This essay makes the case for sensationalism as an archive of violence. It traces the ways in which the Mexican filmmaker Felipe Cazals draws from the sensationalist tabloid Alarma! in the making of his film Las Poquianchis (1976), a film version of the story of human trafficking that led the tabloid to popularity. The visuality of sensationalism works mostly in the service of power: it keeps certain kinds of violence both out of sight and overexposed. Cazals and other artists and writers who draw materials from sensationalism complicate this visuality and counter it, but they do so by staying close to the kind of obscenity characteristic of sensationalism. The last segment of the essay revisits Elaine Scarry's seminal analysis of the relationship between language and pain. It offers a frame of interpretation for the most disturbing moments in sensationalism and in Cazals's film: moments defined by the screening of gruesome violence, traumatic bodily injury, violence by sexual means, and death.
Between 1975 and 1976, Felipe Cazals released three feature films, films that issue from an insistent set of challenges: to picture violence frontally, in all its brutality towards sentient bodies and in all its historical complexity; to communicate violence by focusing on facts; and to revisit the moral and ethical considerations that arise when communicating these facts. All three of these films—Canoa (Canoa: A Shameful Memory, 1975), El apando (The Heist, 1976), and Las Poquianchis (1976)1—frame forms of institutionalized violence, with the church, the army, prisons, sex traffickers, and wealthy landowners alternating as accessories, coconspirators, and perpetrators of this violence. Two of these films, Las Poquianchis and Canoa, are plainly based on real-life events (the third is based on a novel written by José Revueltas while he was imprisoned).2 Both were produced after extensive investigative work. In an interview about Canoa, a film depicting the 1968 massacre of university affiliates in San Miguel Canoa, Mexico (an event that predates the more widely condemned massacre in Tlatelolco),3 Cazals highlights the efforts that he and the screenwriter Tomás Pérez-Turrent made to incorporate factual information into the making of their films. “It is imperative,” Cazals states in reference to Canoa, “to underscore our overriding determination to create a film conforming precisely to the facts of the case. Our goal was to depict these shameful facts within a true context based on ample research, including the testimony of actual witnesses and participants.”4
The search for truth in matters related to violence seems bound to the weight of facts, so it comes as no surprise that Cazals would go to considerable lengths to ensure his filmic recreations of real-life violence were based on verifiable information, on hard facts.5 What's surprising about Cazals's approach and his efforts to make his feature films factual is the extent to which he mimicked crime tabloids, a form of journalism generally dismissed for being too exploitative, too tawdry, too sensationalist to be true. Nowhere does Cazals stay closer to sensationalism than in Las Poquianchis,6 a film that draws story lines, photographic frames, and a general approach to the representation of violence from the magazine Alarma! Únicamente la verdad. The film's engagement with Alarma! is far from casual. From the narrative arc (reliant as it is on a pair of characters who stand in for the real-life journalists working for Alarma!) to the cinematography (in which photographs in the tabloid are recreated faithfully in scenes throughout the film) to the treatment of the scopic field in the film and the tabloid (both relentless in their pursuit of the morbid and the obscene), there is substantial evidence to suggest that Cazals's film is as much an exploration of the tabloid's distinctively visceral, emotionally charged coverage of violent events as it is a critique of the tawdry exploitation performed by the tabloid.
In the following pages, I trace the ways in which Cazals draws from the sensationalist tabloid Alarma! in the making of his film Las Poquianchis, a film version of the story of human trafficking that led the tabloid to popularity. Cazals's film sticks to the facts of the story but does so by eliciting the kind of visceral, emotional responses (horror, revulsion, disgust) that largely account for the popularity of sensationalist publications. As I hope to show, the viscerally emotional responses elicited by the more shocking scenes in Cazals's film allow the film to appeal to a form of visceral empathy, a volatile, “fragile empathic sharing” of the kind Brad Epps explores in his deft reading of another body of films, Patricio Guzmán's militant documentaries, the first of which also date to the 1970s.7 A visceral form of empathy, as I hope to demonstrate in this essay, can be a powerful concept for envisioning new forces of ethical solicitation, forces that circulate outside the framework of liberal humanism, tearing through and cutting across subject positions (the subject who suffers violence, the subject who witnesses suffering) often presumed to be distinct and static. These forces—emerging both from sensationalist publications and from the work of artists, writers, and filmmakers who draw materials from sensationalist publications—constitute an intense and unstable field of affective reality, one where boundaries of perception become destabilized, with potentially generative consequences—generative both from the perspective of ethical engagement and in allowing for a meaningful repositioning of the subject in relation to the facts of violence.
The first section of this essay makes the case for sensationalism as an archive of violence. After pointing out the ways in which Cazals draws from this archive in the making of his film, I analyze the relationship between obscenity and the field of visuality that emerges from sensationalism. The visuality of sensationalism, I argue, works mostly in the service of power: it keeps certain kinds of violence both out of sight and overexposed. Cazals and other artists and writers who draw materials from sensationalism complicate this visuality, but they do so by staying close to the obscenity characteristic of sensationalism. The last segment of my essay revisits Elaine Scarry's seminal analysis of the relationship between language and pain. It offers a frame of interpretation for the most disturbing moments in Cazals's film: moments defined by the screening of gruesome violence, traumatic bodily injury, violence by sexual means,8 and death. In an article about Cazals's film, Diana Bracho, one of the lead actresses in the film, incisively notes that the “absolute realism” of the film establishes a kind of reserve, a critical distance between characters and viewers, a distance that separates Cazals's film from the easy intimacy, the manipulative sentimentality of melodrama (of the kind often rehearsed in sensationalist accounts of crime).9 My hope, however, is to demonstrate, responding to Scarry's work and the work of her recent commentators, that this critical distance collapses, with all its implied privileges, in moments when pain and bodily injury are screened with shocking frankness, in a way that allows for the expressive capacities of the injured body to come forward without recourse to the more referential, the more propositional, aspects of language.
