How to Find Documentaries in Mexican Film Archives: A Quick Guide by Gaurav Pai

Gretchen Pierce's picture

Today we pause our digital mini-series to return to a post about (mostly) physical repositories. I am pleased to present Gaurav Pai, a PhD Candidate and pre-doctoral instructor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. Pai studies and teaches about media technologies, documentaries, and non-theatrical film. He is writing a dissertation about the origins of small gauge film in Mexico. He spent the Fall 2019 semester in the Mexican film archives for his primary dissertation research.

How to Find Documentaries in Mexican Film Archives: A Quick Guide

Finding documentary cinema in the Mexican film archives can be simultaneously frustrating and rewarding, and there is no better place to begin than in the Filmoteca de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), the filmic archive of the national university, situated at Ciudad Universitaria in the south of Mexico City. The Filmoteca is a 10-minute walk from Metro Universidad, the last stop in one of the subway lines of the city, and is surrounded by hundreds of street food vendors - a great place to begin your workday with a delicious tamal and hot atole. The Filmoteca has the largest collection of nonfiction films made in the 20th century - especially its first half when early actualities paved the way for newsreels and newsreels metamorphosed into documentaries as we know them today. One such example is El Sur de México, early documentary footage shot by Miguel Covarrubias from 1926-1942 in Oaxaca and subsequently compiled into a documentary film (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: El Sur de México (Miguel Covarrubias, 1926-1942). Courtesy: Filmoteca de la UNAM.

The audiovisual archive at Filmoteca is preserved under two departments, El Centro de Documentación, which curates the digitized films, and El Centro de Catalogación, which catalogues and arranges screenings of analogue material that has still not been digitized. Both have their own internal databases of films, but they are not available online. It helps if one prepares for the Filmoteca visit by familiarizing oneself with the universe of films beforehand, and then inquiring about their availability at the Filmoteca. Good places to start are the Filmografía Mexicana, a website managed by Filmoteca de la UNAM, a database of films listed along with credits and technical specifications. . . . or La construcción de la memoria: historias del documental mexicano, a 2013 volume by María Guadalupe Ochoa Ávila. However, also be prepared to learn that a substantial number of films are not available for viewing.

Famously, a large part of the filmic archive in the Cineteca Nacional burnt down in 1982, but the Cineteca remains a great source for finding older documentaries made by various agencies associated with the government as well as the general public. The Archivo General de la Nación, Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos), and many other arms of the state once had a substantial collection of nonfiction material. It has since passed on to the Cineteca and is preserved there in its original analogue form. A lot of newsreel footage extending from the 1930s to the 1970s thus still exists, and a part of the collection can be found online on Miradas al acervo, a Youtube channel maintained by the Cineteca. There is no public database available for this material, but the Cineteca also has a Videoteca Digital ‘Carlos Monsiváis’ where one can watch some of the digitized material on the computers available onsite with the help of this database. One example of a gem found at the Cineteca is the lesser known filmmaker, Adolfo Garnica’s, short documentary Río arriba, made for the Secretaría de Salud y Asistencia in 1961 (see Figure 2). Additionally, in 2010, the Cineteca Nacional asked the public to submit their home movies and amateur film for digitization. The resulting outstanding collection, which also includes “orphan” movies, is housed under El proyecto Archivo Memoria (see Figure 3).

Figure 2: Río arriba (Adolfo Garnica, 1961). Courtesy: Cineteca Nacional

Figure 3: Stills from home movies and amateur films. Courtesy: Cineteca Nacional via

The Cineteca is also meant to be a place for the general public to watch contemporary and classic films on the big screen and has a sprawling film theatre complex with ten halls and an outdoor public screen. There are few places in the world where - when you need a break from your archival work - you can walk out of the room and watch a great local or an international film on the big screen. For cinephiles, the Cineteca is the equivalent of a 365-day international film festival, and is located close to subway station Metro Coyoacán, midway between downtown and University City. As the popular saying in Mexico City goes - you can watch a movie on the big screen inside Cineteca and buy its bootleg DVD right outside.

The legacy television stations like Televisa and TV Azteca have a lot of documentaries in their archives, especially those made in the 1980s and 1990s, but they remain largely inaccessible to a researcher, at least as of now. However, there are several other state-run institutions that make documentary film archives accessible to the public. TV UNAM, located next to the Filmoteca, houses thousands of early television programs made on video and they have an in-house database. The Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia (ENAH) is located south of the University City and can be reached by minibuses from Metro Universidad. Its Videoteca has a large collection of ethnographic and indigenous cinema; a catalogue can be found here. Instituto Mora offers another great option to see Mexican documentaries with its metaDOC project. It has hundreds of local and international documentaries catalogued systematically in its database available for viewing on location. Mora is located in the west of Mexico City, close to Metro Mixcoac. The national film school, Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinemategráficos or CUEC, now known as Escuela Nacional de Artes Cinematográficas UNAM, has a great archive consisting of films made by its students since 1963, and the archivists there have been actively looking for scholars to help in preserving and writing about the films.  Documentary has traditionally been a blind spot for historians of Mexican film – the current generation of scholars is setting this right.

Posted in: