My first visit to the asylum in August 2011 was a ten day pit-stop en route to a job in Bogotá, Colombia.  I had my kit with me and within a day I set to work on trying to interpret this strange place with a camera.  By the end I was exhilarated by the experience and had gathered some 30 hours of material.  Being solo, the footage was mainly observational and after coming home and cutting an hour together, I realised there was a lot more potential to shoot more.  I enlisted my old friend, sound recordist Alex Bryce and we set off back to Juárez as soon as I finished teaching at Goldsmiths University in March 2012.

The second shoot was less of a discovery and more of a mission to film elements that helped produce story and characters.  With the crew having doubled and the logistics of trying to organise scenes and events at the asylum with the mentally insane, it should be mentioned that stress and worry was never too far away.  Of course, much is forgotten now – conveniently or not but here is the day by day account…

Director’s Production Log – 29.03 – 09.04.12

 29th March – Thursday
Retracing the same queues and flight paths as the first shoot last August but this time with Alex, a sound recordist.  I’ve been on fire for weeks while waiting to get back to Juárez, knowing that the best laid plans will be sabotaged one way or another.  Hopefully following sabotage there’ll be some spontaneous fortuity.

U.S. immigration is especially slow in Chicago and the queue we’re placed in brings up a gatekeeper straight out of a Lynch nightmare.  Hooded eyes, chewing gum incessantly with a jaw that looks like it was toned in a gym but probably just the military.  I doubt there was any warm blood in his veins.

– Who are you visiting here?

– A Pastor in El Paso.

– What’s the status of your Pastor?

– He runs a mental hospital in the desert with the help of the patients.

He took my fingerprints and didn’t say another word.  I guess he didn’t want to question the mental hospital part.  Alex was told his story was flaky because he had no business as a sound recordist visiting a mental hospital.  I had told him I was a teacher but Alex thought it was best to be honest which of course, made him some sort of suspect.

We reached El Paso on time but El Pastor wasn’t there to meet us.  I had been waiting for something to go wrong and this could be it.  Or maybe the start of a bad cycle?  I had so assumed that he would be there that I didn’t have his phone number on me.  An hour and a half later I concede that we can’t stay in the airport and find a motel to hole up in.  We’re so tired and wired and just dropping off at 4am when the bank rings me to ask if I’m in the U.S. as they’ve noticed my card being used.  Then at 5am the phone goes off again with a message from a friend who is house-sitting to tell me that he’s fixed my alarm.  Finally, at 6 I’m woken by a dream of a headless man entering the room.

30th March – Friday
El Pastor picks us up and takes us straight to the asylum.  It turns out he was a day behind with our arrival date.  Alex and I are both fried with tiredness and as the day wears on, I realise that we won’t get any work done while we’re still gibbering.  So much has changed in 6 months and many people have died for various reasons – all sounding tragic.

We discover that Pastor has an idea to produce power here via methane gas exuded from human excrement.  A company involved needed to know how much excrement was produced each day.  Buckets were weighed in the morning and the figure of 125kg resulted.  That’s about a kilo per person.

We started shooting with Josué in the cells.  Very long shots with lots of talking in Spanish – the gist of which I understood.  I’ve been doing Spanish lessons in London but now when I really need to be understood or I need to understand I revert to English.  The stakes are too high to get tangled up with the wrong verbs.

The idea was to connect the condition Josué was in when he first arrived with the people in the cells now.  He couldn’t walk for a year and was slowly helped back to health by the other mental patients.  One man in a cell is eating his own shit and nearly died from it recently.  How do you reason with that – or prevent it?  This is the job Josué is doing now.

31st March – Saturday
A while ago, the photographer Morgan Smith sent me a photo of people here catching a pig for slaughter at Christmas.  I thought I might buy a pig and have people chase it and catch it for slaughter.  Pastor showed me a video of how the pig was killed at Christmas.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animal suffer like that.

I’m not sure how I would have handled being the instigator behind torturing a pig to death.  I don’t even eat meat.  Pastor said that they couldn’t afford the $50 for a pig killer so the patients had to do it by whacking its head with a long iron pole.  They castrated the animal while it was still alive in the belief that the meat would taste better.  No one there had ever slaughtered a pig before and that’s disregarding the fact that limited mental faculties are at work.  Having watched the pig’s demise, Pastor didn’t eat any of the meat.

