Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, it’s time for yet another independent picture out’ve the LA film scene, this time a documentary about the documentarian’s search for answers around the mysterious death of her uncle down in Mexico. We’re talking about Lourdes Portillo’s The Devil Never Sleeps from 1994, so I hope you’re ready to interrogate the nature of cinematic truth, cause here we a-go!
We talk a lot about the good film can do here on Registering the Registry. The thoughts and deeds a good movie might inspire, their capacity to temporarily resurrect the dead, or tell the truth, or reveal fundamental matters about the base fabric of our experience. To sort through the nation’s film registry of pictures deemed essential to a peoples’ collective character is to start from the assumption that a movie worth induction will have had some positive impact, on the audience or the filmmaker. It’s a bit of a naïve perspective, given filmmaking often directly intersects with naked profit motive, exploitative practices, societal norms that can often include the bigoted and backwards, and the lie inherent to film’s most essential tool in the cut. Cuts which carelessly or purposefully craft a sequence of images divorced from or distorting the truth can leave an audience exposed to a false perception of reality, a damaged view of the presented subjects, a further example of how media is rarely the absolute best or most trustworthy way to experience the world out your front door. Some information, you put it in a film, you present it as a documentary, you assert truth because the artifices of acting and screenwriting are not present, and suddenly you’ve made a thing of greater persuasiveness and “truth” than its components by virtue of locking disparate stories and perspectives into what seems definitive fact. How is one to do good with film when the simple act of committing certain things to celluloid warps them to the devil’s will?
This question lies at the heart of Lourdes Portillo’s 1994 documentary, The Devil Never Sleeps. By the mid-90s, the Chihuahua, Mexico-born, LA-based filmmaker had made a name for herself as a documentarian whose work pushed the experiences of impoverished Chicana women to the forefront in films like After the Earthquake and The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, and whose shortform productions challenged the prevalent cultural narrative of her day, as when she questions Columbus’ legacy in Columbus on Trial. A director defined by her drive to uncover the truth and skepticism towards the easy answers seems the perfect fit for a film investigating the mysterious death of a beloved yet controversial community pillar like Oscar Ruiz Almeida — doubly so when the man was her uncle. Called back to Chihuahua by Oscar’s widow Ofelia, Portillo gains access to a large number of family members, community partners, friends, and assorted involved parties who serve as the documentary’s interview subjects, all of whom have their own impressions about Tio Oscar, his life, and the circumstances around his death. Siblings, children, cousins, friends, business partners, doctors, local historians, a great many people with tight bonds to the deceased, and a slightly different Oscarr in each heart, none of whom quite agree HOW the man died, or WHY. Surely, a mind like Portillo’s, previously dedicated to tackling refugee crises and militaristic atrocities and the AIDS epidemic, can sort through all this and find out just what happened to her uncle where a less trained eye sees only chaos, yes? Just like in the movies…
The picture these relatives paint of Oscar is expectedly muddy. We understand his best qualities first, as one often does when discussing the recently deceased. Born to a family of eight children, grown into a hardy man who looked on every day as fresh conquest, married to Yugoslavian immigrant Catalina who sparked an interest in farming and land cultivation, positioned to become an early major exporter of fruits and vegetables into the United States. Diverse work opportunities with importers like Al Harrison and American motion picture productions like the people behind Catch 22 (he reportedly oversaw construction on the airstrip seen in the film) made Oscar a wealthy man, and his fortunes made him a friend to politicians in the Sonoran city of Guaymas, eventually winning the position of mayor through political favors. To all stories, he sounds a man of tremendous ambition who cared for his land, his people, his family, and his life to high degrees all. Then we start into learning the mistakes, the tragedies. A foolhardy well-drilling program that leeched the coastal water table of freshwater and left it open to salinization. His ranch neglected as interests away from home piled up, the business which carried him so far left to flounder and diminish. Poor investment decisions leading into such desperation for cash, he’d reportedly threaten former business partners at gunpoint when their loan dates came due. Catalina takes ill with cancer, and before she’s even gone, much less buried, Oscar has taken up with a poor provincial woman twenty years his junior, Ofelia. He abandons Catalina’s family, abandons his work and post in Guaymas for a return to Chihuahua, becomes socially isolated, reportedly grows neglectful towards his children as his new wife proves domineering and overly fond of physical discipline. And then, one morning, to everyone’s surprise, he turns up dead at his nephew’s sports complex with a gun nearby and several bullet holes across his body.
