Perspectives dialectically intersected: the Mexican audio-visual collective Los Ingrávidos and its film Coyolxauhqui (2017)

by Raquel Schefer

The Mexican audiovisual collective ‘Los Ingrávidos’ was founded at the end of 2011 between Mexico City and Tehuacán—the state of Puebla’s second-largest city—in a national and international historical context of collective resistance. Even if Los Ingrávidos does not define itself as a feminist group, its modes of organization and intersectional approach, as well as the formal characteristics of its work, make it one of the most singular contemporary Latin-American film collectives.

During the Spring of 2011, protests and other types of collective action were organized in Mexico against the violence produced by the Drug War, state corruption and economic inequality. Collective resistance in Mexico echoed the forms of organization and protest of international movements in the early 2010s, such as the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street in the United States, ‘15-M’ in Spain, and later ‘Nuit Debout’ in France. From the work of the Egyptian Mosireen group to the films of Jem Cohen or Sylvain George, cinematic representations of these political movements highlight the link between economic structures and film aesthetics. They also point to a dynamic process of formal evolution of genres such as the newsreel, and put into practice a critique of sounds and images within the framework of a crisis of political representation.[1][open endnotes in new window]

Taking its name from Valeria Luiselli’s first novel, Los Ingrávidos (Luiselli, 2011), meaning “the weightless ones” or “those unaffected by the force of gravity”,[2] during its early period the Mexican collective directly broadcast demonstrations against the government through an anonymous YouTube channel. If Los Ingrávidos’ first works explored live streaming directly reporting from protests, the collective’s relation to time and history is complex and multitemporal. As I will argue later, in some instances, it is cyclical.

In an interview I conducted, on November 12, 2021, Davani Varillas, collective co-founder and spokesperson, evokes “the weightlessness”[3] (Schefer c) of a country immersed in violence. Considering Los Ingrávidos’ decision to operate anonymously and the lack of literature exploring its organisational and production modes, my interview with Varillas has become one of the primary sources of this examination. This approach represents a shift in my methodological procedures, which are predominantly textual and formal. I am aware that quoting this interview might entail the risk of “intentional fallacy” (Wimsatt Jr. 3-18)—in other words, the danger of assessing a work of art by assuming the purposes of its creators.

Even if  Varillas’ perspective on Los Ingrávidos’ work is an important element—particularly when the literature on the collective’s modes of organizing and producing is scarce and its anonymity prevents my own fieldwork research—this article attempts to maintain critical distance regarding both an interview’s value as a bibliographical reference and its speculative dimension. Ismail Xavier claims that a critical approach implies

“the fundamental gesture of pointing out the difference between project, intention and concretization, since it is the work that creates the author and not the contrary” (Xavier 12).

Concordantly, I seek to separate Varillas’ assertions from the group’s work’s interpretational fabric and horizons, and to expose contradictions in the collective’s practice—specifically in relation to distribution. However, to recall Teresa de Lauretis’ approach to Chantal Akerman’s comments on the poetics of her own film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), when Varillas’ perspective resonates with my own critical and affective response as a scholar and viewer, “the statement cannot be dismissed with commonplaces such as authorial intention or intentional fallacy” (de Lauretis 160).

In the interview, Varillas evokes a Derridian “hauntology” (Derrida) of “dissidence and the disappeared” (Schefer c), starting with the avant-garde poet Gilberto Owen, one of the historical characters of Luiselli’s novel, and progressively including “a spectral recovery of lost Latin-American voices”, i.e., the victims of “the dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Brazil.” The collective draws from the outset a line of continuity between the forceful disappearance of thousands of political, social, trade-union and student militants and activists within the framework of Operation Condor, and contemporary forms of violence, particularly gender-based violence, rendering salient the persistence of colonial divisions, formations and hierarchies in Latin American societies.

Besides holding a dialogue with Latin America’s political history, Los Ingrávidos also addresses the history of cinema. Varillas defines the “audiovisual” as a “specific visual regime in which sound takes the place of image”. This occurs in the filmographies of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Marguerite Duras, Harun Farocki, and Jean-Luc Godard—mentioned in that order by the filmmaker. In line with the formal trends of the cited filmmakers, the collective aims to give an autonomy to “[lost] voices” and “sound”, and “to think of sound dialectically as a visual image but also an image involving the problems afflicting us in Mexico”—a central procedure in the collective’s oeuvre.

The group partakes of a two-fold cinematic genealogy: first, the genealogy of film collectives; second, the genealogy of political and experimental film. Los Ingrávidos’ filmography—from its first works to recent films such as Dresden Codex (2020) and Kristallnacht (2020)—as well as Varillas’ re ference to Godard, who formed the Dziga Vertov Group with Jean-Pierre Gorin in 1968 in opposition to the politique des auteurs— highlights this interlinked cinematic genealogy. At the same time, the work of Los Ingrávidos engages with other contemporary practices of experimental filmmaking in Latin America. Its œuvre is situated within both productivist[4]  and cultural paradigms that run across the work of women filmmakers such as Alexandra Cuesta, Ana Vaz and Laura Huertas Millán; and, particularly, is found in the films of the Mexican Bruno Varela regarding the intersection of politico-cultural and experimental elements.

