Sin nombre, Norteado, and the Contours of Genre and La Frontera

By Francisco R. Monar

Whilst contemplating the nexus between politics and aesthetics, I will investigate two contemporary Mexican “migrant films” released in 2009, Sin nombre (Cary Fukunaga) and Norteado (Rigoberto Pérezcano) alongside theories of genre and space. Taking a cue from Philip Rosen, who elucidates a connection “between geopolitical bounded space and the framing of space in film,” this article investigates the political and formal implications that the concepts and conventions associated with genre have on films that deal with a particularly charged geopolitical space: la frontera, the borderlands between Mexico and the United States.[1] More specifically, I will analyse how differences in conventions (formal, narratological, and extra-cinematic) negotiate the films’ respective politisation of la frontera and, consequently, the individual subjects and spaces/places within it. This will be achieved through the use of tools offered by critical studies, as they bring focus onto issues of cultural and political representation that are especially pertinent to this social milieu often characterised in terms of globalisation, advanced capitalism, and modernity. As both texts and objects shaped in many ways by filmmaking practices associated with genre, these two films negotiate their relationship with their depicted spaces with regards to both their reification and the social productions they engender on screen and in the social imaginary. As it will be demonstrated, in ways beyond the stories they tell, Sin nombre and Norteado each articulate a different vision and understanding of their place within modernity.

Theorising Space and Modernity

Philip Rosen offers a methodological entry point into this investigation. In “Border Times and Geopolitical Frames” he describes a lineage of the treatment of space in cinema before analysing the representation of the borderlands in Chantal Akerman’s De l’autre côté/ From the Other Side (2002). He argues that the film can be seen as challenging ideas about contemporary articulations of space in media and understandings of the geopolitical configuration of nations and societies-at-large. At issue is Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s idea of a dematerialising process brought about through social formations mediated by network media and communications that enables both ideas and bodies (individually or politically en-masse) to transcend and attenuate borders and nations.[2] Despite this objection, an important issue to which these theorists call proper attention is migration. Both Norteado and Sin nombre deal overtly with this topical issue and they approach it through different strategies that can be linked to, and indeed are articulated through, the idea of genre. Thus I wish to bring light to a homology between the relationship social production has with geographic space and what can be termed “generic space.”

Nevertheless, I wish to think through these issues by engaging with critical theory of the time period prior to that of the publishing of Negri and Hardt’s trilogy, and, explicitly for this article’s concerns, its spatial turn as chronicled by Edward Soja.[3] One can understand Rosen’s text to be in dialogue with an articulation of this turn manifesting itself in contemporary cinema studies as seen in the work of Giuliana Bruno and Edward Dimendberg among a growing number of others.[4] Fredric Jameson’s The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, wherein he ties cinema to his understanding of postmodernism as a dominant cultural logic, can be understood to be paradigmatic of an earlier moment of this turn.[5] For Jameson, cinema (usually of the narrative type) can be understood hermeneutically as an attempt to make sense of the often interconnected cultural and economic contexts from which it emerges, in his case those related to globalising late capitalism.[6] Jameson reads in such works a geopolitical aesthetic that can be understood as engaging in the project of cognitive mapping postmodernity. In other words, it is a way for a “decentered” subject to make sense of a social reality that is increasingly unattainable for them, of with obscured notions of nation, boundary, space, and aesthetic forms are examples of some of the issues that have historically come to the fore. In this account the geopolitical aesthetic attempts a project of representation that must be understood instead as a figuration which is always incomplete as it butts against the impossible task of depicting socio-historical totality.[7] Important for this essay is that in this exegesis of an interpretative hermeneutic Jameson also creates and reinforces types of genres that expressly deal with globalisation.[8]

Contemporary Mexican Cinema and Space of La Frontera

In similar fashion to Jameson’s work, we can think of Sin nombre and Norteado as belonging to the fronterizo genre, which, in turn, can be understood as a category of films in which issues related to la frontera form the overarching narrative or thematic structure.[9] Following this logic, so long as these films are understood in relation to this contested geopolitical and spatial concept they are inherently political.[10]  Thus such films call for a critical reading not simply in terms of political ideology but also in those of aesthetics – that is, they call for a reading of the figurations that are depicted. Adding to this, we must account for the variety of ways that their depicted spaces can potentially be read in terms of the idea of mode of production at large as I do not want to delimit this essay – and importantly the films – to just thinking about late capitalism when issues such as race, sex, and identity (tied to those of the economy, to be sure) are concomitantly being addressed.[11]

Henri Lefebvre has done much to provide us with the vocabulary to do so. One of Lefebvre’s many interventions in critical studies is the elucidation of a dialectical relationship between spatial structures and sociality.[12] The critical spatial theory lineage that I utilise understands both the organisation of space as a social practice and, conversely, that social space affects the conditions for social relations. With this materialist approach towards space one can think about it in its relationship with those who inhabit it and those who shape it. Lefebvre elucidates the useful concept of abstract space as a state-sanctioned spatial strategy that,

