Ambulante's Post-COVID Reemergence: A Renewed Commitment to Community, But a Divide between Leadership and Workers
When opening her masterclass at Visions du Réel in Switzerland last April, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson named each member of the technical crew on set. “What I often find upsetting with cinema is that we forget to acknowledge all the people it takes to make these moments together.” Anyone who has worked in a film festival will also tell you that a festival’s “magic” is a lot of collective labor. It is the often invisibilized workforce that allows others to gather in celebration of cinema, and it is their labor that produces the cultural capital underlying every film festival.
Twelve years ago, Documentary wrote about the then five-year-old Ambulante Documentary Film Festival. At that time, the festival toured for three months across 16 Mexican states with 50 documentaries, with a team of 10 people—building an audience for documentaries in a country that desperately needed them, trying to decentralize culture in Mexico, and inspiring audiences to confront realities they saw on screen, then critiquing and transforming them.
By 2019, under Executive Director Paulina Suárez, the organization had expanded its projects to include a tour, a filmmaking training program, a separate screening exhibition series, an exhibition, and programming training program, a distribution unit, and a program designed to support the reconstruction of communities affected by the 2017 earthquake that struck Chiapas. A team of 47 staff, 236 volunteers, and more than 20 collaborators produced 810 activities in 67 days and exhibited 181 films in theaters, plazas, museums, mountains, small and big cinemas—wherever they could set up a screen. For its 15th anniversary, in 2020, the organization planned to visit eight states and exhibit 151 films for 71 days, but the pandemic forced them to postpone the tour. In little over a month, a 30-day online festival was announced—Ambulante en Casa—to alleviate audiences from the drudgery of lockdowns. Sixty-seven documentaries streamed 102,130 times.
Producing an itinerant film festival across Mexico is not easy. “Imagine the complexity of producing a film festival, which usually lasts one week, with its workload multiplied several times, over three-and-a-half months!” a former Ambulante employee says. This herculean work is done by a highly committed and passionate team that has always worked tirelessly to make possible one of the most beloved film festivals in Latin America. From fundraising to selecting films that will connect with audiences, to transforming public plazas into cinemas, to communicating the festival's multiple initiatives, to recruiting and training volunteers—the Ambulante team has done it all. Since its inception, Ambulante has committed to building audiences for documentary films in a country where decentralizing culture and taking it beyond the country’s big cities is not a political priority. Ambulante’s multiple initiatives have made it an agent of change and transformation. In 2019, the organization received the Prince Claus Award, for its ground-breaking work in the fields of culture and development.
Like most other cultural institutions, Ambulante was adversely affected by the pandemic. In late July 2020, the staff, most of whom were independent contractors, was furloughed in a Zoom meeting. In a two-minute briefing, Suárez announced the organization was shutting down. A pause was needed, she said, to rethink the ways of the organization, and determine which projects could be kept afloat. Workers whose contracts had expired were not notified of this decision until the rumors about the organization’s closing spread. Feeling helpless, and in an attempt to have their voices heard, some workers, who remained anonymous, drafted a document and delivered it to the press. The resultant article, “La directiva de Ambulante pudo proteger a su equipo, pero no quiso: El Otro Crew” (“Ambulante’s directors could have protected their team, but didn’t want to: The Other Crew”) was published on La Jornada, one of Mexico’s widest read news outlets, in mid-August, pointing to the massive dismissal of employees.
“Apparently, they had consulted human resources advisors before taking the decision,” the workers’ statement to the press read. “But we were not made a part of this resolution; there was no negotiation around reducing salaries, firing, etc. Even within a global pandemic, we were highly committed to the organization. There was so much of that statement that was incomprehensible, but we did not have any opportunity to try and discuss things with them.”
Despite the impact its closure had had on its workers and allies, the organization hadn’t released an official announcement. “It is because of what the organization stands for, and what it means to us, that we cannot be silent,” the statement continued. “Of course, we are afraid of the cultural giant that Ambulante is. It has immense power within the industry and all our careers are tied to it.” The workers’ fear of speaking publicly shows how much power the organization has amassed within an industry where cultural capital is concentrated within a very small and tight circle. As independent contractors, these workers work at multiple festivals, often forming close bonds with the leadership and sometimes even collaborating on decision-making levels, thereby creating power dynamics that make it difficult to demand accountability when working conditions turn unfavorable. For this article, for example, all sources requested anonymity and many declined to participate, having witnessed the backlash against other staff who had publicly stated their opinion on the matter. Some simply did not want to complicate their relationship with the organization. Within working conditions that are toxic and unsustainable for workers, taking public oppositional stances makes them doubly vulnerable to not being hired, or being known as “difficult” collaborators within an industry where everyone knows and works with everyone else.
Through the social media dialog that followed Ambulante’s closing, a schism was clear: Those who supported the festival’s actions were in positions of power within the cultural landscape, and those who supported the employees had similar jobs. Workers were calling attention to abusive working conditions, and the cultural elite was defending themselves.
The organization released an official statement on its website four days after the newspaper report, citing the dire and uncertain economic situation driven by the pandemic and their desire to focus their resources to benefit filmmakers, audiences, their training programs and civic society. “Ambulante is a collective good and it is a project that will transcend us. We will guard the organization with a huge commitment to its legacy and with our eyes set on its future,” read the unsigned statement.
