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You don’t always need big or complicated ideas to turn what could have been a TV-ready reportage into a richly rewarding cinematic experience, as the documentary Devil’s Freedom (La libertad del Diablo) from Mexican director Everardo Gonzalez (Drought, El Paso) demonstrates.
The basic idea is simple: Gonzalez interviewed both perpetrators and victims (or sometimes their families) of the systemic violence that pervades practically all levels of Mexican society. But his parade of talking heads becomes something altogether more eerie and meaningful and simultaneously more individual and more abstract because all his interviewees wear masks, which guarantees a level of anonymity and thus frees them up emotionally. It also makes those who suffered and those who inflicted that suffering look almost exactly the same, suggesting in a simple but very effective manner that one is almost just as likely to end up on one side of a potentially lethal gun as the other.
This Berlinale Special title will not only appeal to festivals but also to theatrical and VOD distributors, especially in the Hispanosphere.
All interviewees wear flesh-colored masks made of tight-fighting fabric, similar to the compression masks worn by burn victims. They have small openings for the eyes, nose and mouth and almost look like flesh-colored skulls — except that they speak and move. Indeed, since the masks are practically skin-tight, it allows the viewers to still see something of the people’s expressions underneath, while the area under the eyes becomes moist or even wet when some of the subjects cry during their confessions or recollections.
Devil’s Freedom opens with several people — interviewees are never identified onscreen — talking about the fear instilled in them when either they became victims of violence or one or more of their loved ones disappeared. One of the many young girls describes the armed culprits that entered her family’s home as young and scared boys, high on drugs and probably just as nervous as their victims. A mother describes how two of her sons were forcibly taken by the police, vanished and the police subsequently did not want to help her file a complaint.
“I was 14 when I did my first killing,” confesses someone who looks exactly like the victims that have spoken before him and it is, for lack of a better word, fascinating to see how the killers try to deal with not so much their work as their feelings about their line of business. “I no longer feel anything,” says one of them, though that’s a clear lie, as not much later he suggests children are still hard to kill for him because “they don’t know what’s happening” and he can see himself in their place.
A few heavies, many of them apparently still very young, touch on how they ended up doing what they did or do — exact timelines are often unclear — and their stories of poverty and promises are familiar. Some make $3,000 per killing and others just ten bucks, but most of them seem to work for gangs and their day-to-day consists of cashing in money owed to the gangs and resorting to violence and death only when the indebted can’t pay. Several victims and relatives also touch on violence perpetrated by members of the police and the military, effectively suggesting it is present at every level of society, including the side that should be protecting people from violence in the first place.
Gonzalez is not interested in making the definite documentary on violence in Mexico, a subject much too complex and vast for a slender 74-minute feature like this one. There isn’t even a clear sense whether most of this is, finally, drug-related or whether power and other factors have become just as important. But there is something narrow and specific that the film does accomplish: It manages to crystallize how Mexicans feel about both the violence itself and its omnipresence. Though never said out loud, there is a very strong sense that violence has become so commonplace that for a lot of people, it seems to have become more a question of when rather than if they will be confronted with it. And because the masks give everyone a very similar look, the idea that you are just as likely to be held at gunpoint as you are to find yourself with your finger on the trigger comes through loud and clear.
Cinematographer Maria Secco films the interviewees in what one assumes are their own homes and their own clothes, which suggests something about each person’s class and background. One particularly chilling juxtaposition sees a killer, dressed in preppy clothes and sitting in a comfortable armchair with a floral motif, coldly talk about his work but later also touch, quite movingly, on the subject of possible forgiveness. On top of that, the masked interviewees are also shot in brief staged scenes in which they are shown outside, at work or in their (masked) families, again providing hints about their background and suggesting something about the universality of the problem.
Like in the director’s previous documentaries, a lot of work has been done on the sound, which is almost a character in itself, providing not only a sense of place but also emotional heft, which is further reinforced by Quincas Moreira’s evocative score. Gonzalez also has a fondness for the oft-penetrating silent gazes from his subjects — they were filmed with a mirror, so they are really looking at their masked selves — frequently holding this image for a few seconds even after they’ve starting talking on the soundtrack. It is like that, without saying a word, with their skull-like masks and with their intense stares that they look both totally anonymous and dead and, at the same time, vividly and oh-so-individually alive.
Production companies: Animal de Luz Films, Artegios, Bross al Cuadrado
Director: Everardo Gonzalez
Screenplay: Everardo Gonzalez, Diego Osorno
Producers: Roberto Garza, Inna Payan
Director of photography: Maria Secco
Editor: Paloma Lopez Carrillo
Music: Quincas Moreira
Sales: Films Boutique
No rating, 74 minutes
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