[…] entails transformations not only in political practices and institutional arrangements, but also in political imaginaries: it involves new ways of envisioning, conceiving, and representing the spaces within which everyday life, capital accumulation, and state action are to unfold.[13]

Abstract space gives way to contradictory space in late capitalism with its constant renegotiation of its global and localised meaning. Spaces like la frontera, which are essential to ideas of nation, can be understood to be in a privileged position as a battleground between the global and the local.[14] Pertinent here is Lefebvre’s thinking on the production of territory as “materialism, symbolism, and daily practice.”[15] Here I would like to widen these ideas of symbolism and imagination to include cinema in terms that can account for a shifting of spatial consideration. Acts of materialisation – like the ones Ackerman performs in representing the border as concrete instead of porous – are therefore forms of spatial abstraction that can be interrogated in terms of the relation to the forms of life to which they are dialectically linked. One possible alternative articulation, however, is differential space, which Lefebvre describes as a “socialist” space that takes into account new and different types of social relationships.[16] He sees these spaces as a resistance to the forces of homogenisation inherent in abstract space. In short, differential spaces are sites of contestations. Space, then, as a dynamic social formation – even in representation/figuration – has an inherent dialectical potential to transform both its inhabitants and itself.

One can think of the use of such unfashionable theories as a return of the repressed, and also think, similarly, about Mexican cinema’s increasing presence in global circuits as the result of changes in modes of production and exhibition.[17] During the 1990s, while slowly recovering from near collapse, the Mexican film industry became more transnational as state run exhibition and distribution gave way to multinational corporations following the course set by the Carlos Salinas de Gortari administration’s neoliberal economic mandates.[18] The effect of the increased role played by Pan-Latin American, trans-Atlantic, and foreign production companies in conjunction with global funding sources, institutional cultural alliances, and new film festivals such as Argentina’s BAFICI,[19] was new channels for expression that led to the more global cinema of the new century.[20] More controversial consequences of the globalization of Mexican cinema include the enormous footprint of American production companies within it,[21] the continued emphasis of “Latin American” as a categorical term for its films, and related debates concerning the question of national cinema. The two films discussed in this article are great examples of two dominant modes such productions can take: the modest-budget topical film (Sin nombre) and the smaller budget art house film (Norteado). Indeed, as Deborah Shaw notes, films like Sin nombre, directed by Fukunaga, an American, produced by Amy Kaufman and Canana Film, and distributed by Focus Features,highlight the confusion over the accepted country of origin as a consequence of globalised filmmaking.[22] Yet despite its difference in scale, Norteado, a film directed by an Oaxacan, was funded as an international co-production with money from Mexico, Argentina, and Spain, and is also an example of such a trend today.[23]

Today, as in the past when Mexican cinema was in its golden age (1936-1969), genre cinema dominates. One such genre that has seen a resurgence is the aforementioned fronterizo genre. In their figuration of issues relating to la frontera,the films of this genre share a geopolitical aesthetic and can be understood, as a grouping of texts, as a wide-ranging and open cognitive map. This article will focus on one trajectory these films can take, which concerns the plight and flight of migrant workers attempting to cross into the United States. And each film depicts a different vision of this scenario, showing in its gaps and fissures symptoms pertaining, not just to the conception of social reality at large, but the persistent attempt to do so in socio-economic terms.[24]

Toward the Idea of Generic Space

The thinking of social space in cinema can benefit from a paradigmatic approach that considers issues of genre in relation to those of narrative and form. One can even think of genres in a similar way to space: both are social constructs – types of concrete abstractions – that condition their constituents in a form of dialecticism. They are both concerned with borders and limits as well as their respective historical transformations as a consequence of the social paradigms such as that of global capitalism. In this way genre studies has become increasingly porous and politicised ideas from previously separate fields migrate into and influence it.[25] To give one example, issues of spatiality and temporality are at the center of contemporary articulations of genre. How films travel through cultures is now examined with regards to issues of hybridity.[26] Genre, as a process functioning much like as a concept does in Foucaultian discourse, interconnected with the statements and other discursive practices with which it comes into contact, can help organise how one analyses both the spaces inside and outside of the respective texts.[27] Commencing with the former, the space within, I will consider the semantic approach to genre as proposed by Rick Altman, before following up with his syntactic analysis.[28] Citing Jameson as a practitioner of syntactic analysis, he states,

While  there  is anything but general  agreement on the exact  frontier separating semantic from syntactic  views, we can as a whole distinguish between generic  definitions  which depend on  a  list  of  common traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations, sets,  and the like—thus stressing the semantic elements which make up the genre—and definitions which play up instead certain constitutive relationships between undesignated and variable placeholders—relationships which might be called the genre’s fundamental syntax. The semantic approach thus stresses the genre’s building blocks, while the syntactic view privileges the structures into which they are arranged.[29]

