A cinematic journey into indigenous culture: Enrique Muñoz Rizo’s “Un Lugar Llamado Música”

On Saturday, Oct. 28, the Lawrence University Latin American and Spanish Film Festival hosted Mexican director Enrique Muñoz Rizo for a Q&A session after a screening of his 2022 documentary film, “Un Lugar Llamado Música” (“A Place Called Music”), a year and a day after its original premiere. The film follows musicians from the indigenous Wixárika community in the Mexican village of Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlán, particularly Daniel Medina, as they collaborate with Western minimalist composer Philip Glass to share their traditional music with a wider audience. 

What Rizo had originally intended to be a simple “making of” video of a collaborative concert between Glass and Medina in Mexico City became a five-year project that aimed to increase the visibility of the often-stereotyped, historically hermetic community of Wixárika people from the Sierra Madre mountains in Jalisco, México. 

In the film, Wixárika musician Daniel Medina de la Rosa faces the elders of his community to present his case for sharing their music on a Western stage along with Glass, who would add piano to their traditional ensemble. While the council is concerned with preserving their culture in a time when México’s indigenous traditions are disappearing rapidly, they are also wary to open up to outsiders since their survival has depended on insulation from other cultures. Their caution applied both to the collaboration with Glass – which eventually took their music not only to CDMX but also to the Julliard stage in New York – and the film project directed by Rizo. 

“There was a high risk for everyone involved,” Rizo explained. Medina was putting his own reputation on the line by vouching for Rizo and Glass to the elders, and the community was taking a risk in allowing strangers to film their lives and rites. Even Glass was hesitant, as he dislikes being on film, but participated because he believed Medina’s story needed to be told. Rizo told the crowd how easy it is for cinema directors to take and never give back, especially when it comes to indigenous communities. 

In the interest of giving back, Rizo had organized a screening of the documentary in the Wixárika community featured in the film just a few days prior to making an appearance at Lawrence. He did wonder if cinema was really what that community needed from him when they were also struggling to meet basic needs, but the experience proved joyful and rewarding. The children of the community enjoyed popcorn and as much of the film as they could sit through, while the adults found moments for raucous laughter seeing themselves projected onto the screen. For many, it was also difficult and strange to see the performance clips featured in the film where their traditional music was accompanied by piano. Some disliked it, while some were open to it or unsure.  

Rizo admitted to the audience that he spent time debating whether he should include more conflict in the documentary, but eventually settled on allowing the music to be the protagonist of the story. He mentioned that racism, anti-indigenous sentiment and preservation of culture were all pertinent topics to the Wixárika, but he wanted to focus “on what they had instead of what they did not.” What they had proved to be a previously insulated spiritual impetus for carrying on an ancient musical tradition.  

Another struggle in the filming process was the language barrier, which features in the documentary itself as Glass and Medina do not share any common language besides music. The Wixárika people speak the Wixárika language, as well as some Spanish while Glass spoke only English, so the film is in all three languages with subtitles. The musicians share on screen how they felt connected and understood through their music-making despite not understanding each other verbally, and Rizo spoke to the audience on Saturday about how the translational aspect of the film added a separate dimension to its development. 

The film crew originally tried to interview the Wixárika in Spanish, but they found it difficult to give answers that reflected the depth of their thoughts. Eventually, a couple who could help translate joined the team to facilitate communication while filming. The film also features English translations of the lyrics to the Wixárika songs, which tell stories of the peoples’ creation and tales of their deities. Translating these lyrics in a way that conveyed their nuance was an even bigger challenge, only surmounted once Rizo came into contact with a prisoner in Guadalajara who was able to help. Rizo shared that this translator passed shortly after the project was finished. 

One of the documentary’s modes of centering music, usually a background element in film, was its intensely detailed shots of the Santa Catarina landscape, complete with rich audio that carried the music of nature itself across thousands of miles. “Didn’t you get shivers when you heard the wind? Didn’t you feel the heat when you saw the fire?” Rizo asked the audience. 

Unfortunately, for a film like his to play a part in preserving a culture in a capitalist society, Rizo knows that being profitable is likely the key. The Wixárika, though, prioritize working for the reward of their inner and spiritual growth over monetary gain. 

Indeed, one of the common fears within indigenous communities is that the younger generation will leave to make money and lose their connection with their ancestral culture. It was important to Rizo to end the film with Medina’s return to Santa Catarina and his community. Medina set out to share his people’s music with a wider audience, but an integral part of his personal role in cultural preservation was that he returned home.