Shyal Bhandari


Kate Voronina

The possibilities (and problems) of Mexico’s Cineteca Nacional

A state-funded cinema and archive, the Cineteca Nacional is a beautiful example of a public arts space – but is it for the few, rather than the many?

On the afternoon of Wednesday 24 March 1982, it was warm and dry in Mexico City with a moderate breeze in the air. High schoolers and university students would have strolled out of class, smoked a cigarette, and squeezed onto a bus or the metro to see what was on at the Cineteca Nacional – Mexico’s state-funded film archive and movie theatre located in the capital’s south. They might have bought a ticket for Andrzej Wajda’s The Promised Land which was showing in the main auditorium as part of a Polish film series. Or maybe they’d hang around flirting, teasing each other, and making the most out of every last drop of a cold glass bottle of Coke.

At 5:50 p.m., during the screening, eight explosions were heard, allegedly coming from the onsite film-processing lab. Audience members gasped, unsure whether the noises were a cause for concern or a part of the film (there’s a scene in The Promised Land where a factory is spectacularly burned down). Then, a tongue of fire burst from the screen. Everyone rushed to the exits. One report mentions a stampede. For 16 hours the blaze roared through the Cineteca, killing at least five people and irreversibly destroying over 6,000 reels of film as well as countless stills, scripts and books. Despite the heroism of over 300 firefighters, the losses to human life and cultural heritage were tremendous. Although other archives did exist, a significant portion of the nation’s early film history had been erased. Films dating as far back as 1920 would never be seen again.

The government-led investigation yielded no definitive cause. Cans of highly flammable, lustrous nitrate film were being stored in unventilated areas designed to hold acetate prints. Theories circulated: the film spontaneously combusted; there was an electrical short circuit, and even that it was an arson attack. However the fire started, there was substantial negligence on the Cineteca’s part. The film archive should have been stored in climate-controlled vaults away from the public. The dangers of nitrate were already well understood: 85 years before, in 1897, a nitrate fire killed 126 people at the Bazar de la Charité in Paris.

I wonder if news of the 1982 Cineteca fire was published in Italian papers and might have inspired the then-twenty-something Guiseppe Tornatore to write the scene in Cinema Paradiso, where Alfredo the projectionist is blinded by a can of nitrate film that suddenly explodes. In the film, the ruined cinema is rebuilt by a private financier. The Cineteca was also rebuilt, but with public funds, and the new site was inaugurated in January 1984. Again in the city’s south, in the leafy, tranquil, and well-to-do neighbourhood of Coyoacán.

The Cineteca rose from the ashes, in many ways greater than its former self – though there was the loss of the Cine Móvil: vans that transported the big screen to rural communities. The current iteration of the Cineteca boasts ten auditoriums, an open-air screen, a video library, a digital restoration lab, a multi-storey car park, bars, cafés, restaurants, and – crucially – temperature-controlled vaults that safely house over 15,000 films. I am privileged to have experienced the Cineteca intimately, on many occasions and no occasion at all. When I lived in Coyoacán, I found myself strolling into the Cineteca a few times a week, almost always alone, maybe with a book or my laptop. I’d sit under a parasol in the courtyard and do some writing with a coffee, then I’d mill about before taking a look at what was showing.

The first film I saw there was Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience as part of the International Jewish Film Festival in Mexico. I grew up in northwest London with mostly Jewish friends, so to see Rachel McAdams as an orthodox Jew snogging Rachel Weisz behind a tennis court in Golders Green while sitting in an armchair in Mexico City was nothing short of surreal. Next was Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s ode to childhood, set in La Colonia Roma, a 30-minute cycle north of the Cineteca. My soon-to-be first girlfriend and I went on one of our first dates. To my mind then, every frame was filled with love. A rewatch years later would allow me to see darkness in those scenes that shed light on issues of political corruption, classism, and inequality that are widespread in Mexican society. It might be reasonable, therefore, to ask, does the Cineteca, as a public cultural space, serve as a social good?

