The Devil’s Freedom
(Mexico, 74 min.)
Dir. Everardo González
Introducing his new film at a RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montreal) screening, Everardo González said that his primary motivation was to give voice to Mexicans brutalized by his country’s relentless violence. The horror can come from many directions. You can be kidnapped, tortured, and buried alive not just by representatives of the drug cartels, but also the army and the police.
The approach that makes The Devil’s Freedom so different from the many other films and media reports about lawless persecution is that González does not limit himself to the victims. His doc also hears from the hit men and torturers, whether they are gangsters, soldiers, or cops.
The entire film consists of interviews with its subjects, usually in domestic settings. Filmed via mirrors in long and medium shot, they stand in hallways and sit on couches, offering accounts of the terror they suffered or inflicted. González intercuts the interviews with images of bleak, ghostly landscapes: lines of trees, a skater park.
And all the people in the The Devil’s Freedom look out at us from behind masks the director designed himself. In fact, during a Q&A following a RIDM screening, González revealed that a nightmare about masks triggered an impulse to make a film with masked characters. The idea of exploring Mexican violence followed in a doc that would be a political statement for the victims.
The masks, which suggest the theatrical rituals of ancient Greek theatre, are tight, uncomfortably tight, says González, like burn masks. The effect is very unsettling. For the duration of the film, we watch these people telling the most intimately painful stories, looking both dehumanized and even more vulnerable than they would look without the masks. Holes cut into the fabric force a concentration on their eyes and mouths, which express everything from misery to rage to, in the case of the killers, both cold indifference and a desperate craving to repent.
González did not interview the powerful figures who gave the orders, only those motivated by fear, poverty, or greed. Cops had never been asked to talk publicly about their actions, and many offered to appear on the record without masks.
Among the stories we hear, innocent young girls talk in excruciating detail about how their mother was inexplicably taken away by home invaders, and how the police did not investigate. A woman recounts the kidnapping and murder of her two sons. A hit man dispassionately explains how he had no feelings for victims, except maybe children forced to their knees. He mentions that if the mouths of corpses are open, they were probably buried alive. Apart from cash benefits, these people commit atrocities for a sense of power and pride. One of them expected a shitty car as a reward and was surprised by an Audi.
In contrast, the girls who lost their mother describe how the attackers were stoned and very tense, as nervous as the girls were. Torturers, says a victim, are regular people. Look around on a bus, and they might be sitting beside you.
The masks González’s subjects wear visually link victims and perpetrators. They are all victims of a monstrous system. he implies. They form a community of lost souls. Everyone is damaged. He asks the audience, if faced with temptations and threats, and commanded to destroy someone’s life, what would you do?