Huele de Noche—Night Blooming Jasmine: Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacán, México Directed by Michele Feder-Nadoff

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2005 , 33 minutes, color. Distributed by CUENTOS Foundation , 6321 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60660 , http://www.cuentosfoundation.org

This “poetic documentary” is an elegy to coppersmithing and the town of Santa Clara in the hills of Michoacán overlooking the Patzcuaro Basin. Its intention is to instill reverence and nostalgia for an idyllic way of life. As such, Huele de Noche succeeds, for its images are compelling, its music evocative. The poetic narration, in both English and Spanish versions, however, is overdone and advances neither the flow of the imagery nor the viewer's comprehension of the complex reality portrayed.

For an anthropologist, the most compelling images and information are the shots of coppersmiths at work. These shots loosely follow the production process from the melting down of copper scrap—just after dawn—to the shaping of ingots and then tejos or metal discs, which are then heated once again and hammered into vessels. Scenes illustrate several different workshops with their personnel at work. The narration implies that these are family trades, although in at least half the cases assemblies of peers work together. One such is clearly labeled a cooperative in a subtitle. One master smith, who shapes elaborate vessels, is preferred toward the end of the film. The master, Don Jesús Pérez Ornalas, works in a family atelier, and many shots show his wife, Doña Sagrario, not as artisan but as helpmate and mother of their 13 children.

The flow of the film is twice interrupted by didactic narration: first about the pre-Colombian background of metallurgy in Mesoamerica, dating it to after 600 AD in the Tarascan or Purépecha area, and, second, about how the decorative pre-Colombian arts in copper gave way to utilitarian objects after the conquest, with Don Vasco de Quiroga, first bishop of Michoacán, ordaining the town to be dedicated to cauldron making. Indeed several sections on techniques depict the manufacture of huge casos or cauldrons, not in family workshops but in cooperative ateliers.

The film places the beautiful and fascinating technical documentation of coppersmithing within a context of place—the community and time—daily time, and the ritual cycle. The film opens at dawn, with a view of the town and valley below. Viewers see shots of bread baking, women scrubbing the streets, and an old woman heading into church for early morning mass.

Thus all the artisanal sequences are intercut with contextual shots, many of them of extraordinary beauty, although their exact relation to the coppersmiths is not clear. A key to this poetic context, however, occurs when Don Jesús points to a branch of night-blooming jasmine, huele de noche, already gone to seed in his house plot. This shot is followed by a young married woman, Marta Mondragón, tracing a geometric design ostensibly based on the flower (in the younger generation women are also artisans); no further shots illustrate this point, however. The fragrance of the plant is then symbolically linked to the family heritage of coppersmithing.

The town's yearly ritual cycle is implicitly projected against the daily cycle. Shots of smithing dissolve to a woman washing clothes, to a full-scale first communion ceremony with several hundred children dressed in white, to preparations in the cemetery for the Day of the Dead. Here the sound track introduces a truly lovely song sung in Purépecha (Tarascan) by women.

While the smiths talk about their work, no one talks about their activities in the frequent short shots of rituals, which cut into the smithing process. Thus after a metalworking sequence (hammering out of a thick metal disc) there is a very quick and unexplained shot of women lining up to present a priest with sprays of flowers and bottles, perhaps of honey. Similarly, after the first fascinating sequence on cauldron making, we are suddenly viewing the traditional Tarascan Dance of the Old Men at a regional dance competition. One suspects that a local youth group is involved. Later, after more copperware manufacture, we are suddenly in an unexplained Fiesta la Lavadera (Washing Feast) in which women are washing white garments in a stream. Shortly after, we are thrust into a male ritual of rebellion, Fiesta la Tarasca, in which men and boys pair off and dance masked in the street. There is one unmasked transvestite in sexy garb, clearly a major player here. Again later, we are in the feast of the indigenous community with its colorful Dance of the Archers. Another such brief intercut of ritual shows a procession of minibuses and young boys carting a large toy van into the church, leading me to suspect a fiesta for professional drivers. Finally we glimpse a big fiesta led by women, that of the Virgen del Sagrario.

