Screening Room: The Absent Stone

Over the next two weeks, the Visual and New Media Review is pleased to screen The Absent Stone (2013), a film by Sandra Rozental and Jesse Lerner. The film unpacks the complex history behind the iconic monolith, the Tlaloc stone, which is located at the entrance of the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. Tracing the discovery of the stone, its multiple roles within the community before and after its move, the technology developed to transport it from the town of Coatlinchan to Mexico City, and its final arrival at the museum in a dramatic display of nationalism, the film brings together the multiple voices, perspectives, and relationships that surround the stone.

As we see in the film, the stone is more than a stone, constantly shifting between and beyond the categories of historical and archaeological artifact. By interweaving animations, archival material, and documentary footage, the film explores how cultural patrimony is produced, how objects of historical and archeological importance are enmeshed in power relations, how a community can work to write and excavate its own history, and ultimately, how the past forms part of present-day imaginaries. In addition to the film, this post includes an interview with the filmmakers, a short film they produced about a replica of Tlaloc, archival footage, video of the community’s response to the film, and notes on the animations. Stay tuned for upcoming commentary on the film by anthropologists and filmmakers. 

Film Website: http://www.lapiedraausente.com/en/

Director’s Website: http://americanegypt.net/content/

Coatlinchan Community Website: http://koatlinchan.jimdo.com

Biographies

Sandra Rozental

Sandra Rozental has a Bachelors' degree in Culture and Politics and an M.A. in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University. She received her PhD in 2012 in socio-cultural anthropology from New York University in 2012. Her research explores national patrimony and heritage claims generated by the extraction of archaeological objects from local communities and other state-making enterprises. She is currently an assistant professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Division of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana- Cuajimalpa in Mexico City. She has worked as an exhibitions researcher and curator in anthropology museums and cultural institutions in Mexico and has collaborated with artists and curators on several installations in museums and galleries. "The Absent Stone" (2013) is her first film which she directed alongside Jesse Lerner. The film has received several awards, including the Ann Arbor Film Festival Jury Award, and has screened in festivals and theatres in Mexico and abroad.

Jesse Lerner

Jesse Lerner is a filmmaker, writer, and curator based in Los Angeles. His short films Magnavoz (2006), T.S.H. (2004) and Natives (1991, with Scott Sterling), and his feature-length documentaries Atomic Sublime (2010), The American Egypt (2001), Ruins (1999), and Frontierland (1995, with Rubén Ortiz-Torres) have won prizes at film festivals in the United States, Latin America, and Japan, and have shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Sydney Biennale, and the Sundance Film Festival. He has curated film and photography exhibitions for the Robert Flaherty Seminar, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, and National Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. His books include The Maya of Modernism: Art, Architecture, and Film (2011), The Shock of Modernity: Crime Photography in Mexico City (2007), and F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing (2006, with Alex Juhasz). He teaches in the Intercollegiate Media Studies Program of the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California.

Interview With Sandra Rozental and Jesse Lerner

Patricia Alvarez: This is a deeply researched film that presents a complex and nuanced history of the Tlaloc stone, today an iconic figure of the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. How did you decide to explore the history of this stone and its relation to the community it was taken from?

Sandra Rozental: In Mexico, national patrimonio laws and state practices produce pre-Hispanic artifacts and monuments as the public property of the Mexican nation. Their extraction and expropriation from private and local contexts by the Mexican state is, therefore, justified by law. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many settler-colonial states were seeing the emergence of indigenous property rights legislation and repatriation claims that led to the return of objects from museum collections around the world to their source communities. In Mexico, however, although claims have been made to foreign states and institutions to repatriate objects considered national cultural property, there is no legal recourse for communities or groups, indigenous or otherwise, to claim rights to significant artifacts or sites located in their territories. 

At first, I was interested in studying cases where objects from the pre-Hispanic past had been removed from local contexts across Mexico, as well as others where community museums had been built to keep objects in situ. Coatlinchan was the first site I began researching, mostly because of its proximity to Mexico City and because the story of its monolith’s transfer is something of an urban legend in Mexico. As my fieldwork unfolded, I realized the complexity and richness of relationships surrounding the absent monolith and other pre-Hispanic artifacts still in the community, as well as the many interpretations, uses, and appropriations that had been produced by the carving’s transformation into a modernist urban monument outside of Coatlinchan. It didn’t take long for me to abandon my multisited ambitions!

