The Festival of Mexico's 'City of Open Doors'

Posted on November 16, 2017 by Jo Duncombe

Categories: Festival Reports

Since 2003, Mexico’s Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) has become a unique meeting point for the country’s cinematographic community, the people of the state of Michoacán and international filmmakers; promoting new Mexican talent and immeasurably enhancing the cultural life of the state. Ahead of our upcoming Developing Your Film Festival course, ICO Film Programmer Jo Duncombe was delighted to visit Morelia, one of the country’s most beautiful, historic and artistically vibrant cities, to take part in the festival’s 15th edition earlier this autumn.

Morelia Film Festival
An audience gathering before a screening in Morelia’s beautiful main square

Four hours by bus north west from the centre of Mexico City is the town of Morelia, Michoacán. Far from the dense and frenetic metropolis of CDMX, Morelia’s cool mountainous air and elegant boulevards are a welcome tonic for the stresses of urban sprawl. But do not be fooled by Morelia’s relaxing charms. Beneath the beauty of the town’s grand and impressive colonial architecture is a historical spirit of humanism, liberty, action and openness. The town is named after José María Morelos – a revolutionary rebel leader who led the Mexican War of Independence movement. Morelos’ campaign called for the abolition of slavery, racial equality and a fairer distribution of wealth and power, favouring the poor over church and state.

Of Morelia’s many nick-names (including ‘the Rose of the Winds’, in reference to the pink rock of the surrounding Guayangareo Valley), ‘the City of Open Doors’ is perhaps the most apt. It’s a sentiment befitting of a town which for the last 15 years has played host to Mexico’s leading festival of national and international cinema. The Festival Internacional De Cine De Morelia (FICM) takes over the town for ten days each October, welcoming large local audiences and guests from around the world to showcase the very best of new and archive Mexican film, alongside a smaller programme of international titles. Special guests at this year’s festival included Mexican cinematic superstars Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, and filmmakers Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Carlos Reygadas (who is currently shooting his new feature Where Life Is Born). International guests included Al Gore, Michel Hazanavicius, Bob Rafelson (whose Five Easy Pieces was presented in full restored glory by Criterion), Barbet Schroeder and Cristian Mungiu.

Morelia Film Festival
L-R: Carlos Reygadas, Bob Rafelson and Cristian Mungiu

Despite this high profile hospitality, the festival never loses sight of its cultural and social importance on the ground. Local crowds are numerous in the town’s Cinépolis (a giant multiplex chain, founded in Morelia – of which Alejandro Ramirez Magana, president of the festival, is CEO) and the festival works with local schools and community groups to ensure the programme of films is accessible to all.

The town’s generosity and openness is reflected in a festival programme that aims to champion new and diverse talent from all professional avenues of the industry. Each foreword in the festival’s brochure references an ethos of celebrating new energies, talents and ideas, particularly from Mexico. Alfonso Martinez Alcazar, the Mayor of Morelia, says that “FCIM serves as a showcase for young filmmakers to break into this great profession that stimulates the senses and transports us all.” The festival has a special programme dedicated to emerging talent from the state of Michoacán, “Hecho en Michoacán” and a sexual diversity programme, now in its 2nd year, comprising new Mexican shorts themed around sexuality, programmed in collaboration with XPOSED: Queer Film Festival Berlin. Charles Tesson, director of the Critics’ Week at Cannes Film Festival also presents a “Worlds & Journeys” selection, which is replayed each year on the Riviera with a spotlight on Mexican shorts presented by FICM.

Viva Zapata!
Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952)

Retrospectives & Mexican classics

This year, there was a special programme From Mexico to Hollywood to The Oscars© which aimed to highlight the contributions of Mexican filmmakers and artists to Hollywood & Oscar© history. Titles included William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), for which set director Emile Kuri was one of the first Mexican-born Oscar© recipients, and Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952), which  tells the story of a young peasant from the state of Morelos and stars Marlon Brando and Jean Peters. Co-star Anthony Quinn was the first Mexican-born star to win the Oscar© for Best Actor in 1953. Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) were among the more recent titles on the programme. These classics were shown for free in the town’s beautiful open air plaza and attended by hundreds of locals and festival guests.