An Archive of Violence
Cazals directed Las Poquianchis, Canoa, and El apando after spending much of the 1960s studying film in Europe, at the height of the cinema verité movement. The three films are often mentioned together, constituting what has been characterized as Cazals's cinema of denunciation.10 Cazals released these films in the context of a wave of cinematic innovation in Mexico that started to take shape in the 1960s and gained momentum in the early 1970s.11 The way Cazals positioned his work within this period of renewal was deliberate and rather unusual: deliberate in its pursuit of resonance (the stories he chose were charged with social urgency) and unusual in its excruciating depiction of real-life violence.12 The ghastly veracity of Cazals's films distanced his work from that of his contemporaries, moving it, instead, closer to gore and to the model of representing violence characteristic of sensationalist publications like Alarma!
Sensationalism is an archive of violence. It is an awfully vast depository of the violence that affects the most marginalized segments of society, the ones marked most viciously by gender and by poverty, by race and ethnicity, by displacement, by deviant sexuality. Massive in reach and populist in tone, sensationalism has aspired, since its modern beginnings in the nineteenth century, to denounce corruption, to expose scandal, and to spark social reform. Since then, the term “sensationalist” has been used to characterize newspapers, novels, and visual images pitched at the emotions and the “lowly instincts.” Sensationalism, we have come to assume, is a vehicle of perversion, of social and intellectual degradation. For the most part, the term is used pejoratively, as a a shorthand for exploitative, manipulative, scandalous, and exaggerated stories and images driven by titillation and not by truth.
In literature as in journalism, “sensationalism” also denotes wildly popular forms of print culture whose rise in popularity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries coincided with increasing rates of literacy in the places where these publications circulated. “Sensationalism,” David M. Stewart writes in an overview of US popular print publications, “is best defined in relation to two trends in nineteenth-century print culture: publishing's growing capitalization and need to attract a mass audience; and the widespread turn to reading as a way to educate, persuade, and socialize as the US changed from a largely rural, agricultural nation to one that was commercial, industrial, and urban.”13 The growth of sensationalist publications in Mexico beginning in the 1920s and peaking in the 1970s also coincided with government-driven rises in literacy rates, beginning with the national campaign for literacy championed by José de Vasconcelos and the post-revolutionary government he represented.14 In Mexico as in other parts of the Americas, sensationalism remains popular. As Néstor García Canclini and his collaborators note in a recently published anthropology of reading, in Mexico in 2010 the top five sensationalist newspapers combined sold 40 percent more issues than the top five mainstream newspapers combined.15
The Oxford English Dictionary shows that by 1886, sensationalism in English designated “a large portion of the cheap periodical literature of the day.”16 The cheapness of sensationalism was and is economic in the first instance. It points to the cost of the newspapers (the penny press, the dime novel) that gave birth to sensationalism as a category of communication. But like most economics, the economics of sensationalism quickly turned moral. To be cheap in the sense sensationalist journalism is cheap means to be inexpensive, and it also means to lack in virtue. To be sensationalist became correlative with being cheap in this sense. The cheapness of sensationalism bled from the penny press to the subject matter of the penny press, to the subjects it portrayed, and to the way its readers were perceived. A letter to the editor of the New York Times, signed March 24, 1898, confirms this transference. “It is a most unfortunate fact,” the letter reads,
that this kind of matter [‘the pernicious “yellow” papers’] should be read with eagerness, notwithstanding its ‘fake’ characteristics are clearly apparent even to the most stupid reader; and that the illustrations which appear in these papers should be relished, and all the filth contained therein devoured and assimilated, is a pity indeed; but there certainly exists a low-lived desire for that kind of trash on the part of a portion of the population which is coupled with an actual desire to be humbugged.17
An editor writing in Mexico in 1911 warns against sensationalism in slightly less bombastic terms: “Overflowing yellow journalism, furious sensationalism has already poisoned all the wells where those thirsty for knowledge seek relief. One hopes its muddy, putrid waters don't cause an incurable disease in the national organism!”18
In the United States, the dangers that the “muddy, putrid waters” of sensationalism presented to the order of the nation were famously outlined by Theodore Roosevelt in a 1906 speech where the then-president railed against the so-called muckrakers, reform-minded journalists employed by popular magazines in the United States (magazines like Cosmopolitan and McClure's). “There is filth on the floor,” Roosevelt states, in reference to the subject matter pursued by these journalists and by writers like Upton Sinclair—whose exposé of working conditions in the meatpacking plants of Chicago, The Jungle (1906), was published the same year that Roosevelt delivered his speech. “There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces for evil.”19
Since its earliest incarnation, whether in the form of daily newspapers or magazines (and also in its more literary guises), sensationalism has sought to play a social role. Conceived from its inception as a form of communication pitched at the lower classes, it has sought to shed light on the woes of vulnerable segments of the population (industrial laborers, the growing urban poor, peasants, prisoners, mental institute patients), and in the best of cases it has aspired to lead efforts to eradicate corruption and reform social and political institutions. Corruption, scandal, the misery of urban life, and abuse of the working classes were the frequent subjects of the mass-market magazines that employed the muckrakers, magazines which burst onto world publishing around the time, Jessica Dorman notes, of the heyday of yellow journalism. Both yellow newspapers and muckraking magazines shared mass-market aspirations that were reflected in the cost of their issues, costs which, in the case of the magazines, were significantly lower than the cost of contemporary “genteel” monthly journals.20 Earlier, daily newspapers dating back to the nineteenth century and published by the likes of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst established the foundation for the kind of investigative exposé later perfected in early twentieth-century magazines like McClure's.
