Gods of Mexico - Helmut Dosantos
Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Before We Vanish by Zachary Goldkind Featured Film

Gods of Mexico — Helmut Dosantos

March 3, 2023

Helmut Dosantos’ feature debut, Gods of Mexico, is an ethereal work of observation, informing tonality through compositional rigor, the beauty on display siphoned into a controlled stasis. In opposition to historical narratives of modernization and the industrial imperialism that ravages the landscapes of indigenous communities, Dosantos seeks an immobility that dignifies itself through the act of statis-as-resistance. He frames a collection of indigenous peoples in a plethora of tableaux so that, when brought together, they might construct a new perception and narrative of resilience. But this well-meaning survey of beauty and might quickly collapses into the ornamental.

At a point, the film’s stillness and observation becomes rote, its capacity to evoke its ideas and aestheticized vision begins to stifle, and the whole thing pretty openly flails toward ethnographic gaze. One might be able to extrapolate intention in invoking beauty as a faculty of the very representation it expresses, but there isn’t enough of a sense of subjectivity as the camera’s inherent estrangement seriously affects our perception. These people become objects of a leering gaze, one that flirts in spectacle and only affirms that the indigenous subjects are being made fetish. A black-and-white portraiture motif adopted during the film’s mid-section reads as grotesquely projected nostalgia, seeking to render those images of history as specters within a reimagining of this process, wherein their ghosts are caught in that quest for an image. These forms, if reappropriated, offer little new but a pointed reflexivity. In the portraits, we see figures ripped from their storied landscapes and placed on display. 

The intent is clear enough: of seeking reclamation of these historied images through a context of labor and inserting — and bringing to the foreground — a textured proximity to the land. However, even those images read as fraught: austere and enclosing, orchestrated to such rigid compositions that it’s difficult to know whether each act was sincere or only performed as to amplify a sensorium, as so much of the film is less interested in a people and their ways and more transfixed by the capacity one has to curate that. It all feels quite removed from the humanity the film ostensibly seeks to capture, and is instead more alike the very violence desired to be here subverted. And the structural integrity God of Mexico’s narrative hinges on is of such simplistic juxtaposition that the only real affects that land are sensory pleasures of kinetic compositions, aural texture, or the evocative qualities of a well-lit frame. Sadly, these few truly beautiful frames are burdened by their utter passivity.   

The end credits are overlaid with a track that can only be described as a blatant Philip Glass riff, concluding this 90-minute montage with that a sense of grandeur especially not appropriate for this subject matter. The Qatsi trilogy works so well with Glass’ music because it dehumanizes its subjects purposefully, creating charged spectacle as to extrapolate from each image an impression, then molding these elusive materials into a monolithic concept, enveloped by poetic montage. To bring this kind of gaze to these communities, reducing them to idealisms, feels like a betrayal: an orchestration that turns their willing participation into the very kind of aesthetic structure once actively used to objectify them. 

The specific Indigenous communities represented in the film are as follows: the Aztec (or Nahua), Chinantec, Cora, Cucapa, Guarijio, Huave, Ikoot, Maya (and Lacandon), Mazatec, Mexicanero, Mixe, Mixtec, Purepecha, Raramuri, Tepehuan, Tohono O’odhaim, Totonac, Yaqui, and Zapotec peoples. These distinct indigenous cultures have been swallowed up into the homogenizing vision of Gods of Mexico; it reflects a curious hypocrisy, as the director made this film as “a wake-up call about the importance of preserving such cultural diversity against a world that wants us more and more homogeneous.” Why then are these disparate indigenous communities observed through a lens that perceives them as all alike? In fairness, it would be in bad faith to suggest that the intention here is as corrosive as the final project comes across — the intent obviously was not to present these portraits as mere echoes of colonial gazes. But when working in this mode of baroque polish and Euro aestheticism, there’s little else to take away.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 9.