Berkeley-based filmmaker Maureen Gosling’s documentary “Blossoms of Fire” takes us to a place where women have upheld a tradition of political activism, economic independence and social power.
The film portrays what could be a progressive-liberal dreamscape, and it looks like a lot of hard work. Juchitan, Mexico, on the Tehuantepec peninsula near Oaxaca, is a place of near-mythic status. Stories have been told and songs have been song of the strong, beautiful women and their brilliantly embroidered clothes. Even Serge Eisenstein, the Russian pioneer of the cinematic art, shot footage of the these women in the Americas: “Eden lies between the Gulf of Mexico and Tehuantepec.”
It’s been called “The Last Matriarchy,” and its social structure described as domineered by women. But that isn’t exactly true, and Gosling took a 16mm camera to Juchitan to find out what this unique society is all about. “Blossoms of Fire” screens at the UC Theater on Wednesday and Thursday.
“It’s not as unique as one might think. There are a lot of groups in the Americas that have had this kind of social structure,” said Gosling, stressing the distinction that a matriarchy does not mean the opposite of a patriarchy. “It’s really a lot more of a complimentary relationship between the sexes, which I think is pretty cool.”
“Blossoms of Fire” gets its name from the explosive floral patterns and joyous color combinations of the women’s embroidered clothes. Uncommon of many women in developing countries, the women of Juchitan are bold, funny, and “look you in the eye,” Gosling said. In the marketplace or at home, these women hold positions of power based not on a commanding hierarchy, but from relationships and shared labor.
The images in “Blossoms of Fire” show women engaged in a seemingly unrelenting work ethic. When asked what is the drive in her life, an elderly woman replies, “Trabajar. Trabajar. Trabajar. (Work. Work. Work).” Most of the film footage involves women preparing sweetened plums, selling fruit juice in plastic bags, making stacks of tortillas for sale, or fish mongering.
“One important factor as to why they have such power is that they have economic independence,” Gosling said. “They can manage if they are not married, or divorced, or widowed.”
Gosling learned plenty from making films for 20 years with Berkeley’s intrepid independent documentary filmmaker Les Blank. Famous for his films of American rural culture, he taught Gosling the importance and vibrancy of regional music.
“One of my favorite things to do is edit to music,” said Gosling. “I loved to tell stories with the music. Instead of having a narrator tell you something, you can have the song connect somehow with what’s going on.”
The songs in “Blossoms of Fire” are sung in the indigenous Zapotec language, which is maintained in schools and on a regional radio station. Keeping their traditional culture alive is sometimes as carefree as the men singing Zapotec songs and the women teaching the language in schools. And sometimes it involves radical activism to stave off invading European Conquistadors or domineering Mexican political parties seeking to eradicate any pockets of social autonomy.
The film uses archival photos and drawings to tell the story of Juchitan’s turbulent past, and it’s proud political heritage which the women have been a part of creating for hundreds of years. “Their feminist movement has been going on for centuries,” said Gosling.
She says one of the things in the Juchitan culture that is valuable for American audiences is a respect for the feminine, to acknowledge and appreciate all that women do in society.
“The other thing I think is valuable is that we don’t have to invent these ideas, there are living examples around the world. These people are people that are worth listening to. They’re not backward, they’re not primitive. You can’t just write them off because we live in this so-called modern world.”