An aspiration to social resonance and political relevance can also be found later in sensationalist newspapers in Latin America, which began publishing on the scale of their English-language counterparts just as literacy rates started to rise in the region in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1922, six years after its founding, El Universal, one of the largest newspapers in Mexico City, began to publish an afternoon edition, El Universal Gráfico, which included, like other afternoon editions of major newspapers, a larger share of crime news. As Pablo Piccato notes, this afternoon edition had a more populist tone.21La Prensa, the oldest and most established newspaper dedicated to crime news coverage, began publishing in 1928 and quickly rose in popularity, becoming, as the motto of the newspaper read, “the newspapers that conquered Mexico in a month.”22 By the 1930s, the reach and popularity of La Prensa and its editorial line had caught the attention of then-president Lázaro Cárdenas and other Mexican political leaders of the period.23 The newspaper's commercial success, derived mostly from its focus on crime stories, provided the conditions necessary for La Prensa to denounce government officials and authorities, a position most of its competitors, dependent as they were on state subsidies, could not afford. This is the point Pablo Piccato makes in his reading of the political thrust of crime news (known as nota roja in Mexico) newspapers and magazines in Mexico, which he argues reached a kind of climax or “golden age” in the period from the 1930s to the 1960s.24 Commercial success is also what provided Sucesos sensacionales, the most popular crime newspaper in Colombia in the middle of the twentieth century, the margin of editorial discretion that allowed it to assume positions critical of the local, regional, and national governments and the social conditions they provided for their increasingly urbanized citizens. Published in Medellín between 1954 and 1976, Sucesos sensacionales rose to popularity because, in the words of Olga López Betancur, it dramatized and made public what censorship tried to keep out of the public view.25
Peasants, workers, criminals, prostitutes, transvestites, and homosexuals, writes López Betancur, find in Sucesos sensacionales their “minor epic, their tragedy personalized, told as a public lesson, shared as a moralizing proposal.”26 As López Betancur argues, a double portrait, a twofold expression of the popular, emerges from these crime tabloids: on the one hand, the popular as filtered by nineteenth-century racist positivism, criminology à la Lombroso; on the other hand, a possible point of resistance, a kind of countervisuality of the marginalized.27 This last gesture is what makes sensationalist publications like Alarma! and Sucesos sensacionales compelling sources of documents of violence. In the hierarchy of values that puts sensationalism at the lowest rung of print culture, the place of these tabloids and of kindred publications is animated or, rather, haunted by their historical function, their work as platforms for the construction and dissemination of categories of otherness: the poor, the criminal, the miserable, the deviant, the female, the effeminate, the peasant, the backward, the demonic, the unkept, and so forth. The wild popularity and attendant commercial success of these tabloids ensures the dissemination of these categories, and it also promotes their socialization. This same popularity, however, this same commercial success, also leaves behind it a vast cache of traces, an archive of stories and images that can be used, following a methodology envisioned by Nicholas Mirzoeff, not as simple illustrations of subaltern histories but as a “medium” (“all puns intended,” Mirzoeff writes): a medium that, in the partial or total absence of the voice of those represented in the archives of sensationalism, can “speak” for their histories and can “speak” about their histories.28 The question of what this “speech” can amount to is the subject of the closing sections of this essay.
A turning point in the history of these archives takes place in the 1950s and 1960s, with the rise of crime tabloids like Alarma! in Mexico and the Sucesos sensacionales in Medellín. At the height of their popularity, in the 1960s and 1970s, these publications captured the imagination of wide publics throughout the Americas. In a matter of years, these tabloids quickly occupied among the largest segments of print culture in the countries where they were published, assuming, like the relaciones or broadsheets of the early modern period,29 a mediating function between the private and inner lives of subjects adapting to a changing cultural sphere and the public interests of societies revamping their political and judicial structures. Carlos Monsiváis identifies the rise of Alarma! in the 1960s with what he calls the secularization of crime news. Whereas in the beginning of the twentieth century, nota roja journalism would have elicited a sense of awe, in the 1960s, Monsiváis argues, these accounts, and the genre at large, are met not with indifference but with a sense of normalcy, with a feeling that these events are both awful and also part of ordinary life.30
As a genre of journalism, sensationalist publications have been among the only (often the only) widely distributed platforms for making poor, gendered, and racialized subjects visible.31 Though, of course, deformation and typecasting are the usual framings for subjects portrayed in the pages of sensationalist newspapers, appearances in these newspapers and in the crime section of the news also offer opportunities for defiant appropriations of dominant visual codes of power. This is what Cuauhtémoc Medina and Susana Vargas Cervantes argue in their readings of transvestite and transsexual subjects in Alarma!,32 and this is also what Cazals achieves in his own engagement with Alarma! This, too, is what artists all over the Americas, including Andy Warhol in the United States, Beatriz González in Colombia, and Eugenio Dittborn in Chile, have explored in works roughly contemporaneous with the film analyzed in this essay. As the work of these artists makes evident, appearances in the pages of crime tabloids or in the crime section of newspapers offer a paradoxical form of visuality: an obscene visibility, a way of being both unseen and overexposed. As part of the broader social fabric, sensationalism seems to bring about its own invisibility, in a process of self-spectralization comparable to the one Sayak Valencia attributes to “gore capitalism” more generally.33 Artists and writers that draw from sensationalism often work against invisibility and against spectralization, in a way that reframes the violence represented in sensationalism and inscribes this violence into the social context that gave rise to it.
Among sensationalist publications in Mexico, none was more iconic or more popular than the now-defunct Alarma!, the crime tabloid published between 1963 and 2014 with circulation well beyond Mexico's borders.34 No other tabloid or newspaper defined the genre of crime news or nota roja with the forcefulness of Alarma! At the height of its popularity in the 1980s, it sold over two million copies per week. Alarma! first appeared in 1963 and rose to prominence in the early weeks of 1964, when it began to publish a series of explosive features on the González Valenzuela sisters, a group of women who became known as Las Poquianchis. Brothel owners in south-central Mexico, Las Poquianchis were implicated in the shocking murder of dozens of peasant girls and women who worked or were forced to work for them as prostitutes. In a matter of weeks, and thanks to relentless coverage by Alarma! and by national newspapers like Excelsior, the case of Las Poquianchis shook the popular, the political, and the intellectual classes of Mexico, at the same time that it cemented Alarma!’s preeminent position in Mexican print and visual cultures. In a matter of months, the tabloid reported a growth in circulation that went from 140,000 to 520,000 issues per week.35
Most of the images in the opening sequence of Cazals's film seem to be modeled directly on photographs published by Alarma! during its coverage of the case of Las Poquianchis. A few minutes into the film, we witness its first horror scene, modeled closely on the photos published in the January 25, 1964, issue of Alarma! The scene is anchored by the image of a corpse, the corpse of a woman pulled from a shallow grave, the smell of her decaying body signaled on-screen by the sight of men covering their mouths with handkerchiefs. Immediately after this shot, the first sight of blood appears on screen, though not on the body of one of the female victims, but on the white and dusty shirt of a man: a peasant. For those familiar with the story of Las Poquianchis—as most viewers in Mexico would have been at the time that the film was released—a question emerges: what is a peasant, a blood-stained peasant, doing in a film about murdered prostitutes? What is the place of this peasant in a film about tabloid coverage of scandalous murders?