While I ultimately consider these films to be of the same genre, I will begin by bracketing the films and discussing their relationships with different genres.  In this way I will negotiate Barry Langford’s astute warning of the nebulous distinction between the two approaches.[30]

Sin nombre’s Geopolitical Articulations

Sin nombre, in its central narrative arc, tells the story of a young woman’s passage-by-rail from Honduras and through Mexico toward the United States, and the possibility of a better life. Early on, at a border train-depot in Chiapas, Mexico, in a bad stroke of luck, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and her family become entangled in bloody feud between Willy (“Casper”) (Edgar Flores) and the infamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS13); one of the largest gang organizations in the world, Salvadoran in origin but also Pan-American in reach. Her life becomes imperiled because of her chance encounter with Willy, who prevents her rape by killing a high-ranking gang member and consequently becomes (together with Sayra) an assassination target. Thus, the film can be categorised as a topical dramatic thriller and/or adventure film as it combines the development of psychologically motivated characters engaging with the social issue of migration with elements of danger and suspense – as reflected in their journey’s shift from exodus to chase.

This film can be understood to adhere more strictly to (commercial and narrative-based) generic conventions when compared to Norteado, which in turn can be characterised in terms of generic hybridity. The thriller genre accounts for much of the filmmaking-style, which is generally dynamically-paced, especially once danger is introduced, as opposed to intimate and contemplative, qualities found in certain types of dramas. Scenes in Sin nombre often take place outdoors, with few set in spaces of domesticity.The cinematography accounts for this mode by de-emphasising space for the sake of the protagonists, employing an economic style primarily composed of one- and two-shot close-ups. Due to its rapid editing, which accentuates the spectacle of the thriller during action sequences (in order to create an affective sensorium), space is often reduced to abstract articulation. While occasional towns are named, and a route can be mapped-out (from Tapachula to Tonalá and onto Veracruz, with unnamed towns in-between), there is generally little effort made to distinguish the places. Rarely are long takes or wide-angle shots used to document the landscapes or towns depicted, and when they are, it is largely in deference to narrative motivation; thus, the film text rarely opens up the real-life spaces it occasionally represents. Scenes come to depend on quick, static, and often singular establishing shots and intertitles for their localisation. Even the travel montages afforded by the train journey feel constricted and attenuated. The first such scene – 38 minutes into the film, comprised of one vista shot, a one-shot close-up, and a point-of-view shot – is cut short by rain that forces the many “nameless” riding on top of the train to cover themselves (and thus also the viewer) with tarp in a filmic act of symptomatic disavowal. Mexico, as a blurred whole, here becomes la frontera in an act of metonymy that abstracts the true border, which when finally shown at the end of the film is depicted as merely a narrow, crossable (if allegorical) river.

If we consider the above as one possible semantic analysis of genre, a syntactic view is needed as well. Thinking through Altman’s syntactic approach as processed by Jameson’s geopolitical aesthetics allows us to think of these films in terms of the concept of a global genre. The protagonists’ journey by rail forcedly links three countries together, creating a composite that stands in for the Americas as a whole, diminishing the idea of individualised, sovereign nations and attenuating their borders.[31] Sin nombre is then a postmodern, Pan-American film par excellence. It explicitly deals with a globalised, advanced capitalist Latin America and the various challenges it faces. The narrative, by way of the thriller genre, links issues of gang violence and migration to these spaces, showing how they flow through their social and economic infrastructures. However, in its bittersweet ending, depicting Sayra’s crossing and Willy’s martyr-like death, the film problematises the issues it raises concerning migration. What happens to Sayra in the United States as an illegal alien is left for the audience to imagine, and Willy’s inability to cross the border and escape MS13 marks the continual and victorious presence of gang violence in Mexico. There is “no room” in the film for these individuals to show any sort of non-reactionary agency, they are interpellated as simply migrants by the dominant social forces of global capitalism – both the good and bad – the whole way through.