If we are made to twitch our lips and quirk our eyebrows at Oscar’s story — the intersecting narrators aren’t shy about implying a great number of possible culprits contrary to the official police line of a suicide, alongside a greater number of possible reasons Oscar caused his own supposed murder — Ofelia’s side of the story seems engineered to make the audience suspect her of the absolute worst. We never actually see her, only blurry photographs captured via badly tuned computer monitors. Unlike other participants, who either sit down for regular interviews or contribute through prefilmed segments presented on television sets, Ofelia outright refuses to appear on-camera, and is only heard over a somewhat dubiously recorded phone call. Her tone during the call makes her out as someone who immediately assumes persecution and dislike from all around her sight unseen, she talks up having massive archives of personal effects from Oscar which she simply won’t share, and she dodges around every question like it’s some kind of attack. Portillo goes so far as to pair certain stretches of the conversation against gliding close-ups on a cactus against the desert sky, prickly thorns almost brushing the lens, and includes an afterwards to the call in which she discusses it as incredibly suspicious with her crew. Nobody from any part of Oscar’s life has much nice to say about Ofelia: she’s a gold digger, she was abusive to his children, she demanded far more attention than she deserved, she manipulated a grieving man a generation her senior into loving her at his lowest point, she made a self-pitying spectacle out of Catalina’s funeral, she may have swindled the family out of a hefty insurance payout, this that and the other. For the longest time, the image of the cactus remains at the forefront of discussion around Ofelia as we continue listening to these people who saw the worst in her long before Oscar turned up dead. They’re all horrible, nightmarish things which gradually paint the picture of her as suspect number one in Tio Oscar’s murder!
It is a trap a less thoughtful filmmaker could easily fall into. We need only look at the glut of shoddy true crime documentaries choking modern streaming platforms to know how readily a director can grab information from dozens upon dozens of sources and conjure a killer out’ve the right soundbites. Portillo does allow this effect to take hold for a time, but she laces the film with indications towards her unease about the endeavor’s potential to lie through selective presentation. Practically every participant is shot at a skewed angle at least once, the camera placed to tilt the room or horizon or their magnified face as if to say there is something inherently doubtful about their reliability as an objective witness. The film makes regular motif from self-reflection — mirrors carried down the street or placed against the desert landscape with a distant subject in their glass, shots of Portillo sitting in her hotel room reviewing the selected footage, a major recurrent image of her glasses dominating the frame with some film or interview or such glowing in place of her eyes. We often see subjects replaced by grainy black-and-white photographs held above a shimmering, dark blue sea, and every so often the hand lets go to allow the waves to consume the photo. Unease defines the bridging passages of this film, an unease at how readily the story shifts with each new participant, and how easy it is to believe the increasingly tangled narrative without questioning. Amidst all the photographs and home movies of Oscar and his personal history, Portillo increasingly inserts her hardest hitting, deepest revealing element: clips from Mexican telenovelas, bits of melodrama mixed amongst the sordid stories from Oscar and Ofelia’s lives.
This best indicates Portillo’s real feelings towards the project and the stories conveyed therein. The sheer number of clips she can match to developments within Oscar’s life impresses, an endless parade of overly dramatic TV mothers cursing their sons for their foolish marriages, jilted family members angrily accusing lawyers of cutting them off from promised payments, self-serving wives carefully calculating the next step in their master plan to steal the money and leave their sorry husbands bleeding in the street. We start small, but eventually the telenovelas are reflected in her eyes same as the footage she shot, the wailings of melodramatic fictional characters as likely a response to the latest story as a new interviewee or her own ponderings. It is not that the information we find lacks credibility in isolation. For all we know, everyone is telling the whole truth about Oscar and Ofelia as they see it; certainly, once certain family members begin dismissing other’s tales by saying Ofelia was a saint around the children and the daughter who complained loudest about her abuses was an ingrate, it’s evident there’s more than one perspective at play here, if a fairly dismissive and distasteful perspective in certain cases. And of course, Portillo introduces doubts on her own terms through narration and questions, doubts founded in classism towards the hated second wife, doubts about the veracity of her information when bundled together into documentary form. It is rather that the act of investigating her tio’s murder like this, turning it into a documentary film project and airing all his dirty laundry in the name of publicly displaying the work, begins to render the entire affair a telenovela, all the real people who cared about her uncle reduced to mere squabbling players, defined by how they paint a black or white portrait of the situation, regardless their actual capacity for acknowledging the shades of gray.
