By Anna Spieser

Picture Señorita Extraviada-1Lourdes Portillo’s 2001 documentary, Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman), investigates the epidemic of disappeared young women in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican town whose location on the US border makes it a strategic economic centre. As such, the town is a hub for narcotraffickers and American companies alike and has turned into a lawless environment where thousands of women have been abducted, raped, killed and dismissed in a relative indifference.

A lot may be said about Portillo’s film, not all of it good. Indeed, the use of mysterious music and voyeuristic shots sometimes gives Señorita Extraviada the appearance of a sensationalist late night TV crime investigation. Señorita Extraviada is certainly not be the most visually impressive documentary you will see this year.

However, what Señorita Extraviada lacks in form it makes up for in content. The strength of Portillo’s documentary resides in its lack of closure, forcing the audience to reflect upon the system’s incapacity to effectively protect and bring justice to its most vulnerable citizens. One cannot watch the film and simply go on with their life; the ghosts of the dead women that haunt the film stick with you. Señorita Extraviada‘s narrative progression emphasizes the trans-generational aspect of the phenomenon; it opens with the testimony of an older woman who narrowly escaped the fate of thousands of others – including her daughter whom she was pregnant with at the time – and finishes with the promise that the sister of one of the last young girls interviewed will be abducted herself two months later. It follows that Portillo seems to suggest that, so long as the political, judicial and media systems continue to deal with the problem in such an equivocal manner, scapegoats will be thrown in jail while generations of poor young women will continue to be the victims of confident criminals.

In addition to being a denunciation of the crippled and corrupt Mexican judicial system, Portillo’s slow-paced film is also an homage to the memory of those forgotten by the collective conscience and who no longer exist but in the thoughts of their families. Indeed, Señorita Extraviada goes beyond the investigation of a series of unresolved crimes and their hypothesized perpetrators, it offers a discursive space to the families of the victims in which they are free to tell a story that nobody else seems to care about. As a result of their apparent resignation, their experience appears to be the only tangible truth that one can cling on to throughout the film.

As such, in spite of its non-impressive aesthetics, I would urge anyone who has not seen Señorita Extraviada yet to do so and to break the indifference that surrounds the plague of the women of Ciudad Juárez to this day.