A place of struggle and resistance


A Place Called Chiapas
SBS March 9, 11.30pm (11pm SA)

Review by Sandra Wallace

On January 1, 1994, several thousand indigenous campesinos staged an uprising that gave them control of 25% of Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost and poorest state. The rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) were protesting against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which took effect on the day of the uprising.

The implementation of the free trade agreement threatened the livelihood of the poor farmers due to an influx of cheap corn from the US. The agreement had also given the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) an excuse to remove an article from the constitution guaranteeing peasants rights to the land they worked, so as to encourage large mechanised farming on the country's most productive land.

A Place Called Chiapas, directed by Canadian Nettie Wild, looks at the complex and dangerous political situation in Chiapas three years after the uprising.

The contradictory nature of the EZLN's agenda is symbolised by the white flags attached to the muzzles of their weapons. The Zapatistas carry guns they want to be silenced. Bishop Samuel Ruiz, whom some have called the "red bishop", describes the armed struggle of the EZLN as a means not to win power but to attract the attention of the world and the Mexican people so as to initiate a popular movement in support of the Zapatistas' demands.

This film documents some aspects of the EZLN's struggle for support, including the international conference in the Zapatista-held territory of La Realidad in late 1996.

The EZLN's use of the internet and the mass media for publicity, the statements by poet/spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos and its indigenous organisation and leadership have led to the Zapatista uprising being referred to as the world's first "postmodern revolution".

A Place Called Chiapas highlights the reality that even in a "postmodern" revolution real politics demands that a real price be paid for standing up to the landowners and the fundamental values of the market economy.

The landowner-led backlash supported by the federal army has led to the formation of paramilitary groups such as the misnamed Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice), which operates to the north of the Zapatista-held territory.

Not long after the uprising, 2000 Zapatista sympathisers were run out of their homes by paramilitaries and lived as refugees for several years. The documentary traces their attempts to regain their homes and land.

Several months after this documentary was filmed, 45 Zapatista sympathisers were massacred by a paramilitary group in Acteal, in northern Chiapas.

A Place Called Chiapas attempts delve beyond the glossy image of the Marcos "pin-up revolution", to the reality of the struggle for land and livelihood against the might of NAFTA, the Mexican army and the paramilitaries. Still, Wild cannot resist the footage of Marcos with AK47 posing for French fashion magazine Marie Claire.