Wednesday, September 24th, 2008
The year of our visit must have been 1983. Maybe ‘86. At some eight years of age, the sight of the Mennonites was simply incomprehensible. Our arrival to their settlement in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua was preceded by a longer trip that had taken us to colonial towns and cities in central Mexico. The northern part of Mexico, however, is pretty vast and desolate, and the drive to Cuauhtémoc had been a calm visual experience of arid deserts, somewhat later fertile flatlands with impending mountain regions as the backdrop. It was a cloudy day when we visited. The sky was gray and the few trees and wide grass sparkled against that and its shaded humid soil. Had we crossed a sea to arrive at a different country or made a trip to a century of yore?
Memories of my first travels within Mexico still linger. These were weeks-long family road trips on winter and summer vacations to discover the landscape and culture of our nation. The journeys were organized according to regions, and involved stopping at historic sites, natural reservoirs, museums of all types and any other weird place that had been for one reason or another important to the history of Mexico. It was the eighties, with a widespread sense of rescue and melancholy in both high and popular culture. I take that we were unknowingly experiencing the new appreciation of regionalisms and micro-histories welcomed by postmodernism. During these travels, it wasn’t hard to notice that from state to state the landscape was so radically distinct and varied; the architecture of buildings and physiognomy of people none the least. Ahh, difference, always triggering moments of culture shock, and only sometimes in subtle ways. One significant at that time was our encounter with the Mennonites in the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico.
The first group of Mennonites had settled in Cuauhtémoc during the 1920s. It was a group of a couple thousands coming primarily from Canada, where most families had spent less than a century after having emigrated from Russia in the late-1800s, and Prussia beforehand. Since their settlement in Mexico and up until the 1970s, Cuauhtémoc and its population was a time capsule. The Mennonites had chosen to base their communities on the teachings of religion, and their economy on the principles of a strong work ethic and a self-sustainable agricultural model. There was a resistance to adapt languages other than its own (now considered a German dialect) or use basic technology like electricity. The closure of the community led to the perpetuation of a single race, as well as the use of traditional if common dress. The look: white skinned, blue-eyed and blonde haired; men wearing overalls and woman long-dresses. Things have been slowly changing since the 1970s, when the interpretation of the original concession of the Mennonites in Mexico was legally questioned and amended. What had seemed to be a state within a state began opening and transforming.
Since our trip to Chihuahua, I had not encountered Mennonites until some weeks ago when I saw Silent Light (2007) a new film written and directed by Mexican Carlos Reygadas. His films are unique in Mexico’s contemporary movie industry for his inclusion of non-actors and the quality of his contemplative and paused images. Even when there is much action, still frame or slow zooms dominate in his scenes, setting a tension between admiration and voyeaurism, invisibility and intrusion. Silent Light takes these characteristics to extremes. The film is written in the language practiced by Mennonites, a German dialect known as Plautdietsch, and shot in Chihuahua, Mexico. It deals with the difficult subject of tolerance and hopes surrounding the story of an extra-marital love affair in a Mennonite family, and addresses the despair there is in the belief and pursuit of purity. With a key citational reference to a resurrection Silent Light elegantly rubs on magic realism, but keeps it away from the genre and concerned with contemporary narrative structures by cinematically reenacting a scene of Ordet (1955) by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Uncannily passionate, awkwardly quiet and yet filled with emotion, Silent Light is beautiful.
Image above from the film Silent Light (2007) by Carlos Reygadas.