The Mexican Suitcase

The Mexican Suitcase


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

For a photographer, there is nothing quite as challenging - or, I'm told, as invigorating - as working in a war zone, risking life and limb to capture those vital moments that have the potential to tell the rest of the world what's going on. Back in the Thirties there were no embedded places in units, no shared codes of conduct. There were just young people with cameras and a passion that outweighed all sense of danger. One of them was Robert Capa, whose work has been celebrated around the world. But much of Capa's work from the Spanish Civil War was thought lost until, just recently, it turned up in a Mexican suitcase.

The story of that suitcase is brought to life here through a combination of archive footage, present day interviews, and the pictures themselves. Capa's work was extraordinary, inventing perspectives never before seen, and conveying for the first time the horror of military attacks on civilians. But he didn't work alone. This film also serves to highlight the work of Genda Taro, his personal and professional partner, and of David 'Chim' Seymour. It shows the importance of their teamwork both for the photography itself and as a source of courage in facing the risks involved.

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That the war itself is part of the story is inevitable, though there was nothing inevitable about the three's participation in it; they went on their own initiative because they wanted the truth about it to be known. This makes it all the poignant that it should be shown as part of the Glasgow Film Festival, given that many young Glaswegians went to fight there for similarly idealistic reasons, and many died. For Spanish civilians the confusion, privation and fear led to a diaspora in which the team's negatives were lost and the search for them spanned decades. Key figures from that search give their accounts here, though the full extent of the mystery unravels during the course of the documentary-making process itself.

Making a film about some of the world's most beautifully composed photographs could reasonably be expected to result in the film itself looking rough by comparison. Not so. This is extraordinarily well made for a documentary, with top of the range equipment getting superb results. It's a film about photographers, by photographers, for photographers, and every bit of it is a visual delight. It's also beautifully told, taking viewers on a historic journey with mysteries unravelling at every turn. The final section, in which the grandchildren of those who survived the war contemplate their own identities, reminds us of the important place of visual art in our understanding of ourselves, and this film is a fine tribute to it.

Please note: the subtitles on the current print of this film are small, with poor contrast, and may not be adequate for people with visual impairments.

Reviewed on: 23 Jan 2012
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The Mexican Suitcase packshot
A documentary about the mystery of missing negatives created by iconic photographer Robert Capa and his friends during the Spanish Civil War.
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Director: Trisha Ziff

Writer: Trisha Ziff

Year: 2011

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: Mexico, Spain, US


SSFF 2011
Glasgow 2012

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