How do you represent and give voice to a city that is constantly convulsing and mutating, suffering from growing pains? For BULBO and POLEN, two multimedia art collectives/production companies from the city of Tijuana, the answer lies in letting the city perform and speak for itself; in documenting the daily experiences of its citizens in their communities.
Tijuana is at once expanding and becoming denser, making the social and economic problems it faces grow larger and more palpable each day. Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that the field of documentary practices has enjoyed an explosion in recent years. By recording the perspectives and capturing the emotional responses of individuals that make up and live the conflicts of this impersonal border megalopolis, the documentary work of BULBO and POLEN capture and represent the real conditions of the city while also imagining alternatives that can lead to brighter futures.
Since its inception in 2000, BULBO has sought to confront social alienation and the lack of community engagement by "facilitating the exchange of stories and experiences to enrich the vision of local reality," as founding member Jose Luis Figueroa explains. This role as facilitators of exchange began with "Bulbo TV," a television show comprised of two short documentary pieces narrating the lives of individuals living in the cities of San Diego and Tijuana. Every show featured new protagonists from the region: mechanics, wrestlers, artists, young girls in love with Mexican soccer players, and the like. When conducting interviews, BULBO ceded much of the authorial control in terms of content to the participants, "what guided the content was the collaboration with whoever it was that you were working with", explains BULBO's Ana Paolo Rodgriguez. This collaborative approach became the model adopted by the group in their future projects -- a way of recording exemplary fragments of the city to fill the void in mass media for programming that was relevant and true to the daily realities of its viewers.
Around the time that violence had escalated to the point of a social crisis in the city, circa 2007, a pink-lined notebook became an important instrument for BULBO to record ideas for possible projects to confront the harsh consequences of a society living in fear. One of the ideas written in the notebook was to create a support group for individuals struggling with the social and political conditions of the city, a literal and symbolic space where people could go to address what bothered them about the city, vent about all the "desmadre" (i.e. chaos)--among possible topics of conversation were traffic, violence, drugs, and the lack of economic opportunities. The format that would be followed in meetings was that of 12-step programs to combat addiction, and at the heart of each meeting was a version of the serenity prayer: "Grant us the patience to accept things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Patience, courage and wisdom were all necessary to confront the condition of being "tijuaneado," a term adopted from car sales ad referring to the decay and wear-down caused by living and moving through the city. The format of the meetings allowed participants to not only voice grievances about urban problems that affected their daily lives, but it also served as a social think-tank to develop strategies and identify specific ways of improving their own lives as individuals to in turn improve the urban environment of the city as a whole.
What began as a conceptual exercise evolved into a relational aesthetic performance, became an art gallery installation, and finally took the form of a feature length documentary. The film Tijuaneados Anónimos became a culmination of the open platform for exchange that BULBO had sought to create. TA became a way of documenting not just the "adventures of the creative community" as Bulbo TV had done but the transformation of the individual, parting from the belief that "as long as there isn't change at the personal level, at the individual level, then nothing is really going to change." This shift described by Omar Foglio, was a direct response to the escalation of violence that began to afflict the city in 2007 and reached its apex in 2008. What BULBO sought was to reposition the citizen as an agent of social change, expressing a belief that the city is the sum of everyone, "la ciudad es la suma de todos." Projects developed since then by Bulbo seek to create similar situations, tools, models, which can used as "instruments by people to improve themselves" and in the process address larger social issues.
This strategy of stitching together individual experiences to reveal the essence of conflicts afflicting the collective community is also an important component in the work of POLEN Audiovisual, another Tijuana-based multimedia art collective/ audiovisual production company. POLEN's projects however, can also be seen as interesting reflections on the borders within the documentary genre between fiction and non-fiction, between the real and the imaginary, between the actual and the constructed ideal.
In the documentary, Ciudad Recuperacion for example, a group of recovering addicts is asked to participate in a game/film to define the characteristics of an ideal city and then actualize these on camera. The characteristics voiced by participants for this city, which they called City of Recovery, sound like John Lennon's lyrics from "Imagine," describing an ideal society where money does not exist and everybody is working hard for each other. One participant summarizes this ideal by saying "In this city social classes shouldn't exist. Everyone will have the same rights, the same riches. No one will be too rich or too poor. Everyone will have what they need to survive." The documentary is composed of fragments of daily life in the fictional city, mini-dramatizations in which the participants serve as actors performing and bringing the ideal to life, if only on camera. These often curious yet profound scenes -- one man's ideal is to wake up each morning and have Quik for breakfast before going to work in the fields to cultivate food for others -- are interspliced with clips from interviews with participants in which they meditate on their role and express their thoughts on the project. Cut into the film are also cityscapes showing the sprawling reach of the city as it trickles into the hills to the south and to the east, and then crashes against the border fence to the north. This exercise and the resulting documentary film articulate critical perspectives on: the current social and economic landscape of the city; the lack of employment, security, government assistance; and lack of social and civic engagement on the level of local communities. At the same time, the film becomes a projection of an idealized future, an exercise that ultimately asks what would it take to transform this ideal fiction into a sustainable non-fiction?
POLEN's most recent project, Félix: Autoficciones de un traficante, a feature length documentary that premiered in the city of Tijuana in April, can also be seen as a meditation on the line between fiction and non-fiction. The film follows the title character to work, which might not sound like a spectacular or novel premise, until one realizes what Félix does for a living: he is a pollero, a human smuggler with over 20 years of experience in the act of sneaking people across the border. But that's not all, Félix also has a second job: he is both a producer and star of films in which he plays a pollero. These very low budget films are based on his experiences in extra-legal crossings and sometimes utilize individuals waiting to be crossed as extra -- yes, that's right, the individuals waiting to be smuggled across are recruited to portray individuals waiting to be smuggled across in the films. By focusing on this duality, Félix serves to document both the tragic reality and the dramatic imaginary nature of human smuggling across the border. The exploits of the protagonist are a testament to the historical evolution of the border, to the consequences of increased militarization and shifts in strategies to cross the border extra-legally. And at the same time, by also including and analyzing the market of low-budget sensationalist films about the border (yes, there is a market, you can see for yourself by digging through the $5 DVD bucket in Wal-Mart stores near the border) in which Félix participates, the objectivity of his testimony is called into question. The film becomes a way of navigating the tension between the realities of the border, and the sensational spectacle of the border, a way of deconstructing fictions and rooting them in actual experiences by using the unique position of Félix.
Adriana Trujillo, the director of the film writes that "it is impossible to propose an audiovisual record of the realities of Tijuana and remain isolated from the multiple stages of the city and thus the various dimensions of this border." The projects undertaken by POLEN and by BULBO bring these varied dimensions of the city into conversation by documenting the relationship between individuals and the social, economic and political structures in the city of Tijuana. The dialogues that are born from this interaction are invaluable documents that serve to not only register present realities, but also begin to articulate strategies that could lead to new and better futures for the city and its citizens.
Bulbo's most recent project is a feature-length documentary entitled Tierra Brillante. It chronicles efforts to increase the production of lead-free artisan products in the Purepecha artisan communities of Michoacan by focusing on an artisan woman whose lead-free craftsmanship has brought her national and international acclaim. For more information and future screenings please visit: http://www.brilliantsoil.org/.
POLEN's most recent project is Félix: Autoficciones de un traficante. For more information and future screenings please visit: http://felixdocumentary.com/.
Top Image: 'Felix: Autoficciones de un Traficante' by POLEN.