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Interview with Elena Fortes
Mexico City

Elena Fortes first launched her career as one of the co-founders of Ambulante, the largest documentary film festival in Mexico. After eleven years of directing Ambulante she left to start a company dedicated to producing non-fiction content in the firm belief that change is good and necessary. 

In 2005, you joined forces with Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Pablo Cruz to found Ambulante, a non-profit organization working to support and promote a documentary film culture in Mexico. Did you initially expect this great success? Not at all. Our hypothesis was that there were audiences for documentaries but that we needed to get out actively and find them. From a more romantic perspective, our goal was to return stories to the places and people who inspired them or that were part of them. In 2006, during the first festival, perhaps only six documentaries had been shown in theaters that year, and it was a genre that for a long time was almost exclusively to be seen on television. We wanted to change that, return it to the cinemas where it should belong, and to the streets where it could attract new audiences. 

Elena Fortes

Documentary is …? ...the cinematic art of reconfiguring our perception of reality. 

Who are your personal idols in the genre? Werner Herzog, Joshua Oppenheimer, Nicolas Philibert, Yuri Ancarani, Lucien Castaing Taylor, Verena Paravel, Pirjo Honkasalo, Mark Cousins, Kim Longinotto, Patricio Guzmán, Helena Trestikova, Natalia Almada, Tove Torbiornsson, Sean Farnel, Oskar Alegria. 

Ambulante is dedicated to supporting and promoting international documentary cinema as a tool for social and cultural change. What was the situation that led in 2005 to the project being initiated? There were very few festivals in Mexico, and thus few outlets for a diversity of films. Documentaries were relegated mostly to public TV and people were prejudiced against them (they associated them mostly with very classical animal documentaries, or with something didactic and boring). It was very difficult to challenge that perception, and it still is to this day, although now audiences have evolved and are used to watching all sorts of content indiscriminately across multiple platforms. Our objective was not only to show films, but to generate encounters between filmmakers and audiences, to open up new spaces for debate, particularly on issues that were relevant to the region and weren't being discussed in the media or policy agendas. I believe that the nature of festivals lies in that encounter, which is why they are not threatened by virtual platforms. I believe change always arises from face-to-face encounters, from collective action in the streets and not from virtual encounters on digital platforms. 

Responsibility, passion, enthusiasm. As an opinion leader, what drives you? I've always felt very drawn to people, to meeting them, understanding them, connecting them. The fight against injustice and cynicism is perhaps the driving force behind all the projects I embark on. 

Ambulante is quite unique world-wide, travels to different states of Mexico and places where there are few options for exhibitions or documentary filmmaking, it runs over the course of three months, 60% of its programming is shown for free, and it supports filmmakers and discovers up-and-coming talents. That’s a lot to achieve. What does the team look like today? I left after eleven years of directing Ambulante. I've always believed that change is good and necessary. I also felt a drive to create content myself, rather than just sharing it, so now I've started a company dedicated to producing non-fiction content, called No Ficción. It bears stating that Ambulante has grown tremendously over the past decade. In the beginning it was just two of us actually working in the festival, neither of us had any prior experience in festivals. I was 23. That turned out to be a plus because I ended up surrounding myself with very young people from all sorts of backgrounds, and that gave the project a different energy. As it grew, we retained a very horizontal organization – and this continues to be the case, although 40 people now work for the festival, and there are over 150 volunteers. There is a core team in Mexico City and then smaller teams of volunteers who shoulder quite a lot of responsibility in the different states to which Ambulante travels. There is also a team in Colombia that does an amazing job taking the festival to different cities. We share experiences, tools, tips, contacts with everyone, and confer a lot of responsibility in everyone working for Ambulante. That drives people to do their job better. Ambulante also grew to encompass all sorts of initiatives, including a long-term training program. It was pointless to open up new paths and spaces to show films without trying to do the same in terms of offering production opportunities. 

Disruption and challenging are key components. What gives you the most power to act? Credibility, integrity, moral leadership, and collectivity. 

You have already screened films in prisons, or addressed the topic of immigration by screening it directly on the border wall. What was the atmosphere at those specific sites? Going back to the idea of the importance of creating encounters, I also believe in the importance of context. Showing a film about immigration on the wall is a completely different experience to showing it in a movie theater, precisely because you encounter a very different audience (one that is likely to be deeply involved or touched by what is shown on screen, and one that perhaps wasn't even planning on attending). The best way to build new audiences is to take the films to new places, but also to bring them stories that are so close to their own. This also responds to the power to create empathy innate in documentary. We recently showed the film “Sherpa” at the top of a volcano in Mexico. The idea was that the first 200 people to sign up would be taken there to camp out overnight, have dinner over a fireplace and watch the film. Nobody really knew each other, they were just the first 200 to sign up for it, so it was an incredible feeling to create this new, temporary community of tents, away from the city chaos, just for one night.

You were Mexico's winner of the British Council's Young Creative Entrepreneur Screen Award in 2010 and continue to work with the British Council on various projects including the London MexFest Festival of contemporary Mexican culture. How did this project arise and what cultural exchange does it trigger? The British Council has been a champion of the creative industries all over the world and that is something I truly admire about them. They were one of the first institutions to actually analyze the economic value of the arts in the UK and set an example for the rest of the world. Hugo Van Belle, co-founder of the Morelia Film Festival, came up with the idea of the London MexFest as a way of showcasing the Mexican creative industries in London. He invited us to curate the film program. The festival encompassed architecture, music and design as well. It was a wonderful initiative but unfortunately difficult to sustain, as it depended largely on official funding from both countries. 

What were the main challenges in London? Everything was much more expensive to do in terms of producing the festival. It would have been very hard to organize screenings outdoors (in Mexico, you can pretty much set up a screen and sound system in a small town and show a film without having to go through so much bureaucracy). Perhaps that is why Secret Cinema became so popular, precisely because it broke with that rigidity and order. London MexFest happened during the summer and screenings were indoors, meaning it was hard to convince audiences to go inside when the weather was great outside. I also think that film offering are much more diverse in London so we were competing against many other initiatives. 

What do you miss in Mexico and what in Europe? In Mexico I miss order, respect, and the basic rule of law! In Europe, I miss chaos, a certain degree of disorder, and the sort of creativity that is born from many limitations and obstacles. 

Did you also live in London – where did you like stopping off most? I only lived there for two months because I had a boyfriend who was living there, but I've traveled there quite a few times. There are few things in life that I enjoy more than scones, so I would stop around everywhere I could to get them. I remembered having the best at a teahouse close to the British Museum. I also loved walking around Brick Lane, the Tate Modern, Soho, and Shoreditch. 

Thank you Elena Fortes! 

Interview: Dajana Dorfmayr