Late film conversations with a pastor confirm this. Though he is introduced as an authority on the church’s stances regarding suicide, Portillo swiftly asks him a question about whether listening in on phone calls from someone you suspect a murderer constitutes sin, and receives a troubling answer. To this holy man’s mind, it is sin, because it violates the basic respect deserved towards all persons, in much the same manner the media makes a circus of everyday tragedy by magnifying and simplifying all aspects of the situation until you’ve entertainment mined out the bones of suffering. The answer troubles Portillo, who contemplates what committing such sin must mean for her as she receives acupuncture in the film’s most striking visual, a woman lost in thought as needles are placed beneath her skin to relieve stress, each only representing another doubt pricking at her skull. Past this point, the tone of her investigation shifts, and we find ourselves on another track entirely. Across the final twenty minutes, the family and friends rapidly seize on a story about how Oscar became obsessed with stamping the image of the Pope into coins during his final year, and spin a spectacular yarn about how this may or may not prove he once payed a policeman off to cover an affair with a male lover, how this possibly indicates he committed suicide because he was dying of AIDS. A fantastical conjecture, almost completely incompatible with the assertion Ofelia murdered him, yet blossomed into full certainty in a third of the time from the basest elements of another good story. In fairness, some dismiss this as utter baloney, but others become as invested in providing their opinion on this contrary narrative as they were the other. As to Ofelia, we hear her over the phone again during the final ten minutes, and Portillo’s presentation on her is far softer than before, focused on the humanity of a widow who lost her husband too soon, and her right to privacy as she deals with the complicated matter of navigating family labyrinths to put his effects in proper order, free from harassment or accusation. No more implied cactus imagery, just a woman who shouldn’t be pressured right now. Indeed, Ofelia gets the final word before Portillo takes over to make her closing statements, and it is a kinder word than anything we heard during the first call.
Now, no mistake about it, one doubts Portillo went into The Devil Never Sleeps intending to almost accuse her aunt of murder before backing off due to some revelation at the churchgrounds. Just as the film’s contents approach soap opera levels of believability when we’ve pulled everything into the open and fiercely debate a hereto unheard new angle with the same fever as the previous theory, so too do we strain credulity if we at all believe the composite parts here were obtained and assembled in the exact manner we see in the final product. She most likely found her narrative in the shooting, realized the message she could send, and constructed her film to deliver it directly as she could. What’s worth note, however, is that the appearance of such a narrative, the illusion Portillo got on track of a murder before realizing the search was making her into something she couldn’t live with, enables the film to dodge around the very sin it reveals across its opening hour. The Devil Never Sleeps is ultimately not a documentary about what really happened to Portillo’s Tio Oscar, but a documentary about how the documentary form can corrupt if one does not step smartly. These are not fictional characters one can easily understand and slot into a chart detailing their virtues and vices and deserved fates. They’re actual people, speaking their minds as they see fit, framed to imply a certain interpretation, used as pieces of evidence in a lesser version of the picture. Some display unsavory affects, some seem to hide more than they should, some come across as shallow, or unlikable, or gossipy to a fault. What of it? We cannot claim to know and judge them across a mere hour twenty of film anymore than Lourdes can claim to fully grasp the kind of men her tio was or why he died based on these scattered anecdotes, as she admits within the film. To approach the documentary as if it can only reveal truth, as if every cut and combination of images constitutes the unchallenged gospel truth on each piece of its contents is to leave oneself vulnerable to the devil’s hands, and as we all know too well, the devil never sleeps.
So The Devil Never Sleeps stands firm against the devil. Lourdes Portillo actively denies her film the chance to lessen her subjects when she softens her approach, shows the futility of trying to tell the whole story when the story will readily shift before her camera’s eye to become whatever makes the juiciest drama, reveals how easily we could blindly declare Ofelia the killer and never consider any alternate interpretation, concludes it is not for her to call this murder or suicide, or diagnose the hows and whys. She does not abdicate her duties as a socially responsible filmmaker to do this, as the film still calls out corruption within the Mexican police force and media as major factors behind the difficulty of determining Oscar’s fate, and she expresses strong distaste with the trend within snippy, gossiping communities to cover themselves in a blanket of conservative values and respectability to save face when reporters come a-knockin’. When it comes to the big question of, “How did Tio Oscar die?” though, she finds active hands can make ideal playthings ready as the idle, and determines the only way to keep them from infernal influence is to set them towards exposing the dangers of the game. So we end, the solid stories of documentary filmmaking revealed as exposed to the elements of carelessness and bias, the responsibility on filmmaker and audience member alike to question whether what we see is what’s really out there, or if it’s just how matters appear when composed in this particular order. If the act of filmmaking is open to doing evil, working to expose the mechanisms of this evil as melodramatics in the wrong theater is a fine way to turn it towards a good.
Course, I always note my perspective is not the only one we should consider, and I’d be doubly remiss to not ask your thoughts given the focus of this week’s article. So, your thoughts on the documentary’s capacity to lie by omission, or this picture’s exploration of the problem? Leave your comments below, and look forward to the next Registry film! We’re joining director Wim Wenders in the late 90s as he documents his frequent musical collaborator Ry Cooder’s new project, a revival of pre-Revolution Cuban son music with the old men and women who made it popular in the 1950s. It’s Buena Vista Social Club from 1999, and you can stream through Criterion or HBO Max, or rent/buy from YouTube, Vudu, and Amazon. Catch you for the tunes then!