This film is taking on femicide in Juarez, Mexico
Gabriela Escobedo was working at a maquiladora (factory) in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, when, one day, she went missing on her way home from work. Her family has since been thrown into the turmoil of despair — an experience that many other Mexican families have experienced.
An average of more than 2,500 people were murdered per year between 2008 and 2011 in Juárez, and female residents of the city have been the targets of femicide, or killing women because of their gender. Yet experts estimate that only one out of every four cases of murdered women in Juáarez are even investigated by authorities, and criminal charges were only ﬁled in 2 percent of those cases.
It’s a problem that extends beyond Juárez, too. According to Jan Jarab, a representative from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Mexico, over 30,000 people in Mexico have been reported missing in the past few years. Human rights organizations have claimed that this number may actually be as high as 100,000. Clandestine graves, which are essentially cartels’ burial grounds, are still found across Mexico.
In the new film The Red Note, director Craig Whitney and producer Estefanía Bonilla Hernandez take on this very topic. In a recent interview with the FBomb, Whitney and Bonilla Hernandez explain how the media has portrayed the forced disappearances of young women in Mexico and the unanswered questions families face in their attempts to gather information in order to find their relatives.
The FBomb: Through this movie, what conclusions did you come to about why these disappearances are happening? What factors contribute to it?
Craig Whitney: The short answer to that question is that over the last 20 years, the drug trade in Juarez has put a lot of bad people in the city who do a lot of bad things. And because so few of those people have been held accountable for their actions, it [has] created a climate where everyone more or less understands that you can do horriﬁc things to another human being and you won’t be held accountable.
War has a habit of creating an environment that is especially bad for women, and as a consequence of this situation, a lot of women in Juarez have been the victims of violence. But I think the violence in Juarez, particularly as it relates to women, has more to do with the powerful forces at work in the city than it does with “bad people who do bad things.” In Juarez, you have maquiladora factories built by huge, multinational corporations that are making cars and electronics and other products; you have other multinational corporations who are making billions of dollars every year to fuel the demand for illegal drugs in the United States; and you have people in the government or in the police forces who are making a handsome proﬁt by allowing both of these situations to continue unchecked. All of these actors have a very powerful ﬁnancial interest in preventing the disruption of the status quo, and without addressing that, there isn’t much that can be done to prevent the collateral damage in Juarez caused by globalization, the drug trade, and corruption.
A significant focus of this film is how the investigations into and searches for disappeared people have been conducted by the families of those who have gone missing — especially their mothers. Why is the burden of this search being placed on civilians rather than police?
Estefanía Bonilla Hernandez: Forced disappearances tend to have diﬀerent motives and occur through diﬀerent social and political contexts. In some cases, [people disappear because of] the war between drug cartels; those involved can have sensitive information that can create vendettas between factions.
In the case of the disappeared women of Juarez, however, there are other motives. The normalized permissiveness of violence against women already reaches femicide levels. Several studies on this issue point to the fact that the social, economic, and political status women have achieved has caused a threat to the patriarchal status quo, a status quo that had allowed men to monopolize power and allowed legal corruption.
When women have [tried to] have an opinion and take action within this context, they have demonstrated the weakness and corruption that exists in these social structures. Mothers [who search for their missing daughters in the absence of police intervention] represent that denunciation and irruption to a status quo that no longer works and is not a solely Mexican issue.
Have you found any evidence of governmental support of those crimes? Is there some kind of political agenda underscoring these disappearances?
Estefanía Bonilla Hernandez: First of all, absolutely all human action is political, whether that action is in support of or against a situation, or even if it is passive to it. Of course, there has been [direct] state violence against women, such as the case of Chiapas indigenous women, who are akin to the Zapatista movement, or activists and journalists killed by the denunciations they make of the atrocities and robberies carried out by drug traﬃckers, deputies, senators, governors, etc.