A larger matrix of horror and suffering that includes both violence by sexual means and the economic oppression of rural populations in Mexico emerges from this shot in particular and from Cazals's film as a whole. The link the film draws between, on the one hand, the women trafficked, abused, and murdered during the course of the story of Las Poquianchis and, on the other hand, the murder and displacement of peasants in rural Mexico (a connection also made in press coverage of the case)36 is perhaps the most important contribution Cazals makes to our understanding of the facts surrounding violence by sexual means, to the extent that it compels us to think of this violence as both consequence and instrument of economic domination. By the time he made Las Poquianchis, Cazals was well aware of the history of both radical mobilization and brutal repression of peasants in the Mexican countryside,37 and he made the struggle of peasants in mid-twentieth-century Mexico a central plotline in his film about prostitution. In the black-and-white scenes of Las Poquianchis, peasants are shown talking to each other, organizing, and lining up in government offices where they wait to state their grievances. They are also shown fenced out of their lands, gunned down in their fields, imprisoned for claiming their rights, displaced, and dispossessed.38 In Cazals's film, the same peasants shown mobilizing for their rights to the land, the same peasants pictured dead and imprisoned, are shown as family members of the young women victimized by pimps and human traffickers. The association in the film is direct and unequivocal: land dispossession leads to violence by sexual means, and violence by sexual means leads to dispossession.39
Cazals's Las Poquianchis tells its story in a form that alternates between a testimonial register bordering on the documentary and a more conventionally narrative rendering of events.40 The first testimony appears on screen a few minutes after the start of the film. It is given by one of the victims, who looks straight into the camera. It takes place within the space of an altercation between Chuy, one of the brothel owners (and a so-called Poquianchis sister) and two women forced to work in the sisters' brothels: Lupe, played by a scintillating María Rojo, and Adelina, played by Diana Bracho. Lupe is the one who comes forward, bearing scabs on her lips. She looks into the camera as she states that her wound still festers (fig. 1). In the narrative framing of the film, the statement is directed at Chuy, but because Lupe looks straight into the camera as she points to her wound and gives testimony of it, the spectator can not help but feel addressed. Photographs of the victims showing and pointing to their wounds abound in the coverage of the case by Alarma!41 The parallels between these photographs and the scenes in Cazals's film where characters display their injured bodies for the camera are rich and plentiful.
Shots where women give testimony of their suffering abound in Cazals's film. These shots take place both in narrative sequences and in on-screen interviews that give the film the feel of a documentary, a genre Cazals explored studiously around the time he directed Las Poquianchis.42 Repeatedly in these shots, especially in the more narrative ones, oral testimony is accompanied by displays of bodily injury, by frank portrayals of the effects of violence on the bodies of the victims whose testimony we hear on the soundtrack. In one such shot, eating and the rituals of meal sharing frame the scene of testimony, where the voice of Adelina, one of the women forced into prostitution, rises over the image of a bedridden woman being spoon-fed by a nun.43 The rituals of eating in this scene, juxtaposed with the testimony of suffering, give violence an eerie air of domesticity, a sense of normalcy. All the women present in this scene are victims of sex trafficking, and all are shown in a prison cell, accused of being accomplices to the people who kidnapped them and forced them into sex work. Every one of them holds food in their hands as they tell the nuns around them how they, too, were hit and abused, just like the women deemed victims in judicial proceedings. Eating here, especially as it is shown in the opening shot (a close-up showing a woman barely in control of her own body), adds to the sense of embodiment that the women constantly allude to as they recount their ordeals in captivity. In between morsels, the women speak in morbid detail of skin rashes and pieces of flesh falling from their arms. A nun tries to interject, voicing her dismay in the face of such barbarity, but a chorus of women quickly drowns her out with more stories of blood and carnage. Lupe, the character played by María Rojo, takes hold of the conversation and methodically describes the map of wounds she carries on her face: a nose broken here and also there, lips scabbed and scarred, flesh ripped away with the heel of a shoe, a piece of tongue missing, its absence a cause of stuttering.
In another scene, early in the film, a group of freed victims are gathered in a room where boxes and bags full of donated food are piled on the floor and on a table. A conniving reporter and his photographer colleague are also in the room. Notepad in hand, the reporter starts asking the women how they came to be kidnapped by their abusers. A short-haired woman begins to speak: she was sixteen when she was forced into prostitution, duped by the prospect of decent jobs in Guadalajara. Composed, she speaks of her two children, of how her children were murdered. She then pulls up her blouse and exposes her naked breast: “Look,” the woman in Cazals's film says, as she points to her breast, “they shot me here.” The photographer snaps a picture, but before the woman can finish the story of how she was shot, before her breast is captured by the sexualizing gaze of the men around her, another woman comes into the frame. She raises her skirt, shows a large, round burn or bruise on her leg, and then calls on the other women present to show their own wounds. And so they do. They speak and point to the sites of knife wounds and punches, in shots that echo both the photographs and the language that Alarma! uses to represent the injuries of the abused women.44 A close-up of the unnamed reporter shows him confused and overwhelmed, his note-taking—and the narrative impulse this note-taking represents—interrupted by a chorus of voices that rises around him, insisting on the presence, on the force, of wounded bodies.45 Eventually, the reporter takes back control of the situation by leading a child, a witness to this scene, out of the room, as if to signal the obscenity of the whole display of battered and wounded bodies. The gesture is significant, to the extent that it appeals to obscenity as a way to keep storytelling going by keeping certain facts—the battered bodies of these women—off the stage and out of sight, contained within the field of visuality that sensationalism constitutes.
The link between obscenity and the visuality of sensationalism is crucial. It works mostly in the service of power, in perversely efficient ways, by keeping certain kinds of violence (violence against poor and racialized women, for instance) both out of sight and overexposed. Violence against women as it is framed in Alarma! is both too visible to be ignored and too obscene to be included in mainstream news, the stage of important events. What Cazals does, and what other artists referencing Alarma! and other sensationalist publications also do,46 is intervene in the visuality of sensationalism by complicating its distribution of the visible, of the obscenely sensible. They do this not by avoiding but by embracing the lewdness of violence and folding it into the images and the narratives that show what violence is and how it functions structurally. Cazals's film compels us to draw a link between gender violence, obscenity, and the distribution of the sensible that keeps certain events offstage, removed from discussions of what is important and what rises to the level of the political.