Pushing this idea of globalised genre further, Sin nombre aligns itself with a fairly contemporary phenomenon in cinema through its narrative structure. As Soja points out, art historian John Berger was one of the first to postulate a spatialisation of thought and a respective shift in literary narration in its accounting for a changing conception of reality.[32] Narratives characterised by simultaneity are a marker of such a specific historical trend for Berger and they can be likened to those found in contemporary cinema. This style can be seen in films such as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores perros, which depicts interrelated stories through a playing with both space and time. The overall narrative structure in Sin nombre is one that integrates two separate and simultaneously occurring narrative arcs, those of Willy and Sayra, into one. They begin in two different countries, Mexico (Tapachula, Chiapas) and Honduras (Tegucigalpa), respectively. In this thinking of cinematic simultaneity, neither space nor time is privileged, and instead they work together to characterise a scene. That said, a narrative economy incorporating simultaneity also attenuates the autonomy of standalone scenes once the narrative progresses linearly. This can be seen in the film’s establishing shots, which are not unlike those in the Bourne movies of international espionage and intrigue, particularly The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007). No one space, except for the “utopian” (and offscreen) United States, is privileged; hence the depicting of Mexico as a blur. In this regard, the film lays its cards on the table from the beginning: it begins with a shot of an image of a deciduous forest (non-existent in Mexico) that is slowly zooming forward, toward it, which cuts to a reciprocal medium counter-shot of Willy sitting on a chair, center frame, facing the camera and gazing above frame. On the returning shot, the image is revealed to be wallpaper. Sin nombre’streatment of space is often filtered through a subjective experience of either “utopian fantasy” or corporeal danger. La frontera (as Mexico) is merely a barrier separating the protagonists from a better life.

Central to the film is the transportation system running through Mexico. Again, Lefebvre can help relate this to space and mode of production. He understands train tracks, depots, and other associated buildings to be connected to the idea of abstract space as economic infrastructure.[33] The Eastern railway depicted here is one of Mexico’s main economic arteries as it links Central (and by proxy, South) America to the rest of North America. It is a system that transports products and people alike, often as the capital and commodities of a globalising enterprise. The Chiapas train depot, whose establishing shot depicts it through a wide, overhead crane-shot of an aestheticised crosshatch of train tracks, is represented as a site of movement and connectivity. However, this site is rooted in violence, as it is marked explicitly as MS13 territory by graffiti and dialogue alike: the gang becomes intermeshed with the space’s conditions of production and are interpellated as such. This is the site where Willy and Sayra meet, with the transportation infrastructure crossing their paths for them. While there is a relative lack of habitable spaces in the film, the MS13 compound in Chiapas (“El destroyer”) can be considered such a space. It is the single-most privileged indoor space in the film. At the beginning of Sin nombre Willy takes Smiley, his young recruit, on a tour of the compound. As the camera follows them as they navigate the space, the whole gang-related social structure is presented through it, with social stratification and hierarchy inherently being a part of it. The compound is compartmentalised into different types of spaces, including those of essential living activities (eating) and non-essential living activities (play). There is also a judicial space wherein an incarcerated man is tried, found guilty, and executed. In all, the MS13 is depicted as a hegemonic organisation, complete with repressive apparatuses, becoming the de facto sovereign order of the pro-filmic world.

Dislodging Convention

While Sin nombre remains steadily aligned to generic conventions, Rigoberto Pérezcano’s Norteado, also a type of drama,articulates a different relationship with its depicted spaces through its generic hybridity. It depicts Andrés’ (Harold Torres) journey up Mexico from Oaxaca and his failed attempts at illegally crossing into California once he reaches Tijuana. Stuck there, in a sleepy part of town at the edge of the border, he befriends Ela (Alicia Laguna), an émigré like himself who offers him employment at the corner store (and makeshift home) she co-runs with Don Asensio (Luis Cárdenas), an elder, established local. As the days go by Andrés becomes a part of the small circle that constitutes Ela’s community, which includes Cata (Sonia Couoh) as well. His eagerness to work makes him not just an asset but a kindred spirit. Andrés soon becomes romantically involved with both women, who pine for his love but must deal with his uncommitted disposition. He remains resolute in his ambition to cross despite their threats to cut him off from their lives, which would tacitly make its failure and consequent return more difficult for him. Andrés takes up Asensio’s offer to drive him up to San Diego hidden inside an arm chair. The film ends on this attempt, open-endedly in action and just meters from the border (which in Sin Nombre is a finish line of sorts). As will be later explained, I argue that this narrative arc is a rhetorical strategy to get at other themes and this brief exposition should be considered a superficial reading.

