Holy bikini-clad Batwoman! Archive saves Mexico’s scorned popular films

From demons, ghosts and vampires to Martians, mad scientists and spurned lovers, the heroes and heroines of 20th-century Mexican popular cinema faced more than their share of enemies.

Few foes, 然而, have proved quite as formidable as the combined adversaries of time, critical snottiness and oblivion – not to mention the odd earthquake.

Had they not been rescued from a dusty storehouse seven years ago, the original negatives of hundreds of Mexican movies featuring the likes of the silver-masked crime-fighting wrestler El Santo, 一种 bikini-clad Batwoman and the Satan-worshipping Panther Women would have been lost forever.

Salvation came in the form of Viviana García Besné, “我感觉自己就像比约克的母亲”——令人惊叹的 Meredith Monk 与咆哮作曲, archivist, self-described “popular film activist” and descendant of Mexico’s cinematic Calderón clan. Not only did her forebears own and operate 36 cinemas, they also built a film studio and ran a production company, Cinematográfica Calderón, which turned out more than 250 films over seven decades.

When Cinematográfíca Calderón finally closed down in 2014, García Besné found herself in her great-uncle’s huge house in 墨西哥 终生球迷阿莱西娅·鲁索和凯蒂·泽勒姆的进球帮助曼联队从后面击败埃弗顿, wondering what would become of the thousands of rolls of film and the mass of documents and photographs that made up its half-forgotten legacy.

“I thought the best, and most obvious, thing would be to send them all to the big film institutions in Mexico,“ 她说. “I told them about this marvellous collection of films, photos and paperwork, and thought they’d all jump for joy. But they were like, ‘We’ll have that, and maybe that, but not that.’”

Unwilling to split up the collection – “It’s the work of a company that began in 1910 and made films until 1990; that’s 80 years of cinema history,” she says – García Besné decided to hang on to it all and to embark on a quest to rescue and reappraise Mexico’s cine popular.

Permanencia Voluntaria (Double Feature) archive, which has extended beyond the Calderón collection and now holds some 400 电影, is being showcased in Madrid this month in a season at Spain’s national film archive, 这 Filmoteca Española.

Despite the archive’s growing international reputation – it has restored 10 films over the past four years, and the collection is housed between the Mexican town of Tepoztlán and the UCLA film archive and the Academy film archive in Los Angeles – its genesis and survival have been far from easy.

“In the beginning, the biggest challenge was the disdain for popular cinema,” says García Besné.

“I’ve heard important people say that these films should have been burned. What I tried to do was put these films in the proper context and explain why they were made and why people wanted to see this kind of cinema.

“It’s about getting people to see things through different eyes. Mexico is a very class-ridden country, and we’re very used to saying, '出色地, that’s not worth much’, 或者, ‘That’s just rubbish.’”

García Besné points out that the films attracted huge audiences of working-class Mexicans who adored the drama, thrills, romance and escapism they offered.

“These films came from the people and were loved by the people, and that makes them part of our culture,“ 她说. “Besides, cinema is an art and an industry – and it’s always been both of those things.”

For García Besné and many others, the films also act as social, cultural and economic barometers for a changing Mexico. Very often, 她说, the stories behind the movies are as fascinating as the movies themselves.

Azteca Films, a company formally founded in 1930, aimed to bring Latino cinema to Latin Americans in the US.

“It produced thousands of films and it appealed to the nostalgia of the Mexicans who were living in the US,” says the archivist.

“A lot of people don’t know that many of these films shot loads of very Mexican scenes – of markets, food and cathedrals – to feed this nostalgia. You also got these films based on Mexican history, legends and heroes, and then the rancherarumbera films and the melodramas and wrestling films. There was also a time when people would sit in the aisles so they could dance along with the musical numbers. It was all done because of what people wanted and because of what was fashionable.”

Ignorance and snobbery have not been the only obstacles. The archive, 哪一个 needs to raise $45,000 (£35,000) a year to stay afloat, is not immune to the wrath of nature. 这 powerful earthquake that struck Mexico in September 2017 destroyed five films, left eight others incomplete, and very nearly did for some of Permanencia Voluntaria’s most precious treasures.

The archive holds the original negatives of several of El Santo’s films – including his debut, Santo contra cerebro del mal (Santo v the Evil Brain), and its follow-up, Santo contra hombres infernales (Santo v the Infernal Men). Both were shot in Cuba just before Fidel Castro entered Havana in 1959.

“These films are historical because they mark the debut of Mexico’s most important folk culture hero, but they were also the last films filmed by a foreign company in Havana before Castro took over,” says García Besné.

As luck would have it, the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn had decided to invest in the restoration of the Santo films, and just three days before the earthquake struck, García Besné had packed them up and sent them to Los Angeles to be digitised.

The archivist hopes that Permanencia Voluntaria’s films will find a wider audience next year when some of them are released on Blu-ray by the Indicator label of the British company Powerhouse Films. The series will include the first two Santo films, female wrestling movies, and Mexico’s first two talking horror pictures, La llorona (The Weeping Woman) 和 El fantasma del convento (The Phantom of the Convent).

Despite her appetite and enthusiasm, García Besné says she won’t be able to carry on researching, rescuing and restoring Mexico’s cine popular forever, and would welcome some more hands and fresh critical eyes.

“Over the next decade, I want people to start valuing these films and writing about them. I want it to stop being the personal efforts of one passionate individual. If I die tomorrow, there needs to be someone to take up the baton and carry on with it all.”