Los Ingrávidos’ work must be understood from the perspective of its collective and collaborative organization. They made a decision to operate anonymously, except for using the figure of Varillas, who represents the collective in film festivals and other events. As the filmmaker states, working as an anonymous collective originally derived from a violent context as they faced the persecution and killing of journalists in Mexico, but it also was a political decision. The choice of a collective mode of organising film production and distribution questions Western modernist categories such as those of “author” and “originality”—as discussed by Rosalind Krauss (Krauss)—or that of “film oeuvre”, examined by Nicole Brenez (Brenez). Additionally, as highlighted by Varillas, this choice “rescues collectivity” in a time of “neoliberalism and the proliferation of transnational corporations” (Schefer c). Considering that “cinema is always collective,” the filmmaker states that Los Ingrávidos

“wanted to emphasize collectivity against the implementation of neoliberal policies that engender individualism.”

According to Almudena Escobar López, Los Ingrávidos’ collective organization

“dismantles the artist-centered neo-liberal [sic] order where the valorization of the object and the intention of the author are at the center [sic] of any possible critical engagement” (Escobar López).

Additionally, Los Ingrávidos also addresses, through a non-hierarchical conception of the relation between content and form, “the propaganda of television as monopoly” (Schefer c) producing domination and the standardizing ways of perceiving and cognition.

Available on the Internet, Los Ingrávidos’ Vimeo page is eloquent in terms of the aesthetic, political, ideological and epistemic positioning of the collective. In the collective’s prolific and extensive filmography, the gesture of deconstructing audiovisual and cinematic grammar is inseparable from its breaking up of hegemonic scopic and representative regimes. The group’s self-description on that page presents the collective’s formation as arising

 “from the need to dismantle the audiovisual grammar that the [sic] aesthetic-television-cinematic corporatism has used and uses to effectively guarantee the diffusion of an audiovisual ideology by means of which a continuous social and perceptual control is maintained over the majority of the population.”[5]

Formed initially by “several” (Schefer c) members and later—until today—by Varillas and an anonymous man(even if collaborating, always anonymously, with different international allies), Los Ingrávidos has produced a counter-hegemonic cinema addressing the effects of narco-neoliberalism, gendered violence, and femicide. Its films also explore the possibility of creating different methods of perceiving and cognition in line with the early twentieth-century avant-garde theories. It emphasizes the capacity of cinema to restore the experience of ritual and the sacred, suppressed by modern rationality, and therefore to re-enchant the world.[6]

Los Ingrávidos’ work has been consolidated mainly since 2014, following the Iguala kidnappings, i.e., the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College in September of that year in the state of Guerrero. Since then, its films have been screened at international festivals such as the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the International Film Festival Rotterdam. They are distributed internationally by Lightcone, a Paris-based organisation responsible for the distribution, promotion and preservation of experimental cinema. Varillas states that since the beginning, the distribution of the collective’s films has fundamentally relied on free-access Internet platforms such as Vimeo as a way to “politicize immediacy” (Schefer c), a reference to the livestreaming of the collective’s early period. As stated by the artist, the project was conceived as a

“movement, not in the way of making a film and then circulating it through film festivals, but rather as a broader project that may be able to integrate and link different disciplines, discourses, pedagogies, movements, sensitivities, perceptions, affects.” (Ibid.)

For Varillas, the above-mentioned kind of distribution means overcoming film festival and art institution circuits, conversely aiming for a more direct horizontal relation with the viewer. Additionally, the collective's focusing on reception would imply enlarging the category of “film work” to include dissemination practices. However, despite the desired variety it has for modes of distribution, the collective’s work has had mostly elitist screenings—mainly in experimental film festivals in the Global North. This common reception of avant-garde work means there might be a contradictory approach to the communitarian dimension of its artistic praxis. These modes of distribution eventually reinforce categories such as the immanence and autonomy of the aesthetic sphere as they point out the ambivalence of experimental film practices in their relation to the social field.

Los Ingrávidos’ work in both photochemical and digital formats scrutinizes the materiality of film, and it reuses and re-interprets audiovisual archives—namely television footage—while experimenting with sound and image. The group’s filmography seems to exemplify a politically and aesthetically engaged film praxis. I will look more carefully at how its praxis partakes of the aforementioned two-folded genealogy of collective and experimental film. And second, through an analysis of Coyolxauhqui (2017), a film addressing femicide in Mexico, I will show how the collective expands that genealogy by dissolving conventional relations between observer and observed.