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Documentary Plays With Our Blind Spots: The Transcendent Cinema of Natalia Almada

By Mariana Sanson

Still from 'Users,' depicting an owl staring in the darkness. Courtesy of Icarus Films

An Interview With Natalia Almada

For over two decades, Natalia Almada has combined artistic expression with social inquiry to make films that are both personal reflections and critical social commentaries, focusing on topics ranging from contemporary Mexico to our relationship with technology. Her work straddles the boundaries of documentary, fiction, and experimental film. Along the way, the Mexican American filmmaker has garnered accolades such as Sundance’s Documentary Directing Award (twice), a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and an Ariel Award nomination. Her films have screened at A-list festivals such as Sundance, NYFF, Tribeca, and Cannes Directors’ Fortnight. On the occasion of the theatrical release of her latest feature Users (2021), New York’s BAM Film is presenting a complete retrospective of Almada’s work, running June 9–15, 2023. Users is currently playing theatrically in NY and LA, before expanding to select other theaters.

When Almada was a young girl living with her mom in Chicago, she asked for a camera. Her mom gifted her a 35mm camera, and afterward, she walked around the city taking pictures. This first camera eventually led to an MFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design and her first film, the short documentary All Water Has a Perfect Memory (2001). The short film is an audiovisual exploration of Almada’s bicultural family’s painful memories 20-plus years after the tragic death of her older sister. 

After making the film, which is based on her family’s audio recordings, Almada’s father gave her audio tapes that her grandmother had recorded decades earlier with the intention of writing a book about her father, the polemic former president of Mexico Plutarco Elias Calles. These audio tapes became the impetus for El General (2009), within which Almada juxtaposes archives of her great-grandfather’s complex legacy, her grandmother’s memories, and her own curious and insightful 16mm observations of Mexico City after the 2006 elections, accompanied by her poetic narration.

Almada’s filmmaking is also significant for its portrayal of her multilayered home state, Sinaloa. In her breakout documentary feature Al Otro Lado (2005), the troubador-like corrido songs narrate the story of both traffickers and migrants. Famous corrido musicians (Los Tigres del Norte, Jenni Rivera, and Jessie Morales) provide a backdrop for Magdiel, a young fisherman and struggling aspiring musician. Magdiel’s circumstances center on the experience of living in an extremely unequal country that forces him to choose between becoming a drug dealer or crossing the border to the U.S. to pursue a better life.

El Velador (2011) portrays the invisible but latent violence in an always-growing cemetery, where a man named Martin guards the extravagant mausoleums of young men who are casualties of Mexico's drug trade. Almada’s first (and currently, only) fiction film Everything Else (2016), is a portrait of a Mexico City government bureaucrat (played by Adriana Barraza). Directing fiction gave Almada the experience of working in a more controlled and higher-scale film production, which she brings to her most recent film Users (2021), a meditative and sharp analysis of our relationship with technology through motherhood.

On the eve of her film retrospective at BAM Film, Documentary had a conversation with Almada to talk about the connections between her films, her approach to memories and context, and questioning the ethics of documentary filmmaking. 

This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: Seeing your films together in a retrospective, we are able to zoom out and see the connections between them. El General, released in 2009, explored the past; El Velador, released in 2011, explored the present (a consequence of some of the themes explored in El General); and with Users, you explore the future of memory. What do you see when you consider your career as a filmmaker as a whole? 

NATALIA ALMADA: On one hand, I think it is an impossible question to answer because I see things that you do not see. Sometimes when I look back, the films mark different stages of my life. The span of years in which I was making them is encapsulated in the films. For example, El Velador takes me back to everything I lived while making it between 2009 and 2011. Maybe other people map out their lives differently, but for me, each film marks a chapter of my life.

What interests me is how memories are related to time. When we look back, when we look at the future, from which point of view are we looking? There is a phrase from Virginia Woolf that I have been thinking about a lot lately: “I now, I then.” It’s the idea that you are always looking at the past from where you are standing in the present—so the past is always changing. And when That idea is very interesting to me because the past is no longer something that can be fixed. Many times “documentary” wants to “fix” things: to say this happened like this, here are the witnesses and documents to prove it. But I like the more unstable idea: that we can only see the past through the lens of where we are now. I do feel that this idea about time, more than just memory, is in all my films. Then I wonder if that’s just the definition of cinema—cinema is time, and it is always related to time.