In the speciﬁc case of the disappeared [women] in Juarez— and of many other states such as Veracruz, State of Mexico, Guerrero, or Tamaulipas — it started as a passive attitude: the problem was ignored until it was impossible to continue ignoring it. The State made an incredible eﬀort to ignore that there was a problem, to the point that it had already fallen into the normalization of violence against women. [More recently] diﬀerent political ﬁgures have wanted to [address] this situation — but only in order to gain power through sympathizing with the population. They have been the least inﬂuential.
The real political agenda has been shaped by the heroes of this story: the mothers, fathers, and families of the disappeared who have shown the great ineﬃciency of the State to guarantee the rights of its citizens.
How does your presentation of this issue in The Red Note diﬀer from or relate to previous media coverage of this issue?
Craig Whitney: I think The Red Note diﬀers most explicitly from other ﬁlms and books on the femicide in Juarez in that we wanted to emphasize the experiences of the victims and their families over the procedural aspects of these cases, and we wanted to tell the story in a way that emphasized the structural causes of the crimes instead of focusing on the identities of the individuals who perpetrated them.
[My] starting point for writing The Red Note was Roberto Bolano’s novel, 2666, which is an absolute masterpiece. The one thing I felt was absent in the book, however, was a focus on the eﬀects of the femicide on the individuals and families who were directly aﬀected by violence. Bolano conveys the forensic facts about each victim’s murder very dryly and objectively, exactly like the text of a police report. I realized that if I took one of these paragraphs — examining the who, what, where, when, why of one woman’s murder — and blew it up, almost like enlarging a photo, looking at the life of the victim, the eﬀect of her murder on her family, and the rich social tapestry that surrounded her story, it would give me an opportunity to tell the story in a way that was diﬀerent from other versions that I had seen or read.
When femicide in Juarez is presented in ﬁction, it’s also often done so as the story of one well-intentioned individual’s quest to “solve” these crimes by bringing a single individual who is responsible for the murders to justice. I think this approach not only understates the enormity of the problem, it also oversimpliﬁes the possible solutions to the femicide and the ability of one individual to aﬀect those solutions.That there are individuals responsible for these crimes is undoubtedly true, but institutional and structural forces that have given rise to them — corruption, machismo, globalization, poverty, and the drug trade — are, in my view, both the causes of the femicide and the forces that allow this violence to continue with impunity.
In telling the story of Minerva Escobedo, the mother of the disappeared girl in The Red Note, we wanted to convey [what it’s like for a] lone individual to struggle against vast, impersonal, immovable forces of society — both the futility of that quest and the nobility of perseverance in the face of impossible odds.
How did you approach covering this intersectional issue in your work?
Craig Whitney: I read an article the other day about Anthony Bourdain that said that he “stood up for women without making it about him.” That’s a model I’ve tried to follow in making The Red Note. I think my job on this movie is analogous to that of a conductor performing a symphony by another composer. When you bring your own formal ideas and emotions and interpretation to the work, it makes for a stronger performance. But if you don’t follow the notes that are on the page, then you’re not doing a very good job as a conductor. I always try to remember that I have two ears and one mouth, and I can play the strongest role in telling this story when I use them in those percentages: listening twice as much as I speak.
There’s a scholarly, formal perspective that I bring to the material; there is an intimate cultural perspective that the Mexican and/or female ﬁlmmakers who worked on this ﬁlm supply; and there’s an artistic perspective that combines the personal and the formal. I think this ﬁlm can be its strongest when all three of those perspectives are working in harmony, so that we can approach this subject with the nuance and complexity that it deserves.
Why did you decide to spotlight this cause and how do you believe doing so may help?
Estefanía Bonilla Hernandez: A movie helps to continue reinforcing the signal that there is a problem and a very serious one. It's like putting a reﬂector right where no one can ignore it and therefore help remove this idea of normalization; what happens in Ciudad Juarez, and in Mexico and around the world is not normal. Women represent half of the world's population, which also represents a labor, economic, and political force that has been diminished by its gender. This is characteristic of totalitarian states and is not ascribed to a modern democracy. Evidence of these problems helps legitimize the struggle for equity and equality among social actors worldwide, not only in Mexico.
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