“I enjoy the fiestas and feel my way toward cinematic documentation”

A village in Mexico and Holy Week, a hit-and-run car accident and a tequila-drinking police chief, and in the middle of it all a film crew from Gottingen, Germany. Six files and many meters of film material tell the adventurous story of a Mexico expedition 30 years ago, and with the "recovery" of an ethnological film treasure the preliminary outcome of the story in 2018.

(All text passages in italics are verbatim quotations from the IMF files of the Mexico expedition of 1989 (project files V 2588 Mexico (Engelbrecht))

A postcard and an accident

On 21. May 1987, the ethnology specialist of the Institute of Scientific Film (IWF), Dr. Beate Engelbrecht, from Patzcuaro, Mexico sends a postcard to the cameraman Manfred Kruger: Dear Manfred, may the Virgin of Health help us on all our paths. I enjoy freshly made tortillas with beans and some chili. Enjoying the fiestas and feeling my way towards cinematic documentation. (…) Sincerely Beate

Almost two years later, on 13. April 1989, the relative of the German Embassy in Mexico, Ruth Merkel, writes a note with the subject Car Accident: Mrs. Dr. Engelbrecht and Mr. Kruger from the Institute for Scientific Film, Gottingen, who are in Michoacan to film, had a car accident today.

Both documents, the postcard and the note, can be found in folder En-005 03 of the IMF project files V 2588 Mexico (Engelbrecht). Whether it was the Virgin of Health who assisted the Engelbrecht/Kruger film team is not known. However, it is certain that both were only slightly injured, although the VW bus was thrown through the air, overturned and suffered a total loss.

DFG application and purpose of the expedition

As early as January 1988, Beate Engelbrecht applied for funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) for the film documentary "Religious Life among the Purhepecha, Michoacan, Mexico" Continuation of the project En 174/1-1 – II A 5 and "Documentation of Traditional Handicraft Techniques in Michoacan, Mexico".

The purpose of the trip was to create a film documentary about certain religious rituals and some crafts of the Purhepecha people (Michoacan). The aim was to document the religious cycle from Candlemas to Easter, as celebrated in Patamban, a Purhepecha village in the Sierra Purhepecha, Michoacan. The climax of the religious cycle is the Semana Santa (Holy Week), that is, Easter Week. This is documented in the film "Semana Santa – The Holy Week in Patamban", which is based on 9 years of research in Patamban. Semana Santa was observed and recorded twice prior to filming. The film team consisted of a total of two people: Camera (Manfred Kruger) and Direction and Sound (Beate Engelbrecht).

The DFG approved the application and the expedition was funded in roughly equal parts by the IMF and the DFG. Shortly before New Year's Eve 1988, the film team started the journey from Gottingen to Patamban in Mexico.

Patamban, Michoacan, Mexico

Since most of the filming was planned to take place in Patamban, especially the documentation of religious life, the village served as a base for the entire expedition. The village of Patamban is located in the western Sierra Purhepecha in the Mexican state of Michoacan. It belongs politically to the Tenencia of TangancIcuaro, but is ecclesiastically independent. Patamban is a relatively large village with three to four thousand inhabitants, living mainly from agriculture and pottery.

Upon arrival in Mexico, the film team was received by members of the German embassy, but for political and bureaucratic reasons had to wait for customs to hand over the film equipment. Therefore, it was decided to first pick up and test the ordered VW bus in Puebla. The VW bus was to serve well for the next few months, but would not see the end of the expedition.

After the equipment was handed over to them by customs and the film team was assigned a supervisor by the Mexican government, who was a heavy burden on the film team because he gave the impression that his only job was to take money out of the film team's pockets, they left for Patamban, Michoacan in early January 1989.

The filming – in close cooperation with the villagers

Once in Patamban, the film crew settled in and talked to the cabildos, the elders of the village about the planned film project. The Cabildos, on behalf of the villagers, were in favor of the project, seeing it as a support for their efforts to revive the traditions, especially in the Easter ritual.

