LUIS MANDOKI has been called the Michael Moore of Mexico, a filmmaker whose overtly partisan documentaries preach messages to viewers who are already inclined to believe. But that's not the worst thing his critics had to say of Mandoki's most recent film, which purports to prove fraud in the Mexican presidential election of 2006. One writer compared the director, who is Jewish, to infamous Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, who championed her friend Adolf Hitler in the 1934 film "Triumph of the Will."
Mandoki acknowledges he's a supporter of leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who lost by a hair to President Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN. But he argues there's a difference between producing propaganda and making films with a point of view.
FOR THE RECORD: Luis Mandoki: An article on filmmaker Luis Mandoki in Saturday's Calendar section said that the former mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, would participate in a question-and-answer forum at USC today. The event is on Tuesday, Sept. 30. —
"I'm not doing propaganda; I'm showing a piece of the truth," says the veteran director of Hollywood films such as "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "Message in a Bottle."
López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City who gridlocked the capital with street protests after the election, will be in Los Angeles next week to promote the movie that depicts him as a folk hero. On Tuesday, he's scheduled to participate in a Q&A forum at USC, sponsored by sympathetic Chicano and Latino student groups.
Full disclosure: My relatives in Mexico have been longtime activists for the PAN, the party that came to power in 2000, ending decades of political monopoly and rigged elections. Some have served as PAN deputies in Congress and one cousin has been an aide both to former President Vicente Fox and his current successor, Calderón, who claimed victory with a margin of less than 1 percentage point.
To many on the right, López Obrador was a figure to be feared, someone who would lead the country to socialist ruin. As the movie points out, the candidate of the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, was often demonized by the opposition as a populist demagogue, likened to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.
Mandoki says he shared those doubts before he met López Obrador about three years ago, when the former mayor had become the target of an unsuccessful impeachment effort. "The media [in Mexico] hasn't allowed him to talk in a humanized way," Mandoki says, speaking by phone from his home in Mexico City. "When I met him and started asking him hard questions, I realized he had nothing to do with what the media is saying about him."
Mandoki's decision to cover the impeachment led to a popular DVD series titled "Quien es el Sr. López?" (Who is Mr. López?), a flattering portrait of the man considered likely to be the next president. The director says he had planned to return to feature filmmaking until the election turned out to be a cliffhanger. "Fraude" emerged as a new documentary when he decided to film the official review of vote tallies, a process that fell short of the vote-by-vote recount the loser was demanding.
With a limited crew, Mandoki used a blog to post an invitation for citizens to record the proceedings with their own video cameras. He expected perhaps a dozen contributions. But, to his "overwhelming surprise," he says, he received some 3,000 hours of material in sundry formats from 700 people covering all 300 electoral districts.
The amateur video provides a fascinating look inside the Mexican electoral process. The proceedings are quite civil, but they show election officials resisting citizen calls for a full recount of ballot boxes with questionable tallies. Their reluctance makes it appear that they have something to hide, though it's far from proving fraud.
One of the film's harshest critics, journalist Ciro Gomez Leyva, blasted "Fraude" for resorting to the cliched script of the noble masses and their good shepherd "confronting a conspiracy by the sinister forces of corruption." His critique ended with that shocking (though also cliched) comparison to Nazi propaganda.
Mandoki voted for López Obrador, and "Fraude" is so favorable that the candidate's campaign could not have made it more glowing. As critics have noted, there are no opposing perspectives, no dissenting voices. The director says he tried to get interviews with Calderón and others but was stonewalled. Unlike Moore, Mandoki doesn't try to ambush reluctant interview subjects. (Such stunts might not come off so amusing in Mexico, where kidnapping is rampant and powerful people have bodyguards.)
Yet, taken as a counterweight to the media's negative portrayals, the film provides a valuable insider's look at López Obrador, with up-close footage of the candidate in the throes of a convulsive political upheaval. Mandoki shows us a humble, gray-haired Everyman carrying an epic burden on his sloping shoulders. In an interview that weaves through the complex narrative, López Obrador comes off as reflective, responsible and even spiritual, with an almost Ghandi-like belief in nonviolent protest. There's a gentleness to his manner and a perpetual glint in the corner of his eye, conveying inner peace even in the depths of crisis.
The film's other villain is the Mexican media, especially the virtual monopoly held by the country's two television networks, Televisa and TV Azteca. Mandoki claims the tight relationship between the government and the media made it difficult for him to produce and promote the film; even major distributors were too intimidated to touch it. ("Fraude" is being distributed domestically by L.A.-based Maya Entertainment.)
Surprisingly, Mandoki says he got good cooperation from law enforcement officials who allowed his crews to hop aboard police helicopters to film those massive protests, including the round-the-clock camp-in that snarled Mexico City traffic and infuriated even sympathizers. Those aerial shots provide some of the movie's most dramatic images.
"It was done very guerrilla style," says Mandoki, who's currently directing "The Winged Boy," a feature film about an Irish lad who suddenly grows wings and learns to fly.
Despite clear English subtitles, "Fraude" doesn't always succeed in explaining to outsiders the complexities of Mexico's electoral system. But Americans will have no trouble understanding the drama -- and trauma -- of a close, contested election that undermines faith in the system.
"My goal is not to convince anybody of anything but to show you a glimpse of what I saw and experienced," says the director. "This is not about who should have won and who shouldn't. What's at stake here is democracy itself, and I think the film is important because it shows how fragile democracy can be."