Apart from anything else, the film would have forever been identified as a pig snuff movie and I would have been a pin up for animal rights activists for the rest of my days or until they slaughtered me.

You can’t take anything for granted here.  Nothing is normal and everything is extreme or obtuse without fanfare or etiquette.  There’s no reason why a pig might be slaughtered humanely but I’m relieved I didn’t have to film it.

2nd April – Monday
After much denial I realised that I’ve caught some sort of virus that leaves me with no appetite, less sleep and an even shorter temper.  Spent the day wanting to lie down all the time and sleep but managed to get some sequences shot.

I had Josué interact with patients and some of the results were revealing.  Lusardo telling of his life before here where he ate a dead dog in the street and last Christmas when he ate the raw warm testicles of the pig I’d seen slaughtered in Pastor’s video.  He said they tasted good.  This is the man who every day, without exception or complaint, slops out the 125kg of shit from the cells into buckets and onto an open cesspit.  Starting your day like that must mean that anything afterwards is a walk in the park.

I had a look at the hour long rough cut of the film from the first set of rushes and now it’s very obvious that it would never have worked as a narrative film.  I could have added a soundtrack of drones and dwelled on intense images while severely limiting my audience to watching a spectacle.  I guess having a story pushes it into some sort of mainstream or at least it’s a foil to get people in and work out what the film means to them.

As the writer Chuck Bowden said the other day when we met him, we make life have meaning otherwise there isn’t any.  Meaningless lives don’t make a lot of sense although eating junk and watching TV all the time comes close to meaninglessness and that seems to be everywhere.  Trying to find meaning in what we see at the sanctuary most often falls short of the sheer struggle people go through to get anything done.  Maybe that is where the meaning starts and ends: the struggle.  The results of the struggle are often so banal they’re not worth mentioning.

Lots of wind outside so we couldn’t shoot a scene with patients blowing up balloons for Easter celebrations.  Ended up recording Josué talking about his past with lots of great stories and a few shining nuggets that may sit well with pictures.  I’m not filming him talking as I hate pointing a camera at anyone while I’m trying to listen.

I’ve been given drugs to sleep but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get up tomorrow after taking them.

3rd April – Tuesday
Seems like the drugs worked and I woke up at dawn and was out to catch sunrise with an orchestra of pig squeals as they were being fed.  Note for Alex to record this.

Josué had told us about Raúl (the boy who had sang happy birthday to me while his head poked out of a small hole in a cell door) who had bit someone’s ear off for taking a toy off him.  We found Raúl and the other boy with the missing chunk of ear and they talked about the incident.  Raúl seemed benign but his laugh revealed a gaping set of shark-patterned utensils.

The harsh light reduces everything to a kind of flat colour monochrome with no middle ground.  Nearly all the shooting is exterior so there’s nowhere to hide from the hammer.

A woman arrived from the road – someone must have dropped her off because there’s no other way to get here – and she was in a bad state.  Gibbering and acting out a shuddering rape scene, she was fed and taken in.  After a shower and some food, I spoke with her and she held out her hand.  I held it briefly and she smiled ecstatically.  Her hand was very soft and smooth.  I’ve no idea of the hell she escaped but she would be dead if she wasn’t here.  Rape’s generally something men aren’t afflicted by but we found out that one man here raped his grandfather.  I don’t know what to say about that.

We shot a scene where patients made a piñata with balloons and paper.  Beautiful light and shadows in the last of the sun.  Finished off with our second session recording voiceover with Josué.  When he gets it right, he’s the best performer in town and it’s all ad-lib.  Early start tomorrow to catch the pig orchestra.  The best day so far.

4th April – Wednesday

Finally managed to get up and out before the dawn fire was lit outside.  This was partly because I went to bed having viewed the day’s photos I’d taken and saw a couple that opened a new window into how I should approach taking stills.  That sent my head reeling and then just as I was dropping off the phone rang from London and then a text message – all at 3.50am.  Gave up on sleep and got up to sit under the cold desert stars.