The religious cycle from Candlemas to Easter includes, in addition to these two festivals, many other rites and traditions, among which the Carnaval and the Last Supper are particularly prominent. On 2. The filming began in February with the celebrations of Candlemas. These are documented in the film C-1895 "Maria Lichtmeb in Patamban, Michoacan, Mexico". Subsequently, the filming of the Carnaval theme complex (6.-8. February) (see film C-13228 "Carnival in Patamban, Michoacan, Mexico") followed by footage of the festivities around Jesus de Nazareno. The latter actually began with Ash Wednesday and ended with Easter.

Due to the complex and diverse rituals, some of which took place simultaneously at various locations in the village, the Engelbrecht/Kruger film team was dependent on good cooperation with the villagers. Since they were mostly positive about the film project, the team was sometimes provided with information without asking, or even called to certain events. In the course of the stay in Patamban this cooperation intensified, so that with the last photographs one can speak of a close cooperation between filmed and film team.

E-3135 Semana Santa – The Holy Week in Patamban

After some filming of traditional handicrafts in other places to bridge a longer shooting break in Patamban, the intensive preparations for the documentation of the Semana Santa began in the middle of March. Additional light had to be installed in the church because the 16mm film here needed amplification. The film crew donated two chandeliers to the community, to which additional spotlights were added. Another challenge was the length of the procession. Since a 16mm film reel was already over after 10 minutes, breaks had to be scheduled for changing the cassettes. To be as mobile as possible, the film was shot almost entirely from the shoulder. Ms. Engelbrecht took over the sound recording and worked shoulder to shoulder with the cameraman. This allowed her to point out to him important actions during the procession. What was unpleasant for the film crew and residents was that the supervisor "was always mingling in between instead of sitting quietly somewhere."

The Holy Week in Patamban consists mainly of a "Passion Play" that lasts for a week. In the IMF files, Beate Engelbrecht reports on the shootings: These dragged on for eight days. A large part of the film was shot at night, both in the church and outside. Easter in Patamban is an extremely complicated celebration, with a wide variety of rituals intertwined. Due to the complexity of the festival and the numerous ceremonies taking place at the same time, it was only possible to document a snippet of the festival. We based this on the main activities in and around the church. Wherever possible, we made an effort to include subplots, such as changing a saint's clothes, night watch for a saint, or changing a carguero, in the footage.

After the end of the Holy Week, the work in Patamban was finished and once again the film team sat down in the faithful VW bus and set off to new locations to shoot footage of the everyday life and work of a weaver's family (actually, the weavers had their fun) and other craft activities. The VW bus carried the film team and its equipment for another three weeks, then it came to the end. He covered the last 40 meters of his tour of duty flying.

Tequila with the police chief and a lost pair of glasses: the car accident

On 13. April 1989, the VW bus with Manfred Kruger at the wheel was on its way from Cheran back to Patamban. As he was about to turn onto a dirt road, the accident occurred, which Ms. Engelbrecht documents in the accident report: At that moment, a motor coach rear-ended. (…) Our VW bus was thrown about 40 meters through the air. The car once overturned right over a small bridge, whose delineator posts were destroyed by the car. (…) Fortunately, we neither lost consciousness nor were seriously injured. However, the car suffered a total loss in the process.

The equipment had also been affected. The camera case itself was badly warped. (…) Some of our metal boxes were badly dented, some of the film canisters crushed. Ms. Engelbrecht had also lost her glasses. After the initial scare was over, the bus driver got back behind the wheel and committed a hit and run with his bus. A short time later, the local police arrived at the scene of the accident, but due to lack of jurisdiction, they were unable to do much about it. Instead, the local police (…) pursued the fleeing autobus.

After the full recovery of the film crew, a bureaucratic odyssey ensued between police departments, the German embassy, insurance companies and the bus company about how the damage would be compensated. The insurance agent dampened the hopes for a speedy solution with the remark that the head of the bus company had already gone drinking tequila with the police chief in the meantime. No solution was to be found by the end of the expedition, and Ms. Engelbrecht resignedly reported to the DFG, "Mr. Kruger and Ms. Engelbrecht were unfortunately unable to do more in this case.

"Becoming a historical document" – A film returns

Three years later, in August 1992, on page 7 of IWF-aktuell Nr. 21 a contribution by Beate Engelbrecht: "Semana Santa – A film returns". In it, she talks about bringing the movie Semana Santa back to Patamban and its importance to the local people as part of their cultural memory.

