This essay first appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly, Issue #5.
In one of the first scenes of Julio Hernandez Cordon’s 2015 film Te Prometo Anarquía, a seductive red light washes over three mostly naked teens draped over each other, their bodies intersecting, creating triangles of a compromised grace. Time seems interminable and irrelevant, the room coated in the same haze of both day and night, and the two boys, Miguel and Johnny, flirt while a girl sleeps. In the previous and opening scene, the two protagonists stand outside, somewhere in Mexico City, arguing about the girl whose body they soon entwine. We will later see that she is mostly irrelevant to the plot, merely a placeholder for Johnny’s inability to reciprocate Miguel’s devotion. This sequence centers in a room characterized by a certain listlessness that continues through the film—and through a host of contemporary Mexican political and social issues: violence, class conflict, homophobia, disappeared individuals, immigration, and narco violence—until the very end. The boys’ relationship is always confused but in focus, while the architecture of Mexican social and political life is in a soft blur behind, guiding the plot, but never perturbing Miguel and Johnny as they are deceived into selling blood to a narco-run, blood black market.
Although the film quietly obscures most images of physical violence, its plot is propelled by kidnappings and backdoor deals, relying on overused narratives of Mexico. Unlike the brutal renderings of social and political instability featured in other Mexico-based films, Amores Perros, Man on Fire, or Sin Nombre, the film features few scenes in which the audience views violent confrontation. However, the film’s particular political backdrop restricts its ability to escape the same tired tropes of a corrupt and broken national moment that are ubiquitous in Mexican films, which are increasingly being viewed internationally. Compounded by images laden with corruption, poverty and national and international economic inequalities, this identity has become a currency that the liberal international audience accepts and requests because it dissembles political engagement, only becoming more prevalent as dissatisfaction in the current political regime grows. To view and consume images of class conflict and violence, both in Mexico and internationally, is to participate in a liberal dialogue condemning the political status quo; by passively criticizing social, political and economic issues through engagement with artistic representation, viewers feel educated, rather than complicit, in these state acts. Obscuring the fact that the members of these audiences themselves benefit from these inequalities, viewing such films comes to stand in for real political awareness rather than build it. According to a similar logic, the Mexican state generously funds these creative endeavors, specifically in film, with an understanding that international audiences recognize a particular cultural and social life predicated on political discontent.
Through funding these projects, the state passively aids in the creation of a national identity founded in a critique of the state’s faults. By factoring these specific national images, the government exploits an identity of Mexico as dangerous and broken, as it fails to make necessary changes at the political and economic level. These narratives create both cultural and monetary value, as they symbolize critique and are consumed by politically conscious film viewers. A symbolic critique easily supplants a structural change.
Social instability permeates Mexican society. Yet, to delimit Mexican reality to a fantasy of violence in the international film scene further defines conceptions of modern day Mexico, ghettoizing or othering Mexican contemporary society. While the film may attempt to remove the violent manifestations of Mexico’s political and social upheavals from its screen, it relies on an obligatory and digestible version of a national moment that is simultaneously determinant of and reliant on a particular image of a dangerous, politically corrupt, and socially polluted Mexico in the international imagination.
The visual vocabulary of the film never feels overly calculated—actors plucked off of Facebook signify improvisation and the set is casually composed by Mexico City’s diverse and vast built environment—yet, the cinematography frequently settles on images apparently composed with intention, highlighting the protagonists’ movement through diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Shots follow the protagonists, whose favorite mode of transport is skateboarding, through the city, making viewers follow figures moving in perfect horizontal lines through a multitude of neighborhoods of varying classes into the deep recesses of the screen. By overlaying the drama over the outlines of the city, the film compels viewers to see the protagonists’ struggles as metonymically signifying a broader Mexican society, generalizing their transactions in the black blood market to the ever present hustling and informal employment in Mexico.