Making a film was not part of the initial project. Rather, the film grew organically out of my research. As I began gathering newsreels, film footage, magazines, and photographs in archives for the historical component of my work, I was overwhelmed with the breadth of sources I found and how incredibly visually striking many were. The newsreels and documentary footage from the 1960s were shot with a gorgeous, modernist aesthetic, but they were also revealing of the national significance of this event; it was one of the first live broadcasts on Mexican television. I soon became anxious to tell this story using another kind of language, namely through the juxtaposition of archival footage, home movies, and contemporary documentary, without compromising the ethnographic texture of my research. I had no experience in filmmaking so I asked Jesse, a filmmaker and colleague whose work on Mexico and its many ruins I greatly admired, to work with me on this exciting adventure.

Jesse Lerner: I had previously made a number of films: a documentary or two, a “fake documentary,” and a few experimental short films, all of which engage with Mesoamerican architecture, art, and iconography and the ways in which these have been appropriated in different contexts. I had also dealt with issues of replicas, copies, and forgeries in some of my earlier films as well, especially <em>Ruins</em> (1999), an exercise in experimental media archaeology which revolves around the practice of an extremely accomplished forger of Totonac ceramics. Representation is the central question to what I do as a documentarian of some sort, somewhere on the fringes. But in all my previous films, I had dealt with these pre-Hispanic artifacts as a conglomerate, examining them collectively as the material culture of an entire civilization. What appealed to me about this project was the specificity of it all—a single sculpture. Around this one rock swirl complex histories, rich archival traces, and such contradictory questions. A cinematic treatment cried out to be made. Furthermore, the opportunity to collaborate with an anthropologist appealed to me greatly, the chance to bring to a film all of the fieldwork and archival research that Sandra had done.

PA: The film does a fabulous job of weaving together multiple perspectives on this history. We become familiar with the official state narrative on the stone’s significance and the reasons for the move. But the film really privileges the unofficial story, the voices and multiple memories of the community of Coatlinchan. There is a clear tension between the state’s perspective—the official story—and those of the community. Can you talk about this tension? How did the official voices and the community respond to the film?

SR and JL: When we were making the film, we really hoped to create a conversation, a dialogue between many different voices that spoke to the stone’s relevance in Coatlinchan and beyond. We wanted to stay away from setting up two camps with state officials on one side and community members on the other. We tried to avoid privileging one voice over another. In fact, in the film, there isn’t a single Coatlinchan “voice,” but many overlapping, often contradictory, and competing versions both of what happened in 1964 and of the importance of the stone for town residents today. We show older residents who reminisce nostalgically about their visits to the site where the monolith once lay, some who believe the monolith was given away by a handful of people who were then the town’s official representatives, and others who claim that the monolith was removed by force in spite of the entire town’s opposition. We hear Coatlinchan’s younger generation poking fun at the statue’s formal resemblance to contemporary popular culture icons like SpongeBob Squarepants. These voices do not add up to a “community perspective.”

At the same time, the characters we interviewed who participated in the stone’s removal and relocation, the museum’s architect and the engineer in charge of weighing and transporting the 167-ton stone, remember the event as a key moment in their lives. Each has collected souvenirs and affectionately narrates how they worked to bring the carving to a site where it could be admired by all Mexicans and foreigners alike. Their perspective on the positions taken by the townspeople presents additional contrasts. Although the removal of the carving was indeed an act of state violence where even the military was called in to suppress a potential rebellion, we tried to avoid depicting victims and victimizers, working rather to convey through film the complexity of how this event was experienced and how it continues to mark the lives of many differently positioned actors.

PA: One contrast that really stood out in the film is how the state and the community conceived of the stone itself. Community members often talk about the stone as more than a historical or archaeological artifact. Can you tell us more about this ontological dimension of the stone in Coatlinchan?

SR and JL: The film shows that there is a dialogical relationship between the state’s claims to the carving and pre-Hispanic vestiges as national patrimonio, and Coatlinchan residents’ own sense of these objects’ value and relevance in their lives. These are not two distinct ontologies, but rather different regimes of value and materialization that infuse and define one another. After its unearthing in the late nineteenth century, the stone came to be a deeply embedded feature in Coatlinchan’s landscape and in the social lives of its residents. It became an important landmark, a place where Tlacuaches, as town residents are known in the area, went to collect edible mushrooms and medicinal herbs. It was also a place that they visited on weekend excursions and family picnics. It was not until the stone’s identification as a pre-Hispanic rain deity, and its subsequent removal and repositioning as a monument in Mexico City in 1964, that the statue became associated with ancestral forms of knowledge and indigenous ways of being.

