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by Mónica F. Torres
Department of English, New Mexico State University
Lourdes Portillo’s Señorita Extraviada is a powerful re-presentation of the resistance to the violent crimes against young women in Ciudad Juarez in the last two decades. Portillo navigates challenging circumstances to document what has been and what remains a difficult and dangerous environment for women, in general, and for young women, in particular. Some would argue that the greatest strength of this documentary is the way in which the filmmaker so fully captures the acts of resistance that these women and their family members have engaged in during the course of this tragedy: women fighting off the attacks of their abusers; parents contesting authorities’ denials of the violent realities of these women’s abductions, assaults and murders; families, friends, and supporters organizing solidarity marches, memorial vigils, and informational meetings to publicize the crimes against these women and to develop strategies for the institutional representatives who seem unwilling or unable to solve these crimes.
At this point, some spectators might think that Portillo, as documentary filmmaker, has done her job: thoughtfully and thoroughly recording the stories of these women and their families. However brilliantly she has done this, I want to suggest that this documentary is even more powerful than that. In an interview done prior to the making of this film, Portillo hints at another purpose. She tells interviewer Fred Salas that this film will be “about the disposability of Mexican women. How easy it is to kill them and get rid of them and use them. They are just like raw material.” With this, Portillo suggests that this film will go beyond mere documenting to function also at the level of social critique—to interrogate the cultural assumptions and values that serve as the conditions of possibility for the abduction, murder, and disposal of young women in this border city.
In How to do Things with Words, J.L. Austin articulates a critical distinction in linguistic utterances: the constative, language that essentially describes or reflects the non-discursive world, and the performative, language that asserts or creates the reality it describes (5-6, 12-13). When a judge says “I sentence you to twenty-three years in jail” or a mother says, “I name you Lourdes,” she has quite literally constructed reality. What is important to note is the shift in how we view language—from a tool that reflects the material world to one that is constitutive or at least co-constitutive of/with it. While it seems clear to me that Señorita Extraviada can be understood as a constative utterance, essentially describing or reflecting the reality that exists in Juarez, it can also be argued that this film is a performative. To make this argument, I begin with this critical question: what feature of the material world is this film constituting?
Portillo begins to provide an answer early in the film. Within the first few minutes, she says that she is coming to the desert to discover its secrets. When I first heard this, I assumed that she meant the murdered women, many of whose bodies were buried in the desert landscape of northern Mexico. And perhaps this is true. Many of the film images show searchers in the desert, looking for women’s bodies. When I think of Portillo as a critic, however, I think of other secrets, the secrets that may be hiding in the bright light of common sense or in the shadows of bureaucracy—the social values as well as the legal and economic structures that encourage or support the idea that Mexican women are disposable.
Portillo exposes some of these assumptions. She includes footage of the governor of Chihuahua in which he suggests that these women are, perhaps, responsible for their demise: “We have found a pattern. The girls hang out in certain places with certain people and they develop relationships with bad people, with gang members, who later become their aggressors.” Portillo’s inclusion of this footage does two things. One, it exposes, in rather raw form, a key cultural assumption, that there are good women and bad women, certainly a firmly established dichotomy in plenty of cultures including Mexican; and two, it suggests that bad women deserve what they get. By this time in the documentary, Portillo has already problematized these assertions by providing portraits of these women as something other than bad girls who make bad decisions that get them in trouble. They are, through Portillo’s lens, daughters, sisters, workers, and friends. Given these more well-rounded images of the young women, the governor appears to be ill informed, at best, and misogynist, at worst. What this makes clear, however, is that this attitude, which allows for the easy dismissal of the dozens and dozens and dozens of women in Juarez, is so firmly entrenched in the culture that it can be asserted with impunity from the highest government levels.
Portillo also calls into question economic structures that subordinate the health and safety of women to corporate profits. While she does not engage in a lengthy discussion of this, she makes the point more than clear. At one point in the film, the narrative, set to heavy traffic in fast motion, says that globalization may be spinning out of control. Later, one of the witnesses suggests that the Mexican government has made such major investments in the maquiladora industry, that it cannot risk any scandals. And finally, Portillo implies that government and industry value the economic vitality the maquilas bring, without acknowledging the cost to its laborers, many of them young women. These women, activist Victoria Caraveo tells us, “are the ones that make beautiful televisions and parts for cars and shoes. . . . They are part of the fortunes of a lot of people.” With this, Portillo points at the global economy as a system that allows for, maybe even depends on, seeing Mexican women as interchangeable, perhaps even disposable, parts of the production system. Portillo makes visible some of these values that assume that women in Juarez are less important than government investments or the televisions, automobiles, or clothing they produce. But her critique operates at multiple levels, including the deeply theoretical.