The relationship between violence by sexual means, obscenity, visibility, and politics was a subject of growing interests for artists, especially women artists, in the 1970s.47 It was also a matter of heated discussion at the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, a five-day meeting in Brussels of hundreds of women from more than two dozen countries that took place in 1976, the same year that Cazals released his film. The Tribunal was organized as a response to the controversially moderate48 United Nations conference on women held in Mexico City in 1975, an event of national and international resonance that Cazals likely had in mind while filming and producing his film on prostitution. Both the Chicago Tribune49 and the Boston Globe50 covered the 1976 tribunal in Brussels and highlighted the organizing efforts of militant prostitutes fighting against the criminalization of sex work, one of several topics (along with rape, femicide, domestic abuse, access to contraception, and “economic crimes against women”) discussed under the auspices of the tribunal.51 Nell McCafferty, reporting for the Irish Times, included in her coverage ample quotes by women from the various delegations in attendance. Testimony from the US delegation (which highlighted violence against Native American and Chicana women) shed light on the spurious process complicated by Cazals in his film, the process that links spectacle and sensationalism with gender violence, the same process that turns crimes against women into oddball news, scandalous events, events without real social or political import. “Men tell us not to take a morbid interest in these atrocities,” the testimony reads.
The epitome of tribality is alleged to be a curiosity about the “latest rape and murder.” The murder, violation and mutilation of a woman is not considered to be a political event. Men tell us that they cannot be blamed for what a few maniacs do. Yet the very process of denying the political content of terror helps to perpetuate it, keeps us weak and vulnerable and fearful. These rapes, in their hundreds of thousands, are the 20th century witch-burnings.52
The value of the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women and, to a different extent, the value of Cazals's film rest largely on their ability to picture obscene violence not as an anomaly or an aberration but as a feature of larger social and economic structures: as part of politics. Their value, then, lies in their ability to bridge the distance that separates faits divers from political news,53 the same distance that separates the murder, violation, and mutilation of a woman from the category of political murder, the notion of murder as political event.
A collapse of sorts takes place in moments in Cazals's film when we see victims give bodily testimony of the violence they have suffered. Pain and imagining, the two boundary conditions Elaine Scarry describes as separate framing events for the spectrum of possible perceptual, somatic, and emotional experiences, collapse into each other in these scenes, in a disturbing moment of contact. In The Body in Pain (1985), Scarry analyses the relationship between language and pain and concludes that language, propositional and referential language, collapses in the face of the experience of pain. The implications of this conclusion are numerous. Central among these implications is the idea that, as Scarry suggests, pain stands in diametrical opposition to the imagination, to imagining.
We learn from Scarry's study that pain has no intentional object, no referential content, a fact that makes it different from most other emotional, affective, and somatic states. We learn, too, that the act of being engaged in imagining differs in complex and important ways from the experience of being in pain. Imagining is nothing if not its objects; it is, in Scarry's formulation, an intentional object without an experienceable intentional state. The imagination is only experienced in the objects, in the images, that it produces, and never as an experience in its own right. Pain, on the other hand, intense pain in particular, wipes out the capacity to hold images and objects and leaves the person in pain in a wholly passive position. “‘Pain’ and ‘imagining,’” Scarry writes, “constitute extreme conditions. . . . Between these two boundary conditions all the other more familiar, binary acts-and-objects are located. That is, pain and imagining are the ‘framing events’ within whose boundaries all other perceptual, somatic, and emotional events occur; thus, between the two extremes can be mapped the whole terrain of the human psyche.”54
It seems to me that a collapse or disturbing moment of contact between pain and imagining, which Scarry conceives as diametrically opposed, takes place when certain expressions of the body (either the body in intense pain or the body in intense states of pleasure) manage to move another body, another person, at the level of the flesh, at the level of sensation. These forms of expression (screams, yells, howls, bodily secretions, contortions, bodily displays of injury) appear with some frequency in Cazals's film and in the sensationalist publication he mimics. When we are watching his film, or looking at photographs of gross bodily injury, or being confronted with the sight of actual gross bodily injury, seeing someone else's injury often (perhaps always) gives rise to two distinct experiences that seem to alternate, to become indistinguishable from one another. When an image or sight shows frontally the aftermath of traumatic bodily damage, we see someone else's bodily damage, someone else's pain, but we also, often (perhaps always) experience a visceral response that can overwhelm us, at least momentarily. This response consists in the flickering emergence of pain in ourselves, a pain that emerges as a response to someone else's pain: a sentient mirroring of sorts that can serve as the basis for empathic responses to pain.55
Perhaps more than any other kind of image, convincing images of bodily injury like the ones featured in Cazals's film, whether recreated or documentary, are riddled with visceral affect. Imagining pain in the way these images allow us to, responding to this pain viscerally and empathically in the way we often respond when such pain is presented to us frontally, collapses the two framing events, the two extreme boundaries that Scarry keeps separate when she describes the relationship between pain and imagining. Imagining pain in this way involves the ability to hold an image of pain as an object in our imagination, and it also involves the experience of passively surrendering to a form of empathic pain, which emerges at the sight of someone else's pain, or of a document of it. Imagining pain this way, empathically (the way we do when it hurts to behold the pain of others), implies entertaining the possibility that some of the more inscrutable aspects of other people's pain can, in fact, be communicable, but communicable only from a position Scarry envisions in a more recent study of the expression of bodily pain: a position where “there is no center of consciousness to hold on to.”56
What emerges from this process is not some kind of direct, unmediated access to the pain of others but rather an encounter that is mediated not by figures, not by narrative, not by clichés, but by sensation, by the register of expression that—as Francis Bacon, and Gilles Deleuze after Bacon, reiterated so insistently—rests on the flesh and lies beyond or beneath the more abstract, the more intellectual faculties engaged by referential language, by narrative, and by figuration. This, then, is a task for artists, writers, and filmmakers in their work with the archive of violence constituted by sensationalism: to strip it of clichés, of the clichés that make those images so resonant to begin with, so communicable. Doing this can leave behind nothing but sheer horror, sheer terror, the terror of the image as sensation, of the image as pain, as revolt, as disgust. The result is disturbing, and grotesque enough to appear fantastic. It is the realness of violence apprehended as such, which is rarely believable, as José Revueltas concludes, citing Dostoyevsky and apropos Revueltas's own Los muros de agua (1941).57
Revueltas's novel El apando (1969) was the basis for Cazals's film of the same name, a film made around the same time that Las Poquianchis was made. Like Cazals, Revueltas produced what he called his “literary realities” in dialogue with sensationalist publications; Revueltas contributed early on in his writing career to the crime section of a newspaper. Unlike Cazals, Revueltas drew on personal experience when depicting institutions of confinement. Hospitals, penal colonies, and prisons appear often in Revueltas’s work, and the writer himself was imprisoned in the late 1960s. The result, in Revueltas's novels as in Cazals's films, is a reworking of sensationalist visuality, a labor that makes room for the emergence of what Revueltas defined as the terrible: “what we don't imagine as such: what is always in the simplest things, within reach, in what we live through with the greatest angst and what cannot be communicated, for two reasons: one, the modesty of suffering in the face of expression; two, implausibility: we won't know how to demonstrate that that thing, the terrible, is dreadfully true.”58 This is what we often end up with when confronted with the image of sensationalized violence, as reworked by artists, writers, and filmmakers: dreadful truth, implausible terror, terror that cannot be communicated through propositional language but that remains within reach of the senses.