Nowadays, for many Tlacuaches, the stone and pre-Hispanic remains are indeed neither archaeological nor historical bounded things. They are components of complex ecological entanglements that bind people, land, plants, water, and other natural resources. For a specific group, the Calpulli Macoyolotzin, whose members, Marcelo Ortiz, Juan Manuel Garay, and Israel Martínez are key characters in the film, the monolith and all pre-Hispanic vestiges, as well as ancestral sites located in the town’s territory, can be activated through research and ritual. For other residents, ancient remains bind them to their lands and territory in a moment of deep insecurity. Indeed, Coatlinchan is located in an area that was once an agricultural haven on the shores of Lake Texcoco, but that is fast being absorbed by Mexico City’s ever-expanding eastern periphery. The town is also adjacent to the lands that have been designated for the new Mexico City International Airport, currently under construction. In the broader context of Mexico’s turn to neoliberal governance, the laws that provided corporate towns like Coatlinchan with communal land grants (ejidos) and that guaranteed their inalienability, were dismantled in 1992. In this menacing scenario, Tlacuaches’ claims to objects from the pre-Hispanic past, their careful collecting of fragments and potsherds, and their efforts to piece together the ancient history of their town, materialize their present-day claims over land and natural resources.

PA: Throughout the film we see many members of the community actively engaged in writing their own history, from doing folk archaeology and archiving historical documents to creating dioramas and museum displays. Can you expand on these practices and on the process, as a filmmaker and researcher, of engaging with the community members’ own research process?

SR and JL: Many of the key characters in the film are engaged in researching local history, whether through actual excavation and forms of vernacular archaeology, constantly looking for written sources, or collecting oral histories from community elders, to piece together what is in fact a broken historical narrative fragmented by centuries of colonialism and, more recently, by the incorporation of corporate towns like Coatlinchan into the Mexican postrevolutionary nation. We were especially interested in the very tangible ways in which town residents’ search for clues into Coatlinchan’s past materialize. They have built elaborate models using their archaeological finds and historical documents to portray what their town might have looked like in pre-Hispanic times. They also materialize this past by going on expeditions throughout the town’s territory, following routes traced in early colonial maps that depict Coatlinchan as the center of a spiraling network of settlements and ancestral territories.

These practices, like the town residents’ valorization of the absent monolith, are also in conversation with state practices that have tried to give three-dimensional depth to official narratives of the past enunciated by the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology. Mexican nationalist ideologies cast the pre-Hispanic past as the origin of the nation through a rich visual culture made up of murals, models, museum displays, and dioramas. So the replicas, models, and maps made by Tlacuaches can be seen as translations of these practices. Yet we also show them as generative, as alternative sites to state practices of patrimonio, making vestiges from the ancient past relevant on their own terms. For example, in the film, Juan Manuel explains that the members of the Calpulli went to several museums and cultural institutions to study the models made to represent ancient Tenochtitlan. They then built their own model of Coatlinchan, its ancient streets, temples, tzompantli, and calmecac. Whereas Tlacuaches appropriate the aesthetics of the Mexican state’s official visual culture to render their town’s pre-Hispanic history, they also adapt them to show their affective and political claims to territory and to their town’s layered pasts.

PA: The animations in the film are beautiful. They illustrate moments of Tlaloc’s history, from Aztec times to its reverse journey across Mexico at the end of the film. These animations also provide a commentary on the discrepancies, connections, and multiple sides of this story. Can you talk about the decision to include animations in the iconographic world you created?

SR and JL: There were a number of historical references we wanted to include in the film, but knew that we wouldn’t find relevant archival footage and we didn’t want to resort to intertitles or voice-over narration. For example, there’s a sixteenth-century account of a Mexican myth, recorded by a Spanish priest after the Conquest, about Moctezuma, the ruler of Tenochtitlan, who demanded that a very large stone be brought to the capital. The stone allegedly refused to budge. The emperor insisted and his subjects were finally able to start transporting it. Suddenly, the stone spoke, scolding Moctezuma for his ambition. Then it magically returned to the spot where it was originally located. When we found this colonial narrative, we wanted to include it as a premonition of the Coatlinchan monolith’s story that made the centralist and authoritarian transfer of stone carvings part of a deeply layered history of Mexican power relations. There’s no indication that this was the same stone we feature in our film, but the parallels between the two autocratic leaders, Moctezuma and López Mateos, and their demands that very large stones be brought to Mexico City, seemed too rich to pass up. Animation seemed like the ideal vehicle for communicating all this.

