for Tribune: a postcard from Playa del Carmen
The best-laid plans of mice, men and film-critics… As detailed in recent Tribune numbers, my two-month spring tour of North American festivals began in late March at Palm Springs’ AmDocs, then took in Mexico’s touring ‘Ambulante’ documentary showase during its Oaxaca stage. The next leg was supposed to include the fifth edition of Riviera Maya Film Festival (RMFF), from April 21st-27th in the tourist resort of Playa del Carmen on the Yucatán peninsula. But while I turned up in ‘PdC’ in good time, RMFF proved less punctual.
On March 24th—four days before I landed in California—I was notified that the festival’s dates had been put back to June for “economic and political” reasons. A crucial consideration: early June’s countrywide elections for regional governors. With my complicated itinerary already booked—after PdC I was heading to Rochester, New York State (see next issue)—I proposed that I should stick to schedule and spend the week in PdC. RMFF generously assented; I thus flew to Cancún, PdC’s nearest airport, landing amid swelteringly humid 35°C conditions.
This area makes much of its money in the period which locals piously dub Semana Santa (‘Holy Week’) but the rest of the world knows as ‘Spring Break’. This has become an annual tradition during which Norteamericano university and college students take advantage of Mexico’s relatively enlightened licensing laws, with noisily hedonistic results (as pruriently depicted in Harmony Korine’s smart-alecky Spring Breakers ).
PdC is, however, among the more respectable resorts on this particular coastline, catering mainly to older visitors and families with young children—the former drawn by the proximity of spectacular Mayan ruins a few miles away at Tulum. While not without zones of party-hearty excess—5th Avenue is hectic every evening and cacophonous at weekends—Playa del Carmen has obvious aspirations towards classiness, as epitomised by the fully-inclusive Porto Real where most festival guests are billeted and where I gradually grew to appreciate the benefits of sun-lounger culture.
Among my beachside reading: RMFF’s 2015 catalogue, which confirms that the festival seeks to operate at the more discerning end of the independent-cinema spectrum—its span encompassing John MacLean’s Slow West, Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy, Joe Dante’s cruelly underappreciated Burying the Ex, Guillaume Nicloux’s The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq and J P Sniadecki’s immersive Chinese-railways documentary The Iron Ministry. With all screenings gratis, RMFF offers a much wider scope of titles than those regularly available at PdC’s Hollywood-dominated multiplexes, Cinemex and Cinepolis. It also serves as a pro-active incubator of adventurous cinema, the ‘RivieraLab’ co-production forum promoting work-in-progress projects from (in 2015) international up-and-comers such as writer-directors Joel Potrykus, Chris Gude and Lois Patiño.
Guests seeking real-life inspiration for their next screenplays, meanwhile, need only delve into PdC own decidedly colourful recent past—the breakneck development from sleepy fishing-village and ferry-terminal for the “unspoilt” island of Cozumel (glimpsable on the horizon, a dozen miles away across the limpid Caribbean) hasn’t been without its seedy aspects.
Prime mover behind the ‘resortification’ was Mario Villanueva, state governor from 1993-99. Nicknamed “El Chueco” (“the crooked”), originally because of his semi-paralysed face, Villanueva was charged with cocaine-trafficking offences while still governor but was shielded by the immunity afforded by his high office. Two weeks before his term ended he vanished from public view, only turning up again in 2001 via a “random” vehicle-check in Cancún. El Chueco has been in captivity ever since—firstly in Mexico, then in the US after extradition, convicted of “conspiring to import hundreds of tons of cocaine and launder millions of dollars in bribe payments.”
The conspicuous presence of armed cops (often standing up as they cruise around in the back of armoured, adapted flatbed trucks) apart, PdC does a decent enough job of creating a temporary artificial paradise for its affluent visitors—few of whom probably ponder whether the Mexican hospitality industry is as heavily (and beneficially) unionised as the equivalent American sector; just how much the hotels’ ever-beaming staff are paid; how far they have to travel each day; their domestic circumstances; and so on.
Any trip beyond the tourist zones to the outskirts of PdC, where in my experience the eateries are much more “basic” (but considerably more authentic, not to mention better-quality and much cheaper), is a reminder of the deep, taken-for-granted inequalities to be found across this state of Quintana Roo—an area where indigenous Maya, in their remote villages, are increasingly prone to poverty and malnutrition.
At the other end of the scale, well-heeled locals—and occasional intrepid foreigners—throng the Plaza Las Americas mall just outside town, where I made three (taxi-driven) evening trips to the Cinepolis. In the absence of RMFF I concocted my own “mini-festival” comprising Todd Haynes’ Carol (Spanish-subtitled), Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman (dubbed into Spanish) and finally an undemandingly raucous teen-comedy about young Americans misbehaving on the Mexican coast, Fernando Lebrija’s Puerto Vallarta-set Guatdefoc. The latter was fleetingly released in the USA under the bland moniker Sundown but, thematic overlaps with the two Inbetweeners pictures notwithstanding, surely destined for a straight-to-video fate in the UK.
An arthouse-only proposition in the UK, Carol proved a surprisingly strong Saturday-night draw for such an unapologetically commercial-oriented megaplex—around sixty patrons (sometimes audibly) appreciating what played, under the circumstances, like an opulently classy telenovela: a tale of transgressive, secret lovers defying the disapproval of jealous, scheming macho husband. Batman v Superman, several weeks into release, attracted an even bigger crowd, the pyrotechnic, costumed shenanigans striking an evident chord with viewers long accustomed to the demented histrionics of lucha libre wrestling.
The dubbing had one major advantage, sparing us all the whiny tones of Jesse Eisenberg’s ADHD-afflicted Lex Luthor—though this also meant missing out on the distinctive vocal talents of Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishburne and Holly Hunter. My rusty O-level Spanish meant that, while I had a rough idea of what was going on, the specifics (perhaps mercifully) eluded me: the result was a pleasurable limbo-state of bemused semi-comprehension, the default mode of my brief but stimulating Mexican sojourn.
7th June 2016
online 1st July 2016
written for Tribune magazine