That some visceral aspect of pain can be communicated through the senses, through the sights and sounds of bodily injury, is a possibility entertained by scholars including Ilit Ferber.59 Ferber's reading of Johann Gottfried Herder's eighteenth-century writings on the origins of human language outline the basic conceptual framework for a form of language, a language of sensation, wherein this kind of communication can take place. The inexpressibility of pain, the breakdown of referential, propositional language (the breakdown of a language with intentional objects, a language that assumes a distinct subject and object) in the face of overwhelming pain is one of Scarry's central theses, one she explores methodically in her book's introduction. What Cazals's shots of bodily injury show, what Revueltas's novels map out, and what recent scholarship by Ferber and others theorizes, are the possibilities for communication that are opened up when propositional language breaks down in the face of overwhelming pain. In this way, these works help us complicate Scarry's seminal analysis of pain, expanding the terrain of psychic experiences originally outlined by Scarry to include experiences of visceral empathy, experiences premised on the raw expressive forces emerging from the injured body and the visceral and affective resonance of howls, screams, yells, bodily secretions, and other such primary expressions of sensory experience, expressions that communicate not by pointing to referents or by means of propositions, but through a form of exchange that rests on the kind of affective disturbance elicited by the sight of traumatic bodily injury.
What exactly can this form of affective disturbance accomplish? What are the effects of this disturbance, premised as it is on the presence of bodily injury? Cazals's collaboration with, or use of, survivors of real-life violence in the making of his films sheds some light on these questions. For Canoa, Cazals and screen writer Pérez Turrent used the testimony of a witness present at the massacre portrayed in the film as the basis for the monologues of a character, a kind of peasant archetype named El Testigo (The Witness). The words spoken by this character, played by the actor Salvador Sánchez, are exactly the words spoken by the real-life witness interviewed by Pérez Turrent.60 Furthermore, for both Canoa and Las Poquianchis, Cazals invited witnesses and victims to the set of the film. Three survivors of the lynching in San Miguel Canoa were brought in as “collaborators” in the making of Canoa, with the objective of creating, in Cazals's words, “a climate of strangeness and a certain emotional instability amongst my actors during the entire time of filming.”61 According to Cazals, the presence of survivors on set demanded both “truthfulness” in the depiction of the events and “the interpretation of this truthfulness with a maximum degree of realism. Such side-by-side collaboration during shooting,” Cazals adds, “was a success in part because some of the most brutal situations suffered by the survivors were depicted in the mise en scène with an exactitude that can only occur when what is real is transferred to what is apparently fiction.”62
With only Cazals's recollection to work with, it is hard to tell how fairly these witnesses and victims were treated as “collaborators” in the film. What seems noteworthy is the conscious and deliberate conjugation of presence, truth, and the interpretation of truth as requisite elements in the construction of what is real: of the real-life massacre as it happened in San Miguel Canoa, for instance. What seems to take place when the victims are on set, the goal Cazals seems to be pursuing, is a kind of transference from concrete violence as imprinted on someone's body, to the filmic recreation of this violence, and then to the audiences who watch the film. In Canoa, this “play of mirrors” (Cazals's own term), this mise en abyme takes place beyond the frame of the camera. This same kind of transference is what we see at work when survivors of rural land grabs are brought to the filming of the last scenes of Las Poquianchis, except that this time, the transference is shown on screen. Towards the end of this film, real peasants take over the screen (first their voices, then their faces) as they tell, in their own words, stories of their struggle for subsistence and justice (fig. 2). Among them is the actor who played the most salient peasant role in the movie, his presence a signal of Cazals's trust in the powers of artistic license. His presence is also a signal of the force Cazals draws from the truthful fabrication of real-life events, the force he draws from the faithful recreation of brutal facts.
A journalist covering the case of Las Poquianchis remarked that silence and prudish concealment are the best allies of human traffickers and those who profit from their business. Sensationalism as an affront to prudish concealment is what Cazals seems to have in mind in his mimicking of the genre's frank treatment of the scopic field. As an archive of violence, sensationalism reveals, but its visuality is overexposed, constructed as it is around information and events that are too shocking, too disturbing, too viscerally moving to allow for a distanced and impartial engagement. Cazals's focus on these disturbing facts, which follows closely the model perfected by sensationalist crime publications, reveals the extent to which these facts, riddled as they are with visceral force, constitute a large and relatively underexplored archive of violence.
The full title of this last film reads as follows: Las Poquianchis (De los pormenores y otros sucedidos del dominio público que acontecieron a las hermanas de triste memoria a quienes la maledicencia así las bautizó); in English, Las Poquianchis (Regarding the Details and Other Matters of Public Knowledge That Happened to the Sadly Remembered Sisters So Christened by Curse and Slander) (translation mine). Both the length and the rhetorical style of this title call to mind the early modern broadsheets that Joy Wiltenburg identifies as precursors to modern sensationalism (“True Crime,” 1379).
