Vestiges of a dictator

Filmmaker Natalia Almada screens her documentary, “El General,” about her grandmother’s life as daughter of former president of Mexico, Plutarco Elías Calles.

by Joseph Kleinschmidt


What: Screening of “El General” with director Natalia Almada

When: 3 p.m., Friday

Where: Nicholson Hall, Room 135, 216 Pillsbury Drive SE, Minneapolis

Cost: Free


Understanding both personal memory and history can be a contradictory task, something analogous to a constructing puzzle. In her 2009 documentary “El General,” Natalia Almada constructs an elaborate family memoir, a history of Mexico and a meditation on the current state of her home country.

“Making the film was like playing a game a little bit,” Almada said. “I would kind of allow one thing to lead to another like a stream of consciousness.”

Almada’s unraveling began when her grandmother passed away. The Tribeca award-winning director — also known for “Al Otro Lado” — inherited a six-hour long collection of audiocassettes from her grandmother. The tapes document her grandmother’s life as daughter of Mexico’s president and later “El Jefe Máximo,” General Plutarco Elías Calles.

“They’re quite beautiful because it’s personal, being that it’s my grandmother, but also they’re pretty interesting historical documents because of her father,” Almada said.

The tapes reflect both a familial and personal history of a president once known as a revolutionary and later known as a dictator and even a “priest burner.” Calles, who ruled as president from 1924 to 1928, is noted for the anti-Catholic phase of his rule, one that sparked the Cristero War, a civil war resulting in 90,000 casualties total.  

“He closed the church,” Almada said. “In a very Catholic country; that wasn’t very popular.”

As contentious a figure as Calles is for many Mexicans, Almada explores her grandmother’s personal conflict through “El General.” Her grandmother initially intended to write a biography of Calles, but passed away before having the chance.

“My grandmother makes these audio recordings with a friend of hers who’s a writer and journalist,” Almada said. “I think to reconcile her relationship to him both as a father and as a historical figure.”

Another level of personal reflection becomes Almada’s own grappling with her family history. Through the film’s depiction of Mexico’s 2006 election, Almada weaves the past and present together to pose questions of Calles’s legacy, a president who founded the Institutional Revolutionary Party that held power for 71 years.

“There was a moment that I realized for the film to feel genuine, it needed to exist today,” Almada said. “So I was living in those two different spaces in time, and that’s what I tried to do in the film is to kind of bring them together.”

The portrayal of past and present becomes a conduit to engage questions rather than conclusive answers. Competing viewpoints of Calles as a dictator or a populist figure complicate Almada’s exploration and his legacy in Mexico. Almada’s grandmother never reaches a definite idea of her father either.

“The tapes are inconclusive,” Almada said. “You don’t get the sense that they kind of wrapped up the recordings one day.”

Almada’s “El General” sifts through the reasons why controversial figures like Calles became hated, an increasingly relevant topic for present day Mexico.

“Not to say history is this way or that way,” Almada said, “but understand why we remember things the way we remember them.”