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How Mexican directors came to dominate the Oscars

The US President might want to build a wall, but the future of film lies south of the United States border. 

In 2014, Alfonso Cuarón became the first Mexican filmmaker to win the Oscar for Best Director, when his work on ambitious sci-fi drama Gravity was lauded by the Academy. Four years on, the Best Director Oscar has been dominated by filmmakers of Mexican origin. Since Cuarón went home with the gold, his fellow countryman Alejandro G. Iñárritu has won twice, for Birdman and The Revenant. Although last year's award went to white director Damien Chazelle for La La Land, the trend now looks set to continue apace.

Guillermo del Toro, perhaps the most well-known proponent of the movement known as New Mexican Cinema, is the running favourite to win Best Director at this year's ceremony. His unusual fantasy romance The Shape of Water has the most nominations of any film, with 13, and Del Toro has hoovered up precursor prizes throughout the race. On Saturday night, he won the Directors' Guild of America Award, which is a near-perfect barometer for Oscar success. In the award's nearly-70-year history, it has only diverged from the Academy's pick on seven occasions.

But what is behind this stunning new wave of success for Mexican directors?

“I think it has been a long time coming,” says Dr Miriam Haddu, senior lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Royal Holloway University. “All three of these directors started around the same time in the 1990s, from similar backgrounds, and then moved to Hollywood, so it has probably been building up as the culmination of quite a lot of work.

“I think there are a lot of factors that have come into play to make them not just recognised as successful Mexican directors, but as successful directors. It might be timing that is crucial. It's reflective of the climate in Hollywood, which is now much more open to alternatives.”

Dr Marc Ripley, who researches Hispanic horror cinema at the University of Leicester, agrees the trio of Cuarón, Iñárritu and Del Toro have been hugely influential in bringing Mexican cinema to the masses.

“The three of them work quite closely together,” he says, “They have managed to bridge this gap between representing quite specific Mexican issues, but yet appealing to a wider international audience. In their latest films, they are working more internationally and with largely English-speaking casts, so their cinema obviously has a wider audience.”

Del Toro, in particular, is a filmmaker who has dazzled audiences for years with his eye for a monster and has made big Hollywood movies such as Hellboy and Blade II, alongside the more textured work of humanist ghost story Devil's Backbone and his dark fairytale masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth. The Shape of Water is a fusion of those two halves – an entirely American story told with Del Toro's signature poetic flair.

The Shape of Water isn't the only Mexican influence to be felt at this year's Oscars. The easiest award to predict of the whole evening is Best Animated Feature, which will be handed to Pixar's Coco – a kaleidoscopic celebration of Mexico's annual Day of the Dead tradition. Ripley says the strength of the “Latino dollar” at the American box office has led to an improvement in representation and allowed the diversity of the USA to “reach as wide an audience as possible” on the big screen.

There's an irresistible urge to discuss the movie world's warm embrace for Mexican artists in the context of the US administration's threat to erect a border wall between the two countries. It's as if the push from Donald Trump to create a solid divide between the nations is being countered by the rich Mexican culture seeping through. When The Shape of Water is winning big at the Oscars and Coco was one of the biggest box office hits of last year, it's tough not to think the man in the White House looks a little red-faced.

Haddu says: “We know what the response by Hollywood stars has been to the Trump administration, so I think in many ways it has galvanised the Latino community and perhaps created a level of empathy from viewers, who are against the Trump rhetoric.”

The Academy has been both criticised and applauded for its cultural representation in recent years, from the righteous fury of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign to the euphoria when Barry Jenkins's Moonlight won Best Picture amid the calamitous, Carry On Oscars controversy of the notorious envelope mix-up. It's crucial, in that context, to point out that voters are seemingly in love with the filmmaking craft and extraordinary talent of directors born south of the border. President Trump might want to build a wall but, when it comes to culture, that division is a porous, flimsy structure.

Tom Beasley is a freelance film writer. Follow him @TomJBeasley.

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist