“Cien años con Juan Rulfo” (or, “100 years with Juan Rulfo”), a BAMPFA event Friday, featured two films by director Juan Carlos Rulfo which explore the life and works of his father, Juan Rulfo. Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) is best known as the Mexican author of “El llano en llamas” and “Pedro Páramo,” and his son’s films aimed to further elucidate who this great author really was.
The first film was the third part of Juan Carlos Rulfo’s work-in-progress series, which has the goal of creating six unique chapters covering various aspects of Juan Rulfo’s work. This screening was then followed by an older film of Juan Carlos Rulfo’s, followed by a short dialogue between Juan Carlos Rulfo and Latin American scholar in literature and cinema, Jorge Ruffinelli.
The first film, “Cien años con Juan Rulfo,” was Juan Carlos Rulfo’s tribute to diverse abilities of his father on the 100–year anniversary of his birth. Part three of six, screened at BAMPFA, was focused on Juan Rulfo’s relatively unknown career as a photographer.
The documentary follows Juan Carlos Rulfo and his team on their journey to recreate the photos of his father in the exact locations they were first shot. Their search brings them across long empty plains, hiking up steep mountains, and climbing up towers and tanks in order to find the most perfect, identically-angled shot by Juan Rulfo. As Juan Carlos Rulfo explained, his own goal with this project was to be able to sit in these spots and say, “My father was there.”
Evidently, this was not an easy undertaking. Although segments of the film featured short interviews with scholars, friends and family of Juan Rulfo, much of it followed the confusion and complications that plagued the crew’s search for the elusive locations of Rulfo’s photos. While these portions of the film served to illustrate the care and attention to detail that each of Rulfo’s photos required, they were admittedly quite lengthy and, sometimes, a bit trivial.
The crew’s attempts to replicate these photos, though deliberate and meticulous, never quite capture the same essence as Juan Rulfo’s photography itself, and rightly so — an interview with a friend of Juan Rulfo revealed that he would spend days planning and thinking about one single shot, a level of precision and dedication that in many ways mirrors his simple, yet careful writing.
Moreover, this inability to replicate Juan Rulfo’s photos made clear that it was not merely the beautiful views or the lonely, desolate places that made Juan Rulfo’s photography special but, as mentioned in one of the film’s interviews, his unique “vision of a place.” Juan Carlos Rulfo’s search was touching, but perhaps not always engaging — a fact that became increasingly apparent when followed by the second film.
An older, more artistic documentary of Juan Carlos Rulfo, ‘Del olvido al no me acuerdo’ can be translated to English as ‘Juan, I forgot I don’t remember.’ The 1999 film explores the people and landscapes of Jalisco, Mexico (Juan Rulfo’s home) through interviews and memories of those that knew him.
The pairing of “Cien años con Juan Rulfo” and “Del olvido al no me acuerdo” was strange, and in some senses unfortunate — followed by such an artful work, the first film suddenly seemed a bit too straightforward, lacking the carefully constructed depth that the second film displayed. In the dialogue following the two films, Juan Carlos Rulfo recognized this discrepancy: after the first film diverged partially from its focus on Juan Rulfo’s work, he felt that he needed a more direct film to explore his father’s life.
Although Juan Rulfo wrote a few of the most important works in Mexican literature, it is clear through both of his son’s films that Juan Rulfo himself has become largely overshadowed in history by his own creations. One of these, “Pedro Páramo” tells the story of a son in search of his father and, as mentioned after the screening, these two films of Juan Carlos Rulfo are, at the heart of things, his own “Pedro Páramo”— he, too, is a son searching for his father. In this way, “Cien años con Juan Rulfo” accomplishes exactly what it’s intended to for Juan Carlos Rulfo, even though the audience may not find every moment as engaging.