When Ms. Engelbrecht returned to Patamban for Holy Week in 1990, she found that in the meantime the "dramaturge of Holy Week," Antonio Clemente, had died, leaving "a big gap in knowledge [that] was obviously not so easy to fill." He had in his youth (before the Mexican Revolution!) accompany a priest and thus learn the essentials of the Passion games. Later, in the 1950s, he and two other people (u.a. a sculptor who specialized in figures of saints) made a new staging of Holy Week. Antonio Clemente had "overseen the Passion Play for decades" and was the one "who knew it all." Against this backdrop, the still uncut footage took on added significance for Patamban residents, and to this day there is a special interest in this film. "The film seemed to have already become a historical document by this point."

In December of the following year Mrs. Engelbrecht and Manfred Kruger "traveled again to Patamban, in order to premiere the finished film." The first screening of the film took place in the village plaza, "so that all villagers could participate." The film kept visitors engaged for a long time, as hardly anyone had ever before witnessed the fiesta in such detail. For Ms. Engelbrecht, it was clear "that the 'return' of the film led to a whole new partnership relationship with us filmmakers, now initiated by the village."

And today?

Beate Engelbrecht traveled to Patamban for the first time in 1979 and since then almost every year either to Mexico or to the "outstation in Florida". Her Mexico research and film work have defined much of her life, and even today her film work ("no trip without a video camera") serves her to develop new thoughts about ethnographic film work and new ideas to pass on to young people. Still, there is one point that leaves them somewhat perplexed: "… that since the closure of the IMF, there is no longer a place to collect and secure ethnographic films produced in Germany. Considering the issue of cultural heritage and what film could do here, this is especially sad."

In the stacks of the TIB slumbers with the film archive of the IMF, taken over in 2012, an unearthed treasure

Movies are a fragile cultural asset. Film copies were utility material and not created for eternity. The base material of the films, cellulose acetate, is also susceptible to the so-called acetic acid syndrome, which also affected the IWF films. Time is pressing and with the digitization of the Ethnological Collection as part of the DELFT – Digitization of EthnoLogical Film Holdings project and its accessibility on the AV Portal, a first, important step has been taken.

Almost 2.000 films comprise the Ethnological Collection, among them film copies whose contents are up to 100 years old and the most recent ones such as the Mexico film by Beate Engelbrecht from 1992.

A "film" is not just the physical copy itself, often a number of other materials exist that document, for example, the production and distribution of the films. This material also exists for the Ethnological Collection, including photos and slides of the expeditions, additional audio tapes and the accompanying booklets published for each film. The IMF's editorial and production files are a special feature. These files are part of the history of the institute and give a deep insight into the context in which the films were made and give an idea of how much heart and soul went into the making of each individual film. That's why we decided in the DELFT project to digitize these accompanying documents as well and thus pave the way for a future provision. For today's World Audiovisual Heritage Day, we tried to offer a (very) small glimpse into the extensive treasure trove of IMF files and the stories behind the film with this blog post.

Preservation of audiovisual heritage: much remains to be done.

For the preservation of this film heritage, which after digitization will in the future consist of the analog original and the digital object, preservation strategies adapted to the different characteristics of these objects, must be developed. A conservation strategy is not a static matter, but rather a dynamic process that is constantly evolving and needs to be monitored on an ongoing basis.

With the digitization of the Ethnological Film Collection, the TIB is facing up to its responsibility towards the cinematic work of the IMF. For a comprehensive preservation of cultural assets, in the sense of Beate Engelbrecht, one must not only think of the digitization and archiving of holdings, however; only together with indexing and mediation can one speak of access and thus of preservation.

We would like to thank Beate Engelbrecht for her support and a lot of additional information beyond the file content.

On a personal note:

Dr. Beate Engelbrecht studied ethnology, sociology and national ecnomy at the University of Basel, where in 1985 she wrote her thesis on "Women Potters in Mexico. Developmental ethnological research on the production and marketing of the Patamban and Tzintzuntzan pottery, Michoacan, western Mexico." graduated. From 1985 to 2012, she worked at the IMF as an ethnographic filmmaker, heading, among other things, the Culture and Society Division, and from 2002 to 2008, the Transfer Division. In 1993 she founded the Gottingen International Ethnographic Film Festival (GIEFF).