MEXICO CITY--A Luis Estrada film is not a riddle to decipher. The themes from the famous Mexican director come blaring at you with their high-beams on, usually from the opening credits.
Within the first minutes of his most famous film, the 2010 drug-war indictment “Infierno” (Hell), the main character gets deported, held up at gunpoint, robbed by police, and falls in with gangsters who have taken over his hometown; and it ends with blood dripping down the corrupt mayor’s podium and over Mexico’s eagle-and-serpent national symbols. In his 2006 film “Un Mundo Maravilloso” (A Wonderful World), about social inequality and globalization, his peasant protagonist finds himself stuck on a window ledge high up on the fictional World Financial Center, literally locked out from Mexico’s modernizing economy.
But the black-comedy satires that Estrada deals in have a fearless quality that takes aim at Mexico’s political class, including the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI) and the corruption, impunity, and violence he sees as embedded within it. Over the past 15 years, since his 1999 film "La Ley de Herodes" (Herod’s Law) about an extortionist PRI mayor, Estrada has established himself as one of Mexico’s most incisive social and political critics.
Mexican film directors have been on an exceptional run in recent years. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, whose first feature film, "Amores Perros," was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000, came out with the well-received "Birdman" this year. The more fantastically minded Guillermo Del Toro has directed movies such as "Hellboy" and "Pan’s Labyrinth." Last year, Alfonso Cuaron became the first Mexican to win the Oscar for best director for his film, "Gravity."
As those three have won fame in Hollywood, Estrada has kept his focus on his home country. He describes himself as passionate about information, “to levels a bit pathological,” reading up to five newspapers a day “to try to understand what is happening in this country and above all because I’m worried about where it’s going.”
This year, with "La Dictadura Perfecta" (The Perfect Dictatorship), he took on the presidency and the Mexican media. Estrada and his co-writer Jaime Sampietro came up with the film before Enrique Peña Nieto became president—bringing the PRI back to power after a 12-year hiatus—but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t about the man or the party. As the film declares: “In this story all the names are fictitious, the events suspiciously real. Any similarity with reality is not mere coincidence.”
The Mexican television giant, Televisa, had been a partner on the film, but then pulled out once executives saw it, and Estrada had to pay back the investment. Failing to find other backers, he partnered with a small art-film distributor. A company that was supposed to advertise the film on buses pulled out just before the launch.
But more than 4 million people have watched the trailer online and, despite the unconventional release, it went on to be the highest grossing Mexican film of the year and the third highest of all time. The film depicts a corrupt governor in cahoots with the mafia whose image is rehabilitated by a Mexican television network. The flattering coverage, including coupling him with one of their beautiful actresses, carries him to the presidency. (Peña Nieto, a telegenic former governor of Mexico State, also married a telenovela star.)
It has been a difficult stretch for Peña Nieto, who started his term trying to move the national narrative away from the drug war and towards his agenda of economic reforms, including opening up the country’s oil sector to foreign investment for the first time in decades. But the year ended with a slew of familiar problems. The disappearance of 43 teachers college students in Guerrero—allegedly at the hands of a local mayor and police aligned with a drug cartel—sparked months of nationwide protests and upheaval. At the same time it was revealed both the first lady and the finance minister bought homes from a favored contractor from Peña Nieto’s time as governor.
As another tumultuous year in Mexico comes to a close, we sat down with Luis Estrada to talk politics and filmmaking.
On the climate in Mexico for critical films
"Now it’s easier [to criticize the government], but not because of a desire or a political will of the government. It’s very interesting the way communication has changed in the past 15 years. If I use, as a reference, 'Herod’s Law,' compared with what has now occurred with 'The Perfect Dictatorship,' I think that the desire remains [by the government] to prevent showing a critical movie, a satire, with very clear references to institutions and people. It’s a curious thing: 'Herod’s Law' was the first film in the history of Mexican cinema that spoke about the PRI and the corruption and impunity that surrounded its reign for 70 years. 'The Perfect Dictatorship' is the first film in the history of Mexican cinema that satirizes the president. This sounds weird. Because in any real democracy—and we’ll talk about whether this country is a really a dictatorship or a democracy or what—this is something common, every day. If you are in the U.S., satires like 'Saturday Night Live,' or 'Family Guy,' or 'South Park,' are normal. In Mexico, as a product of its authoritarian tradition, for many decades, effectively, there was a clear censorship by the government."
