Making of: documentary of the release of a Mexican prisoner

jocobo_joan
Foto: José Luis Hernández Barragán

So much is happening at our department, that we can’t keep track of it ourselves sometimes. Suddenly, Joan, a PhD student who is doing research on violence,  masculinity and substance abuse in Mexico, was gone to make a documentary about the release of a Mexican prisoner that she had been planning a long time. A report by Joan van Wijk.

Three weeks ago the main character of the documentary I was planning to make, Jacobo, was released from jail in Playa del Carmen, Mexico . He was acquitted of all charges after having been incarcerated for three years for the alleged intended rape of his stepdaughter. So I rushed off to Playa del Carmen followed by filmmakers Layda Negrete and Joffrey van der Vliet. We spent a couple of days in Playa, filming Jacobo and starting a workshop in jail, giving cameras to the inmates to document their own lives. The first day in jail went great, we were given all cooperation.

However, as we returned the next day to continue the workshop we were no longer allowed access. The director’s assistant told us the director was under a lot of pressure, people were after his job and anything could be used as an excuse to fire him. Something as exceptional as bringing cameras into jail would certainly be a good excuse.

After several calls and emails we could come the next day to have a talk with the director about what had happened. We met the director in a stressed and emotional state. During the interview he revealed the instability of his position. It became a very impressive and loaded interview; it was very moving to see someone whose position is all about power in such a vulnerable state. It seems like our film work is on the one hand risky for him but it can also show the world how much he fought for the interest of his prisoners. In the end we were allowed back in to film and execute the workshop.

Something else that was revealed during the conversation with the director was that my interest in filming Jacobo had speeded up his process. The longer time I spent with Jacobo the more this piece of information bugged me.

On the second part of the trip, we took Jacobo back to his home town Ocosingo, Chiapas. While hanging out with Jacobo and getting to know him better I also had to redefine my ideas about him, he was not just a sad Indian trapped in Playa del Carmen, but there was a very dysfunctional side to him too: the way he talked about his ex-wife who was supposedly a dirty woman who didn’t take care of herself or the house, the way he kept bugging me for money, the fact that he didn’t manage to finish primary school even though he tried until he was 17!

All the way up to Ocosingo Jacobo kept on talking about how his mom would cry when she would see him, but I shouldn’t have been so surprised when there were no tears shed over his reappearance at all. The actual moment of reappearing in the midst of his family was so uneventful that we didn’t even know it was happening, and didn’t even tape it! At some point the pick-up truck that took us to his family’s home stopped at a school where a group of women addressed Jacobo. As we drove on he said: ‘these were my sisters and mother.’ So much for the crying part, it was the weirdest homecoming I could have imagined.

Jacobo's familie
Jacobo's familie. Foto: Joffrey van der Vliet

We spent a day and a night at his mother’s house, and as I really became to love his family the more the doubts gnawed at me. The family had seemed to be fine without Jacobo. His younger brother had taken up the family responsibilities and seemed to do so with great care, what will become of his position if Jacobo starts claiming his rights as oldest son? Jacobo’s ex-wife was working on Jacobo’s land, women have no rights to inherit land, so either she gets back with Jacobo or she will become landless.  She expressed her gratitude for having her husband back, not having to work the land all by herself anymore, but I wonder if she will really be better off with him than without him. Mom did in the end seem to be genuinely grateful for having her son back, even though the tears never became visible, she gave me a little speech before going: gracias por salvar la vida de mi hijo, que dios te bendiga….  Maybe in a years time I will go back to see what happened, will they still call upon God’s good wishes for me, or will I be cursed?

Joan van Wijk is a Phd student at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology (VU University). She specializes on gender, violence and substance abuse in Mexico.

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