Prior to beginning their blood quest, the protagonists, Miguel and Johnny, roam between skate parks and smoke-filled rooms. Deluded by the prospects of quick cash, they are tricked into herding nearly fifty of their closest friends and family to sell their blood to the narco-run black market. They spend a large portion of the film going from acquaintance to acquaintance convincing them to get involved; without many prospects of their own, those they approach are quickly persuaded to join their scheme. These scenes are strung together so as to build a tension that accrues in dull increments. The film moves slowly through the first fifty minutes, and its rhythm quickly changes as their plan consolidates and the group gathers. Gang members take off with the group, perhaps to traffic or kill them, and Miguel and Johnny, who are given a wad of cash, are the only ones left. The audience expects the kidnappings to such a degree that these scenes almost parody themselves, a quality only exacerbated by Miguel and Johnny’s reaction. When they realize their family and friends have been taken away, Miguel and Johnny respond in the most cavalier way, coming undone merely momentarily and then lazily resuming being in bed together.
The first scene of the film highlights the primacy of the protagonists’ relationship, yet the unresolved nature of their relationship continues into the last scenes, compounded by the boys’ tenuous relationships with their own sexualities and the fact that their relationship spans class boundaries. Miguel is the son of an upper-middle class Mexican family and Johnny is the family’s domestic worker’s son; the boys have known each other nearly their entire lives and lived with each other for a large part of it until Johnny gets kicked out by Miguel’s mother in attempts to steer Miguel away from him. Their relationship is also compromised by the fact that, in addition to not being open with their sexuality, Johnny is in another relationship with a girl who moves, often nakedly, in and out of Johnny and Miguel’s story. The boys’ relationship often feels restrained; the two boys speak in an emotional shorthand, a language hard to decipher, often demonstrating their union as more of an antidote to loneliness than an unconsummated love.
After a few short scenes in which they try to resolve the kidnapping Johnny and Miguel move weightlessly into languid scenes in which they lie in bed, smoking and evading their parents, as if the kidnapping could be bracketed off from their present. Though the film is based upon the kidnapping, the boys’ poetic ruminations of their situation seem more urgent and revelatory than the drama itself. With full landscape shots, and a soundtrack that haunts, the movie ends with a vague and inconclusive promise of something more to come. Once their parents realize they’ve gotten themselves into trouble—Miguel’s mother gets an abridged version, merely that her truck has been lost—Miguel is sent off to the US, his mother hoping that time working as a laborer will correct him. The audience sees Miguel walking through fields in Texas with Johnny on his back, a dream that perhaps only Miguel desires, yet which averts the viewer’s gaze from the realities of a life laboring in the US.
Reviewers have pointed out that the director’s central interest appeared to be the boys’ relationship; indeed Hernández Cordón himself confirmed this in an interview. The kidnapping then feels cheap and ambient—more like a clouded taste of crisis than crisis itself—while the scattered plot, disorganized and hard to follow, seems more obligatory than purposeful. Yet it is the inclusion of these issues that gives the film relevance. To national audiences, it is an honest portrayal of issues that rarely touch the elite who make and critique film. In a prominent Mexican literary magazine, film critic Fernanda Solórzano called Te Prometo Anarquía “the best Mexican movie of 2015.” She noted that like other “conventionally Mexican movies, TPA’s drama treats the dark pockets of contemporary Mexican urban life;” it fulfills the expectation to understand a certain strata of Mexican society. Unlike other Mexican movies, she adds, it “doesn’t ruminate in these places.” For her, and others, the film sufficiently treats these issues to reflect contemporary Mexico while treating other, perhaps more universal, issues with greater attention. The drama composed of social issues is thus a requirement. Te Prometo Anarquía does not imagine different futures, nor does it invite audiences to understand the structural conditions that force characters into moral compromises. Despite all the loss and disillusion of a present, the scenes of the protagonists are the last signature in the viewer’s mind, erasing the violence of kidnapping, and making the exhausted narrative a socially valuable addition.