"Before 'The Perfect Dictatorship' came out, I began to notice again a certain authoritarian intention to keep the film from being seen. I also discovered something else, that the world had changed a lot in those 15 years, in particular the power today of the Internet, the social networks....I’m not much in favor of globalization, but one of the few good and interesting things that globalization has given the world is that acts of authoritarianism are harder to keep silent. To exercise this control over what you can say, what you can’t say, what you can show. Therefore I feel that the great difference--rather than some great democratic awakening by the government--has more to do with society and the media, social media, that has changed the way people communicate about abuses of power."
On the genesis of "The Perfect Dictatorship"
"In 2011, after finishing 'Infierno,' I was thinking about what type of film I’d like to do, and I began to notice this phenomenon, that Peña Nieto was everywhere, all over the television, and they always spoke of him as the most efficient, most effective, most professional man,the person who managed his state the best, whose state was the safest and most prosperous, who was the most charismatic. And he appeared in all the news every day to a disproportionate degree. That’s where my suspicion began. This was before, from when he was governor...So for me, what did this imply? It implied that it was a process of manipulation by the media, a sector very important for society."
"You can’t forget that in this country, more than half of the population lives in poverty. And their only source, or their major source, of entertainment and information, is open television. They don’t have CNN, they don’t have the Internet, and it’s a sector very vulnerable to being manipulated by the power of television."
"There were several relevant things for making a film. He was the candidate of the PRI, and this implied a return or the perfect dictatorship. So with my screenwriter, Jaime Sampietro, who has written all my films, we began to talk about how this phenomenon is incredible and there isn’t a story about it. So we decided to write a film about the power of the media, about its manipulation, and about more than anything the restoration of a regime that we already knew."
On how he sees his role
"I’m not a political scientist, I’m not an analyst, I’m not a politician. I’m a film director, a screenwriter, who works with fiction, who works with satire. Black comedy. Dark humor. With exaggeration. I’m also a citizen. I’m also a person who has been worrying about this country and trying to understand it for many years. I’m passionate about history."
"Each one of these last four movies that we’ve been talking about, I did thinking the country had hit the bottom. That as bad as it was in that moment, it was impossible that things could get worse. I was naïve."
On the staying power of the protest movement over the disappearances in Guerrero
"I’m not too optimistic about all the manifestations of discontent that are going on. Because we’ve seen this before. And the Mexican political system has been very perverse in betting on people tiring out… You don’t have to be great political analyst to understand that what the government says has nothing to do with the problems that we’re living."
"In this country nobody gets punished, there aren’t consequences for acts of corruption, the phenomenon of the infiltration of organized crime in the politics is something that's been going on for many years in this country. The levels of violence that this government tried to sweep under the rug. With the participation and the agreement of many in the media."
"Right now, I don’t know if this is going to continue, this show of discontent, of anger. I’ve seen it at other historic moments in our country, and for one reason or another, things have worn out."
"In satirical terms, this country functions well as a perfect dictatorship. But the film is a satire, it’s not a dictatorship, much less a perfect one. But I don’t think we’re a democracy. What are we? Mexico is a plutocracy."
On President Peña Nieto's administration
"I think Peña Nieto is the guarantor of these powerful interests. These reforms of Peña Nieto that awakened so much optimism, all over the world, there were people in the media calling him the savior of the country, that this was 'Mexico's moment,' all of that. It was a farce. It was a farce. Why? Do you know how to play dominoes? Because what Peña Nieto did was to say, 'Gentleman, we are very discredited in how we've redistributing money. Let's share it again among all ourselves, but in a different way. Let's shuffle the dominoes. And each person will take theirs, but we'll be the same players."
On his impact in Mexico
"To me what’s been interesting in these four films -- what the films have woken up hasn't just been about entertainment, it's generated a debate, a collective reflection about our different problems. Each film has very clearly reflected a time, a place, but also has reflected who I am and how I see things. The four movies also had a simple message for the future: they say, 'Señores, things are bad. But they could become worse.' And in this, unfortunately, I’ve not been wrong."