Mexican Land Defenders Under Threat in New Doc

Julien Élie’s latest film vividly portrays the landscapes at stake and the people risking their lives to protect them.

Roberto de la Rosa faces away, looking down at a vast, green valley, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and jean jacket.
Film still courtesy DOXA

In La Guardia Blanca, Roberto de la Rosa copes with the aftermath of a foreign-owned mine destroying his village.

A man walks down the middle of an empty road, veering to the right when a white gas truck passes him. Though the shadow of his white hat obscures his face, the rest of his outfit—jeans, denim shirt, brown shoes, red neckerchief, bag slung across his body, and a walking stick fashioned from a broken branch—suggest that this man is well acquainted with the jagged terrain nearby. Subsequent shots of him single-handedly hauling corn stalks and then throwing them into a goat pen confirm it.

The man is Don Roberto de la Rosa, a land defender based in Zacatecas, Mexico, and one of the main subjects of Montreal-based filmmaker Julien Élie’s 2023 feature-length documentary film: La Guardia Blanca (“The White Guard,” also known as La Garde Blanche).

The film weaves together three stories in a heartbreaking narrative about land defenders in Mexico and their ongoing fight against foreign mining companies and the criminal gangs these companies hire to be their “white guards.”

The first thread belongs to de la Rosa, who lives in between two mines in Penasqueña and Salaverna, Zacatecas. The second involves the villagers trying to protect their local river from pollution by mining and hydro companies in Paso de la Reina, Oaxaca. The final thread tells the story of the family of martyred land defender Julián Carrillo, exiled for their own safety to Chihuahua City, Chihuahua. Despite the geographical distance between the three regions, their residents are united in their experience of having their land usurped by (predominantly Canadian and American) mining companies who exploit its resources for profit, collaborating with criminal gangs and cartels to violently silence dissent while the state looks the other way.

La Guardia Blanca combines the testimonies of land defenders across Mexico with lingering shots of the country’s natural landscape to illustrate a story about a people’s determination to keep fighting in the face of continuous displacement and death. The film juxtaposes scenes of children playing in the blue water, lush and verdant valleys, and seemingly endless grass fields with scenes of homes reduced to rubble, noisy active mining sites, and hauntingly empty abandoned mines to establish why these land defenders are risking their lives. In one of the film’s most impactful scenes, the camera slowly zooms into a forest-filled valley to reveal an oil pumpjack disturbing what would otherwise be an idyllic landscape.

Élie described faking mechanical failures on the road to film a mine beside it.

The documentary took Montreal-based filmmaker Élie approximately three years to put together. Though he shot it over the course of three months in 2021, he spent two years before that building relationships with potential subjects. Gaining his subjects’ trust wasn’t always easy, however, since many of the mining companies threatening their land and lives were Canadian—and so was Élie.

“We have a really bad reputation as Canadians in these places where international mining companies steal lands [and] threaten people,” Élie told Asparagus during an interview.

Even after he had built those relationships, the filming process wasn’t always smooth due to the security threat posed by the mining companies, and their white guards, in many of the areas where Élie and his crew were filming.

“You don’t go into those places unprepared,” Élie says. “It’s too risky for the crew, but also, of course, for the people we were going to interview. So sometimes you need to cancel a trip, cancel a [few] days of shooting.” He recalled having to change number plates once while driving across states in order to avoid being linked to an enemy cartel. He also described faking mechanical failures on the road to film a mine beside it.

Film still courtesy DOXA
La Guardia Blanca alternates scenes from the lives of land defenders with sweeping footage of the landscapes they are trying to protect.

Élie considers La Guardia Blanca a companion to his previous film, 2018’s Dark Suns, a feature-length documentary about the femicides occurring across Mexico due to state and cartel violence. He says La Guardia Blanca answers some of the questions raised in Dark Suns.

“It’s something that maybe we did not focus on in La Garde Blanche, but women…are among the first to rise up and to fight for the lands, and so they’re among the first victims,” he said.

“I decided to do La Garde Blanche by travelling during the shooting of Dark Suns in Mexico and by seeing land devastation in the most [resource-rich] part of the country,” explained Élie. He was also inspired by photographs, art, history museums, and especially literature, noting the work of German author B. Traven and Chilean author Roberto Boleaño were particularly influential. A quote from Boleaño appears at the beginning of the film.

This way of destroying the lands is something so Canadian.

It was not lost on Élie during filming both Dark Suns and La Garde Blanche that much of the violence he saw wasn’t limited to Mexico, but was also occurring across the world—including his own country.

“This way of destroying the lands is something so Canadian,” Élie said. “We’re doing this not just in Mexico, but in so many countries—in our country, also. Native people in Canada are the first victims of this land exploitation.” These parallels aren’t just limited to land degradation. Élie points out that the femicide in Mexico mirrors the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.

“This film would be possible to do in so many countries: in Brazil, in Colombia, in [the] Middle East,” Élie continues. To demonstrate the universality of the land defenders’ stories, Élie made the artistic choice to not to explicitly name his subjects, geographical locations, or even mining companies. 

“I really believe that the main character [of La Guardia Blanca] is the land,” says Élie. And by illustrating how the land is pillaged to benefit people and corporations that won’t experience the consequences due to living [in] luxury elsewhere in the world, like Canada—as one of the film’s subjects states—La Guardia Blanca compels audiences to reckon with their own complicity in land degradation and the violence faced by the people that defend it.

La Guardia Blanca (109 min) screens May 10 at 8:20 pm at The Cinematheque. Tickets are available on the DOXA website.

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