“When my son grows up , how will I explain why we live behind a wall?”
Transport a Shirley Jackson story to modern-day Mexico and you have La Zona, a 2007 film from director Rodrigo Plá. The film opens in the beautiful clean streets of an affluent community as neatly dressed, uniformed school children march off to a private school. The camera pans through the immaculate streets and across the enormous homes and well-manicured lawns. A veritable paradise? And then the camera pans to huge walls topped with barbed wire and security cameras. Beyond the walls we see a vast sea of poverty and squalor–dilapidated, ramshackle homes and mountains of trash. These opening scenes of this affluent, secured housing are powerfully constructed and yet at the same time, nothing is overdone.
Those living inside La Zona appear to share common concerns and similar values, and they have the money to buy the sort of lifestyle they want in order to raise their children and live securely. La Zona is protected–not just by walls, barbed wire and security cameras–but also by a team of security officers led by Gerardo (Carlos Bardem). La Zona, set in Mexico City, screams segregation with the lucky few on one side of the wall with the much less fortunate on the other, and with such a striking contrast in material comfort within just a few feet, of course, the inevitable happens, and one night during a freak storm, a billboard collapses and three young men climb into La Zona to steal….
The next day, Comandate Rigoberto (Mario Zaragoza) arrives at the gates of La Zona after complaints of gunshots. His questions are met with disdain and an offer of “50 pesos” to away. Enraged and humiliated, Rigoberto is determined to continue the investigation–even though he gets signals to let it drop. As events play out, the residents of La Zona are defiant and in blatant violation of legal and moral law. Meanwhile Rigoberto ploughs ahead with his investigation even though he butts heads with his ‘superiors.’
The rest of the film concerns what happened the night of the break-in, but also, and much more significantly how the residents react. Following the break-in, rumours explode and paranoia reigns, and the servants of La Zona families are subject to extra scrutiny. One scene shows an ad-hoc posse of teenage boys within the gated community hunting for a crook. Armed with golf clubs and even a harpoon gun, the boys swarm over the beautiful golf course and into a wooded gully. There’s so much space, and again off in the distance, outside of the walls, we see a hillside crowded with shacks–no space, nothing green–just squalor and poverty. Holding special emergency committee meetings in which the majority rule, the more aggressive members of La Zona dominate over those who are ambivalent or unwilling to take a moral stand. Ultimately, we see a series of moral mis-steps with either people too weak to stand up and voice their opinion, or people barreled over in a system so corrupt that everything can be bought for a price.
One of the main characters is teenager Alejandro (Daniel Tovar), the film’s moral centre, and in one scene, Alejandro’s father, Daniel (Daniel Giménez Cacho) explains to his son why he chose to live in La Zona and how he lost his faith in the Mexican justice system. Exactly why Alejandro choses to defy his father (and his values) and stand apart from his peers is unclear. In spite of this slight flaw, the film works very well indeed, and the final result is a film that asks some important questions about the right to security, the ability of the rich and powerful to command special dispensations, and once those dispensations are granted, just how far should they extend?
Director Matt Ehling made a short documentary film a few years ago about gated communities called Forbidden City, and one of the points the film makes is that gated communities are a sign of “increasing polarisation” between the rich and the poor. Mexico has the largest number of gated communities in the world, and some, like La Zona, are completely autonomous with their own electricity and water systems. Crime will always be one major argument for gated communities. With kidnappings on the rise in Mexico, at least one company offers sub-dermal transmitter implantation. Wealthy families are, of course, targets, and so it’s probably logical that the wealthy band together and pool resources in order to establish a safe environment. (I’ll add here that it’s not just the wealthy who are kidnapped–I read one case of a child of a shepherd who was killed by injected bleach when his parents failed to come up with the ransom). The plethora of gated communities springing up worldwide is a symptom of a malfunctioning society, the ever-expanding gaps between the very rich and the very poor, and the failure of state mechanisms which are, in theory, supposed to provide protection. In La Zona, we see a group of wealthy people attempting to establish a utopian community–a community which is occupied by people with similar social positions, values and wealth. Having established the community they desire, they operate it with a manual of by-laws, and when a showdown occurs, they feel justified in exacting punishment. It’s at this point that some residents reject La Zona (in their evaluation, it’s no longer a utopian community), and others return happily to the established status quo.