Each morning I’ve been filming Josué getting up and leaving his bedroom door on the upper balcony of the patio.  Each morning the shot has lingered, become dull and had nothing going for it.  Too literal.  Today, he appeared by the fire and suddenly that became a much better way to film him starting the day.  Then the dogs appeared and he walked into the sanctuary with them following.  This might work as a scene at the end of the film where Josué says he’s going to stay at the sanctuary – at least for the time being.  In August I shot the dogs walking and sniffing the desert air past abandoned houses leading to the sanctuary.  They led me to the sanctuary from the desert like guardian angels.  Juárez has stray dogs that must run into the thousands, what with all the abandoned houses and killings.  My idea was that stray dogs led Josué to the place.  It would take an animal to rise above the mayhem or as Chuck says in one of his books, ‘The beasts persist’.  When talking to Josué about this I discovered that he had lived with a dog in the abandoned house he nearly died in.

I went out into the patio with the stills camera and finally made it work for me.  Using the black white morning shadows coursing over people’s faces behind bars waking up or washing – all in tight close up so that bodies and faces fragmented.  It felt like I was complementing the film camera.  The problem I’ve had with stills here is that the whole process is too static for me and people invariably pose.  Now I’m moving much quicker.

We then had hours of sitting around and I was too wired to sleep.  When the shadows started getting longer we set up another round of piñata building with a slightly different group of people.  The atmosphere was very low key.  People spoke quietly and joked and talked nonsense without the harshness of the usual daily grind here.  Covering balloons with newspaper dipped in flour and water seems to have a very calming affect on disturbed people.  I slipped into a similar mood and shot a key scene that contrasts with the harshness.  There was even a point where someone started giggling and others joined in.  For the first time I thought I might get a laugh when people watch the film.

5th April – Thursday
We’ve hit halfway in the schedule and Alex has seen my darker side more than once.  There’s always tension between the sound recordist and cameraman and this is no exception, even though we’re old friends.  Apart from the usual boom shadow incidents and me not communicating or being able to say that we’re on a wide a shot and I don’t want him in it, there’s a multitude of fleeting reasons why tension arises.  Not least of which is because while shooting I’m thinking of how to direct a scene and how I’m going to cut it later.  This is all too much to explain in the moment and ambiguous facial expressions are all that’s available.  I don’t think the faces are very nice to look at.  But as quickly as they arise, they dissipate and we move on.

Today we head for the border into New Mexico to shoot scenes that probably won’t be in the film but might be useful to promote it.  The US border want us to get a special entry visa and the queue looks like something from Lambeth housing benefit, only the people aren’t as miserable.  Pastor leaves me a phone and says to call him when we’re done.  He drives off and we’re through surprisingly quickly.  I discover the phone doesn’t work.

Four and a half hours later, Pastor arrives and as we guessed, he had gone to his English class.  He’s been very busy since our arrival with these classes every day – part of him preparing to do a psychology degree which he hopes will help validate the work he does in the eyes of the powers that be.  Ideally, I would have my own car for the shoot but I don’t think you can cross the border either way in a rented car or if you can, the insurance would cripple me.

We arrive at Chuck Bowden and Molly Molloy’s house.  I imagined it would be at the end of a dirt track in the desert but it was actually in a suburb of Las Cruces.  The garden is an oasis replete with an orchestra of wind chimes, birds and flowers that are so real they look fake.  We set up to film Chuck reading from one of his books and then speaking about the sanctuary.  Short pieces that offer much conviction with his liquorice drawl.  Molly and Chuck share much admiration for Pastor and the sanctuary and it’s his book Murder City and a photo by Juárez photographer Julian Cardona that drew me here in the first place.

Alex and I ride with Chuck back to the border while he tells us stories about his days as a reporter on sex crimes.  The work nearly cannibalized him, as there’s no one else to talk to apart from people in the same line of work and therein lies the spiral.  Yet with all this darkness and his work on the carnage across the border, Chuck is very funny.

We finally arrive hours late at Julian Cardona’s house in Juárez.  I’d asked Pastor to call in advance about being late but I don’t think that had happened.  I really should have bought a phone here.  Sometimes a production manager would be useful.  My idea is to film Chuck and Julian driving around Juárez talking about the city.  They’re old friends and have worked on books together.  Julian somehow managed to escape the poverty of his city and become a photographer – now working for Reuters.

We’d agreed on this shoot days before but I don’t feel that Julian really wants to do it.  When we set off, it feels contrived and Alex is having trouble with the radio mics.  I just keep shooting.  A couple of hours later I think we have some great material from an insider’s viewpoint on Murder City.  I was watching a lot of Kiarostami films before I came out and he cites shooting from inside a car as his favourite location.  It’s not very safe shooting (at least with a camera) on the streets here so that’s my excuse.

