#862 Canoa: A Shameful Memory
1976 // Mexico // Felipe Cazals
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Traumatised Night And Shameful History
Five Mexican young men have to seek shelter in a small town called San Miguel Canoa due to a torrential rain in the evening of 14th September, 1968. They are employees of the Autonomous University of Puebla and enthusiastic hikers on their way to the Malinche volcano nearby. The town’s folks and the priest of the church are reluctant to offer refuge, except Lucas (Ernesto Gómez Cruz), a married man with several young children, affably welcome the five disconcerted men to stay in his house overnight. He chats with them and gossips about the town’s undesirable condition and wicked person and calls the priest a bastard. Meanwhile the other inhabitants are agitated by the arrival of the five men, they gathered at the church’s front. A woman desperately calls upon her townspeople through the loudspeaker and warns them “the students are going to raise a red-and-black flag in our church”. All of them rushed to Lucas’s house with flaming torches, machetes and guns. Then blood is shed, people are tortured and killed subsequently. This is the climax of the 1976 Mexican film Canoa: A Shameful Memory (Spanish: Canoa: memoria de un hecho vergonzoso).
Sounds like a B-horror movie, doesn’t it? Something like a bunch of hitchhikers getting killed one by one by some mysterious diabolical figures in the most gruesome and gut-wrenching way in a middle of desolated town? It’s yes and no. Yes, the description is correct if not identical; and no as it’s more than a horror film, it’s a true story, and the style of the film is intentional and the respective craftsmanship is immaculate. The special effects are appalling, the acts of the townspeople are unbelievably violent, and the final outcome is devastating. The mob lynching truly happened on the 14th September , 1968 at Canoa, just few miles away from Puebla, an industrialised major city in Mexico. The date and event is significantly notorious in Mexico, as the title indicates it’s a “shameful memory”, but much of it comes from the implication to the Tlatelolco massacre on 2nd October .
In 1968, numerous student demonstrations against the incumbent president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz were organised, especially at the time near the commencement of the Olympic Games in Mexico City set on the October 12th. Resentment on unequal wealth, repressive censorship and bureaucratic administrations caused the rise of the left-wing movement, especially on the youth. Fear of the rebellion, army was sent against the students at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Tlatelolco, killing over three hundreds people and many more wounded, including innocent by-standers. The film opens with the aftermath of the Canoa incident, with reporter getting the summative statement on the night of the mob lynching via telephone; soldiers are marching on the street while the family of the victims walking on the opposite direction alongside the coffins and requesting justice, hence linking the Canoa incident to the forthcoming Tlatelolco massacre.
The film’s authenticity comes from the pseudo-documentary style it employed. After the black-and-white “newsreel footage” of the mutilated dead bodies shown during the film credits, we are being introduced to the town of Canoa by a narration on its geographical location and informative local details like a travelogue. Interviews of the locals are provided to give a two-sided perspective, those supporting the sun-bespectacled priest (Enrique Lucero) as he brought water and electricity to the otherwise barren town and considered him the representative of God, while the minority regarding the priest as a bureaucratic and authoritative bastard is being repressed. One of the interviewee would suddenly reemerge during the “reenactment” of the mob lynching thereafter, his presence is certainly out of space and time as like a third person speaking directly to the camera in a cynical tone with a sarcastic smile, obviously knowing what’s gonna happen with no intention for intervention. His presence is diabolical, distancing himself from the bloody violent scene even though he “was” there, stressing the truth that the scenarios in fact happened.
The red-scare and the oppression on the differing voice are perceptible throughout the preceding scenes of the mob lynching, in which radio and newspaper directly asserts the “danger of communists” and how they would destroy the “peace and Olympic”, thus undermining their prestige pride of being the first Latin American country ever to held the Games. The priest, in a sermon weeks before the incident, affirmatively alerts the townspeople that the communists are coming to steal and destroy their religion, hence inciting the fear and anger on the minds of the ignorant folks who are mostly illiterate and isolated from the news of the outside world.
Tomás Peréz Turrent’s screenplay is bold in its illustration of the political context and the induced violence. Indeed the anxiety of priest didn’t come out of thin air, some Marxist students in fact tried to politicise the peasantry before the arrival of the five workers. But what concern the priest most is how to maintain his authoritative power over the uneducated while reinforce his own benefits, he is the exemplary of an obscurantist. On the other hand, the five workers causally discerned themselves from the students, claiming as an entity of workers, they have nothing to do with the students’ demonstration. So it’s ironic that they would be mistakenly identified by the townspeople as students and evoked such a ferocious reaction.
It’s almost inconceivable that the film was permitted to be made, let alone screened locally and internationally (it won the Silver Bear in the Berlin International Film Festival in 1976) , just eight years elapsed since the Tlatelolco massacre, and especially so when the incumbent president at that time was widely considered to be directly responsible for the army’s attack. Director Felipe Cazals utilised the freedom wisely to express his artistic vision and political voice, and made such a profoundly disturbing and authentic film on an otherwise perpetually forgotten incident. I would regard this film, even though less well known, as highly as Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969) in the cinematic history of political-thriller. Sadistically the film also reminisces those classic B-horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). But no matter which type of genre you find more intriguing, Canoa: A Shameful Memory definitely haunts you by the end. As one of the survived victim is finally saved and being transported by ambulance, still in shell-shock, whole body smeared in blood, eyes transfixed but looking directly at the camera, he muttered “I’m finally going home”, you would certainly get your spine chilled.