Viva México! Jason Wood On His Book Of Mexican Cinema

Jason Wood. Photo credit Rebecca Lupton -web

At the beginning of the twenty first century, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Amores Perros was in the vanguard of a new wave of Mexican Cinema. Since then, a steady stream of filmmakers have enjoyed startling crossover success. In this exclusive extract from The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema, its author Jason Wood outlines the wider picture…   

It’s chemistry, alchemy, pieces falling together at the same time. How can you effectively explain other essential moments in film history, like the German New Wave? Sometimes these things are just moments in time, linked to specific political, social or cultural situations. It’s not only that there were a bunch of film-makers. There were also actors, cinematographers, production designers, producers . . . Rosa Bosch, producer, The Devil’s Backbone

Enjoying phenomenal critical and commercial success in quick succession, Amores Perros and Y tu mamá también alerted the eyes of the world to the riches to be found in Mexican cinema. The former marked the audacious directorial debut of Alejandro González Iñárritu; the latter was the work of Alfonso Cuarón, a more experienced filmmaker returning home for a personal project, after a fruitful Hollywood excursion. Both films featured the poster-boy looks and electrifying screen presence of Gael García Bernal; each was confident, stylishly shot and structurally complex. Moreover, these films were thematically provocative in their treatment of prescient social issues, and thrillingly forthright in their willingness to address the ills afflicting contemporary Mexican society.

“The global media wasted little time in predicting an exciting new wave”

The global media, ever eager to pinpoint a new trend, wasted little time in devoting many column inches to predicting an exciting new wave, or buena onda, and Mexican cinema immediately became its darling. However, a more informed assessment of film production in Mexico, largely through the pages of industry periodicals such as Screen International and Variety, soon revealed a harsher and somewhat paradoxical reality; and in turn the headlines just as quickly became epitaphs. Attention shifted to Argentina – a country reeling from economic collapse – and yet still able to sustain a profitable cinema industry and nurture the careers of emerging talents such as Pablo Trapero (El Bonaerense, 2002, and Familia Rodante, 2006) and Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga, 2001, and La Niña Santa, 2004).


On the one hand there existed an undeniable surplus of young, formally daring creative talent, whose rise to prominence coincided with an emerging generation of Mexican cinema-goers thirsting for intelligent, identity-affirming, locally made product. Having endured a period of relative famine throughout the 1980s and for much of the early 1990s, Mexican audiences had, for the most part, given up on Mexican cinema, preferring instead to pay to see the numerous American productions that were filling the screens at the increasingly popular multiplex cinemas springing up throughout the country. Now, though, they once more had a national cinema to be optimistic about, one that matched if not bettered the films imported from across the border; a cinema with its own stars, its own high production values, and its own characters and concerns. These Mexican audiences were once again able to recognize themselves, their hopes, aspirations and troubles, on screen.

“No subject was taboo, no narrative too complex, in the continued search for an authentic means of expression”

Facilitating the aspirations of filmmakers and audiences alike was a new entrepreneurial spirit among private investors and producers, a good number of whom had valiantly struggled under the closed-shop mentality of previous administrations, taking the crumbs that fell occasionally from the table of the state-controlled industry. Prepared to invest time, energy and money on unconventional projects that were not, in the majority of instances, mere local variations on American genre pictures, they soon understood that financial autonomy from the existing government institutions also accorded formal and ideological liberty. No subject was taboo, no narrative too complex, in the continued search for an authentic means of expression and the need to address directly the ever-present issue of what it meant to be Mexican.

Conversely, and severely undermining these outwardly fertile conditions, was the unfavourable distribution of the peso at the box office, a distribution that made recouping costs for private producers almost impossible. Without government-initiated tax incentives, and confronted by escalating production costs and prints and advertising budgets, private producers faced an arduous task even getting an independent feature off the ground. With the eyes of the world looking on, it became all too apparent that the Mexican cinema industry was beset by structural problems so deep rooted and irreparable that they threatened to place a foot to the throat of what had briefly been a tantalizing renaissance.


My book – compounded of extensive interviews with a rich diversity of leading lights and industry professionals, edited into a narrative interspersed with linking prose – is an attempt to offer a clear perspective on the current aesthetic and economic climate, while also contextualizing contemporary Mexican cinema in relation to its own frequently brilliant but equally troubled past. By the same token, a film such as Amores Perros did not emerge from a vacuum and so it is essential that Contemporary Mexican Cinema touch on some of its key antecedents and the social, political, technical and individual and collective creative forces that helped give birth to it.

“A sense of kinship, encouragement and responsibility has helped to sustain Mexican cinema in times both good and bad”

A constantly shifting environment confronts today’s Mexican film industry professionals. The clearest and most alarming example of this is the now thwarted plans of Mexican President, Vicente Fox, to extinguish state involvement in cinema by closing the Mexican Film Institute (imcine), calling time on Mexico’s leading film school, the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (the institution that trained many of the people with whom I spoke), and selling off for real-estate-development purposes the legendary Studios Churubusco.

The howls of outrage that greeted Fox’s proposals – proposals that were perceived as direct attacks on culture and identity and that would remove the last barriers to American cultural domination – is evidence of the strength of spirit and the feeling of community within the Mexican cinema fraternity. Just as González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro – the directors perhaps most popularly associated with recent Mexican cinema, whose high profiles have seen them assume ambassadorial roles – are all close friends and frequent advisers on each other’s works. This sense of kinship, encouragement and responsibility has helped to sustain Mexican cinema in times both good and bad.

Viva México!

Jason Wood

Jason Wood is a curator, filmmaker and writer whose previous books for Faber include The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema (first edition), Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons and New British Cinema: From Submarine to 12 Years a Slave (with Ian Haydn Smith). Wood has also written 100 Road Movies and 100 American Independent Films for the BFI. He holds a professorship at Manchester School of Art.

The revised and updated edition of The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema is available from 3 June

Images, from top: Jason Wood. Photo credit Rebecca Lupton; ROMA, still; The Chambermaid, still

Posted on 01/06/2021 by thedoublenegative