In Representing Reality, Bill Nichols raises a fundamental problem for a filmmaker like Portillo, “The mortality of the body presents a continual challenge to documentary. It eludes all strategies of representation” (236). How, then, does Portillo make a film about these women? At first glance, Portillo engages in what appears to be a very straightforward recovery of their images, their names, and their stories through the rather conventional use of documentary photographs and witness testimony. Throughout the documentary, we see snapshots and newspaper photographs of these women. And always, each image is accompanied by the victim’s name and the date of her disappearance. Throughout the documentary, we hear their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters tell stories of their lost daughters and sisters. These images, the names, the stories are all meant to assure us that these women existed.
I want to argue that Portillo’s use of images and stories are significantly more complex than straightforward recovery. Her use of photographs is ontologically purposeful. Working in an era when digital photography has problematized the ontological stability of the photograph, Portillo employs photographs of the abducted and murdered women again and again. Working in an era that assumes the endless play of signifiers, Portillo persistently employs photographs as signifiers of the abducted and murdered women. As a filmmaker, Portillo knows how to problematize or destabilize images, how to play with signifiers. In The Devil Never Sleeps, she is quite clear about the inability of images to capture any sort of absolute image or final truth. In that documentary, she playfully highlights the subjectivity of photographic and filmic images. But in this film, she does not do that. She relies on the historical stability of photographs, at least in part, because she is working so hard to keep these women, and their experiences, from being disappeared or dismissed yet again.
Portillo uses witness testimony in the same way. For some time, scholars in a range of fields, including documentary film, have understood that witness testimony is less than reliable. But Portillo wants to grant certain forms of testimony epistemological solidity. In the film, Portillo, as narrator, says that there are only a few people whose information she can trust: “I find myself mistrusting everything I am told and everything I read. The only reliable sources of information are from the victims and their families.” This move is in sharp contrast to her work in The Devil Never Sleeps. In that film, Portillo leads spectators to understand that the closest friends and family members offer little insight into the death of Portillo’s uncle Oscar. In Señorita Extraviada, she grants these families epistemological privilege. Why? Perhaps it is because these women are already less than visible. None has the privileged public persona of her Uncle Oscar, a successful businessman and politician. Portillo brings these women into view by foregrounding the stories of the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who saw, felt, heard, smelled, and touched these women. In granting these witnesses epistemological privilege, she counters assumptions of disposability with assurances of ontological stability.
Portillo is countering a fundamental premise commonly asserted in the postmodern age—that knowledge is not objective and cannot yield absolute answers even to our most pressing questions. Perhaps the Portillo who made The Devil Never Sleeps would agree. In these circumstances, where women are disappearing and dying and disposed of, Portillo must challenge ontological and epistemological assumptions such as these.
Portillo uses one other strategy to secure visibility for these women and their experiences. She exploits a critical tension inherent in the situation in Juarez: absence/presence. Early in the film, she hints at this tension. A young woman, about the age of many of the victims, walks in the desert. As she moves across the frame, her image appears and disappears, appears and disappears. Immediately after, a girl, much younger than most of the victims, follows in the first’s footsteps, appearing and disappearing as she crosses the desert landscape. The effect is haunting: these young females appear suspended somewhere between presence and absence. While this scene occupies only five seconds of this seventy-four minute film, its trace persists.
Perhaps the most consistent use of this strategy is Portillo’s use of shoes. Throughout the film, Portillo includes images of new shoes displayed on store racks in shopping malls. Girls and women—young and very much alive—eye the shoes, wait to try them on, or perhaps purchase them. These images contrast with others: old shoes, dirty and twisted out of shape, carelessly tossed or perhaps carefully buried deep in the desert. Clearly, each image potentially signifies women’s bodies: new shoes, the vitality of young women; damaged shoes, the injury of the murdered women. What seems even more powerful, in terms of Portillo’s critique, is the tension that exists between these polar opposites. The new shoes may invoke the bodies of the living, but they also call forward the bodies of those women who will never wear them. The damaged shoes are metaphors for the dead women, but they also signal the vulnerability of the young women who may one day wear them. Exploiting the tension between the old and new, Portillo complicates the distinction between presence and absence. In doing this, she not only secures visibility for these women, both dead and alive, she refuses to allow spectators to dismiss or deny the violent experiences that many women have suffered and the threatening circumstances in which many women continue to live.
As many know, these abductions and murders are no closer to being solved. Women continue to resist and die. Legal and political officials continue to be ineffective. Families and friends continue to resist through collective protest. While Portillo documents these realities, and they must be documented, she also asks spectators to engage another reality: one in which we move beyond the document to acknowledge and challenge the cultural values that allow the young women of Juarez to be treated like “raw material” to be used and disposed of.
Austin, J.L. How to do Things with Words. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.
Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1991.
Salas, Fred. “Interview with Film Director Lourdes Portillo.” In Motion Magazine.
(6 Dec 1998). 2 April 2008.
Señorita Extraviada, Missing Young Woman. Dir. Lourdes Portillo. Videocassette. Women Make Movies, 2001.