In addition, the entire film is intercut with shots of street scenes and shops. Shopkeeping, smithing, and ritual come together in the final shots. Here we go from a woman serving shots of liquor in her shop, to smiths striking bright sparks after dark from a red-hot cauldron-to-be, to a man racing about with a fireworks frame of a miniature bull spitting out firecrackers into the night (in yet another fiesta), to shots of the lake glowing in the dusk. Male voices are singing a lovely ranchera song, “Caminos de Michoacán,” and the film closes with a sentimental narration about night-blooming jasmine.

If the purpose of the film is to instill ethnic pride in Mexican Americans, especially those with roots in Michoacán, it succeeds. But does it advance the discipline of anthropology? In the hands of a skilled teacher it might well do so. In a course on Mesoamerica it lends itself to contemplating the fate of the closed corporate peasant community today. In colonial times such communities had individual craft specialties to be traded in a system of staggered and stellar marketplaces. Santa Clara long specialized in working copper. Today in a time of increasing land hunger in spite of land reform—because of the population explosion—crafts can help a rural population survive with otherwise inadequate landholdings. But in a modern industrial society such craft villages can survive only by going high-end and emphasizing good design. That is exactly what is happening in Santa Clara. The narration mentions a yearly fair and craft competition. It fails entirely to mention the work of American artist James Metcalf who settled in the village in 1964, and started his own workshop, later bringing in a government school to further the craft. He has been a seminal figure in the upgrading of Santa Clara's trade. His wife, Ana Pellecer, recruited women into the design process by encouraging the manufacture of well-designed jewelry (Jennifer J. Rose, “Santa Clara de Cobre and Erongarícuaro: Two Craft Towns of Lake Patzcuaro,”Mexico Connect, 2000, http://www.mexconnect.com/MEX/jrose/jjrsantaclaradecobre.html).

Second, such communities are famous for the ritual round known as the cargo system. The film does mention “cargueros” for the fiesta of the Indian community, but we have no clue as to how the other fiestas are organized, although women as well as the priests mostly seem to have the upper hand.

Although the narration declares at the end that the rituals make life meaningful, the film gives us no direct evidence that this is so for the male artisans. It is remotely possible that the artisans might all be anticlerical and seldom if ever set foot in a fiesta. Michoacán was after all the scene of intense antichurch radicalism in the 1930s (Paul Friedrich, The Princes of Naranja: An Essay in Anthrohistorical Method, University of Texas Press, 1986). More likely Santa Clara was a town involved with the reactionary cristeros of those years. During the Fiesta of the Virgen del Sagrario we hear a man shout, “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long Live Christ!). In that case Santa Clara most likely never had a nearby hacienda usurping its communal lands, which would have made it ripe for agrarian revolt. It is doubtful that the book that accompanies the film might illuminate these questions because it is apparently a photography catalog to go with an exhibition that helped launch the film (Ritmo del Fuego/Rhythm of Fire: The Art and Artisans of Santa Clara del Cobre, CUENTOS Foundation, 2005).

Thus this film is thin in overall substance. Visual anthropology often documents a craft or, likewise, a ritual. To document a craft in detail while invoking contextual ritual with little narration cries out for an explanatory print treatment as well. A TV journalism documentary would have rendered this subject through lengthy talking head participants and their words, not images, thereby stringing the piece together with more information, but not so beautifully.

In sum, the film is like a beautiful nostalgic postcard in which to write, “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here!” In the classroom we can examine that wonderful time more analytically, but the filmmakers would have been more helpful had they addressed explicitly the dynamics of good and marketable design in the upgrading of the craft process, the role of women in both ritual and the craft process, and the role of male artisans in the fiesta system. Nonetheless, students viewing the film might well wish they were there.

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