Norteado is ultimately as enigmatic with its formal structure as it is with its narrative. There are constant shifts in tone that stem from its incorporation of dramatic, comedic, and romantic genre conventions, as well as those of the documentary tradition. Norteado begins in an observational mode, following Andrés from a slight remove as he makes his way north. It opens with an extremely wide-angle shot of dawn breaking over a vast desert vista, which cuts to another wide angle shot of a distant figure traversing through another expansive landscape, sharply moving through the middle of the frame. In-between fades to black and intertitles, a static camera depicts the now visible Andrés walking down frame toward the camera and past a pair of goat farmers. The camera lingers on the scene for a few moments after Andrés leaves the frame, shifting focus onto the dusty road, the farmers, and their goats, creating a theme that foreshadows the plot development. This introductory sequence is as much about the depiction of the spaces and its inhabitants as it is about the hard-to-pin down protagonist’s journey. Andrés is for the most part silent during these introductory scenes, not verbalising until he meets Ela shortly after his first failed attempt at crossing over to the United States. There is an ostensible lack of counter- and point-of-view shots in these scenes, and thus an absence of a strong subjective formal economy, which, compounded with the use of telephoto lenses, adds to its near documentary feel. The film progresses with observational scenes of Andrés at a bus depot (and subsequently on a bus), stooped on a busy street, and at a diner, spaces of ephemerality associated with movement and flow. In depicting his first attempt at crossing, done so by walking through the desert with a coyote who leaves him stranded, arguably to die, the film style goes through another shift in its movement toward a “physical” representation of la frontera. Here the space of the desert is depicted as harsh and expansive through a formal economy that employs a mixture of hand-held and wide-angle shots, long takes, as well as diegetic sounds in order to emphasise the physical experiences of the protagonists. Here the harsh, punishing sun is felt through the oversaturated whites that bleach out the hand-held daytime shots. The precariousness of the situation is attributed directly to the conditions of the space, which corporeally affect Andrés and the viewer. La frontera here is primal and ruthless, cast through an emphasis of its natural ontology; and Andrés is saved by the border police, with the social as a distinct layer that hovers over the natural.

Once back in Tijuana, the formal conventions revert to a more normative dramatic mode – but not without its quirks. A stronger sense of subjectivity is increasingly interwoven into the film, but it is often done so through the perspective of Ela and Cata, whose agency does not take over, but comes through accentuated as a symptomatic excess seeping into the film. Andrés, the seeming protagonist, becomes the object of their desirous gaze in these moments, with shots of his bare body cutting to counter-shots of the women in their respective scenes. The narrative even completely breaks down for brief moments in two quick shots of comedic self-consciousness. During two rhyming scenes at the same bar Andrés and Ela and, later, Andrés and Cata, break the fourth wall and stare into the camera tacitly implying forthcoming sexual liaisons. Norteado is formally a playful film, explicitly utilising different methods of formal organisation very much tied to generic conventions in an opening-up of its object. In their emergence as formal structuring agents and the unavailability of Andrés’ subjectivity, it can be argued that the film is ultimately about Ella, Cata, and the small community of outcasts that have made their home in Tijuana. Like a true symptom, the “real” to which the film points is not completely symbolised, something remains.  My interpretation of the women’s roles is based on formal evidence but not necessarily on classical film language, for the film does end with Andrés after all. However, the disturbances to the film structure are there, and in this way Norteado can be said to be about the carving out of space within a larger zone of indeterminacy wherein newly anchored subjectivities, constituted with a reflexive alterity, and through their biopolitical labour,[34] begin to appear. In this way one can begin to understand the film’s attempts to resolve the contradictions of late capitalism on a local, political level, simply by figuring the tensions within it in a matter of fact manner and in specific and symbolic spaces.

While Sin nombre often eschews emphasis on indoor spaces, once the narrative is situated in Tijuana, Norteado focuses expressly on them as well as the living conditions and communities they engender. Spaces and human activity are depicted as interdependent in this film and they are organised in a manner that, when taken as a whole, articulate the conditions for the perpetual construction of social production. Key to this particular corner of Tijuana is the concrete depiction of labour, which is also a narrative motivator that brings everyone together. Andrés comes to be adopted into the community (if briefly) because of his willingness to earn his way as well as the need and desire for his help. Domesticity is also highlighted throughout the film, especially in the numerous scenes wherein the protagonists eat together at Ela’s home, a subset of the building that houses the shop, which can be seen as a compartmentalised space. These spaces function as Lefebvrian espaces vécus: they are representations of lived experiences of space, as such their relationship to the bodies within them are not conceptualised, and thus for Lefebvre, non-ideological.[35] Play makes its way into the film as well, highlighted in a designated space in scenes at the bar, which is associated with alcohol consumption, dancing, and sex. As a whole, one can see this part of Tijuana stretched of its accepted meaning as la frontera (as the geopolitical space of advanced capitalism) and rearticulated as a proto-socialist space, Lefebvre’s differential space of contestation.[36] The protagonists’ lives revolve around the shop that they run together and it offers them a sense of stability that is especially pertinent once it is explained that both women are émigrés of other areas of Mexico and building a new life in Tijuana. Thus migration and a material (and metaphorical) border shape the formation of the space and its community.

A vast array of formal strategies are used in this film in order to create a variegated figuration of the border, often one complemented with a sense of elongated temporality. The actual border is no singular thing in Norteado as it is in the final scene of Sin nombre. It is a composite of desert, wall, gates, and, more importantly, social apparatuses and entities such as police and coyotes; much as it is in its real life articulation. It is more than a dividing line on a map or a specific location. Here it has both physical and social influence on individuals as it interacts with them, shaping their social conditions. The idea of the border is not, like in Sin nombre, merely an obstacle to be traversed in one direction: is the nexus point of heterogeneous mix of currents and flows, moving at different speeds, directions, and scales, as a palimpsest of social meanings. More importantly, it is also a lived-in space, wherein its relation to its inhabitants, no matter how long they remain there, is dialectical: it is dynamic and transformable because they have an agency unlike that in Sin Nombre.

