VOCES on PBS concludes with the premiere of El Poeta, a remarkable and compelling film that tells the story of renowned Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who ignited mass protests and an ongoing international movement for peace after the brutal killing of his 24-year-old son Juan Francisco – collateral damage in a drug war that has left more than 100,000 dead or missing since 2006. After his son’s death in 2011, and with no end to the bloodshed in sight, Sicilia called on the Mexican people to protest the government’s policies, bringing more than 100,000 people to the capital to demand that the government address the devastating impact of the militarized drug war. Filmed over the course of three years, El Poeta follows the journey of Sicilia and his movement as they make their way from Mexico’s most embattled cities – Juarez, Chihuahua, Durango and others – to the U.S.
After the brutal murder of his 24-year old son, renowned Mexican poet Javier Sicilia ignites an international movement for peace, protesting a drug war that has left more than 70,000 dead since 2006. Tell us about the journey of the film. What inspired you to tell this remarkable story?
Loteria is committed to exploring the intersections of institutional power, civil & human rights, and political activism by looking at the crucial issues of our time though deep character studies. For these reasons and more, we responded to Sicilia’s story from the moment we first learned about it (in a NYT piece entitled “Can This Poet Save Mexico.”) We were well aware of the deep and often troubling connections between the US and Mexico and welcomed an opportunity to explore them through this deeply personal story. After interviewing Javier once, we knew what a profoundly deep well he was and how important it is to share with a US audience.
Javier Silicia provided a voice to the voiceless. He inspired many that where too afraid to step out of the shadows to march with him and protest injustices. Why do you think he risked so much for this cause?
Javier says the death of his son was the last straw: “The moment of my son’s death… it was something about my country… as if my son’s death gave a name and face to the statistics.” Sicilia didn’t intend to start a movement. When the cameras swirled around him in his moment of grief, he simply expressed his pain and outrage. But by doing so, he gave voice to tens of thousands others who had been silenced – most often – by fear of retribution by the cartels or police. “We need people in the streets!” Sicilia told the cameras. “Together we can fill the streets without fear.” Overnight the invisible victims of the drug war flooded the streets, friends and family members carrying enlarged photos of those that had gone missing. The movement was born.
Javier Sicilia, as a poet, had an enormous impact on the way Mexico’s citizens mobilized to form this largely influential caravan. Why do you think poets are so influential in Mexico? Do you think this is also the case in the US?
Language and literature remain pivotal themes in Javier Sicilia’s story, both as a celebrated poet and as a political activist. Sicilia discovered literature at age four through his father, a poet, and remembers being “fascinated with the rhythm, the way my father’s voice was imprinted with his way of interpreting poetic rhythms, [...] the presence of those images.” As a teenager he began writing poems, and eventually became known for poems infused with mystic Christianity. In 2009, he was awarded the country’s most prestigious poetry award, the Aguascalientes National Award in Poetry. When his son Juan Sicilia Ortega was killed by drug traffickers last year, he was a known figure to many. The government had to treat his son’s death differently, they had to acknowledge he was an innocent, and his public grieving resonated across class lines in Mexico. Sadly, Javier Sicilia has stopped writing poetry. “Poetry doesn’t exist in me anymore,” Sicilia reportedly told his friends at his son’s funeral. A book of poems he had begun writing before the tragedy and that would include a poem he wrote for Juan remains unpublished because Sicilia, as he puts it, hasn’t since “dared to work on it.”
While there have long been and continue to be profoundly influential poets in the US that play an important role in American society and in politics, for example in every presidential inauguration a poem is read aloud by a poet (such as Maya Angelou and Robert Frost), there isn’t the widespread deep mainstream connection to poets in the north the way there is in Mexico.
It is a very important time for Mexico. Its citizens are mobilizing, becoming unafraid, and marching for an end to drug related crime throughout the country. What do you hope your film will add to Mexico’s quest for justice?
El Poeta sheds light on key issues that mainstream media tend to ignore – the issues raised by the caravan that are still very much in the need of attention. The mexican drug war has largely been – in media – a story of corruption, bloodbath, mayhem, darkness. We wanted to explore the war from a place of personal loss and national grief- put a humanistic lens on the crisis so that an US audience could better understand what is at stake, and what our role in the war is.
Can you speak at all about the future of the caravans? Where is the peace movement now?
“At the present, the movement continues to work on behalf of victims. Recently, in commemoration of its fourth anniversary, on March 28th, the movement publicly called an electoral boycott to the upcoming elections in June, as an act of disapproval to the political class over its inability to govern and especially to the incompetence to give peace and justice to the Mexicans.
