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Forgiving is never forgetting in The Mexican Suitcase

THE MEXICAN SUITCASE film poster; Image courtesy of Magnum Photographs via Trisha Ziff / ZoneZero

There is a very big and beautiful difference between forgiving the past and forgetting it.

THE MEXICAN SUITCASE, by filmmaker Trisha Ziff, allows the descendents of the dead from the Spanish Civil War to make a sliver of peace with the fate of their grandparents and ancestors. The film unravels the thousands of film negatives taken by three war photographers and the stories of a Spain that has long been taboo.

The Spanish Civil War affected nearly every family within Spain, in some capacity. From 17 July 1936 to 1 April 1939, 500,000 women, men and children were killed. When, on 10 May 1936, a new president was put in place for the Spanish Republic, various military fascists banded together in effort to bring down the Popular Front government with leftist leanings. This band of military officials included the infamous Francisco Franco, José Sanjurjo, Emilio Mola and Gonzalo Quiepo de Llano.

They were called “Nacionales” or “Fascists” among other titles. In response to the ruthlessness by which these men carried out their offensive, an opposition uprising of “Republicanos” also called “Loyales (Loyalists)” or “Los Rojos (The Reds)” by the Nacionales due to the political diversity among their memebers that ranged from centrists, moderate capitalists, liberal democratics to anarchists and Marxists.

Republicanos had strong ties to the working class, poor, landless peasants and the Basque and Catalan peoples. The Republicanos fought back with the assistance of the then Soviet Union and Mexico. Bullet casings found in the forests that were once battlegrounds were called “Mexicansky” by the locals because they knew it would be from the weapons provided them by the Russians or Mexicans.

But it is Mexico that proved the Spanish exiles most devoted safety. After a mass exodus from Spain into France, and the brutal conditions of living in sand and in tents without anything to eat and the sea as a bathroom, Mexico offered their villages, towns and cities to the people of Spain who wished to immigrate by way of the Atlantic on the S.S. Sinaia. And this is where THE MEXICAN SUITCASE comes to life.

Refugee, writing home, Montjuic, Barcelona, November 1936 © David “Chim Seymour. The Mexican Suitcase.
Courtesy Magnum Photos, International Center of Photography and the David Seymour Estate.

During the upheavels of 1930s Spain, journalists, writers, photographers and others found their way to Spain, journaling the war in ways never seen before. Ernest Hemingway, Dutch photographer Joris Ivens, Martha Gelhorn (Hemingway’s companion), George Orwell, Langston Hughes, Francis McCullagh, Centelles, Manuel Albero, Francisco Segovia, Alfonso, Escobar, the Mayo Brothers, Santos Yubero, Luis Torrens, Kati Horna among many others were reporting from the battlesites.

The main subjects of THE MEXICAN SUITCASE are photographers Robert Capa, Capa’s business partner and film developer, Cziki Weiss, (Capa never developed his own film), Gerda Taro and David Seymour a.k.a “Chim”. The most well-known and celebrated of the trio was the suave and boisterous Capa. Mischevious and vibrant Taro, like many others who wanderlusted their way to that old Spain, was young, impressionable and still new to her trade but always daring — so much in fact, they called her “crazy” — she is the first known woman to have gotten in foxholes and military battle lines to capture the shot she wanted. Some of Taro and Seymour’s work was incorrectly attributed to Capa — further silencing them, posthumously.

Portrait of Gerda Taro by Fred Stein© circa 1934-1935. The Mexican Suitcase.
Courtesy of Fred Stein Estate International Center of Photography.

THE MEXICAN SUITCASE introduces us to Taro, an infectious young woman with light and a sort of wild hearty demeanor, a difficult feat as there is not much information left in her absence nor any living relatives, only a distant cousin in Brazil. Some claim Taro and Capa were lovers but there’s no proof of this connection. They were certainly friends, and in a sense “war buddies” — challenging so much of what was considered appropriate at the time. Their communion with the Spanish people and their passion to tell the stories of those fighting for their existence are the essence of the film. Scenes, shots, historical taboos and aged voices untangle themselves like poetry in THE MEXICAN SUITCASE.

Outside a Morgue. Valencia © Gerda Taro May 1937 – The Mexican Suitcase.
Courtesy of Magnum Photos, International Center of Photography.