Norteado as an Alternative Vision of La Frontera

Despite their differences in terms of mode and style – here argued as generic allegiances – both Sin nombre and Norteado do ultimately share the same space, and thus belong to the same fronterizo genre as understood in their historical moment. While both films are narratively motivated by ideas of la frontera, there is a stark difference in their relationships with it. Sin nombre ends in its crossing, with the border having completed its narrative requirements. Norteado, conversely,uses it to get to something else. While it first seems that the film is about Andrés, the film is finally revealed to be more about Ela, Cata, and the small community they establish that includes a steady stream of migrants like Andrés. As I have argued, subtle shifts in subjectivity slowly reveal this re-articulation.

In Norteado form and content constitute a couplet whose generic logic informs both components to produce a spectral, figural presence that ultimately fails to materialise concretely. This structure revolves around Andrés, who certainly propels the action but at the same time is never fully constituted as a traditional protagonist with a clear and delineated character psychology. Both the so-called protagonist and what Jameson sometimes calls the generic “contract” between a work and its viewer are organized as object a, an elusive, shifting, structuring object of desire. Andrés comes to stand for the enigmatic nature of migrants understood as nomads. It is in this way that both the protagonists and the viewer experience Andrés: from a forced, yet magnetic, distance in terms of relationships and knowledge. The figures that come to embody the rightful citizens of Tijuana have come to terms with a form of alterity that comes with the modern experience of border life, which the long and steady stream of migration profoundly impacts. Norteado relies on its formal structure to create a figuration of this process through its delayed narrative affordances. That is, it implies in piecemeal, and only toward the end, the centrality of those who had been previously coded as secondary characters. This aesthetics can be understood as part of a filmic lineage that includes films such as Jane Campion’s Sweetie (1989), Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates (2006), and even Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008), which work from very different socio-economic contexts yet also might be understood under the rubric of global art cinema. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover attempt to define this “elastically hybrid category” in productive terms.[37] In these films certain characters have a force about them that gravitationally sucks in the respective film’s form and content by taking up space and time (in a way that “goes against” a certain – often narrative – logic established at the beginning of the film). It is only toward the end, where some obstacle is either overcome or confronted that the dominating figure begins to recede into the background, slowly revealing the importance of previously marginalised characters. In Norteado, however, this structure is paramount: it is the women who represent those left stranded by globalising capitalism and Andrés comes to stand in metonymically for this disruptive socio-economic process. Symptomatically, the film ends with an irreconcilable depiction of his condition, in a gesture that, while granting him a certain sense of agency that is outside the power of representation, also shows an inability of any single character in the film to resolutely alter the contradictions for which he or she stands. Analogously, this can be seen in the lack of coming together of the potential community. It is because of this unresolvable socio-economic circumstance that the only way to deal with this dilemma offered by the film is through the attempt at the opening of an alternative space not governed by late capitalism. A form of socialism is presented as a possible answer to the turbulence of the modern condition, but it is not one that everyone accepts.

Nonetheless, Norteado opens-up a critical arena within both the filmic and generic space where issues of race, class, and gender suddenly appear and are addressed concomitantly. This is a key difference between the films that must be thought of not just in terms of narrative or theme but as intimately tied to the social spaces depicted, which I argue are a part of film form influenced by genre. Through the subjectivity of the emancipated and empowered women we have the presentation of a new set of social relations within a particular space and its socialising infrastructure. When read in dialogue with the heteronormative and patriarchal Roman Catholic cultural status-quo, the disastrous drug war cooption of vast areas of la frontera, and the conservative views of mestizaje,[38] Ela and Cata’s acts and attitudes show a fresh articulation of feminist agency and sexuality. It is revealed that they have had relationships with marginalised men like Andrés in their past. They accept both who he is and their mutual desires in a final act of communal solidarity. In turn he keeps his status as petit object a through the film’s ambivalence of his own adulterous, possibly patriarchal, social mores. The film avoids fixating him, even in the finale, and he remains in a state of being. The border, while materialised, remains unprivileged as an interpellating apparatus. The women circumvent marginalisation (both as symbolically and as textual elements) and reterritorialise a space within the periphery of both Tijuana and the film for themselves.