Cazals's El Apando is a filmic adaptation of the novel written in prison by José Revueltas in 1969. Revueltas, by then a consecrated writer and notable militant activist, wrote his profoundly experimental account of life inside prison while held at the infamous Lecumberri prison in Mexico City under charges of leading the 1968 protests brutally repressed in the massacre at Plaza de Tlatelolco on October 2, 1968. Throughout his work, and especially in his novels dedicated to the logic of carceral spaces, Revueltas seems concerned with the limits of representing the reality of horror and of horrific suffering, which he characterizes in a 1961 introduction to Los muros de agua (1941) as “excessive, superabundant” (Revueltas, Los muros de agua, 20).
The brutal and more widely known massacre in Tlatelolco took place only a month after the massacre at San Miguel de Canoa, portrayed by Cazals in his film. Parallels between the two violent events invite a double reading of Cazals's Canoa, as both a factual depiction of the massacre in San Miguel de Canoa and an allegory of the events that took place a month later in Tlatelolco.
Cazals, in West and Cazals, “Revisiting the Scene,” 18.
On this point, Cazals states: “our film [Canoa] depicts no counterfactual events. The field research conducted for this project was extensive and in-depth. For instance, in his dialogue Pérez Turrent uses the exact words spoken—and recorded in writing in police reports—by the commander of the granaderos when he complains about activism in the university as well as the perceived state of inebriation of the mayor” (West and Cazals, “Revisiting the Scene,” 18).
Cazals's film is one of several works of art and literature conceived around the case of Las Poquianchis and its coverage in crime tabloids. Jorge Ibargüengoitia's novel Las muertas (1977) appeared a year after Cazals's film. Ibargüengoitia's novel has been read widely, and Ibargüengoitia himself, or rather a character named after him, appears in Cazals's film, in a wink of sorts to the investigative work the novelist was completing while Cazals shot his film. Elisa Robledo's Yo, la Poquianchis (1980), a longer piece of creative journalism structured around interviews with some of the people involved in the case, was published in book form and went through several editions. More recently, a humor-laden, satiric opera opened in California in 2000, with music by the Tijuana-born composer Enrique González-Medina and a libretto by D. J. Carlile based on Ibargüengoitia's novel. See Infante, “Inspirado por la tragedia.”
My choice of terms here and elsewhere in this essay (“violence by sexual means” rather than the more idiomatic expressions “gender violence” and “sexual violence”) is informed by the work of Rita Segato, who writes: “The phrase ‘sexual violence’ is misleading, because although aggression is exercised by sexual means, the ends of this kind of violence are not of a sexual nature but rather are related to power. These are not, then, acts of aggression that originate in a desire for sexual satisfaction, which is always derived from a reciprocal exchange or relation” (“Manifesto,” 199).
Changes in the Mexican film industry in the 1970s took place during the presidency of Luis Echeverría Álvarez, widely despised for his role in the 1968 massacre of Tlatelolco. See Treviño, “New Mexican Cinema,” 27. These changes nurtured a new generation of auteurs and brought about transformations in the infrastructure of production, in the frameworks of funding, and, crucially, in the formulation of subject matter. See West and Cazals, “Revisiting the Scene,” 15, 17.
Cazals's conjugation of horror and political subject matter in films like Las Poquianchis and Canoa are important reasons why his films have proved so resonant among Mexican filmmakers. See Alfonso Cuarón's statements in Rodríguez, “Alfonso Cuarón.” Critical appreciation of these films and of the contribution they make to a militant film form that relies on the blunt presentation of violence has been slow but growing. See Chávez, “Eagle and the Serpent,” 130; Berg, Cinema of Solitude, 194–96.
Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “sensationalism,” accessed May 1, 2020, www.oed.com.
Joy Wiltenburg sees this social function of sensationalism operating already in what she argues are the earliest examples of sensationalism: early modern broadsheets. “By fostering bonds of common emotional response, these works offered a means of healing violent tears in the social fabric. The apparent commercial success of their formulaic approaches to this task suggests that they had some success in guiding common responses to the unthinkable and horrific” (“True Crime,” 1397–98).
This is what Alberto Fuguet suggests in Tinta roja (1996), Fuguet's fictionalized account of crime tabloid journalism in Santiago de Chile. See Fuguet, Tinta roja, 101–2.
Alarma! was read widely in Los Angeles, California, where it influenced the style, the themes, and the politics of the Chicano/a experimental art collective known as ASCO. See Noriega, “Introduction,” 18.
This rise in circulation took place in the period spanning from January 25, 1964 (the date of the first issue Alarma! dedicates to Las Poquianchis) to March 3, 1964 (the last issue where the case makes the cover of the tabloid). Coverage continues well into May 1964, though not with the intensity of the period between January 25 and March 3.
See Sánchez Hermosillo, “Fueron a misa, a dar las gracias,” 17, where the crime scene where many of the victims are found is described as a “cursed farm.” For a reference to the “clase campesina” of the victims, see Sánchez Hermosillo, “El pueblo las quería linchar, el juez las declaró presas!”
In reference to the then-rural outpost of San Miguel Canoa, Cazals writes:
Traditionally, San Miguel Canoa is regarded as a victim of dispossession, of illiteracy, of alcoholism, of fanaticism—of everything that officialdom confirmed about the village's progressive decline over at least fifty years and its eventual disappearance and consolidation into the city of Puebla. But that's not the whole story: in the 1960s, efforts toward cementing the solidarity of independent-minded peasant groups were the only real hope for opposing the government [the hegemonic PRI, Partido Revolucionario Institucional]. The CCI [Central Campesina Independiente] was made up of country folks fed up with the false promises of the peasant organizations allied with the government. The CCI attempted to find a path forward, but its efforts would later be betrayed by pervasive corruption. San Miguel Canoa is an example of this historic situation.” (West and Cazals, “Revisiting the Scene,” 18)
In a recent history of state-sponsored violence in the Mexican countryside, Gladys McCormick argues that the early 1950s—the same period pictured in the black-and-white sequences of Cazals's film Las Poquianchis—marks a turning point for Mexican peasants, a moment of increased mobilization in the face of dire economic prospects and a growing sense of misery. This increased mobilization was met, as McCormick notes, with brutal violence on the part of government officials and private parties acting in collusion with the government. “The more the state ignored peasant claims and their worsening economic situation,” writes McCormick, “the more readily rural people experimented with radical options to press those claims” (Logic of Compromise, 134). McCormick argues that the state's repression of peasants in the 1950s, the same repression framed by Cazals in Las Poquianchis, served as a “laboratory” for the better-known urban and rural state-sponsored violence of the 1960s.
