SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — When María Sojob was 11 years old, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up in arms to demand democratic elections and basic necessities. National and international media flocked to Sojob’s home state of Chiapas to cover the standoff and its aftermath. She recalls vividly that the coverage was overwhelmingly in Spanish. “Why don’t they say all this in Tsotsil,” she remembers thinking, “so my grandparents can understand?”
When Sojob was growing up, her own parents would speak to her in Spanish rather than Tsotsil, her mother tongue. She called it “an act of love” because they didn’t want her to face discrimination when she went to school outside the municipality of Chenalhó, in cities like San Cristóbal de Las Casas, for instance. But this early education in the inequities of language — and how they impact who tells stories and for whom — stayed with Sojob. In fact, it has shaped a new generation of filmmakers in Mexico’s southernmost state: Tsotsil and Tseltal women determined to tell stories on their own terms.
After the 1994 uprising, a boom in documentary films focused on indigenous themes and communities — but the overwhelming majority, Sojob says, were made by people from outside the state. Her own interest in storytelling began when, using a camera that her father gave her, she recorded an ongoing land conflict between the people of Chenalhó and the neighboring town of Chalchihuitán. Unless there was some sort of testimony, she realized, no one would know what was happening, “that it was us, ourselves, who had to get out everything that was happening within, from our own context, from our community.”
Sojob’s award-winning films span a range of themes: young Tsotsil musicians experimenting with rock in their own language (“Voces de hoy,” 2010); a Tsotsil elder navigating change and cultural permanence (“Bankilal / El hermano mayor,” 2014); and an exploration of her own childhood — and how love is understood in her community — through conversations with her aging grandfather as he weaves a traditional hat (“Tote / Abuelo,” 2019). Sojob is currently working on “Por la vida,” a feature-length project that documents the resistance of Lenca women against extractive projects in Honduras.
Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico
Like Sojob, filmmaker Aracely Méndez explores deeply personal themes in her work. Méndez and her family, of Tseltal origin, moved to San Cristóbal de Las Casas from their ancestral lands. She identifies as a migrant and explores migrant struggles through her films. The documentary short “El cielo es muy bonito” (2022), selected for the prestigious Morelia International Film Festival, is centered on a women’s shelter in southern Mexico — and the hopes and dreams of different generations of women passing through.
“It’s important that we tell stories because of how we see things: We have gone through the very same things that happen in the stories we want to tell,” Méndez says, adding that she was interested in bringing to light the plight of migrant women crossing international borders. “They come from violence where they live, and where they arrive, they still face violence because they can’t access hospitals, jobs — the whole process is difficult for them.”
For a long time, filmmaking was an elitist enterprise, inaccessible to most communities in Chiapas. It was easier “to go to a rural school around here and study to be a teacher so that you could get a job,” Sojob says. Recent attempts at decentralization — starting with workshops in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas in 2011 by the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica, one of two major state-run film schools headquartered in Mexico City — have created an opening in the country’s south. In 2021, of the 29 community-led film projects registered for copyright, more than half were set in Oaxaca or Chiapas, and nearly three-quarters were by filmmakers who identified as members of an indigenous or Afro-descendant community. Still, men are much more likely to helm such projects — only 14% of the projects in 2021 were by women.
Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico
In 2019, the Mexican Institute of Cinematography, a federal agency under the Secretariat of Culture, launched a program to support filmmakers of indigenous and African descent in Mexico and Central America. Noé Pineda Arredondo, the program coordinator, says they have received proposals in 33 languages.
Florencia Gómez Sántiz says, “I think we’re role models. We’re forging a path.” Her documentary “3 días, 3 años” (2022) explores the same phenomenon in a different field — municipal government — through the story of Elena, a Tsotsil woman from the municipality of San Andrés Larráinzar who is elected to an all-male community assembly, raising questions about the masculine exercise of power.
Although viewership of these projects remains small, largely limited to festival circuits, their increasing numbers boost the morale of existing and aspiring filmmakers, especially those striving to explore Chiapas through a lens other than the 1994 uprising.
“It’s really exciting to think of how many women are producing, each from their own process of struggle, you know?” Sojob says. “It’s so gratifying to see so many women on this path.”