Apparently, along with Global Exchange and other organizations the Movement is planning a new Caravan for 2016 that will depart from Centro America to Washington DC. In fact the parents of missing students of Ayotzinapa have undertaken a Caravan down to Centro America. The agenda of the Movement remains the same, with the six points that were read in the Zocalo, from the beginning:
(On May 8 2011 the Movement proposed a National Pact: The first requirement of this document is truth and justice for victims’ families, in which they are provided with proper investigations and information. Secondly, it calls for the end to the militaristic view of Calderón’s strategy by emphasizing a new security strategy, which features an increased defense of human rights. Thirdly, the pact demands that the government fight corruption in order to solve the discrepancies found within mainstream institutions — notably the judicial system. Fourth, the government is called to combat the economic roots of organized crime. Fifth, it insists on a new social policy for young people, in which education, not violence, is the answer. Finally, the Pact concludes with the need for a more participatory and representative democracy).”
What difficulties did you encounter during the making of your film?
There were language barriers, funding challenges, international co production issues, but all worth it – we are honored to have been able to tell a piece of Javier’s story.
What do you hope your audiences will take away from the film?
We hope that El Poeta will help educate the public about the implications of US policies for Mexico and spur public discussion and debate about the caravan’s core issues beyond Mexico.
Why is public media the best platform to showcase this story?
Among other things, public media’s mission is to inform, inspire and educate. We think El Poeta will do all three, addressing in an engaging way a crucial issue under reported in commercial TV.
Can you tell us any projects you’re currently working on?
Loteria is currently in production on THE RETURN film and the accompanying social impact transmedia campaign, The Return Project. The film focuses on the landmark passage of Proposition 36, the first time in history that U.S. citizens voted to shorten sentences of the currently incarcerated. Within days, the reintegration of thousands of “lifers” – men and women once expecting to spend their lives in prison – was underway. THE RETURN weaves together a handful of close-to-the-bone narratives of characters on the front lines of this unprecedented shift: prisoners suddenly freed, families turned upside down, attorneys and judges wrestling with an untested law and reentry providers negotiating unfathomable transitions. Taken together, this constellation of stories yields an illuminating meta-narrative of an unfolding and historic reform, exploring what it can teach a nation reckoning with mass incarceration.
As part of the project, we have a New York Times Op-Doc coming out soon that features a young man imprisoned for attempted murder as a teen who – 20 years later – picks up “lifers” with no family or friends and helps them navigate the vulnerable and overwhelming first 24 hours of their release.
About the Filmmakers
Loteria Films founder Kelly Duane de la Vega’s feature documentaries have screened at hundreds of film festivals worldwide, opened theatrically across the country and broadcast nationally on POV/PBS and the Documentary Channel. Her work has received the Writer’s Guild of America’s Best Documentary Screenplay Award, Gotham Independent Film’s Best Documentary Award and multiple national Emmy nominations. A recent Sundance, HBO and Film Independent Fellow, Duane de la Vega’s film Better This World won Best Documentary Feature at the San Francisco International and Sarasota Film Festivals, received an IDA Creative Achievement Award and was selected to screen at MoMA’s documentary fortnight. Her feature documentary Monumental: David Brower’s Fight for Wild America opened theatrically nationwide, was acquired by the Smithsonian for its permanent collection, and is used by more than 50 universities internationally. Duane de la Vega also has a history of producing powerful short format work for The New York Times Op-Docs, Mother Jones, and the Independent Film Channel, among others. She teaches the course Documentary Forms at the University of California, Berkeley.
Loteria Films principal Katie Galloway is a documentary director, producer, and writer whose films explore the intersections of institutional power, civil and human rights, and political activism. Better This World (POV, 2011-2012) won the WGA’s Best Documentary Screenplay Award, Best Documentary at the Gotham Independent Film Awards and an International Documentary Association Creative Recognition Award and is currently being developed as a narrative feature. Galloway’s feature documentary Prison Town, USA (POV, 2007) was developed as a fiction television series by IFC, for which she co-wrote the first three episodes. She produced and reported an award-winning trio of films on the American criminal justice system for PBS FRONTLINE: Snitch, Requiem for Frank Lee Smith, and The Case for Innocence. A two-time Sundance Fellow and HBO/Film Independent Documentary Fellow, Galloway taught documentary production at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and now teaches in Media Studies at U.C. Berkeley, where she was also recently the filmmaker in residence at the Journalism School’s Investigative Reporting Program. She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley with an emphasis on Political Psychology and Public Law.5200 Views