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X500
X500Courtesy of Visit Films, via CIFF

Five Mexican films that aren’t about drug and gangs

As the Los Cabos International Film Festival kicks off, one strand focuses on films about modern Mexican life

Recent drug war films like 2015’s Sicario, Cartel Land, and Kingdom of Shadows paint all of Mexico with the same mucky brush. The heightened drama of warring cartels is hard to pass up for any director. Yet, with this unrelenting spate of releases that gain international attention, Mexico is being bogged down by stereotypical associations with drug factions and ‘Murica’s threats of The Wall.

The country has so much more to offer audiences, as the Los Cabos International Film Festival proves with its México Primero section. Featuring Mexican-set films from Mexican filmmakers, the films on show are riotous portraits of a diverse Mexico, from documentaries about erotic dancers to stories about an immigrant finding an adopted family in gay punks in the capital. Here are five films – some lifted from CIFF’s Primero strand – that stick Mexico under the microscope,  in all of its Mezcal-drenched glory.

BEAUTIES OF THE NIGHT (2016)

Eight years in the making, Beauties of the Night documents the washed-up burlesque stars of the 70s and 80s in Mexico. At the height of their careers, they lapped up rivers of champagne and shook their tasseled tatas on stage for anyone holding a ticket. Director María José Cuevas captures the thrillingly camp stories of these dancers – Olga Breeskin, Lyn May, Rossy Mendoza, Wanda Seux, and Princesa Yamal – in their flagging years. Through archive footage and candid interviews, these five women reflect on a career in erotica and what beauty means to them now.

X500 (2016)

Director Juan Andrés Arango yokes three separate stories to humanise the tribulations of three teenage immigrants for X500. Alex is deported from America to Colombia, where he finds his neighbourhood is taken over by criminals. Maria relocates from Manila to Montreal to live with her grandmother, and realises how greatly it diverges from her expectations. The last of the three, David, relocates from a small indigenous community to Mexico City and befriends a gay punk who shows him how to rock a mohawk. Altogether, Arango deftly weaves their struggles of finding ways to belong into a powerful tapestry.

AFTER LUCÍA (2013)

Bullying is taken to extremes in Michel Franco’s cinematic warning. When Alejandra’s mother dies, her and her father move from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City. Settling into her new school, Alejandra attends a party where she has sex with José, the local catch. Distantly aware that he’s filming their bathroom bonk with his mobile, she becomes the victim of a hump and dump, publicly shamed when the video is circulated throughout the school. The abuse – both physical and sexual – escalates from there, and Alejandra, instead of turning to her father for help, stifles her pain. The film is an intense but grim reality of modern communication and abuse suffered at the hands of peers.

DESIERTO (2015)

This adrenaline hijack will get your heart racing, not least because it’s a possibly accurate depiction of how border jumpers are dealt with. One man’s quest to join his son in the States gets derailed by a vigilante one-man border patrol. Along with a group of men and women hoping for a better life in the US, Moises (Gael García Bernal) just wants to return his son’s teddy bear to him. What is already a complicated mission becomes life-threatening when the group, stranded in desert-like conditions, must fend for their lives as they get picked off by this second amendment blowhard. Alfonso Cuarón and Jónas Cuarón, the father and son filmmaking team behind Gravity (2013), make this into the John Wick of border security.

WILLIAM, THE NEW JUDO MASTER (2016)

Docu/fiction hybrid William, The New Judo Master is a clever blend of fiction and reality that pays homage to filmmakers like Werner Herzog and Luis Buñuel. Set in Tijuana, it’s an abstract take on an endless life cycle. This is more of an existential journey than an 80 minute linear narrative, so it may be best for “enhanced” viewing, if you get me. But directors Ricardo Silva & Omar Guzmán turn out a mindfuck that questions reality and acts as a gripping search for love.

Beauties of the Night, X500 and William, The New Judo Master will screen at the Los Cabos International Film Festival November 9 - 13