For discussions on violence as a crucial step in the promotion of what Dawn Paley and Rita Segato theorize—in reference to the drug trade and to feminicide, respectively—as accumulation by dispossession, see Paley, Drug War Capitalism, 132; Segato, “Territory, Sovereignty,” 70. In the 1950s, Juan Rulfo had already pointed to the link between rural misery and prostitution in his wrenching series of short stories compiled in El llano en llamas (The Plain in Flames, 1953). Cazals's film and Tomás Pérez Turrent's screenplay for the film stand as strong continuations of Rulfo's meditation on the links between economic oppression and prostitution, as does Arturo Ripstein's El lugar sin límites (The Place without Limits, 1977), an adaptation of José Donoso's 1966 novel by the same name. Ripstein's film is set in a small, rural town in Mexico, a once-thriving community decimated by a greedy landowner who cuts off the town's electricity in an effort to drive away its residents, purchase their land, and resell it for a profit. By the time the film begins, only one house remains to be purchased, the house belonging to Manuela, the gender-queer, female-identified protagonist, and her daughter La Japonesita, prostitutes and brothel owners. In the last minutes of the film, Manuela is brutally assassinated. The landowner witnesses her murder and does nothing to stop it.
Cazals had already experimented with this alternation of filmic forms in Canoa; I think he perfects it in Las Poquianchis. See Treviño, “New Mexican Cinema”: “The Cazals film [Canoa] is distinguished by a filmic approach which blends simulated documentary footage and on-camera interviews with a narrative rendering of the events leading to the lynchings” (29).
Cazals directed several short documentaries in the 1960s, in the early years of his career. He completed two more documentaries in the years leading to his mid-1970s cinema of denunciation: Los que viven donde el viento sopla suave (1974), a feature-length documentary about indigenous Seris in Northern Mexico, and the short documentary Testimonios y documentos: Paro agrario (1975), which anticipates the themes of agrarian mobilization that Cazals took up again in his treatment of the crimes of Las Poquianchis.
Nuns assisted, cared for, and fed the victims in the case of Las Poquianchis, even those who ended up convicted as accomplices in murder. See Alarma!, “Las verdugos quieren irse a un convento!”
Moments like these, places where narrative flow is arrested by the forces—visceral and affective—emanating from the vision of injured and battered bodies, abound in Cazals's film and in the sensationalist tabloid the film is largely modeled on. Both constitute compelling examples of a clash or collapse of the two sources, the two endpoints, the antinomies Frederic Jameson outlines in his study of literary realism (The Antinomies of Realism, 1–11). The years between the 1960s and the 1980s, a moment of intensive growth and growing intensity for sensationalist tabloids, is perhaps a privileged period for the study of this clash.
The Chicano collective Asco, active in the 1970s and 80s, produced a number of works that reference—both in their form and in their representation of violence—the crime tabloid Alarma! as well as a sister publication, the photo-novel Casos de Alarma.
For an overview of women artists working in the 1970s on issues related to violence by sexual means, see Princenthal, Unspeakable Acts.
The Chicago Tribune described the 1976 Tribunal in Brussels as “a radical answer to the moderate meetings held under the auspices of the 1975 International Women's Year” (“Hooker's Organizing”).
The Hartford Courant, for its part, focuses on the Tribunal's condemnation of crimes against women, describing “femicide” as “a new word coined to underline that more women are killed by men than men by women” (“‘Tribunal’ to Hear of Antiwomen Crime”).
Roland Barthes outlines the distinction between political murder and murder as an everyday fact, as fait divers. Political murder, Barthes writes, rises to the status of an event because it bears on knowledge external to the fact of murder and so on structures of power beyond the scene of the crime. Political murder, in Barthes' account, goes beyond the crime scene, it exceeds the fact of killing: it amounts to news because it exceeds the crude, physical facts of murder and bears on a sphere much wider than the scene of the crime. We miss the point if we only focus on the fact of death in political murder. We fail to grasp the significance of the murder as event if we focus on the facts of violence. We fail to grasp the meaning of the political murder if we do not move beyond the murder, towards the structures of knowledge that make political murder significant as political event. “Everyday” murders, on the other hand, murders naturalized as normal, quotidian, are not political events because they lie beneath and do not touch on abstract categories. “In short,” Barthes concludes, “a murder escapes the fait-divers whenever it is exogenous, proceeding from an already known world; we might then say that it has no sufficient structure of its own, for it is never anything but the manifest term of an implicit structure which pre-exists it” (“Structure of the Fait-Divers,” 186).
Pain and empathy have been subjects of interest in aesthetics and, more recently, in neuroscience. For a review of neuroscientific approaches to the study of empathetic responses to images of pain, see Schott, “Pictures of Pain.”
Scarry, “Among Schoolchildren,” 287. Francis Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) is the kind of work that sustains this kind of communication, according to Scarry and according to Bacon himself.
José Revueltas, Los muros de agua, 8–9; my translation.
José Revueltas, Los muros de agua, 8–9; my translation.
In West and Cazals, “Revisiting the Scene,” Cazals writes:
El Testigo really existed. Using a portable machine, Tomás Pérez Turrent recorded all of his responses and comments. This material, recorded live, was invaluable because the Witness emphasizes—or to the contrary avoids, in a very typical peasant manner—what he really wants to answer as well as what he does not want to say. . . . I did agree with Pérez Turrent that the words of this real-life witness would be precisely those said—in exactly the same way—by the actor Salvador Sánchez. (16)
West and Cazals, “Revisiting the Scene,” 19. Cazals also adds: “It is worth pointing out, however, that I softened two or three of the attacks suffered by the victims because the real-life level of cruelty would have been too much for the audience to withstand.”