Directed by Carlos Carrera
2009, Mexico, Unrated with strong thematic elements
DVD release by Maya Entertainment: October 5, 2010
“El Traspatio,” or “Backyard,” was interpreted by some U.S. reviewers as nothing more than a ho-hum cops-and-robbers movie. In fact, it is a searing and realistic depiction of what international monopoly capital does to the lives of ordinary working men and women.
The film, directed by Carlos Carrera from a script by Sabina Berman, gives a fictionalized treatment to a horribly true story: the of the murder of hundreds of young women, many of them workers in the maquiladora assembly plants just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.
Blanca Bravo (Ana de la Reguera) is a homicide detective assigned to investigate the murders. She teams up with a muckraking radio talk show host (Joaquín Cosío) who has been annoying the local police chief, business interests and the wonderfully slimy governor of Chihuahua (Enoc Leaño) by trying to focus public attention on the crimes. The civic leaders would much rather the murdered women be forgotten so that Juarez could continue as a low-wage magnet for foreign investment.
In a subplot, a young indigenous woman from the state of Chiapas (Azur Zagada), has come up to Juarez to look for work in one of the foreig-owned assembly plants that had mushroomed in the city by the beginning of the 1990s. She quickly gets in over her head with the urban sexual norms that are so different from those of the village. She gets involved with an unsophisticated village lad from near her hometown, and the disorientation of both of these young people sucks them into the Juarez nightmare.
Blanca and her colleagues, aided by a women’s organization pressing the police to take the murders seriously, follow various false leads and get into sundry kinds of trouble. She arrests an Egyptian immigrant, but the murders continue. She engineers a raid on a night club owned by a slick but disreputable cross-border businessman (Jimmy Smits, of “NYPD Blue” fame), but this just lands Blanca in political trouble.
The depictions of the sex murders and other crimes are horrifyingly explicit (be warned: this is not a film for the overly sensitive). But the most stomach churning scene of all consists of a polite meeting between the governor and representatives of major transnational corporations invested in the Juarez maquiladoras. The governor has called the meeting to try to get the businessmen to contribute more to the local economy so that the city can hire more police and fund new social programs to deal with the murders and the bad publicity they bring. But the foreign business execs smilingly run down the international statistics of exploitation and make the point that Juarez and its people are only useful to them as sources of cheap labor obtainable in part through rock-bottom local tax rates. And if the labor in Juarez is no longer the cheapest and the taxes no longer the lowest, they will take their business to Bangladesh or any number of even poorer countries. In the end, the Japanese owned maquiladora featured in the film decamps from Juarez to do exactly that (as has often been the case in real life).
The film also has fierce things to say about male sexual attitudes and behavior. The corporate system sets up the women to be murdered, but the murderers are men whose sexual orientation leads them to enjoy such atrocities. This is strong stuff, but we need to ask if it is indeed not a reality that transcends borders.
We won’t spoil the ending by saying whether or not the actual killer is caught, but whatever the case, the film points out that this type of brutality is going on all over the world. Besides an over-achieving serial killer, the women in Juarez are being killed by a social and economic system that does not value human life, along with patriarchal attitudes that debase women.
Through the whole film, the camera shows the contrast between the glittering skyscrapers of El Paso and the vast dusty slums of Juarez, its “back yard.” That contrast is still there, and the death toll for the women of Juarez now stands at over 400, as of this year.
Some think the real toll is in the thousands.