The offer of a million dollars was what frightened Luis Estrada most of all. An independent filmmaker based in Mexico City, Estrada had just finished La Ley de Herodes (Herod’s Law), a black comedy about the Mexican political system. Shown only once publicly, the film had already alarmed important and still-anonymous people high in the Mexican regime who had tried to ban it from a film festival. So it was clear to him that someone wanted the movie stopped.
Still, he was caught off guard when the million-dollar offer came up in a meeting with Eduardo Amerena, then director of the state film company, IMCINE. Amerena, after funding 60 percent of the movie, was now keen to stifle it. He told Estrada that unnamed superiors were concerned that the film would affect this summer’s presidential election. Estrada had put up $500,000 in financing. Amerena offered to double that — $1 million for his rights, with the idea of not letting the movie inside a theater until 2001.
“That’s when I really got scared and thought, ‘These guys are really worried about this film,’” Estrada says.
Indeed, the filmmaker found himself embroiled in a Kafkaesque campaign of behind-the-scenes sabotage and suppression — played out against the backdrop of Mexico’s first truly competitive presidential election. The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which was showing unprecedented weakness and was even at risk of losing the presidency for the first time in 71 years, was particularly threatened by the film. La Ley de Herodes makes cinematic history by being the first Mexican film ever to use the PRI’s name; from the party’s perspective, the film couldn’t have come at a worse moment.
Though no one in the film actually names the PRI, the party’s buttons are ever-present, as are repeated references to President Miguel Aleman Valdes (1946–52). One of the film’s first images is of a hardbound copy of the Mexican Constitution that has been hollowed out as a hiding place for money stolen from the village treasury. This amounts to daring filmmaking, since the PRI regime has, throughout history, carefully controlled Mexico’s visual media. Unlike the Soviet or Nazi states, which used film to glorify the respective regimes, the PRI has always made sure it simply did not exist where movies and television were concerned. So both media have shown a gaping hole where the treatment of the PRI and its vast influence on society should have been.
Set in 1949, La Ley de Herodes follows a none-too-bright garbage-dump operator suddenly appointed mayor of a destitute village after townspeople lynch the latest in a series of corrupt mayors. He arrives at the job filled with good intentions. But people are eager to corrupt him, and he becomes capable of anything to keep his job and profit from it. He rapes, robs, extorts, pimps and kills. His PRI button, left at the scene of a crime, is evidence of his culpability. So he must kill again to cover his crimes. Finally, however, he not only escapes unpunished, he is rewarded, and his career in the political system is secured. “El que no transa no avanza” (He who doesn’t cheat doesn’t get ahead) is the film’s motto.
“If the only thing I’d done was to name the PRI, the film wouldn’t have provoked a reaction,” Estrada says. “But the ending of the film is what really scared them. What’s important is that the main character goes free and is rewarded. Why? Because that’s very close to reality.”
Estrada says he wrote the script without much thought to its real-world political implications. “I thought that this country had matured in certain respects,” he says. “In other media and arts, there has been a transformation, an advance in terms of freedom. Curiously, cinema has always been behind in this regard. I said, ‘I think this country is ready to call things by their real name.’”
Since few private producers risk money on anything but the most commercial projects, the task of funding “independent” films is taken up by IMCINE — the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia — a federal agency under the Council for Culture and the Arts. In 1997, Estrada’s script won an IMCINE competition that awarded him almost $1 million of his $1.4 million budget. He signed an agreement with the agency that gave him sole artistic and administrative direction. IMCINE would be part owner of the film and responsible for promoting it. Estrada finished La Ley de Herodes in mid-1999 and gave a copy to IMCINE.
“They began to show it in different political circles, which they had a right to do,” he says. “They never told me where they showed it. Through the newspapers later, I figured out that they showed it to the Ministry of Education, the Council for Culture and the Arts, the Interior Ministry, and the PRI. Somewhere along this circuit, people in the PRI government were put off by the film’s moral conclusion that, in the PRI regime, crime pays — and pays very well.”
Over the next few weeks, IMCINE objected several times to the ending, even though Estrada hadn’t changed it since the approved 1997 draft. IMCINE’s directors â
insisted the main character should not be rewarded for his crimes. They asked
Estrada to film another ending, offering to pay the production costs. Estrada refused. They then told him to cut the ending altogether. Again he refused.
In November 1999, IMCINE barred La Ley de Herodes from the Acapulco Film Festival. It was a desperate move: the film had already been announced as a festival participant; posters had been printed. “I said, ‘Well, there’ll be a scandal,’” Estrada remembers. “And that’s what happened.”
The pulling of La Ley de Herodes was a topic of enormous discussion in Acapulco and was decried in newspapers as state censorship. The PRI has always been highly sensitive to media coverage and public pressure. Now IMCINE called Estrada. If he’d just cut the ending, the film would be shown in Acapulco. He refused. Finally, IMCINE backed down, and the film was presented to overflow crowds.
Following the festival, IMCINE continued to pressure Estrada to change the film before its commercial release. Then, the organization came up with the $1 million offer. When Estrada turned that down, IMCINE said it would open the film immediately without any promotion.
Estrada rejected that idea as well.
That weekend, however, he noticed his film advertised in the paper — it would publicly debut at two small theaters
IMCINE runs in Mexico City. But what was shown was a scratchy, out-of-focus copy, with muffled sound. What’s more, a few screenings were canceled, and others started before the announced time.
“I thought, ‘Have they gone crazy?’” Estrada says. “It was a terrible weekend, because I could suddenly feel all the force of this state that I was trying to portray in the film.”
Estrada called Congresswoman Maria Rojo, who is also one of Mexico’s most prominent actresses. Rojo brought the issue to the Congress. Moviegoers wrote letters to the newspapers. Columnists opined about state censorship of art. After two long meetings with Rojo and Culture Council President Rafael Tovar y de
Teresa, it was agreed that Estrada would buy IMCINE’s rights to his film. That seemed to end the controversy, but shortly thereafter, Tovar y de Teresa fired
IMCINE’s Amerena and several others, making them the scapegoats. Amerena could not be reached for comment.
La Ley de Herodes, which went on to share the Latin America Cinema Award at this year’s Sundance Festival, opened on February 18 in Mexico — just as the presidential campaigns were heating up, much to the PRI’s consternation — to larger crowds than it likely would have without the controversy. Estrada, meanwhile, is hoping for a distribution deal that would bring the film to the United States this spring.
“The moral of this story is that society has changed and advanced, but the political elite hasn’t,” Estrada says. “I realized that a lot of people thought, as I did, that the issues of censorship and freedom of expression had been resolved. Then we realized that that wasn’t true, that we live in a country that still is dealing with inquisitorial backwardness not from years past, but from centuries past.
“Although it sounds immodest for me to say this, regardless of what happens to the film commercially, I think it will be a watershed in Mexican cinema. Nothing will be the same afterward, because I think the film, perhaps ingenuously, went where no one else dared to go. I think people will recognize this. People will say, ‘That’s how this country is. Why couldn’t we have seen this before?’”