Norteado can thus be understood as carving out a space that is “radically open to additional otherness, to a continuing expansion of spatial knowledge.”[39] As such, la frontera in Norteado is a space where the disenfranchised have the potential to assert themselves and gain an agency not overdetermined by restrictive social forces – should they want it. Space and self-actualisation are here dialectically intertwined.  If we can think of this as a part of the content of the film then its form parallels this relation as well.  Norteado is therefore also a space for the fronterizo genre to rethink its terms and how it figures itself. It functions analogously as the vision of the creation of a new space for the community of people – and a re-emergent cinema – situated at the liminal site that is modernity.


[1] Philip Rosen, “Border Times and Geopolitical Frames,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Vol. 15, no. 2 (2006): p. 2.

[2] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), pp. 133-135.

[3] See Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, (New York: Verso Books, 2011).

[4] See for example Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York: Verso, 2007) and Edward Dimendberg, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[5] See Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), pp. 1-88.

[6] His aim here is to situate his ideas in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) in a new world system, calling for a materialist interpretation of texts, which take into account “the absolute horizon” that is a Marxian conception of history (over-determined by modes of production as a socio-historical totality) and latently extant in all such texts, ripe for allegorisation.

[7] Instead, art works have the capability to figure a comprehensible and useful Lukácsian “intensive totality.” See Georg Lukács, “Art and Objective Truth,” in Writer and Critic and Other Essays, trans. Arthur Kahn (New York: Grosset and Dunlap Publishers, 1970).

[8] See, for example, the films Fredric Jameson discusses in The Geopolitical Aesthetic. They can be understood as pertaining to a new such genre of advanced capitalist-geopolitical films or even as emblematic of minor ones, as in the case of his conspiracy films.

[9] For more information on the histories and developments of the fronterizo genre see Norma Prieto, Entre yerba, polvo, y plomo: Lo fronterizo visto por el cine mexicano, Vol. I.  (Tijuana, Baja California: Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 1991) and Christina Sisk, Mexico, Nation in Transit: Contemporary Representations of Mexican Migration to the United States. (Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2011).

[10] Here I differ somewhat from Deborah Shaw who convincingly argues that “recent years have seen the development of a new sub-genre of films dealing with Central American/Mexican/US migration produced both in Mexico and the United States”, in “Migrant Identities in Film: Migrations from Mexico and Central America to the United States,” Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture Vol. 3 No. 2 (2012): pp. 233.  I focus on the term fronterizo because it privileges the space of la frontera and readily admit that focusing instead on the themes of migration in these films (not to mention their mode of production) is a useful approach. I also maintain the importance of thinking of any film engaging in border discourses as inherently political both as discourses in themselves and engaging with and coming to perpetuate concepts such as border, nation, and migration even if specific issues are left unacknowledged.

[11] I want to account for both late capitalism’s cooption of various, often coincident modes of cultural and political logic as well as leave space for the films to offer alternative cultural formations.

[12] See Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 1974).

[13] Neil Brenner and Stuart Elden, “Henri Lefebvre on State, Space, Territory,” International Political Sociology, 3 (2009): p. 359.

[14] As Soja points out, it is important to note that Lefebvre’s idea of urbanisation does not necessarily imply urban spaces, a fact often overlooked in the works that he has inspired.

[15] Brenner and Elden, “Henri Lefebvre on State, Space, Territory”, p. 366.

[16] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 248.

[17] We can think of this in different ways including: number of films made and number of films exhibited in different circuits including those of international art house cinema and limited release films in countries such as England, France, and the U.S. Some well-known examples include Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001) and Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000).

[18] See Misha MacLaird, Aesthetics and Politics in the Mexican Film Industry, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 2. This process in fact goes as far back as 1965, with the establishment of free trade zones and factory outposts in Mexico as part of what would be later known as The Washington Consensus.

[19] BAFICI is widely considered the most prestigious Latin American independent film festival and it often influences programming throughout the world.  Some Mexican films that have found success in BAFICI include Las marimbas del infierno / Marimbas from Hell (Julio Hernández Cordón, 2011), Verano de Goliat / Summer of Goliath (Nicolás Pereda, 2011), Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio, 2010), and Japón / Japan (Carlos Reygadas, 2002).

[20] For more on this phenomenon, see Luisela Alvaray, “National, Regional, and Global: New Waves of Latin American Cinema,” Cinema Journal Vol. 47, no. 3 (2008): pp. 50–67.

[21] For a recent response to this issue see the May 2013 The Guardian article on the highest grossing Mexican film of all time, Nosotros los nobles (2012 Gary Alazraki): “Has Mexico’s film industry been helped or harmed by Hollywood?,” <>  [Accessed 15/12/2013].

[22] See Shaw, “Migrant Identities in Film: Migrations from Mexico and Central America to the United States”, pp. 234-235.

[23] It premiered at the Cannes Marché du Film in France and toured abroad for nearly a year before its domestic release in Mexico.

[24] One can also think about the issues of class present in contemporary Mexican cinema, examples of which include Somos lo que hay/ We Are What We Are (Jorge Michel Grau, 2010), Voy a explotar/ I’m Gonna Explode! (Gerardo Naranjo, 2008) and even Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000).

