Reviewed by: Semini Pathberiya
Categories: First Nations - Artists

Canicula \ Jose Álvarez
Official trailer

With mesmerizing cinematography and close, intimate observations, Canicula captures the essence that pours from within the rich yet modest culture of the Totonac people, who have prevailed since the 16th century in the area around Veracruz, Mexico. Canicula is the Spanish word for the 40 days of torrid summer heat that the Totonac call “the bleeding days of the sun,” and it’s a season of bright clothing, music and many traditions. Director Álvarez immerses himself in the footsteps of many different people from this peaceful community and captures both their ceremonial and daily rituals. We see women fashioning pottery out of clay, village elders passing wisdom on to younger generations (as modern practices slowly sneak into Totonac society), and young boys learning to become Voladores, or “flying men.”

The ceremony of the Voladores, named a Culturally Intangible Heritage by UNESCO in 2009, is the film’s focal point. This fertility dance consists of five men climbing an 18- to 40-metre pole that has been freshly cut from the forest. One dancer stands atop the pole, playing a traditional instrument. He dances for the sun and the four winds by hopping around and stomping his feet, after which the four Voladores, who represent the four elements, fling themselves off their poles and descend to the ground hung only by their feet. The four men each rotate 13 times around the pole, symbolizing the 52 weeks that make up one solar cycle on the Mayan calendar. The dance is said to invoke the blessings of the gods and bring rain for a successful planting season. It’s a spectacular sight.

By assembling minute details that a tourist to Veracruz is bound to miss, Canicula shows how Western influences such as music and dancing are infiltrating this unique society. The documentary also acts as a caveat, forewarning viewers that the historical and cultural traditions of the Totonac are gifts to the world that will soon be lost if we do not protect them.

Canicula won best documentary director at the Cinema Tropical Awards in New York in 2013, the International Federation of Film Critiques Award in Greece in 2012, and it was also an official selection at four documentary film festivals, including MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight.

Canicula, directed by Jose Álvarez, Mexico: Alacrán con alas, 2011, 65 minutes

This documentary was included in our Around the World in 10 Docs map feature in Art & Media, Issue 39.3. Subscribe now to get more reviews in your mailbox!

Reviewer Information

Semini is a graduate of the Environment and Resource Studies program at the University of Waterloo and a former A\J editorial intern.

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