Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sup 'n Me, Part II

Our first couple of days shooting in Mexico City were devoted to a pair of rallies that Marcos was leading – or at least speaking at. Marcos insists that he doesn’t lead anything, but merely speaks on behalf of those who do (he is, after all, just the Subcommander.) Since our request for unfettered access was denied, we were basically no different from the rest of the press pack following him, except that we had a crew of 12 people and had come 3000 miles, and now were standing out in the middle of the street trying to figure out what would happen next. For me, the interesting thing was watching the logistics unfold; how does a supposedly very wanted man move about in Mexico City? He’s afraid to let our (vetted, pre-approved) cameraman into his van, but he’ll march down the middle of Avenida Reforma?

Marcos actually has little reason to fear arrest, partly due to a shaky agreement with the government not to arrest anyone while “peace talks” are ongoing, but mostly because arresting him would be an unmitigated PR disaster for the government. The Zapatistas no longer carry guns (in public, at least) and haven’t fired a shot in anything but self-defense in about 12 years. Still, the guy is unquestionably a target, if not for the government then for any number of vested interests, and so he surrounds himself with unarmed security. Of course, that depends how you define “armed.” These guys, a double cordon of about 60 men, form a circle around him, all carrying these neat little homemade flags – mounted on three-foot long, three inch thick clubs. If you want to get close to Marcos, you better come in heavy.

This is not to say that everyone was unarmed, however. There’s also an absurd police presence around the guy. In keeping with the axiom that the Mexican police are never there to help, these guys aren’t there to protect the masked man, but to monitor him. This was the scene at the end of the first rally, where the “endless speechifying” part took place. I kept thinking of that scene in The Blues Brothers where Elwood greets the audience: “We would especially like to welcome all the representatives of Illinois’ law enforcement community who have chosen to join us here in the Palace hotel ballroom at this time.” Would’ve been a great line if the Sup had thought to use it.

Where it started to get a little nerve wracking – at least for me, since my residence visa was coincidentally expiring later that week - was that Marcos wasn’t the only one under police surveillance. Every other cop (and by cop I mean uniformed police officers as well as casually-dressed intelligence and security agents) seemed to be armed with a camera or videocam, and they were aimed at the crowd, their license plates and, of course, the half-dozen white guys with the expensive equipment. One of the rallies was at a prison a couple hours drive from Mexico City, and to make sure we wouldn’t be left out of the convoy, the organizers marked our car with “EZLN – La Otra Campana” in big letters, despite my pleading that they just write “Prensa” – or, better still, “TV.” (It's not illegal to cover the Zapatistas, but it is illegal for a gringo to join them, and I'm not sure I could convince the cops of the difference.) This is a picture of the cops taking a picture of me riding in a car with “EZLN” on the windshield – a picture I was sure was going to make its way to the immigration office up here, just in time for me to try to renew my visa. (The fact that I’m still here should tell you how that story ended. For once, the bureaucracy’s lack of modernization – the records there are written in pencil in a giant ledger book – worked in my favor.)

The rest of the time was spent shooting video around the city that would help illustrate the things that came out in the interview - again, a bit of a challenge since we still had no idea what the hell we were going to be talking about. So we went with what we in the tv business refer to as "iconic images" - what the rest of you call "cliches": the Mexican flag, crowded streets, people selling tortillas, Indians in brightly colored clothing, etc. My favorite moment came during the lowering of the flag in the Zocalo, which takes place every night at 6:30 with great pomp and ceremony and which was on this night marred the the immoveable presence of the drunkest skid-row bum I have ever seen in my life. According to one of our guides, while the army can ask him to leave, it can't force him, so the entire regiment of soldiers, drummers and buglers had to march around his tequila-stinkin' ass. It was actually pretty heartwarming, and it's nice to know that if he can do it, you can, too.

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