This provokes the preliminary question: Who does the Cineteca serve? In theory, the answer is everyone. During its opening hours, the Cineteca welcomes all, irrespective of nationality, race, class, gender, sexuality, or socioeconomic status. The space is open; the entrances have no doors, sweeping ramps deliver wheelchair accessibility, sunlight is divided justly by thousands of criss-cross openings in the roof, and there’s plenty of well-kept grass for the wildflowers of young love to bloom. On Tuesday to Thursday evenings, a film is projected on the open-air screen with blankets provided for free.

However, the fact remains that the Cineteca tends to attract a certain demographic: artsy folk who drink beer that isn’t yellow, intellectuals, university students, hipsters, and foreigners like me. This can be explained, in part, by the programming which blends arthouse, independent, international, and classic Mexican cinema. Unlike Toluca’s Cineteca Mexiquense, which resorted to screening Minions to get bums on seats, the Cineteca Nacional’s greatest pull – besides its terrace bar – is its thoughtfully curated film offering. Diverse programming is what distinguishes the Cineteca from the multiplex experience that dominates the rest of the city (don’t get me wrong, I love a multiplex in a mall, especially when there’s Doritos-infused popcorn in the mix).

Yet even though the Cineteca doesn’t show many blockbusters, it still draws in regular Mexican moviegoers looking for something a little different. There’s a viral meme about the Cineteca: A middle-aged bloke with gel in his hair is holding a large Coke and popcorn with the caption “Sell me a ticket to the least mainstream movie you’re showing”. The meme reflects how the Cineteca is part of the cultural fabric and, to some extent, attracts a socially mixed audience. It can’t hurt that ticket prices are between half and two-thirds the price of Cinépolis or Cinemex (the equivalent of Cineworld or Odeon). Thanks to the Cineteca being funded by the federal government it’s significantly cheaper than commercial cinemas.

However, it is important to emphasise that the activity of going to the cinema is economically straining for most. Relative to Mexico City’s average salary, the cost of a ticket, even at Cineteca prices, represents 1.4% of monthly earnings. That might not sound like much, but as a point of reference, a ticket at the Curzon Soho would be 0.3% of an average Londoner’s monthly wage. Comparatively, it’s five times more expensive to go to the movies in Mexico City than in London. While the Cineteca does serve its public, it certainly doesn’t serve everyone – or even most of the city’s residents. As a public service, that’s not good enough.

Despite the costs, on weekends you will find cinema complexes across Mexico packed with families, groups of friends, and couples. Curiously, many in line at the concession stand have no intention of seeing a film. They are waiting for fresh popcorn. That’s a thing – you can order on an app and collect your popcorn in a takeaway box with a handle. Without good popcorn, any cinema, even the Cineteca, would fail to draw crowds in Mexico where food is such a large part of culture and daily life.

The linking of popcorn to the movies might originate as a gringo marketing ploy, but as with hot dogs and burgers, Mexicans have made popcorn their own. At the Cineteca, I like to get a 70:30 mix of butter and jalapeño popcorn, then I’ll pump over lashings of Valentina hot sauce and grab a stack of napkins on my way in. Recently, I visited the BFI Southbank and was offered nuts or olives when I asked about popcorn. I have nothing against nuts and even less against olives, but the choice not to sell popcorn feels intentional. My concern is that if you exclude the exciting snacks that draw some people to the cinema, you might lose that audience too.

Now I’m back in London, I look at my times at the Cineteca with immense nostalgia. The last film I saw there was Woman of the Port, a minor work by the Mexican director Arturo Ripstein. The protagonist, a sailor, was madly in love, just as I had been on my first visits to the Cineteca. It was exactly the kind of film destined to be projected there, where the mission is to protect, conserve, and most importantly, share Mexican cinema with an ever-wider audience of new generations. It’s an institution that goes back fifty years, to 1974, when the original site on the corner of Tlalpan and Churubusco first opened. Eight years later the Cineteca would be obliterated before its splendid rebirth. Metres from the location of the fire (and two miles from the current Cineteca), a derelict multiplex has been converted into the brand-new Cineteca Nacional de las Artes, with twelve screens. I went soon after it opened last year – it was cold and the popcorn sucked. But hey, it’s still early days.

Published 14 Jun 2024

Tags: Cineteca Nacional Mexico

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