We go back to Julian’s house and drink red wine.  I’m not drinking at all on this shoot so it goes to my head while Chuck and Julian continue to talk about all the layers of crime and intrigue in the city.  Julian shows Chuck a new set of photographs of abandoned houses and buildings in Juárez – his hometown turning into a ghost town.  It reminds me of what happened to my old hometown of Johannesburg when Apartheid fell.  This is Julian’s most impassioned moment but I didn’t try and film it.  I wish I had.

It’s gone midnight by the time we get back and Pastor still has to take Chuck back to the border to his car.  It’ll be hours before they get home.

6th April – Friday
Panic gets hold of me as we’ve only three days left.  I could set my watch to these anxiety attacks.  I’m out in the patio in the morning and I hear screaming from behind a door.  Alex isn’t here yet so I go over and use the camera to record the painful wail.  Josué’s name can almost be deciphered in the noise.  It’s coming from Estella inside a cell she shares with three other women.  She’s epileptic and having a fit.  Josué and others arrive and push some pills into her mouth.  Her body on the floor shivering in shock.  The pills take affect.  It’s all happening in a moment and it’s heartbreaking to see someone so distraught.  I shoot the scene, which ends with Josué looking disturbed as he turns away.  There’s a green balloon in the cell that I filmed Estella with the other day, smiling beautifully as she watched people making the piñata.

We venture out to Juárez again to shoot a scene with Josué at the last house he lived in before arriving at the sanctuary.  First we meet Pastor and film him and Josué working in the office in town.  These scenes are very dull but I call them storytelling and hopefully they fulfil that role.  Visually they leave me cold.

It turns out Josué’s old house has been reduced to rubble.  We film him wandering about over the pile of dirt and concrete talking to himself about how he feels and how he remembers the place.  I like using radio mics in very wide shots – the intimacy and distance combined to make for canny eavesdropping.  The only problem is that I can’t hear anything as Alex is recording sound separately.  There’s a contrived feeling about all this and no wonder.

I cut the scene and accept that it’s the best we can do.  Pastor and others are up the hill chatting to a family who live next to the demolished house.  I go to tell them we’re done and discover that they’re talking to a man who used to know Josué.  Alex puts a radio mic on him and we film him talking to Josué on the rubble.  Even though I can’t hear it, I know it has to be good.

We’re early for the last scene of the day so we all go and have burritos at a roadside stall.  Alex has his with turkey tails.  He eats anything under the dictum, ‘if other people eat it then so should I’.  Turkey tails aren’t as cute as they sound and I settle for processed cheese.

We reach a highpoint overlooking a barrio.  The idea is to shoot Pastor talking to Josué about death in the city and how it nearly claimed him.  It’s another contrivance but I’m hoping it may work as an opening scene for the film.  I’m trying to contextualise the sanctuary within Juárez and aiming for this to stand in for a dull wide shot of the city.

Of course, nothing is going to plan and it turns out that we’re not the first people who want to gather on top of the hill that day.  It’s Good Friday and a clutch of people sit in front of a preacher holding a microphone.  Pastor knows these people (he seems to know everyone) and I ask him to request that they hold on for half an hour while we shoot our scene.  He goes over to them and takes the mic, welcoming them and doing some preaching himself.  All stirred up they start singing songs.

The light is pretty much ideal now but there’s no way we can film with sound here.  Then another preacher gets hold of the mic and starts exorcising the devil and all the other sins of the city.  I despair as we lose the light.  Pastor tells me they’ve planned this for months.  I’m in no position to request silence and can’t compete with an exorcism.  We move on to another part of the ridge, which is marginally quieter.  Pastor and Josué talk about the city and it feels staged.  That’s because it is.

A giant yellow moon rises over the city as we leave.  The preacher announces that they’re finished and it’s now time for the film people to do their work.  Everyone takes pictures of the moon.

The day ends with us recording voiceover with Pastor.  We’ve so little time left with him and it’s crucial I have him say certain things about the sanctuary he founded.  He pulls off a star performance and drops nuggets into the recorder.

7th April – Saturday
Months before we arrived, I came across a report on the tradition of burning effigies in Mexico on Easter Saturday.  Traditionally Judas is the man they burn but that extends to any other supposed traitor and Mexico has no shortage or betrayals.  I suggested to Pastor that we make an effigy and run people from the sanctuary into town.  My idea being to show people from the sanctuary mixing with people from Juárez – the place where most of them had been rejected from.  Again, I’m trying to contextualise the madness.

