Subcomandante Marcos lights his pipe and says straight into the camera, “You’ve still got a lot of research to do. I don’t know what you have been doing all this time. How long have you been in Chiapas?” “Five months,” replies filmmaker Nettie Wild. “Hmm…” says the military commander of the Zapatista uprising, “….I’ve been here 12 years and I’m barely starting to understand.”

Marcos is a pipe-smoking, charismatic contradiction. He’s a “mestizo”, a Mexican of mixed Spanish/Indian blood.He’s an intellectual from the city who is the military leader and spokesman for an indigenous guerrilla army.

Since the first days of the uprising there has been a nervous ceasefire.

On January 1st, 1994, the Zapatista indigenous uprising took over five towns and 500 ranches in southern Mexico. Then they started communicating their message to the world on the Internet. The Mayan Indians of Chiapas were in Cyberspace. At the keyboard was Subcomandante Marcos.

Since the first days of the uprising there has been a nervous ceasefire. Now, three years later, Nettie Wild and her Canadian/Mexican film crew travel to the jungle canyons of Chiapas to capture eight months in the elusive and fragile life of a revolution.

Marcos is using the media as a long range missile to hold off 30,000 Mexican army troops who encircle Zapatista territory. His Internet communiqués challenge the Mexican government and taunt the entire international capitalist system. His poetry and rhetoric woo Mexicans with dreams of a new democracy. His stories tell of the Indians of Chiapas, who are so poor they are forced to try and change the world in order to survive it.

In the middle is Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia. The Mayan people call him “Tatic”. It means grandfather. For 30 years the Bishop had worked for peaceful change in Chiapas. Then in 1994, village after village turned to the Zapatistas and went to war. Now, the indigenous people have turned back to the Bishop to mediate a fitful series of peace talks between the Zapatistas and the government.

In the north of Chiapas, Manuel Garcia lives outside of Zapatista-protected territory. He and 2000 other indigenous villagers share the Zapatista dream for change.. But now they are homeless and living in fear. They are refugees in their own country. Despite the ceasefire, they have been forced out of their villages by a government backed paramilitary group, which ironically calls itself, “Paz y Justicia” or “Peace and Justice”. The paramilitary group accuses anyone who opposes them of being Zapatista guerrillas.

Despite the ceasefire, they have been forced out of their villages by a government backed paramilitary group

On camera, the Peace and Justice accuse the Zapatistas of violence. Off camera, they threaten to kill the Mexican members of the film crew. Out of their homes for four months, the refugees are desperate. They turn to the Bishop and the Zapatistas for help. But Marcos and the commandants’ hands are tied by the peace talks. The guerrilla army can’t defend the refugees or they will break the ceasefire. The Bishop is also afraid to make a move for fear Chiapas will collapse into civil war. The government denies the paramilitary groups exist. The refugees are left stranded, pawns in a ceasefire. They are fighting a war on their own.

Nettie Wild went to Chiapas to film an uprising. She ended up framing the entrapment of a revolution. It is a journey through fear and hope and illusion. In A PLACE CALLED CHIAPAS, nothing is as it first appears.


The Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels declared war on the Mexican Government more than four years ago as part of a campaign to improve the lot of indigenous Indians in southern Chiapas.

Subcommandante Macro, and his people have been using the Internet to send communiqués to the outside world, in the hope that the ensuing attention will force the government to deal honestly with the parties involved.


Today’s Zapatistas take their name from Emiliano Zapata, the hero of Mexico’s revolution. Zapata fought under the banner of “Tierra y Libertad” which translates literally into “Land and Liberty”.

The Mexican revolution was a complicated affair involving many armies. Emiliano Zapata led a largely campesino (peasant) army which was fighting primarily for land. Eventually Zapata joined forces with amongst others, Pancho Villa, and in 1914 rode victoriously into Mexico City. He didn’t stay long. It was clear to Zapata that other forces within the newly-formed political alliances were playing for power, not to return land to the campesinos. In 1919 Zapata was tricked and assassinated by the government. By 1930, the government’s ruling party was calling itself the Institutional Revolutionary Party. It has been in power ever since.


Who are the Zapatistas? Who is Marcos? On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) took over 5 towns and over 500 ranches in Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico. The Zapatistas say they chose this date because it marked the first day of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which they claim “is a death sentence for the Indian peoples of Mexico.”

The Zapatista demands stated they wanted control over their lives (indigenous rights, education, healthcare) and the land. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) is a guerrilla army made up of largely indigenous Mayan people including Tzotziles, Tzeltales, Tojolabales and Choles. The leadership calls themselves the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CRII-CG). They say they represent over 1000 Zapatista communities.

The military leader and spokesman for the Zapatista Army is Subcomandante Marcos who is not a Mayan and not from Chiapas. The government says he is a professor of philosophy and communications from Mexico City. It appears that Marcos came to the jungle 12 years before the uprising. He brought with him a quest for social change and an unerring sense of how to fight a revolution through the media. His poems, political harangues and short stories flood newspapers, magazines, television news and the Internet with stories of the Mexican Southeast. Together, Marcos and the Mayans of Chiapas, have created what the New York times calls “the world’s first post modern revolution”.from the left, and a morass of coup attempts from the right.

For the revolutionaries, it appeared the black and white days of organising a rebellion against a tyrannical dictator were gone. The left “movement’ faced instead the muted yellows of a Christian Democrat. But beneath the initial euphoria of the four day “snap” revolution, it appears the underlying economic and military system created by Marcos remains intact. The chances of effective land reform daily diminished as legislation wallows in a senate and congress made up of 90% large land owners. Worse, Mrs. Aquino’s forced marriage to the military which brought her to power, appears to have laid treacherous groundwork. With each coup attempt, rebellious factions of the military continue to make their bid for more power. Now, the president herself stands accused by human rights groups of having bargained away her “People Power” mandate to the military which has unleashed a powerful vigilante movement to augment its’ counterinsurgency campaign. Neighbours are encouraged to inform on neighbours. Filipinos are arming against Filipinos. The legal left is a key target. Human rights workers, labour organisers and activists from all sectors have been tagged as subversives by a rapidly growing anti-Communist movement which claims to have the military, God and democracy on its side.

The case of characters is set against the yellow triumph and contradictions of Mrs. Aquinos People Power. A RUSTLING OF LEAVES films the jubilant anniversary celebration of Cory’s February Revolution as festivities bring over two million Filipinos back into the streets to dance in a sea of yellow. There is however, the puzzling dark side of Mrs. Aquino’s presidency. A RUSTLING OF LEAVES documents the tragedy of the Mendiola massacre where 18 farmers were killed marching to the palace to demand land reform, and the president’s confusing endorsement of the vigilante groups which have brought back the terror of the Marcos era.

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Other festival attendance:

  • Berlin International Film Festival Forum of New Cinema
  • Munich International Film Festival
  • Sydney International Festival
  • Toronto International Film Festival
  • Hong Kong International Film Festival
  • Rencontres Internationales du Documentaires (Montreal)
  • Seoul Human Rights Film Festival
  • MOSTRA – Sao Paulo International Film Festival
  • FIPA ’99 – Biarritz