Of course, Te Prometo Anarquia is not the first film to centralize tragedy. There is little novelty to a story of narco-abduction. The culture of violence dominates the Mexican national imagination, both critically and artistically, while a narco culture exalts acts of bravado. From the most localized barrio banda songs, to internationally distributed TV shows, Latin American violence is uniquely present. Cloaked in sex appeal and political defamation, the issues dramatized in these images are demanded by the international public. Though the same sort of trafficking and homicidal behavior is commonplace on other continents, the depictions of similar acts in those respective places have taken another form in the international public imagination and are secondary to other tropes. The violence and political unrest in Latin America, specifically Mexico, has become its own genre without parallel, reified at all junctures and maintaining consequence-free spectatorship. A host of television series and movies like Narcos, Cartel land (2015), and La Reina del Sur (2011), maintain the ubiquity of Latin America drug cartels and corrupt state actors. These images and narratives are no longer provocations to an audience to act, they are expected tropes and genres that normalize certain narratives and make them commonplace.
The representation of violence is dependent on an understanding of what liberal audiences expect and want—it assuages their guilt. Instead of participating in electoral processes, condemning neoliberal processes, refusing harsh immigration policies, and protesting anti-drug efforts, the consumption of expositive art, like Te Prometo Anarquía, allows audiences to feel good by feeling bad, what Susan Sontag in “Regarding the Pain of Others,” calls the “pleasure of flinching.” Many critics, like Sontag and Maggie Nelson, focus on the ubiquity and thus pacifying effect of violent images. Sontag believes that, as opposed to images, narratives are capable of fighting at the neutralizing effect of violence and believes narratives, written or in film, are more effective at making us understand violence, the structures that lead to it, and thus, incite us to act.
However, we must also be critical of the work that narratives do. In recycled narratives, like those of a drug war-ridden Mexico, spectatorship impedes the audience from seeing themselves as both implicated in the problem and as a potential victim. They fail to imagine new futures, but more importantly, they fail to implicate the viewer in the problem. An emotional participation denies the need to participate in a political process and furthers broken political systems. On a national level, these films further conceptions of corrupt anti-democratic political systems, making audiences callous to images that promote change. On the international level these narratives connote ‘Latin Americanness’ and signify a knowledge about corrupt political and social structures, representing a liberal value to understand and be compassionate for the political and social ‘other.’ While, as Sontag argues, narratives have the power of inciting political participation, these narratives also require unique ways of approaching a conflict and displaying social unrest. The recycling of tropes of kidnappings and black market deals in the case of Te Prometo Anarquía obviously fails to unearth solutions, as fiction should not be tasked with doing, but it also fails to imagine new questions.
Robert Meister identifies this false sense of social justice through art in After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights; the film, like human rights narratives, “make[s] us feel bad, but in a good way, as compassionate witnesses” (Meister 72). By opposing the kids to the gang member that kidnaps them in stark terms they obfuscate or erase the structures that lie behind this incident and ones like it, and the tension is demonstrated in dichotomous terms, between good and evil (Meister 72). The violence is read only in terms of the physical/individual rather than the structural—the injustice that is harder to identify. Parenthetically, Meister asks, “Under what conditions could there be inequality without victimization?,” provoking a focus on the injustices which are not legible—like poverty, unequal access to education, or immigration policies (Meister 71). How do viewing practices acculturate viewers to not only read a narrow form of violence, but also to romanticize struggle in a way that promotes inaction, as seen in the many spinoffs that depict this violence? In reading out these concealed structural issues, we can view the film’s narrative as simplifying or essentializing the tensions in the lives of his characters, and see how this impedes an understanding of the continuity of these issues.
