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MEXICO: Film Studio Sell-Off

by Jo TuckmanGuardian (London)
November 14th, 2003

Mexico's cultural elite is on the warpath, determined to stop a sell-off of state cultural institutions that will, they say, remove the last barriers to American cultural domination.

Artistic and intellectual figures are organising, descending on the national parliament to lobby, and planning symbolic sit-ins at the threatened institutions.

The government's plan, presented to parliament last week as part of a belt-tightening budget, includes selling assets as varied as the national news agency, Notimex, and a string of artisan workshops and shops. The sell-offs are planned to begin next March.

By far the most controversial element in the bill is what many say amounts to the writing on the wall for the national film industry: sale of the National Cinematographic Institute, or Imcine, along with the historic Churubusco studios and its cinema school.

"We all oppose this attack on culture and Mexican identity," said Guadalupe Loaeza, a prominent commentator and author.

"What do you think it will be replaced by? Hah, Terminator and more Terminator."

The proposal comes as Mexico's cinematic new wave, represented by films such as Amores Perros and Y Tu Mam Tambin, and the art house hit Japon, is beginning to suffer from lack of funds.

"The very idea [of a sell-off] is an insult," said Carlos Cuarn, who wrote the screenplay of Y Tu Mam Tambin. "It demonstrates the ignorance and myopia of a government that does not have any idea what culture is - that does not understand culture is Mexico's most valuable asset, and its most exportable too."

Imcine, which administers state funding for Mexican co-productions, is the poor descendent of a long tradition of national film promotion in Mexico. The so-called Golden Epoch films of the 1940s and 1950s gave the world hundreds of movies featuring picturesque men in big hats serenading muchachas in big blouses.

In recent years Imcine rejected for funding the three international hits, as well as other, what proved to be, successes. But even so, the makers of Amores Perros, Y Tu Mam Tambin, and Japon say that Imcine remains fundamental to the local industry and should be reformed, not obliterated.

According to the campaigners, Imcine is the last dam preventing Mexico being not merely flooded but drowned by Hollywood blockbusters and little else.

"This is an attempt to exterminate our national film industry and benefit the interests of the American film distributors," said Mexico's National Film and Arts Academy in an open letter published in the national press.

Around 80% of films shown in Mexican cinemas are produced by the big US studios - this week's showings are dominated by Matrix Revolutions and Swat. European and Latin American films take up another 10%, and national production accounts for the remainder.

Another particularly sore point in the sell-off proposals is Churubusco film studios, where all the Golden Epoch films were produced - although, ironically, the studios were set up in the 1940s as a joint venture by a local businessman and the then Hollywood studio RKO.

Along with making films by John Huston (Treasure of Sierra Madre) and Luis Bunuel, and more recently David Lynch (Dune), the studios attract foreign productions such as this year's six-time Oscar nominated Frida, staring Salma Hayek as the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Opponents of the sale say that it is likely that whoever buys the studios will dismantle them immediately.

"How ignorant and clumsy can you get?" fumes Mr Cuarn. "They want to sell an icon and symbol of Mexican national cinema so that it can be replaced with a Wal-Mart."





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