Organized and small cardboard boxes containing 126 perfectly wound rolls of film with corresponding notes on the inside top portion of the boxes were discovered from the closet of Mexican filmmaker, Ben Tarver, the nephew of the widow of the Mexican Ambassador to France in 1941, General Francisco Aguilar González. He was gifted the negatives, non-chalantly, and after learning of their historical worth connected with Professor Jerald A. Green of Queen’s College and then Cornell Capa, the brother, and next-of-kin of Robert Capa. The International Center of Photography in New York City had known of their location for over a decade but the precious images remained in Tarver’s closet and without much attention until filmmaker Trisha Ziff recovered them. She hand carried the negatives to New York City from Mexico City.

French Internment Camp, Le Barcarés, France, March 1939,  © Robert Capa. The Mexican Suitcase. Courtesy Magnum Photos and The International Center of Photography.

The powerful images of a woman breast-feeding her child in the middle of a rally and dead and wounded children, soldiers, mothers, grandfathers were brought back to life. Other images include the destroyed buildings in Madrid, the Battle of Tereul and Río Segre, the 1939 defensive in Barcelona, and the harsh exodus out of Tarragona to the beach in Vichy, France. All with the backdrop of a understated but chillingly deep piano score by Michael Nyman.

Land Reform Meeting, May 1936, Extremadura, Spain. ©David”Chim” Seymour. The Mexican Suitcase 1936. Courtesy Magnum Photos, International Center of Photography, David Seymour Estate.

The film follows the origins of the photographs and their exhibition at The International Center of Photography in New York City, where some grandchildren of the war dead could view the photographs of their own relatives. Of the negatives found The Fallen Soldier, a photograph that has become synonymous with Capa’s work and the Spanish Civil War, as a whole, is nowhere to be found.

The docu-film delivers us to the descendents who still search for their grandparents in the 2,000+ mass graves that dot the country. The excavation of the mass graves does not always prove fruitful, as some still forlornly look for the remnants of their grandparents and relatives so as to make some peace and reconciliation, although as of 5 May, 2011, 5,400 bodies have been identified, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

But it should be noted many in Spain, including the descendents of the Nacionales (or military coup leaders) call it an “abberration” and wish for history to be left where it is — in the past.

The documentary brings to the forefront the new generation of young people who have been nagged at not knowing their own grandparents fate and went searching for the truth, regardless of the negative reception by politicians or others in Spain today. This generation’s inquisitiveness and emotional connection to their past is what drives the film and connects the audience. Ziff, while never interjecting herself in the film, has a connection to this historical event as her husband is a Mexican descendent of the Spanish exiles from the Civil War. She said after her screening at the Seattle International Film Festival that this film was also for her son to know a part of his origins and how he ended up in Mexico, and became a Mexican.

Bombing of Teruel, January 1938. Robert Capa© The Mexican Suitcase
Courtesy of Magnum Photos and the International Center of Photography.

The interviews with living Republicanos and the descendents of the dead give a face to the searching. Despite the time that has passed and the lives lived and lost since the Spanish Civil War, the children of the Spanish exodus to Mexico keep their roots in view and their kindred companionship with the safe harbour of Mexico in perfect balance. Ziff ‘s inclusions of them is stunning and their words even more so. As one historian notes in the film, “People who leave the place they come from never stop thinking about it” or even more telling, as a living member of the Republicanos said, “If you forget your failures, you’ll likely fail again.”

THE MEXICAN SUITCASE is an example for all those lost, forgotten or erased through war, genocide or civil discord.

Cordoba Front. Gerda Taro May 1937 – The Mexican Suitcase.
Courtesy of Magnum Photos, International Center of Photography.

Director — Trisha Ziff
Producer — Eamon O’Farrill
Editor — Luis Lopez
Screenwriter — Trisha Ziff
Cinematographer — Claudio Rocha // Music: Michael Nyman
Awards — Gaudi Awards 2012 Nominee (Best Documentary)

Film website: http://www.themexicansuitcase.com/

ICP The Mexican Suitcase exhibition information: http://museum.icp.org/mexican_suitcase/

IMPORTANT *Please be aware these images, protected under international copyright law, were provided to author directly by the Director of the film and Magnum Photographs. They are not to be reused, downloaded, copied, saved or disseminated in any manner without the consent/permission of the Director and Magnum Photographs, and potentially other parties.

About asliomur

Aslı Omur is a prolific writer. She is a freelance journalist for hire and a free agent. She writes about: film, people, books and authors, art and artists, music and musicians, cultures, travels, sexuality, cuisines, small businesses and their owners, finance, science & technology, genocide, war time, personalities, stereotypes, urban living, minimalism, simple lifestyles and life off the grid, among many other topics. She is also a published poet and photographer. Her life is one big curation & curiosità. Her article subjects, clients, friends & intimates call her a thorough reporter, coolspotter, trendstarter, creative thinker, sleuth & always a student.

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