We also wanted to play on this narrative, so we used animation to splice iconography from pre-Hispanic and colonial codices with images of Soviet monuments like Tatlin’s tower and Sputnik, which were built to fuel the ambitions of a different set of leaders. Through these juxtapositions, we also wanted to highlight the contemporaneity of the monolith’s transfer with the Cold War space race and its own interest in large rocks: namely, the Moon. These juxtapositions are clear in the archival documents. Next to the 1964 Mexican newspaper article about the progress made on readying the stone for transport in Coatlinchan, there is invariably another article about Sputnik or the Gemini program. All the elements that we put together in the animated sequences were carefully researched to create an aesthetic that combined our historical sources: codices from the early colonial period, nineteenth-century lithographs showing the early Mexican museums and pre-Hispanic collections, and an incredible rich array of photographs, newspapers, comics, and satirical illustrations from the 1960s.

Rather than being illustrations of histories we couldn’t accurately portray through documentary, then, the animations were a way to push the genre in new directions. We worked with an animation collective in Mexico City, the Viumasters, and with an iconographer, Paula Arroio Sandoval, to create sequences that mirrored the film’s aesthetic and also reflected the rigorous academic research that went into its making. All of the animations were shot frame by frame in order to emphasize the fact that they were made by hand; you see, for instance, the plastic borders and the brushstrokes on each frame.

The final animation was perhaps the most difficult to do because, rather than tell a story from the past or try to mix various historical scenarios, it is a cinematic play on a fictional event that never happened. We had an extensive collection drawn from various archives of photographs and home movies of the monolith’s transfer from Coatlinchan to Mexico City in 1964. We made collages with these images to simulate the reverse journey, using film and montage to insinuate, not so much the stone’s return, but rather what would have happened if it had never been removed.

PA: How was the experience of filming in Coatlinchan? You had the opportunity to interview community members from across generations, and you also manage to give a sense of the town’s life.

SR and JL: We began shooting in Coatlinchan after Sandra had been doing research there for five years and had been living there doing fieldwork for seven months. The film was not part of the original research project, so we were worried that people in Coatlinchan would not want to participate. We were pleasantly surprised to find that they were incredibly enthusiastic about the project. Most of the characters in the film were already Sandra’s key informants and she had spent a lot of time talking to them and “deep hanging out” at community events, so filming became a fairly natural next step. Many Tlacuaches wanted to collaborate on the film because they had a very strong sense of the importance of the stone, the trauma of its removal, and of the town’s historical significance more generally. So the documentary’s potential to bring those stories to the attention of more people was appealing.

Beyond that, the presence of the camera also helped open many doors. Some of the scenes in the film were recreated by town residents for the film. For example, the Tlaloc march was staged specifically for the project. Many of the town musicians remembered the song, but nobody had sung it in Coatlinchan for years. So we got some of the elder musicians who had worked with the song´s composer and recreated the score and the lyrics. The band rehearsed for days. When they were ready, we shot the procession with the march as it would have been performed in 1964.

The film became a project of intense collaboration as we worked with the protagonists to shoot scenes in specific locations, gather townspeople to recreate events and conversations, and select possible characters. We screened the film in Coatlinchan, in parallel to its opening night at the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City. It was thrilling to see thousands of people gather to watch the finished film, but also to see their reactions when they watched footage from the 1960s showing their town, family members, and loved ones for the first time. Since then, the film has been screened in Coatlinchan for community events organized by various local associations.

Film Screening in Coatlinchan. 

PA: What were some films and other texts that served as an influence?

SR and JL: We were definitely influenced by the more experimental works within the genre of nonfiction film. For Sandra, studying with Faye Ginsburg in the Program in Culture and Media at New York University was formative, especially with respect to the stress that her training put on the importance of ethical filmmaking and collaboration. Jesse was trained at the University of Southern California by Tim Asch, who worked alongside anthropologists to make films that pushed the boundaries of documentary in unprecedented ways in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. For Sandra, important points of reference were Photo Wallahs (1992), by Judith and David MacDougall, and Marlon Fuentes’s Bontoc Eulogy (1995), both films that sought to show the traces of histories of representation through documentary and experimental filmmaking. We were also both interested in ethnographic film’s trajectory as a medium blurring the boundaries between documentary and fiction: for example, the amazing docu-fictions crafted by Jean Rouch in Moi, Un Noir (1958), Petit à Petit (1971), and Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet (1974). Jesse has coedited a collection about fake documentaries, F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing (2006), and has been interested in these hybrids for some time.

