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Unpacking the Mexican suitcase

The documentary 'La maleta mexicana' links the discovery of lost Civil War images by photojournalist Robert Capa with the recovery of historical memory

Trisha Ziff has already warned she's not going to beat around the bush. The director, who now lives in Mexico from where she speaks to EL PAÍS via telephone, has just finished La maleta mexicana (or, The Mexican suitcase), an intense documentary about the discovery of three boxes containing 4,500 negatives of images taken by photographers Robert Capa, David "Chim" Seymour and Gerda Taro during the Spanish Civil War. One would think the adventure alone would warrant a film project. But Ziff, 55, doesn't agree.

"One of my uncles fought in the Lincoln Brigade [made up of American volunteers who fought against Franco in the International Brigades] and I myself belonged to the British Communist Party when I was 15 or 16, a very impressionable age," she explains. "What happened in Spain intrigued me a lot in my youth, so I can say that I've always had a very clear relationship with the military conflict that took place there. That is what I wanted to talk about and not the negatives."

"I wanted to generate questions about the past, not make a film about Capa"

"Capa staged images, but at that time they didn't care about neutrality"

An expert in contemporary photography, Ziff did not just witness the recovery of the negatives, which were lost for more than 70 years, but also negotiated the conditions for their return. "I didn't find the Mexican suitcase; I simply recovered it," she says. "The location of this material was known for 12 years but for reasons I didn't manage to understand, it wasn't recovered. In 2007 I went to New York to talk about a project with the International Center of Photography and there they asked for my help because they knew who had the material in Mexico and they wanted to bring it back. An old friend of mine, the writer Juan Villoro, accompanied on the trip, he helped me, and in five months we managed to reach an agreement with the person who was keeping it. It was simply a question of going for it."

Ziff has a forthright way of speaking, articulating the fact that objectivity does not exist, and is at the same time aware that for that reason it could be a burden on the way her work is perceived. "I don't think my documentary is going to be very popular in Spain; in fact I think that some of my coproducers weren't very happy with the idea of not focusing the film on the figure of Capa, as if it were a biography of him. The thing is that I lived in Northern Ireland for many years, and I have seen war. I didn't want to make a photography documentary because what interested me was the context. I remember that at the beginning of the film process a friend from Barcelona accompanied me to New York. On the plane he told me about the Historical Memory Law and Baltasar Garzón. I started La maleta mexicana at the same time as people in Spain were starting to dig in search of their loved ones. I didn't want to make a work about Capa's Spanish stage. I wanted to generate questions about the past."

Naturally, the film covers the story of Capa and his colleagues during the Civil War, which turned the Hungarian photographer into a legendary photojournalist. "It has to be clear that Robert Capa, David Seymour and Gerda Taro were antifascists. The three were Jewish and from countries [Hungary, Poland and Germany, respectively] from where they were forced into exile. They understood that what was happening in Spain was very important and they went there on a mission, with cameras instead of guns. That's why La maleta mexicana is a political engagement, and also talks about those who wanted to neutralize the power of those photographers and put them into an artistic context. Capa, Seymour and Taro made propaganda; they prepared images and they staged them. But at that time they didn't care about all that. They didn't care about the neutrality of photojournalism. That would come later.

"The neutrality of the director? That is nonsense: when you direct a documentary you are putting forward your point of view," says Ziff when asked about the central focus of the film - the work of the archeologists investigating the common graves opened up across Spain.

"I was very interested to meet those people and that was my big reward. All those people who work trying to get to know what happened to their relatives, digging up memory, have changed me as a person: that has been my reward."

La maleta mexicana will receive its world premiere next week at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, though its director will not be present; she cites prior commitments. Ziff says two versions of the film will be available: the first, the cinema version, will hit Spanish theaters in November, and the second, the TV version, does not yet have a set date but will come with an added bonus: "For that version, 55 minutes long, we have asked Baltasar Garzón to add his voice to the introduction. Am I scared of the reactions? No, I didn't want to make a documentary open to the whole world. As I've already said, neutrality is complete nonsense."