The crisis, however, as some employees claim, predates the pandemic, to 2016, when the executive directorship of the organization changed. The perception of the following years varies. “These were two very different work environments, from when Elena Fortes was the director to when the organization was led by Paulina Suárez,” says one former staff member. “Not everything is black and white. The two directors were very different from each other.”
While some were very happy to have had full-time jobs with a festival; many had joined the organization as interns, some of them doing 900+ hours of unpaid work, and then becoming core members of the team—highly inspired, motivated, and mentored by more senior workers. “Everything was a chance to learn and grow, and it was very inspiring, everyone was receptive and it did not matter if you were an intern, they were willing to teach you,” says a former intern, who later worked at the organization around 2014. “What called out to me the most about Ambulante is its social impact, and its care for the humane side of things. I thought that everything I can give to the world, Ambulante enabled me to give. I thought real change could be engineered by the Ambulante’s community.” Of course, none of this change-wrangling was easy. “I worked all day, sometimes not even sleeping, just taking a shower and going back to work,” says another former employee. “The work was simply too much. I felt overwhelmed but also was very, very happy with what I was doing—at least in the beginning. Everyone was feeling like that, working nonstop to change the world through cinema, and that feeling was beautiful.” Following the organizational shut-down, some workers were rehired, and new staff arrived to fill the positions for those not considered for a rehire within the organization’s “resilience plan.” The basis of this rehiring was never made clear. “I can’t even tell if I was actually fired in the beginning because I was rehired,” a current employee says. “It was extremely difficult in those months—there was rent to be paid, and a colleague was about to have a baby.” This person gave birth, was rehired but then quit to pursue better working conditions and stability. “We were supposed to be a family and it hurt to be that easily forgotten,” says the current employee. “I don’t know why I was rehired over the others who weren’t.”
Ambulante announced their fall program in late September 2020, with their online screenings, filmmaking training program, and other activities continuing through 2021, including a new collaboration with BlackStar Film Festival, a partnership with Netflix, and a book presentation. The 2021 tour, running through five states in two months, attracted 14,230 attendees. “For people who don't work at the organization, the magic of the project remains intact,” notes a current employee. “I too believe it is noble and incredible. It is bigger than any of us who have kept it afloat all these years.”
The organization continues its vision “to build together a more critical, empathic, open and committed society” through documentaries and announced its 2022 tour, set to visit five states from August 31 through October 9, with in-person activities, online programming, and a national television broadcast. The lineup is phenomenal, but for those still working at Ambulante, the organization’s transformation is not as seamless as it wants to present. Some shifts in priorities continue to seem out of place. “I understand that the organization has a director leading the path and of course, I will be doing my job professionally, but that does not mean I agree with everything,” a current Ambulante employee says. “It would definitely be easier if we had more communication about where the organization is going.” But another employee adds, “It has been amazing. Going back to in-person screenings, seeing the impact on 500 people and hearing the exchange of ideas after a documentary screening are incredibly satisfying. I keep doing my work but realize this is not tenable. But it is hard to leave.”
Ambulante’s impact and legacy are immeasurable, it goes beyond reports, awards or accolades. Numbers barely do justice to the importance of the organization, and it is evident in the many anecdotes and memories the interviewees shared for this article; there is an immeasurable impact that makes volunteers return year after year. Everyone recalled building strong collaborative relationships among their coworkers, of producing screenings and being moved by children’s reactions to cinema, of being able to see and live different realities, of feeling embraced by communities. But one can’t forget the effect of power that is evident in the fear that each one of the interviewees showed.
The case of Ambulante is just one of the many examples of the complex situations our field is reckoning with. The questions being raised are that of power, who wields it and what happens to those who get left behind. What in the immediate moment can seem to be a PR crisis that needs a quick fix, should be seen as an opportunity to open up a dialogue with the staff, a chance to ask them what they need to keep serving the mission of places like Ambulante.
The field is constantly demanding accountability from its makers, but there needs to be an expansion of that idea. How is the industry treating its workers? “Ambulante is well aware of the structural challenges that cultural workers face in Mexico,” says Executive Director Paulina Suárez, via email. “These challenges have, for decades, been ignored by the industry and by public policies that exclude cultural workers from the protections established in national labor legislation, and more recently, have been aggravated by the pandemic.” She also cites the launch of a labor advocacy working group that seeks to transform public policies for the benefit of the industry, and guarantee benefits and protections for culture workers. It is, however, unclear how much details around this have been shared with the current staff. “We continue to comply with our contractual terms,” she adds. “For every collaboration, Ambulante offers competitive salaries and full benefits, which is extremely rare in our field [in Mexico]."
The cases where there is a clear wedge between leadership and staff have sparked very difficult but overdue conversations to establish limits and boundaries within a system that has sustained itself and thrived on unfair labor conditions. It is not an intent to harm, but to recover collectively, collaboratively.
Mariana Sanson was born and raised in Mexico City and is deeply interested in women’s representation, documentary intersectionality, working towards the creation of a more equitable documentary industry, and society’s relationship with media. She worked at Ambulante from 2013-19, and now works with Chicken & Egg Pictures.
She is a 2022 Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow. The Fellowship program is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov.