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Filming 'El Traspatio' was a death-defying act

Screenwriter Sabina Berman says the movie, set and shot in Juarez, Mexico, rankled authorities and required extra security.

December 19, 2009|By Tracy Wilkinson

Reporting from Mexico City — To say the topic of screenwriter Sabina Berman's latest movie is bleak would be an understatement. So would labeling the decision to film in Mexico's deadliest city a "challenge."

The film, "Backyard" ("El Traspatio") is a fictionalized account of the unsolved rapes and murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez, the violent Mexican border town that faces El Paso. Berman, a writer most known for comedies, had to be convinced the project made sense; she was sold after years of research and talking to survivors and some of the thousands of women who work in the vast network of multinational maquiladora assembly plants along the U.S.-Mexico border that served as the pool for victims.

"The theme won me over," she said.

An opening scene of the film shows a clump of long hair entangled on a barbed wire fence that tethers trash-strewn desert land where eventually the stripped, bloodied, battered bodies of many women will be found. That sets the tone.

As difficult as some of the movie is to watch, it has been hailed here as an important, serious examination of a notorious, often-ignored case of what has come to be called "femicide" -- woman-killing. It is Mexico's entry this year in the Academy Awards' foreign-language film category.

"It speaks of the wall of indifference and denial in Mexican society: There's a horrible problem, we can't solve it, let's change the subject," Berman said.

Directed by Carlos Carrera, one of Mexico's most commercially successful moviemakers, "Backyard" follows an unusually dedicated police detective investigating the murders, with a parallel story line chronicling the arrival in Juarez of a young Mexican indigenous woman who will fall brutally and tragically into harm's way.

The overarching backdrop is the insidious, top-level official eagerness to block any meaningful probe of deaths deemed better left unacknowledged. At one point, the state's governor, worried that the maquiladora businessmen will pull their investments, phones the local newspapers to tell them not to publish anything about the killings; the editors willingly oblige.

The murders of women took place in the 1990s in Juarez. Today, the city is again dominating headlines as the site of more than 2,000 killings this year alone, mostly related to raging warfare among drug cartels and against the Mexican army.

Despite the ongoing violence, and in the face of government resistance, the makers of "Backyard" decided to shoot the picture in Juarez. In fact, doing so gave it a kind of added relevance. Often the violence from the '90s that they were portraying conflated with today's scourge.

State and municipal authorities "would have given anything for us not to make the movie" in Ciudad Juarez, Berman said. Local government officials do not come off well in the film, having often preferred to downplay the murders of easily replaced female factory workers in order to prop up business interests.

When local authorities realized filming of the movie was going ahead anyway, they ordered two rings of security to protect the crew and cast: one contingent of police and another of soldiers. Two police commanders assigned to security duty were slain and a third had to flee in fear of her life.

Some on the set received death threats and, at one point, the entire team considered abandoning Juarez. Instead, the actors and writers "used" the violence and fear around them, Berman said.

"We all learned what fear was," Berman said in an interview in her apartment in the fashionable Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City. "We slept with fear."

The cast and crew eventually realized that the tragedy they were depicting was indelibly linked to Mexico's current descent into chaos.

"We are really not just talking about dead women from the '90s, but the beginning of the hurricane that has come to destroy parts of the country," Berman said. "The anarchy there in Juarez has permitted anarchy in other parts of the country."

The movie, distributed in Mexico by Paramount, has made the rounds of a couple of international festivals, including those of Chicago and Toronto, and has been screened to academy audiences in Los Angeles. At this point, it does not have a U.S. distributor.

"Backyard" is also unusual because its hero is a cop -- a rarity in Mexican popular culture, where, in a reflection of general public opinion, police are more readily reviled than admired. The crusading cop is also a woman, played here by Mexican actress Ana de la Reguera.

Berman said that although many other characters, including a women's activist and corrupt political officials, are closely patterned after real people (and easily recognizable to anyone who has spent much time in Mexico), the police investigator was the "most fictitious" of the lot. Making the character a woman, Berman said, was necessary because she's convinced it is among women that real nobility and the potential for fundamental change can be found in Mexico's stagnant, patriarchal society.

Still, that nobility is tested in the film as a sleazy businessman (played by Jimmy Smits) who has kidnapped a schoolgirl crosses paths with the investigator, Blanca. Her ensuing actions have been both applauded and deplored by Mexican audiences.

But for Berman, there is little moral ambiguity involved. "Blanca's actions were consistent with a law that is superior to the written law," she said.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

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