We definitely thought of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) when we made the film, but we also wanted to make very explicit references to some of our favorite movies. So, in addition to the homage to Stanley Kubrick in one of the animations where the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey makes an appearance, the intertitles that are intercut with the home movie showing the replica of the monolith built on the U.S.–Mexico border are designed to reference Jean-Luc Godard’s films from the mid-1960s, especially Pierrot le Fou (1965), Made in USA (1966), and Week End (1967).  We appropriated a couple of fragments from the Fleischer Brothers’ Gulliver’s Travels (1939), because we wanted to play on the analogy between the elaborate engineering required to move a giant and the enormous monolith’s transportation. The animations also mimic both the aesthetics, technology, and irreverent style of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969–1974). 

More generally, there’s always a lifetime’s worth of film viewing that informs any filmmaker’s films, no?  We’re particularly fond of the films of Dziga Vertov, Maya Deren, Bruce Conner, Chris Marker, Maurice Lemaitre, Sergei Eisenstein, Rubén Gamez, and again, mid-sixties Godard, as well as work by contemporary filmmakers like Agnes Varda, Kidlat Tahimik, Leandro Katz, Charlotte Pryce, and Rithy Pahn, though we’re not sure you see all of that in our film.

In addition to filmmakers,  there are many photographers, painters, architects, and so on that have engaged the pre-Hispanic past in their work. These range from Henry Moore to Frank Lloyd Wright in the United States, and Manuel Amabilis, Diego Rivera, Rubén Ortiz, Mariana Castillo Deball, and many more in Mexico. Their work inspired us both to research the many uses and appropriations of Mexico’s archaeological heritage and to portray the political ends to which Mexican ruins have been (and continue to be) deployed.

Additional Video

El Tlaloc de Tlatelolco

A short film about a replica of Tlaloc in Mexico City, produced by Sandra Rozental.

Archival Video: Noticeros Televisa

Notes on the Animations

Inline_lpa_gif_le_habla
Viumasters Collective, “The Legend.”

The legend of Moctezuma and the largest stone of his kingdom is inspired by the Codex Durán. Set in Mexico’s Central Valley, at the start of the sixteenth century, this is a rigorous frame-by-frame reconstruction of a rude awakening for Huey Tlatoani. Dozens of bearers, a talking stone, and the king of the great Tenochtitlan are protagonists of this odyssey.

Inline_lpa_gif_puertas
Viumasters Collective, “Humanity's Greatest Efforts.”

Repeatedly humanity has tried to relocate colossal objects over great distances. This exuberant collage reviews some of these historical moments with a sense of irony.

Inline_lpa_gif_mapa
Viumasters Collective, “The Transport.”

Using animated documents, the movement of the great monolith from San Miguel Coatlinchan to Chapultepec Park on April 16, 1964 is reversed. Animated photographs are witness to the great efforts involved.

Related Media: Some Influences for The Absent Stone

Photo Wallahs (1992), by Judith and David MacDougall

Bontoc Eulogy (1995), by Marlon Fuentes

Moi, un Noir (1958), by Jean Rouch


Rashomon (1950), by Akira Kurosawa

Related Readings

Alonso, Ana Maria. 2004. “Conforming Disconformity: ‘Mestizaje,’ Hybridity, and the Aesthetics of Mexican Nationalism.” Cultural Anthropology 19, no. 4: 459–90.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond ‘Politics.’” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 2: 334–70.

Juhasz, Alexandra, and Jesse Lerner, eds. 2006. F Is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth's Undoing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Geismar, Haidy. 2005. “Copyright in Context: Carvings, Carvers, and Commodities in Vanuatu.” American Ethnologist 32, no. 3: 437–59.

Lerner, Jesse. 2012. “Borderline Archaeology.” In Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border, edited by Josh Kun and Fiamma Montezemolo, 264–77. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Rozental, Sandra. 2014. “Stone Replicas: The Iteration and Itinerancy of Mexican Patrimonio.” The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 19, no. 2: 331–56. 

_____. 2016. “In the Wake of Mexican Patrimonio: Material Ecologies in San Miguel Coatlinchan.” Anthropological Quarterly 89. no. 1: 157–96.