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Soldadera: Nao Bustamante and Sergei Eisenstein's Unfinished Revolution

Excerpt from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.
Still image from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.

Inspired by Nao Bustamante's exhibition, Soldadera ­­-- the artist's "speculative reenactment" of women's participation on the front lines of The Mexican Revolution­­ -- Artbound is publishing articles about the exhibition's development, historical contexts engaged by this project, and writing inspired by the work. Soldadera was guest curated for the Vincent Price Art Museum by UC Riverside professor Jennifer Doyle, and is on view from May 16 ­- August 1, 2015.

 

By James Tobias, Jennifer Doyle, Sarah Lozier and Steve Anderson

There is a difference between photographs of a revolution, and revolutionary photography. For author John Mraz, the latter is "the imagery produced during armed movements that have the objective of radically transforming the existing socioeconomic and political structure."1 Much of the photography through which we know the story of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) is revolutionary in that sense. These photographers participated in the struggle -- they did not simply document it. Images of the war were, and continue to be, produced with a sense of war's audience. Field commanders during the Mexican Revolution might wait for photographers to position their cameras before actually commencing combat; photographs of armed soldiers with their guns drawn in a defensive array and snapshots of sharpshooters were sometimes staged for photographers who knew that the "feel" of war required some theatrical arrangement. The camera, in other words, did not simply record the history of the Mexican Revolution. It produced that history. It is a part of that history.

Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomás Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.
Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomás Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.

The complex relationship between the Mexican Revolution and the camera is taken up by artist Nao Bustamante in the cinematic installation anchoring "Soldadera," her exhibition at the Vincent Price Art Museum. On a free-standing 16 x 9 foot screen, we see a battalion of women wearing Bustamante's bright yellow bulletproof "fighting costumes," moving through a rapidly changing sequence of black and white photographs of the war. "Soldadera" -- the film shares the same title as the exhibition itself -- was made from digital scans of hundreds of archival photographs. Bustamante does not simply revisit the history of the Mexican Revolution through an appropriation of archival photographs: "Soldadera" cites another attempt to put the story of revolutionary Mexico on screen. It is, in the artist's words, a "speculative reenactment" of the missing sequence from Sergei Eisenstein's never-finished film, "¡Que Viva México!", a work that is, itself, shaped by a utopian desire to make a film that would not only be about revolution but that would be, in-and-of-itself, revolutionary.

Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomás Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.
Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomás Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.

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The story of Eisenstein's Mexico project is entangled with Hollywood and California histories. Soviet film-makers studied Hollywood films for their technique; Eisenstein wanted to see the industry up-close. In 1930, Eisenstein arrived in Los Angeles with Grigori Aleksandrov and Eduard Tisse, with whom he had worked on other projects such as "Strike" (1925), "The Battleship Potemkin" (1925), and "October" (1928) -- these works were highly regarded by Hollywood filmmakers. Eisenstein and his partners in revolutionary cinema came to Hollywood at the invitation of Paramount Pictures executives, who hoped to develop a project with the much-admired creative team. Eisenstein produced treatments of a number of possible projects for the studio -- including a film about the Gold Rush ("Sutter's Gold"), and an adaptation of Theodor Dreiser's 1925 novel "An American Tragedy." None were realized, however, as Eisenstein's approaches to these topics were deemed too scandalous, politically, to be viable as commercial products. If one wonders, today, how studio executives and a Russian revolutionary filmmaker even entertained the idea that they might collaborate, it is only because we forget how prominent the political left was in the early 20th century, and how possible revolution seemed -- how close, for example, the Mexican Revolution was, for Californians living through the Great Depression.

Still from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.
Still from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.
Still from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.
Still from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.

Eisenstein moved on. The filmmaker was contracted by Upton Sinclair, and his wife, to create a cinematic portrait of Mexico. It is worth remembering that Sinclair was not only the author of "The Jungle" (1906), a novel whose depiction of the grisly conditions of industrial food production led to the creation of the FDA, he also ran for governor of California in 1934, with a campaign to End Poverty in California, which inspired Roosevelt's "New Deal." Eisenstein's interest in Mexico was organic to the period: the revolutionary community was international. He read John Reed's "Insurgent Mexico" (1914), befriended Diego Rivera (who visited Moscow in 1926), and, in 1921, designed the London stage adaptation of Jack London's short story, "The Mexican" (about a revolutionary trying to win money for the cause in the boxing ring) for a London production.

