Now that Natalia Almada MFA 01 PH has won a coveted MacArthur award, the documentary filmmaker is excited to be able to pursue her work without the distraction of constant fundraising.
For 2012 MacArthur
Almada MFA 01 PH, winning a so-called “genius grant” means one
thing: freedom. The five-year, $500,000 “no-strings-attached” award from the MacArthur Foundation will allow the
documentary filmmaker to bring future projects to life without the
time-consuming demands of fundraising.
“This was super
surprising,” Almada noted on the phone from her home in Mexico City. “You have
no idea it’s coming, and then after it does, a huge weight lifts, because
you’re suddenly free of the everyday worry of how you’re going to continue to
from RISD a decade ago, Almada has made four films. Her most recent, El Velador (2011), offers an evocative
study of a night watchman who tends to the mausoleums of some of Mexico’s most
powerful drug lords.
Though she didn’t
major in filmmaking at RISD (which is only available at the undergraduate
level), Almada found the graduate program in Photography to be “very
conceptually rigorous, very experimental.” And that open-ended approach was a
good fit – in part because it ultimately led her to film.
“It wasn’t a big
deal to be exploring photography in other ways,” Almada says. Instead, the big
deal may be the artist herself. At 37 she’s the first Latina filmmaker to earn
a MacArthur since its founding in 1981, and her films have appeared at such
venues as the Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight.
Focus on accountability
engages a range of charged subjects: the complexities of illegal border
crossing and drug trafficking; the fragmented forms of her own family’s
personal grief; the public and the private life of her great grandfather
Plutarco Elías Calles, who was president of Mexico from 1924–28. Each of her
films is marked by a quiet, muscular empathy trained on Mexico – her birthplace
and current home – where she tends to work alone, believing that making
affecting films is “mostly a question of being patient, of paying attention,
and being aware and awake.”
documentaries include El General
(2009), Al Otro Lado (2005) and her
RISD thesis project, All Water Has a
Perfect Memory (2001), which also won Best Short Documentary at the 2002
Tribeca Film Festival.
In a 2011 Tedx Talk in which
she alternated between English and Spanish, Almada observed that language is
nearly always an inaccurate method of communication. Instead, she turns to the
camera “to try to order the world in a more reliable way.”
Almada is not
interested in simple truth, however. Instead, she’s set on accountability –
bearing artful witness both in Mexico and throughout the world.
Filming Al Otro Lado, she encountered a pauper’s
cemetery just north of the Mexican border, graves she describes as “little
bricks of anonymity and disempowerment... left outside the gates of heaven and
completely forgotten about.” As a MacArthur fellow, Almada will be able to
continue the work of naming and empowering, though she resists the term
“genius” that the popular press has associated with her award.
“I think it’s
funny,” she says. “If anything, I prefer to think of [creative inspiration] as
something that visits you, versus something you own.” No matter what you call
it, Almada’s vision is secure, and her plan is simple: keep working. “It’s a
marathon,” she says. “That’s something I learned at RISD – to work one project
at a time.” —Kirsten Andersen
· 2012 MacArthur Fellows