. Depressed on leaving Juárez, and wondering aloud if what they are doing is good enough, Brian feels that though he has shown respect to the victims, the paintings are in some way ineffectual. As the camera follows each picture being hung lovingly on the walls of homes where they will always be remembered, it’s the doing of anything so hopeful that seems brave. When Brian and Mark leave Juárez they take with them the promise to continue giving some voice to the voiceless, to never forget what they have seen and heard. Brian’s last words shows the burden, and the continued hope, of that oath – “We do our work as best we can”.