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El Velador: The Night Watchman 2011


Distributed by Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by Natalia Almada
Directed by Natalia Almada
DVD, color, 72 min., Spanish with English subtitles

Sr. High-General Adult
Crime, Death and Dying, Latin American Studies, Political Science, Sociology

Date Entered: 07/13/2012

Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

The documentary El Velador: The Night Watchman shadows Martin on his graveyard shift, from dusk to dawn. He guards the Jardines del Humaya cemetery in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico. Culiacán is the capital of Sinaloa, the Mexican state infamous for its narcotic drug trafficking. The cemetery is rapidly filling with casualties from the war on drugs. Director Natalia Almada filmed El Velador over the course of a year, beginning in July 2009. It is comprised of long takes that are typical of the slow cinema genre. Almada’s “Filmmaker Statement” on the PBS P.O.V. web site explains the pace of the film: “I wanted to pause, and I wanted others to pause and be suspended in that place and moment where violence has just occurred and where violence is imminent.”

The documentary depicts the quotidian, ordinary routine of the living caretakers and construction workers as they labor among the memorials to the dead. Martin hoses down the cemetery’s dusty dirt road and collects aluminum cans. He gazes into the dark night sky and listens to newscasts emanating from a small television set that beams like a lantern in the darkness. Ingeniously, the flickering television broadcasts provide the political context for the film. Almada’s editing choices include a newscast reporting the brutal statistics: three years into the Calderón presidency, there have been 21,915 organized crime-related deaths in Mexico. Another newscast features a former drug czar of the United States, General Barry McCaffrey, asserting that the United States should give Mexico more support for its war against the drug cartels before it’s too late.

El Velador depicts the daytime shift at Jardines del Humaya also. Construction workers lay bricks and apply plaster to monuments. The wife of a dead policeman compulsively cleans a pristine glass and marble mausoleum as her daughter dances outside. A food vendor sells coconut water to funeral attendees. Fifty minutes into the film, as workmen matter-of-factly mix cement, a grief-stricken mother wails “mi hijo” (my son). The deceptively peaceful film turns heart-wrenching. Its violence and grief lie just below the surface, like a corpse in a shallow grave. Fifty-eight minutes in, gruesome events intrude upon the serenity of the burial ground when we learn that the head of the cartel, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the “boss of bosses,” has been executed.

As in her previous documentary El General (2009), Almada has created a work that is highly personal yet also political and revealing of social conditions. Even after death social class differences persist, as is made apparent by the visual contrast between the makeshift memorials of plastic flowers laid on the dirt and the ornate glass and marble mausoleums. Almada’s depth of feeling for her native Mexico is evident in her poetic cinematography of the Sinaloan sky and in her patient observation of Martin and the other workers. El Velador: The Night Watchman provides educators with a unique way to present the drug war to students. Alamada’s film serves as an oblique yet powerful indictment of the violence and a sensitive look at its social consequences.