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Arena Mexico with comments by director Anne Lise Michoud and lecturer Domingo Garcia

Sunday 17 October 2010, by Abla Kandalaft

This screening was part of the Jeudis du Festival that take place once a month at the Nouveau Latina in Paris. It was followed by a Q and A with the director and Domingo Garcia, a lecturer and researcher on informal economy at the University of Lille III.

Arena Mexico’s focus is on the workers of the country’s informal economy. Director Anne Lise Michoud has selected a number of them to present us with a well rounded panorama of their daily lives, among them a dog walker, a shaman, a CD vendor and a doctor, all offering goods and services of varying levels of usefulness. One sells bubble guns whilst another examines members of the public’s blood pressure.

This is a beautifully shot film. Although very few words are spoken and it may at first look like a random look at street vendors with no obvious montage, the sequences are actually carefully selected to reveal, albeit subtly, the comedic, tragic and ironic moments of these people’s lives. There are about three vocal interventions by the director. She is very largely absent and the first words to the camera are uttered halfway through the film. For the most part we are left watching as passive spectators clandestine workers scraping together a living.

The film did draw occasional laughs from the audience and avoids any pathos, but it remains overall a sad situation to witness. Although some of the interviewees did seem fairly upbeat, they live day-to-day lives, on the constant lookout for the police, for clients, for food. They cannot afford the luxury of planning ahead or formulating plans for the future they could have hoped for. One of them is a former doctor and her age and personal circumstances drove her to the street, she wasn’t there by choice. Conversely, another worker, a peculiarly ageless woman selling CDs, sees this as an rather empowering opportunity to assert her independence from her family and her former partner. The climactic moment of the film is an incongruous piece of footage of the workers in their off time, watching Lucha Libre at the Arena Mexico, which gave its name to the title.

Although they do not share that much, the basic outlines of their life stories and the rants and comments reveal a lot about them, the impact of the economy, the changes in the job market and Mexico in general. There are no voice-overs or analyses into the geo-political reasons behind the flourishing of this activity. Nor are potential solutions offered to remedy this situation, to reintegrate the marginal population back into the official, government-approved job market.

However, as Anne-Lise explains after the screening, this wasn’t the intention of the film. Rather her aim was to show the scale of the informal economy, which, according to her, “employs” about half of the country’s population. The sheer scale of it was one of the reasons she gave when someone asked her why she picked Mexico in particular when this type of activity is also growing in France. Michoud aimed to show the diversity, the sheer ingenuity and skills displayed by many of the ‘workers’. They are actual entrepreneurs, and as lecturer Domingo Garcia pointed out, whose activity sits astride capitalism and traditional economy. A few of them are self-confessed showmen, incessantly conjuring tricks and ways of creating demand for whatever tat or service they are providing. The most memorable character so to speak is a self-proclaimed “native” shaman holding passionate speeches on the spoilage of his ancestors’ culture by the Spanish settlers, whilst offering blessings and cleansings to the assembled crowd. Although he clearly feels strongly about his subject and his dressed appropriately in leaves and twigs, it turns out he was actually an orphan who grew up on the streets of Mexico, did not know his parents and fabricated the heritage and the persona to attract an audience and ultimately make a living.
Another member of the audience asked her how she picked her interviewees. She answered that, due to the diversity of their activities and personalities, together they represented a sort of microcosm of this economy and the resourcefulness, motivation and dedication that this type of work requires. According to her, there was sometimes a sort of status quo or tacit understanding with the police, so she did not experience many problems filming the bustle.

Overall, the film might be lacking in analytical depth for those seeking to shed more light on the population but it is very rich on a human level, giving these overlooked workers some space to exist on camera.

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