Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Guerrilla Filmmaking

By Amy Smith

APRIL 12, 1999:  It's lunchtime in Los Angeles and Nettie Wild has lost her wallet. Anyone else might be stressing out over this lunch-hour calamity, because a girl's got to eat, but the Canadian filmmaker has more on her mind than a missing billfold. Wild is preparing for the L.A. opening of her documentary, A Place Called Chiapas. Wild's Chiapas hit New York's Film Forum late last year, and has since leapfrogged its way into various markets under the Zeitgeist Films distribution label. On Friday, the movie comes to Austin for a limited run at the Dobie Theatre.

In a telephone interview, Wild talked with almost breathless excitement about Chiapas, a blood-sweat-and-tears project filmed over eight months between June 1996 and February 1997. It was an endeavor that proved both treacherous and life-affirming. "This was truly a labor of love," she explains, recalling the days spent slogging through rain-soaked forests to far-flung villages. Once, Wild and her intrepid film crew were nearly swept off their feet trying to forge a rapidly rising river while hoisting heavy equipment over their heads. "It looked like a B-grade movie," she recalls, "except we were in it." And then there was the time paramilitary soldiers threatened the lives of the Mexican members of Wild's film crew -- off-camera, of course. But Wild and company stayed tough. "You have to be really smitten to hang in there with these kinds of politically charged stories where the stakes are very, very high."

Indeed, the stakes are made apparent in vivid detail as Wild, who co-wrote and narrated the script, takes us on a journey to Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico, where an army of indigenous Indians made history on January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. "In Canada," Wild, as narrator, intones, "we debated the Free Trade Agreement. Here in Chiapas, they went to war over it." The film traces the uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, led by Subcommandante Marcos, a charismatic, Internet-savvy intellectual from Mexico City, who sparked the revolt of Indians seeking to reclaim their lives and their land by taking control of five towns and more than 500 ranches. Chiapas hasn't been a pretty picture since. Heavily armed paramilitary forces (with which the Mexican government denies its alignment) have kept up their aggressive opposition to the Zapatista movement.

In telling what Wild calls a "whale of a story," the filmmaker, with a background in journalism and theatre, holds nothing back in her attempt to explain the making, and the consequences, of an indigenous guerrilla uprising. Wild is not afraid to ask questions, and she does so in a point-blank yet utterly nonthreatening style. She interviews paramilitary soldiers, Zapatistas, refugees, once well-off landowners driven from their homes, and finally, the elusive Marcos. Like other Latino leaders before him -- Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Fidel Castro -- Marcos, too, is a bit of a ham. He gallantly poses for French magazine covers, and he mesmerizes crowds with his perfectly pitched stories of how it is necessary to change the world in order to survive. Children clamor for autographs; women bill and coo at his feet like colorful peacocks. The men hang on Marcos' words and stare gravely ahead, their eyes fixed on the future.

These emotions of fear and despair and hope are set against a beautiful backdrop of southern Mexico, where milky veils of mist drape lovingly over lush jungles. The eagle-sharp eyes of Kirk Tougas, who shares cinematography credit with Wild, captures the villagers in startlingly clear angles: the gnarled, bare feet that look as though they sprouted from the earth; the woman raising a crudely made ax over her head and bringing it down in one cool, swift slice; the mother nursing her child; the smiling, toothless woman. At times, it is easy to forget you are watching a documentary about true-to-life struggles.

Wild credits film editor Manfred Becker for artfully trimming eight months of footage down to 93 minutes. Wild was originally in the market for a Spanish-speaking Mexican editor, but then cheerfully settled on Becker, a German Canadian. "He brought to this project a fresh pair of eyes," she says. "He was relentless about putting together a dramatic piece. He would always tell me, if there is footage that doesn't tell the story well, you have to cut. It was painful," she says, "but very fulfilling in the end."

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