Other Mexican classics in the “Cinematográfica Marte” programme aimed to explore the new wave of state funded Mexican productions in the 1960s and 1970s, defined by their maverick, auteur approach to film craftPatsy Mi Amor(1969) and Paraíso (1969) were two stand-outs.

New work

Whilst the festival affectionately celebrates the heritage of Mexican filmmaking, its programme is unreservedly forward-looking. New talent is spotlighted at FICM not only through a large portion of the scheduled programme, but also by the festival’s “Ojo” awards which place a heavy emphasis on rewarding ambition and talent with practical access to equipment, mentoring and advice.

Chavela, by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi


I was struck by new works, particularly in the documentary strand, which aimed to interrogate, re-assess and reframe Mexican identities on a global stage. Notably, nearly all of the award-winning documentaries at the festival were directed by women, and told the stories of women whose lives have been impacted by political posturing and corruption in both Mexico and the US. Daniela Rea Gómez’s No Sucumbió La Eternidad (Eternity Never Surrendered) provides a painful portrait of two Mexican women awaiting their missing ones; Liliana,who lost her husband to organised crime in 2010, and Alicia, whose mother disappeared to the Mexican State during the country’s Dirty War. Artemio, by Sandra Luz López Barroso tells the story of a young boy who was born in US and lives in a small town in Guerrero with his mother and his new family. Chavela, directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi,was another stand-out, offering an evocative and lyrical portrait of artist and performer Chavela Vargas.


The fiction strand also offered many fascinating insights into Mexican cultural history, with numerous titles reclaiming narratives that have been neglected or misrepresented. The festival’s Audience Award for Best Fiction Feature went to Los Adioses (The Eternal Feminine) by Natalia Beristáin, a film depicting the life of the famous Mexican poet Rosario Castellano who, in the early 1950s in Mexico City, fought to have her voice heard in a society run by, and for, men. And Sueño en Otro Idioma (I Dream in Another Language) by Ernesto Contreras was a beautiful depiction of Mexico’s fading linguistic tapestry – telling the story of two elderly men, the last two remaining speakers of the Zikril language.

Impulso Morelia

The encouragement of new talent at FICM is further extended by its Impulso Lab – a workshop spotlighting 5 films in development by Mexican directors. The Lab aims to offer Mexican filmmakers a unique space for international visibility, based on a fruitful exchange of ideas among professionals from the global film scene. Each of the participating filmmakers were remarkably generous in sharing their work and brave to open themselves up, during the creative process, to feedback, ideas and questions from strangers. La Negrada, a feature about the Afro-Mexican community by first-time filmmaker Jorge Pérez Solano, won two awards (from Tribeca Film Institute and Impulso Morelia) for post-production support.

La Negrada
Double award-winner La Negrada by first-time filmmaker Jorge Pérez Solano

Locarno Industry Lab

The festival’s talent development programme isn’t limited to filmmakers. Each year, FICM collaborates with Locarno Film Festival to run a workshop for young professionals working in Latin-American independent film. This year, there were 8 professionals working or developing their own distribution & exhibition projects, film festival programming and alternative distribution. I took part in a panel discussion on How to Improve Circulation of Indie Films with Renato Galamba (Figa Films) and Michelle Hamada (Tribeca Film Institute). It was fascinating to explore cultural differences and similarities across the industry and share best practice and learnings.

Morelia welcomes all guests with open arms. There is a very particular energy of excitement, innovation and openness running through the town and the festival. In this spirit, we hosted a drinks reception for film festival professionals to promote the launch of our upcoming training programme Developing Your Film Festival and were excited by the many talented and interesting people we met. Morelia creates a fantastic environment for the exchange of ideas, both on screen and off, and it is one we hope to share and discuss with participants on the course next year.

Gracias Morelia!

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