In the post-revolutionary Soviet Union of the 1920s, when Eisenstein first rose to acclaim, the filmmaker's mandate had been to memorialize the new Soviet social order as the historically necessary outcome of long developing revolutionary conditions. Eisenstein's Mexico film, though, would be different. This difference was, in part, due to the broader implications that the Mexican Revolution carried for modernity and revolutionary cinema. If cinema was to be revolutionary, and if global revolutionary change had in fact become more possible, then cinema would have to become capable of describing not simply European national histories, but world histories. Mexico would be the place to do it, and Eisenstein's film would attempt to paint that world revolutionary process with a vastly broadened brush. The film was imagined not as a history of Mexico as a nation, but as a cinematic extension and manifestation of Mexico as a place and as an idea. With sequences covering pre-Columbian, colonial, national, revolutionary, and then post-revolutionary Mexican periods, this might have been the first film that actually reached the broad historical prospectus that Eisenstein envisioned for his Soviet films but had never been able to fully execute.

Still from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.
Still from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.
Still from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.
Still from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.

The Soviet team toured the country between December 1930 and February 1932, shooting nearly 200,000 feet of film stock, or about 50 hours of moving picture. Such a vast undertaking was bound to have problems, and Eisenstein was beset on all sides. The source of his funds dried up when Upton Sinclair, already alarmed about what he thought were out of control budgets, heard from his brother-in-law of Eisenstein's relatively open display of a romantic affair with a Mexican man. The film was already a political challenge to censorious regimes on both sides of the border -- its homoerotics, perhaps, was the final straw. The production was shut down. Eisenstein was recalled back to the Soviet Union -- and he was forced to leave his film in California, with Sinclair.

Disputes over ownership of the footage added to the drama: Eisenstein would never be able to edit the portions of the film that he did complete. The existing raw footage has been re-purposed in a myriad of forms by an ever-growing number of people: there are films authorized by Sinclair, and derivative works including documentaries, educational films, or narratives. There are largely unrelated works which use images from the film as stock footage, and reconstructions paying homage to the original with access to archival originals or claiming copyright approval. Key sequences have been packaged within histories of cinematic innovation -- as an example of, for example, "dance on film." As versions proliferate, the film-going (and DVD-buying) worlds begin to get a series of looks at exactly what Eisenstein had been up to in Mexico.

The footage to which we have access leaves the viewer with an almost overwhelming atmosphere of other-worldliness, of fantasy and imagination, as Mexico's long and complex history is converted into a celebratory -- if exoticized -- cinematic epic. A film that was never actually made has become canonized, as reconstructions of especially Eisenstein's famous "Maguey Sequence," -- a notoriously erotic and sado-masochistic sequence in which Mexican campesinos are brutally murdered by their land-owning overlords -- became celebrated as an example of the director's attempt at pushing montage art ever further. Jean Luc Godard, for example, sampled that sequence in the first volume of his massive Histoire du Cinèma. Today, we think we now know what "¡Que Viva México!" looks like, because we have seen some of its parts assembled.

But we don't.

Here, we circle back to Bustamante's work. As a result of the production's interruption, the key sequence depicting the revolutionary era, a sequence provocatively dedicated not to Villa or Zapata but to the women of the revolution -- the legendary soldaderas -- was never filmed in any substantive way. It is, in fact, the only major section of the script that was not shot. The revolutionary heart of the film, then, is missing. Homophobia, one might say, conspired to make the sisters of the revolution invisible, at least in the afterlife that would unfold for "¡Que Viva México!".

Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomás Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.
Courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives at Tomás Rivera Library at the University of California, Riverside.

Much like the evocative dark spaces and rhythms drawing the visitor from the melodrama of Nao Bustamante's kevlar gowns and rebozo, or Bustamante's poignant documentary depicting the oldest surviving soldadera chanting, drumming, and rocking, tapping out the rhythmic threads that hold her own life together in the face of its impending end, the rhythms and spaces of "¡Que Viva México!" are discernible but not clearly identifiable.

