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Pure Genius

Pure Genius

For 2012 MacArthur Fellow Natalia Almada MFA 01 PH, winning a so-called “genius grant” means one thing: freedom.

For 2012 MacArthur Fellow Natalia 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 make work.”

Since graduating 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

Almada’s work 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.”

Almada’s previous 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

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