[25] By this I mean that it is more common today to utilise the concept of genre according to particular needs instead of for finding metaphysical truth like Aristotle does in Poetics.

[26] For an example see David Desser, “Global Noir: Genre Film in the Age of Transnationalism,” in Film Genre Reader III, Barry Keith Grant, ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), pp. 628-648.

[27] See Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), pp. 21-71.

[28] See Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” Cinema Journal Vol. 23 no. 3 (1984): pp. 12-13.

[29] Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” p. 12.

[30] See Barry Langford, Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p. 16.

[31] I maintain this position in spite of the fact that an assumed national sovereignty (the law against undocumented border crossing) structures the film’s social order. Indeed the MS13 can be argued to stand for sovereignty in this film.

[32] See Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York: Verso Books, 1989), pp. 22-23.

[33] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 53.

[34] Here I use Hardt and Negri’s understanding of biopolitics as that relating to immaterial labour in advanced capitalism. See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.

[35] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 203.

[36] Though certainly one not entirely cut off from global capitalism. The steady flow of migrants would prevent this from happening.

[37] See Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, eds. “Introduction: The Impurity of Art Cinema,” Global Art Cinema: New Histories and Theories (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 3-30.

[38] Mestizaje is a much debated racial (social and cultural) category for a person of European and Amerindian descent.

[39] Soja uses this description to characterise what he calls thirdspace, which is indebted to Lefebvre’s differentia space.  See Edward Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1996), p. 62.


Notes on Contributor

Francisco Monar is a graduate student in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. He holds an M.A. in Film Studies from Concordia University. His research interests include film theory, political theory, modernity, Latin American cinema, and, most importantly, their convergences. His dissertation project centres around the historisation of the role moving images and moving image culture plays in the mediation and “making sensible” of politicized communities in Latin America at the beginning of the 21st century.



Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” Cinema Journal, Vol. 23, No. 3: (1984): pp. 6-18.

———. Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute, 1999.

Alvaray, Luisela. “National, Regional, and Global: New Waves of Latin American Cinema,” Cinema Journal. Vol. 47, No. 3: (2008): pp. 48-65.

Brenner, Neil, and Elden, Stuart. “Henri Lefebvre on State, Space, Territory,” International Political Sociology, Vol. 3: (2009): pp. 353-377.

Desser, David. “Global Noir: Genre Film in the Age of Transnationalism.” In Film Genre Reader III edited by Barry Keith Grant, pp. 628-648. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Feldstein, Richard, Fink, Bruce, Jaauus, Maire. eds. Reading Seminar XI: Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Paris Seminars in English. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Galt, Rosalind, and Schoonover, Karl, eds. “Introduction: The Impurity of Art Cinema,” Global Art Cinema: New Histories and Theories, pp. 3-30. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

———. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

———. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.

Langford, Barry. Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992 [1974].

Lukács, Georg. “Art and Objective Truth.” Writer and Critic and Other Essays. New York: Grosset and Dunlap Publishers, 1970.

McLaird, Misha. Aesthetics and Politics in the Mexican Film Industry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Neale, Steve. “Questions of Genre.” In Film Genre Reader III, edited by Barry Keith Grant, pp. 164-197. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Hardt, Michael, and Negri, Antonio. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.

Hoad, Phil. “Has Mexico’s film industry been helped or harmed by Hollywood?” The Guardian,1st May 2013<> [Accessed 15/12/13].

Norteado Release Info. Internet Movie Database, <> [Accessed 10/05/2014].

Prieto, Norma. Entre yerba, polvo, y plomo: Lo fronterizo visto por el cine mexicano, Vol. I.  Tijuana, Baja California: Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 1991.

Rosen, Philip. “Border Times and Geopolitical Frames,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies Vol. 15, no. 2 (2006): pp. 2-19.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1994 [1978].

Shaw, Deborah. “Migrant Identities in Film: Migrations from Mexico and Central America to the United States.” Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture Vol. 3 No. 2 (2012): pp. 227-240.

Sin nombre Release Info, Internet Movie Database, <> [Accessed 10/05/2014].

Sisk, Christina. Mexico, Nation in Transit: Contemporary Representations of Mexican Migration to the United States. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2011.

Soja, Edward. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. New York: Verso Books, 2011 [1989].

———. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1996.

———. “The Socio-Spatial Dialectic,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers Vol. 70, No. 2 (1980): pp. 207–225.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Objet a in Social Links.” In Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis, edited by Justin Clemens and Russell Grigg, pp.107-28. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.



Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000).

Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2006).

Norteado (Rigoberto Pérezcano, 2011).

Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008).

Sin nombre (Cary Fukunaga, 2009).

Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1989).

From the Other Side (Chantal Akerman, 2002).