This was also the only day we had to film Pastor at work and I needed to see him working with Josué.  After all, Pastor had shown the faith and taken the risk to let Josué virtually manage the place as well as be in charge of dispensing drugs.  All this trust for a man who had recovered from a 30-year heroin habit.

I proposed an idea of filming Josué and Pastor speaking to patients about their drug intake and wellbeing.  But when we came to shoot it, no one seemed to know what the scene was supposed to be.  Alex had I had wound ourselves up with the pending visit into town where we imagined big crowds, burning effigies and potential danger for us with equipment on display.  That combined with time trickling away meant I got very impatient with everyone.  All at once I made a complete idiot of myself by ranting about nothing going to plan.  I then asked Pastor and Josué what the problem was as I wanted to film a routine job they did and we had discussed this earlier.  They both said that they never go round asking patients about their drug intake.  Pastor trusts Josué and he takes advice from the psychiatrist Vincente who I had already filmed.  Bad form on my part in every way and all I could do was apologise.

I hope that perhaps I finally learn that even under pressure to get what’s required there’s no point in contriving scenes.  This could be my own exorcism.  But when you don’t have the resources to stick around and wait for things to happen it’s hard not to want to design the event.  Perhaps it can work in a half measure where you set up a scene and then take whatever follows.  Like the scene with Josué meeting his neighbour on the pile of rubble that was his past life.  Otherwise you’re stuck in your own fantasy and may as well pay actors.  And I don’t think there are any to play these roles.

We drove into Juárez with about 20 people.  They were all made to wear white T-shirts so we looked like a school party.  I didn’t like the T-shirts but I guessed that if I asked for them to be removed, someone would get lost or run away and it would be because Mark didn’t like the T-shirts.

I filmed the journey into town from inside the bus.  Everyone was very subdued and staring wide-eyed outside.  The world of the sanctuary is so limited and mostly centred around the inside patio.  There’s no view beyond walls, no cars, no people, even colour is limited.  People do go outside the gate but stay nearby.  Some run away but usually come back.  With at least 8 unsolved murders a day, Juárez is not a place you would run to when you need help.

We’d visited the central plaza the day before and I’d imagined there would be big crowds and lots of piñatas hanging from trees waiting to be torched.  Ours was the only one and the crowd was pretty much the same although there were more preachers about.  Alex was stifled for sound by men doing there best to exorcise demons via distorted amps.  All of these preachers come from criminal or drug addicted backgrounds so there’s a lot of redemption to seek.

The patients we’d shipped in were all standing on a bandstand looking down at the preachers.  Once we started burning the piñata I invited them to mingle more with the public and eventually this is what happened.  I used the Roger Corman dictum of shooting tight to make everything look bigger.  By the end of the burning, lots of people were dancing and perhaps I might get away with the scene being cathartic.  Or it may end up being a Spinal Tap Stonehenge moment.

The last shot of the night is with Josué in his bedroom watching boxing.  He used to be a boxer although his face has been pummelled by much more.  I hadn’t thought much about this scene feeling convincing but it was – so much so that we ended up watching the fight with him.  The Mexican contender lost on points but he was easily the better fighter.

Josué said that he couldn’t believe that we were making this film about him.  We couldn’t believe we’d found our way here.

8th April – Sunday
It seems I got the schedule about right and peaked just before the end.  I wake up at 7.30, which feels like mid-day and take some photos in the patio.  I’ve taken about 4000 stills in 10 days.

I keep noticing things I’ve already filmed and tell myself that I don’t need any more of this or that activity.  I’ve been doing this for the whole trip.  One thing about cutting your own material is that you hold back on getting too much as it’s simply more work to wade through it all.

Then a football match breaks out in the patio so that needs to be filmed even though it’s under mid-day light.

I think the last thing I shoot is a sparrow landing on one of the freshly minted spring branches of a tree in the patio.  Two more birds join it and then they all fly off.

9th April – Monday
We set off at dawn for the border and have burritos for breakfast outside El Paso.  Pastor needs to make his English lesson so we’re early for our flights.  Alex is going on to San Francisco while I’m heading back to south London.

I go to the bar to buy Alex a beer and the woman serving won’t sell me two drinks in case they’re both for me.  Alex has to come and collect his own.  We both have to show our IDs.  I think we’re back in what they call the real world.