Behind the camera with the Chiapas Media Project

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation grabbed headlines around the globe when it rose up against the Mexican government in 1994, taking over six towns and 500 privately owned ranches in Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state. The Zapatistas (indigenous Mayan people including...
April 1, 2001

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation grabbed headlines around the globe when it rose up against the Mexican government in 1994, taking over six towns and 500 privately owned ranches in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. The Zapatistas (indigenous Mayan people including Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Tojolabales and Choles) had announced their plans for self-governance using the most modern of means – the internet. It was a brilliant choice. Not only did they draw international attention to their cause, which likely blunted the reaction from the Mexican army, they sent a message to the world that they are far from technophobic.

American doc producer Alexandra Halkin learned this first hand when she went to Chiapas in 1995. ‘I was down there during an event that attracted a lot of press, and I noticed that people in the communities were very aware that the video cameras were taking images of them away from Chiapas. I had my little Hi-8 and just started talking to people. They were interested in my camera and how it worked, and wanted to know how to get this equipment.’

The Zapatistas’ interest in the cameras sparked an idea in Halkin: find a way to provide access to equipment and teach the Zapatista communities how to videotape their stories themselves. Says Halkin, ‘In order to have true democracy in the world, everybody has to have access to these tools, not just the people who can afford to buy them.’ That was the beginning of the Chiapas Media Project, a bi-national partnership which came into being with a grant from the U.S.-Mexico Fund for Culture.

In 1998, Halkin and her team of producers (several indigenous video-makers from Oaxaca and one from Canada) headed into the communities of Chiapas with eight cameras in hand, to conduct introductory workshops. She says she was amazed at how quickly the people took to the equipment. ‘They completely understood the technology within a couple of days – once they got over the fear of ‘if you push the button, it will blow up’,’ Halkin recalls. ‘Because these cultures are not based on written language; because they are based on storytelling and visual imagery, the idea of video is very readily adaptable.’

From the beginning, the videographers-in-training decided on the subjects of their projects together. Halkin explains: ‘It’s based on consensus in the community or the municipality or the region, where people make a decision collectively about what video needs to be made.’

The first video produced was The Indigenous Family, a six-minute piece about the cooperative roles of men and women in the community of Ejido Morelia. After editing the project and adding English subtitles, CMP toured the project around the United States, raising money and awareness. Says Halkin, ‘Initially, we took it to a lot of organizations that were working in support of the Zapatistas, such as Mexican solidarity organizations [among others]. From there, it spread to showing at universities, museums and film festivals.’

The success of The Indigenous Family gave Halkin the confidence to turn CMP into a stand-alone organization, responsible for its own fundraising in addition to overseeing the workshops and production. She estimates the annual cost of running the project is around US$200,000, including $50,000 for equipment. (To date they have distributed over 50 videocams, and continue to provide access to three svhs editing systems and one non-linear editing system.)

The workshops and productions have been ongoing alongside the fundraising, with the former spurring the latter. Notes Halkin, ‘ We were really clear when we started the project, saying, ‘You guys really have to produce because if you don’t, nobody’s going to see anything and they’re not going to support you.” Halkin estimates that over 150 Zapatistas have received basic video training from CMP so far. Of those, about 20 are now advanced and help coordinate production.

When the CMP decided to undertake its own fundraising, the majority of money initially came from individual donations from both sides of the border. Now, income from video sales is being added to the pot. Halkin says they have distributed close to 4,000 videotapes since the CMP began. One of the most popular docs is The Strength of the Indigenous People of Mut Vitz: Producing Fair Trade Organic Coffee in the Highlands of Chiapas, a 27-minute instructional video produced by members of an organic coffee cooperative. ‘The idea of the video was to produce it for other Campesino farmers who are trying to do organic coffee cultivation in Latin America,’ Halkin explains. ‘But, you have people who are involved in fair trade coffee distribution all over the world who have bought that video, as well as people interested in Chiapas. It’s gone all over the place.’ CMP distributes Organic Coffee to individuals for $25 and to institutions for $80.

In addition to instructional programs, the Zapatista video-makers record meetings and celebrations to keep their communities connected. ‘Up until December 1, 2000, it was very difficult for people to travel,’ says Halkin. ‘It was far easier to communicate by videotape that you pass along, than to have people get in a truck and drive out. Video has been a bridge to the problem with the militarization around these communities.’

To raise more funds, the CMP recently accepted a couple of commissions from non-governmental organizations in the area. ‘Both are basically about the NGOs and how they function – promotional videos,’ Halkin says.

While this outside recognition of the Zapatistas’ documentary talent is encouraging, Halkin hasn’t pushed for widespread TV broadcast. ‘My feeling is that within the next year, they will be producing videos of a caliber that could seriously be considered,’ she says. ‘[Their work] has been shown on TV in Mexico on Edusat, which is an educational channel that beams to primary schools all over Mexico, Central and South America and the southern part of the United States. But, as a video-maker knowing what the criteria is, I haven’t really pushed hard in broadcasting or cable to get the stuff shown.’

Halkin’s ultimate goal is to hand over the project to the communities. ‘I think we will continue working as consultants with them for the foreseeable future, but the idea is to build in an economic infrastructure so that they get income into the project and continue to support it,’ she says. ‘Unless ownership is taken by the communities, it won’t ever be theirs.’ Halkin says she would like to see Chiapas’ accomplishments in other Mexican states.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.