Director: Carlos Carrera
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Radio commentator Peralta (Joaquín Cosio) tells his listeners in the greater Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua-El Paso, Texas area the facts about their home. It is the site of 60,000 legal border crossings a day as goods and cheap labor head north to American markets and American boys go south looking to lose their virginity among “our world-famous sex workers.” Ciudad Juárez also is a mecca for the poorest of the poor looking for work in the factories of the multinational companies that find costs quite reasonable; some will make a bid to cross into the United States when the border guards aren’t looking.
To Mexicans and many people around the world interested in human rights, Ciudad Juárez is notorious for its large number of unsolved kidnapping-rape-murders of women—many of them factory workers—numbering more than 1,000 over more than a decade. Keep that number in mind—I’ll get back to it.
The dead women of Ciudad Juárez have been the inspiration for works of art, museum exhibits and lectures, magazine and newspaper articles, a Jennifer Lopez film (2006’s Bordertown), and much, much speculation about serial killers, conspiracies, and sex rings. Now we have Backyard, the film Mexico has chosen as its entry for the 2009 Oscars, that seeks to provide both a narrower and broader perspective on why the women of Ciudad Juárez are dying.
Ciudad Juárez is welcoming two new women—Blanca Bravo (Ana de la Reguera), a police detective transferring from Veracruz, and Juanita Sanchez (Asur Zagada), an 18-year-old country girl leaving her back-breaking farm work for a freer, more exciting life in the city. Bravo is investigating a murder—a preserved body of a young woman who has been found in the desert with her nipple torn off. She has a gold tooth with the letter “K” stamped in it. Two women who work for a women’s aid organization recognize it as belonging to a woman named Karen, a domestic-abuse victim. Karen’s boyfriend, an Egyptian nicknamed the Sultan (Sayed Badreya), has a record for rape in the United States. Bravo brings him in and suspects that he is a serial killer. Eight more dead women are found in the desert while he is in custody; a case is made linking him to the Cheros gang that runs a nightclub in town where Juanita, called Juana, likes to party on Saturday night. But the aid workers have presented Bravo with hundreds of photos and stories of screams in the night every full moon.
Back to Juana. The minute we saw her get off the bus carrying her cardboard boxes of belongings, we knew she’d end up among the mourned of Ciudad Juárez. After moving in with her sweet cousin Márgara (Amorita Rasgada), who gets her a job at the factory, she hooks up with a traditional young man from near her hometown in Chiapas. The two converse in their native Indian language, but Juana wants to forget her country roots. The young man goes to the nightclub to meet her, only to find her dancing with someone else. Several men incite him to avenge this humiliation. He drugs her, and the men take her to an abandoned outbuilding, where, much to the young man’s horror, they all rape her and force him at gunpoint to put a plastic bag over her head. She is dumped like a sack of garbage from their van in a scene of unmitigated brutality.
Filling out the stories of these two women are the dirty dealings of the police commander (Alejandro Calva), who only wants to get a desk job in Mexico City, and the governor of Chihuahua (Enoc Leaño), who makes a large show of force to get the story about the murders out of the pages of the New York Times. Convening a task force to brainstorm ways to make the city safer for women, he brings the ideas to Texan and Japanese industrialists with factories in Ciudad Juárez. The two categorically refuse to offer financial assistance to install better lighting or hire more police officers, and actually threaten to take their business elsewhere, where labor is under the $1.08 an hour the Mexican workers earn. Lastly, we are thrown a story of Mickey Santos (Jimmy Smits), a rich Mexican who lives in El Paso and comes to Ciudad Juárez on every full moon to indulge his taste in school girls.
This film really sounds stuffed with plot threads, but they are handled fairly economically and help director Carrera paint a picture of this community that goes beyond the bogeyman horrors with which it has come to be associated. The fact is that because of a lack of resources and political will, it has become easy to get away with killing women in Ciudad Juárez, and so they continue to die. As Bravo learns, so do we—there is no serial killer or sex ring per se, just the usual femicide with more publicity. This is an important message of this grave film, and Carrera emphasizes this as a worldwide problem not only by bringing the Egyptian into the story, but also by flashing statistics of sex-related murders of women in various other Mexican cities, in South American countries, and ending with the stats for New York City—more than 3,200 dead.
The film is not entirely successful, however. Throwing in Smits’ character and then letting Bravo pump him full of lead was done to relieve the audience of its frustration and perhaps send them home without really taking the message of the film to heart. While Carrera, who attended the screening, said this film was not made to entertain, this and other touches—particularly the attractive lady detective in the Law & Order mold—are right out of the Hollywood play book. Other reviews I’ve read of this film critique it as a thriller and underplay or ignore its message—a rather chilling commentary on how even the most hideous violence against women has so completely infiltrated the entertainment industry. Looking at this aspect of the film and today’s trends and comparing them with my commentary on I Spit on Your Grave and A Question of Silence, which has become a hot topic again this week on a certain feminist site I frequent, leaves me in despair. We really haven’t confronted the issues I identified in that essay, and if anything, we’ve actually taken a step back.
Carrera mentioned that about 150 of the 1,000 cases have been solved, but that the killings continue. “We have a problem with machismo in our culture,” he said, “though things have gotten better, a little at a time.” That’s it, of course. When women are treated as fully human and not targeted simply for the crime of being female, we will finally solve the problem we seem to see only in Ciudad Juárez.