Mexicans wince at Hollywood's sepia portrait

Jorge Castaneda is a Tijuana cop, not a film critic.

So he knows something about life on the streets of this border town. But if you ask him about the film "Traffic," which opened here this week, he gives it two thumbs up. "It was realistic, it showed the dark side of the drug trade we can't deny exists here. It also takes up the reality of drug use" in the United States.

But many Mexicans are less-than enamored with this Oscar-nominated flick - and several other recent films. After years of bemoaning their low profile in Hollywood, Mexicans are finding that center stage is, well, not all fun and Zorro.

More than anything, it's "Traffic" director Steven Soderbergh's use of a grainy sepia tone to film Mexico scenes that unsettles Mexicans. "The way the movie was filmed, it says, 'Everything in the United States is technicolor, it's neat and beautiful, while Mexico is sepia, old, and shadowy," says Dulce Maria Sauri, president of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party. "From the opening scene, Tijuana was nothing but small dirty backrooms, and Mexico a den of corruption," Ms. Sauri continues. "I just kept thinking, this is the image of Mexico that is going around the world."

Mr. Castenada's girlfriend echoes that sentiment as they emerge from a cineplex at a mall in Tijuana. "I don't know if I like the idea of the best movie of the year presenting this negative vision of Tijuana and Mexico to the world," says Rocio Chavez.

Ms. Chavez will have to wait until Sunday to see if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences considers "Traffic" the year's best picture.

But it's not just "Traffic" that Mexicans find distasteful. Also set in Mexico this year are "Way of the Gun," "Double Take," and "The Mexican," which associate the country with themes ranging from kidnappings and money-laundering to bumbling, small-time corruption.

With Hispanics now constituting America's largest minority, and Hollywood cultivating that market, Hispanic actors like Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, and Jennifer Lopez are in hot demand.

The Traffic plot relates an unsung Tijuana policeman's role in bringing down a Mexican general who is working with one Mexican drug cartel to destroy another. Though names are changed, the story draws from the shocking revelation in 1997 that Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, Mexico's equivalent of the White House anti-drug czar, was on the payroll of the Juarez drug cartel run by Amado Carrillo Fuentes. As part of his clandestine work, General Gutierrez was taking tough action against the Tijuana cartel of the Arellano Felix brothers - to help the Juarez cartel expand westward.

The Arellano Felix brothers remain at the top of the FBI's most-wanted list, with Mexico's inability to catch the two traffickers a sore spot in US-Mexico anti-narcotics relations. Mexican and US officials agree that Amado Carillo Fuentes died in 1996 during extensive plastic surgery - although "Traffic" has him surviving the surgery and living in luxury in Mexico City, the version many Mexicans prefer to believe.

For many Mexicans, it's not the depiction of reality that grates as much as the partial nature of the picture Hollywood offers of Mexico.

"No one can argue with the historical similarities between ["Traffic"] and reality, but Tijuana is a lot more than people eating at cheap stands in the streets or dealing with 'entrepreneurial' policemen, as the movie shows," says Sergio Riedel Barocio, Tijuana commander of the Baja California investigative police.

"All the scenes of Tijuana are dark, dirty images; that's typical of Hollywood," says Jorge Bustamante, director of Tijuana's Colegio de la Frontera Norte. "It doesn't come right out and say, 'Mexico is the enemy of the US,' but that is the portrayal."

For Mr. Bustamante, there's little wonder where this "xenophobic" vision of Mexico originates, since he says California, with the US's largest Hispanic population, remains the center of American anti-Mexican prejudice. Adds Commander Riedel, "Tijuana is actually a prosperous corner of Mexico, we just happen to be up against the richest state of the richest country in the world."

Which leaves Tijuana something like the distant favela to the world headquarters of the image-making industry.

Some here point to Mexico's entry in the Oscar "best foreign picture" category this year - "Amores Perros," a grim tale of Mexican urban life - to show that it's not as though Mexico still needs another country's cinema to portray national realities.

But Yeciel Aarn Gonzalez, a Tijuana high school senior, says: "You can't say [Traffic] gave a picture of a perfect US. Today we know so much about [the US], we know about this problem of guns in the schools, so it wouldn't ring true if anyone tried" to show an idyllic US.

"These days," he adds, "no place can hide from its reality."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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