Bustamante's "Soldadera" reimagines and enacts the never-filmed sequence, as a mode of speculation. In her citation of Eisenstein, Bustamante "reenacts" a performance that was never truly enacted. According to his notes, Eisenstein's soldadera, "Pancha," must make a series of choices about survival for herself and her family. She is described pacifying her child with an empty bullet cartridge; she prepares food that was looted from a village. At one point she is asked whether the child is a boy or a girl; she does not answer the question. She moves from place to place following the trail of destruction set in motion by hundreds of years of colonial rule. Aspects of this storyline appear in Bustamante's work -- the text layered over "Soldadera's" images was lifted from Eisenstein's notes, and voiced in Russian. But it is not, really, Eisenstein's soldadera.

We have little idea of the spaces and rhythms Eisenstein would have achieved had he been able to finish the film. Between "Soldadera" and "Maguey," we can imagine a montage in which homoerotic desire and feminist politics might have shared a 1930s spotlight, if not actually taken a starring role. In some large part, the mythos surrounding "¡Que Viva México!" is not simply due to the fact that Eisenstein lost control of images whose barely glimpsed power continues to fascinate, but as a result of these entangled, still invisible promises.

For their part, the widely photographed soldaderas who disappeared with the interruption of Eisenstein's dream would receive their day in the nitrate sun of Mexico's golden age of cinema. Films like "Enamorada," by Eisenstein's Mexican collaborator Emilio Fernández put the legendary María Félix in the role of revolutionary heroine in 1946; no less an icon, Silvia Pinal played the title role in José Bolaños's 1967 "La Soldadera." Versions keep coming, the myth of the soldadera marches on, even as her history is pushed to the margins of the historical record.

Bustamante's "Soldadera" participates in the history of speculative completion that surrounds Eisenstein's film with its multiple editions, and variations -- none of which have authorial standing as the version of the film. This move thematically locates Bustamante's "Soldadera" on a temporal fissure, marking it as an archival performance project that is as much about extracting a history as it is about imaging, (re)enacting, and thereby -- however briefly and ephemerally -- materializing pasts, presents, and futures that might have been.

Still from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.
Still from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.
Still from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.
Still from Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" (2015), cinematic installation, 5 minute film, projected on a 16 x 9 foot screen, on loop.

Notes:

John Mraz, Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons (University of Texas Press, 2012), 1.

 

Further Reading:

Olga Bulgakova, "Sergei Eisenstein: A Biography" (Potemkin Press, 2001).

Sergei Eisenstein, "Immoral Memories: an Autobiography" (Peter Owen, 2014).

James Goodwin, "Eisenstein, Cinema, and History" (University of Illinois Press, 1993).

Mandy Merck, "Hollywood's American Tragedies: Dreiser, Eisenstein, Sternberg, Stevens" (Berg, 2007).

The Daniel Langlois Foundation, Eisenstein's Early Drawings -- see, in particular, Oksana Bulgakowa's introduction.

 

Read more about Nao Bustamante's "Soldadera" project:

Nao Bustamante's Soldaderas, Real and Imagined
Nao Bustamante's exhibition "Soldadera" is a "speculative reenactment" of women's participation in The Mexican Revolution. ­­

Searching for Soldaderas: The Women of the Mexican Revolution in Photographs
What can portraits tell us about soldaderas? Nao Bustamante draws from UC Riverside's archival holdings of photographs of the Mexican Revolution to investigate further.

Soldadera: The Unraveling of a Kevlar Dress
Made out of bulletproof Kevlar, Nao Bustamante's re-imagined Soldadera dresses protect the female body against violence.

My Love Affairs with Soldaderas
From calendars to corridos, the image of the Soldadera lives strong in popular culture. Nao Bustamante's new artwork re-imagines dresses of female soldiers.

Soldadera: The Tiny Things They Carried
Leandra Becerra Lumbreras was the last known survivor of the Mexican Revolution. Artist Nao Bustamante and a small crew made a trip to Zapopan, Mexico to meet her.

Soldadera: The Artist Meets Her Muse
At 127 years old, Leandra Becerra Lumbreras was the last survivor of the Mexican Revolution. Artist Nao Bustamante made a pilgrimage to her home in Jalisco, Mexico and found a muse.

Soldadera: Memory Machine
The speculative qualities of Nao Bustamante's exhibition "Soldadera" make a space for marginalized voices to construct alternative futures. Central to the show is installation "Chac-Mool" -- a 7-minute, looping, scented memory machine.

 


 

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