Wakefield Doc Fest: Dark Suns captures the tragedy of Mexico’s missing and murdered

A father holds a picture of his missing daughter in a scene from Dark Suns.

Mexico has become a killing field where drug cartels and other criminals take lives without regard for the impact of their violence and with little effective intervention by representatives of the state. We hear the bloody statistics but we don’t hear much about the gender and ages of the victims or the families left behind or about the people trying to make a difference and stop the killing. The 2019 film Dark Suns takes us into the world of the families as they grapple with the deaths of their daughters and sisters. We certainly know about missing and murdered women in this country. The film is a stark powerful commentary told frankly in black and white. The Quebec film director Julien Elie answered some questions from ARTSFILE about his work. This film will screen Feb. 8 at 2 p.m. and Feb. 9 at 2 p.m. For more: wakefielddocfest.ca

Q. Julien, please tell me a bit about your career in film. 

A. I started doing films about 20 years ago but I had to stop for a while for personal reasons. In fact Dark Suns is my first film in 15 years. I had a dark period but obviously now its over.

Julien Elie directed Dark Suns.

Q. Tell me when and why you decided to make Dark Suns. 

A. Twenty years ago I read an article about the first cases of feminicide in Ciudad Juarez. Like many people it struck and shocked me, so I thought about doing a film about it but in those years I did not know much about Mexico, so I put the idea aside. During the course of the last 10 years I have visited Mexico many times, for the film project and for doing photographs.

The country inspired me a lot and I became friends with many people there. I  consider Mexico almost as my second home. Five years ago, I read a book by Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, Huesos en el desierto (Bones in the Desert) while I was flying to Mexico.

I told myself I must meet him because I was so impressed by his story telling and the way he is presents the facts. Sergio was not only one of the best journalists in the country, he was also a great writer. I wanted to do a film in that same direction, a mix of strong investigation with aesthetic concerns. I met with Sergio who helped me and convinced me the film had to be done. Then I started to investigate the situation and decide also to open the subject, not only to crimes against women but also to all kind of crimes. Still, it was important to me to keep feminicide in the heart of the film, as women are the first innocent victims of the drama.

Q. What story does the film tell?

A. About the fear invading a country.

Q. Why is the film called Dark Suns?

A. I prefer viewers make up their own minds about this. There are many explanations.

Q. Why are these women being killed?

A. I don’t have the answers to this. The truth is that I don’t try to explain things, I am not journalist nor a Mexican, nor a sociologist. I was more interested in showing how rather than why. But I am sure that after seeing the movie viewers will have a good idea of what is happening in Mexico. One important thing to say is that women are not just being killed in Juarez but it is happening across Mexico. Sadly, if we hear about Juarez more than other places it’s only because strong women have risen up created movements and fought there for answers.

Q. What do we in Canada need to know about this state of affairs.

A. I don’t think in Canada we know anything about what is going on there, beside the drug cartels. Canadian tourists in Mexico likely never know that just a few metres from their hotels young kids are abducted in broad day light. More than 34,000 have been killed in 2019 and those are the official numbers. The real ones are much higher. Why would you visit a country like this?  Now for the rest, I don’t want tell people what they should do or think. But as human beings we should be informed at least, no?

Q. Your film raises up some real heroes — lawyers, mothers, journalists. How did you find them?

A. It was a long process, almost three years of investigation. I spend also a lot of time in Mexico in the last 10 years also. I went to meet all these people during these years to convince them to talk. In fact, it was not so difficult, almost everyone agreed to talk. But it took a lot of time before they cold trust me. I can say I owe everything to those people who are all friends now.

Q. These heroes walk in danger all the time. Were you worried about drawing unwarranted and dangerous attention to them?

A. As you said they walk in danger and they were doing so before we came with our camera. Of course, the security of all involved in the film was a top priority. And we discussed that a lot. I think also that these people don’t fear much and they want people to listen their stories.

Q. Are you worried about your own safety?

A. The danger was everywhere but in the end nothing happened. We prepared every move very carefully, again with the help of journalists and the families. These are the people who are the most informed. It was important to not film with armed people surrounding us. For a few specific situation, we had no choice but to ask the help of the authorities. But it is something I prefer not to do, for obvious reasons. No one can do a good interview with cops around, especially in Mexico. We had also a wonderful team of experienced people and all of who are now close friends. Despite the danger, we had a great time. For me working with friends is a priority.

Q. When the film was released, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been in office only a short while. Has his government made any difference?

A. I would rather let Mexican people answer this but obviously things have not changed at all. I don’t think any new president has the power to do anything. There are stronger forces above him.

Q. What hope is there that anything will change in Mexico?

A. Of course, we can’t say there is no hope, but it will take a long time to see changes.

Q. What kind of reaction is the film getting?

A. I can’t complain. It’s been selected by more than 50 festivals with 10 awards and it’s not over. The public and critical reaction have been pretty good so far. The warm welcome of the film in Mexico, from the press and the public, was the most touching aspect of the film release.

Q. How did the heroes of your story like it.

A. All the people are happy with the result. Most of them came to different screenings in the country in the last year. They are very much behind the movie.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.