The slow, silent scenes of Johnny and Miguel’s friends and family being kidnapped by gang leaders in Te Prometo Anarquia depict this type of confrontation between a defined aggressor and victim. When the group gathers to exchange blood, Miguel tells them all to get on the bus, with little attempt to stop the proceedings. People protest in weak ways; however, once they are all on the truck, they leave with little sign of discomfort or pain. We see little blood or explicitly confrontational behavior, yet the key characters are all present in these scenes: the bilingual narco, the victim, the middleman. Here the aggressor is clearly David, the drug lord. He is the one making calls and orders, while the group is powerless in front of him. The audience sees the tension as split between the aggressor, David, and his victims, and can understand little that, due to low wages, and a small formal sector, etc. individuals are left seeking out illegal and informal work. They are forced into this scheme not just by a drug lord’s ability to influence, but by the slow, mundane, accumulative dispossession of neoliberal policies which force people to depend on US capital flows outside of the formal labor market and corrupt political actors which reinforce a clientelistic state. So, while there is a lack of clear violence, the film’s reliance on these tropes of illegality and violence also obscures the structural forces at play. In an era of neoliberal subjugation of Mexico, it is fictionalized drug cartels and kidnappings that hold the imagination of a North American audience rather than more illegible aggressors—the policies and laws which create them.
Te Prometo Anarquia, which has represented Mexico in countless film festivals, received funding through state-sponsored programs like Conaculta, and German funders. Slightly different from Hollywood’s fund-laden and circulatory grouping of actors, directors, and creatives, Mexico’s film scene relies on a large pocket of state funds to bring these projects to the international film circuit. In the opening credits, Conaculta appears before any other funder. The film industry is thus buoyed by government funds, and tied to national interests in ways that the US film industry is not. However, the state’s relationship to the arts makes it paradoxically responsible for denigrating itself, and oriented towards an ‘authentic’ image of itself. In many ways the state has funded and continues to fund art which criticizes it and is interrogative of power relations. These images are baked into an indeterminate future and ask, what is the difference between reparations and cooptation?
The state’s participation in the creation of these images shows how representation becomes merely a means of pacifying the public and normalizing the dead. While political outbursts make the state confront these acts, the consumption of these images does not, and renders death and violence symbolic, erasing the actual acts. Memorials to victims of state and organized crimes, like the students of Ayotzinapa, abound in the city. However, the state’s ability to confront these through concrete political acts is meager. The consumption of these images normalizes them, making them an expected part of a Mexican social and cultural life. An art that works toward depicting devastation, while implicating the viewer can work to incite change. Effective use of narratives of violence and devastation would not strive merely for ‘compassion,’ but rather for viewers to see themselves as entangled in the issue. The danger in normalization is that the actors who have the power to direct discourse also dictate the rules of discussion. These images of social instability and unrest no longer eviscerate, they lay coalescing as a narrative that concretizes already circulating conceptions of a national moment. The narrative of a politically and socially corrupt Mexico becomes an obligation to include a contemporary image of Mexico and the director is exalted for being honest, when in fact he—and the state which funds the films—is being unoriginal and exploiting a politically and socially corrupt system.
The problem with Te Prometo Anarquia is in no way specific to this film, it is merely the tired continuation of a type that we consume all too readily. We need art that animates a different future, and one that more directly confronts the architecture of social inequality instead of using it instrumentally and compounding the violence it depicts.
Representations of social unrest have thus become for many a confusion of ethics and aesthetics. While a delineation between art and politics is unnecessary, the ubiquity of images of social upheaval nudges communities towards ambivalence, because action is more than bearing witness. If art is to make a moral claim, Te Prometo Anarquía helps desensitize audiences to corruption and violence. Although it is not visible, the still-perceptible presence of this violence contributes to the interiorization of Mexico as corrupt and commits a different type of infraction—political violence involves many different intellectual and artistic operations. What by contrast is untouchable is perhaps the unmasking of the source of these inequalities: the US’s neocolonial foreign policy and Mexican class stratification. The film points to the innumerable ways in which the state and cultural edifice helps depict state violence as a way to demonstrate and solidify a national identity, reinforcing stereotypes in turn eagerly consumed by international audiences, and settling into a symbolism that allows Mexico’s understanding of its violence to remain a static fact.
Andrea Penman-Lomeli is an editor at The News, an English-language newspaper in Mexico City. Her work has appeared in Jacobin and Lit Hub.