Radio Silence is a documentary following Carmen Aristegui, a Mexican journalist and living folk hero, as she tries to get back on the air to report on government corruption after state censorship caused her to be fired.
This is a documentary which wears its viewpoint on its sleeve. The filmmaker states openly that since she was a teenager, Carmen has been her hero. And it’s not hard to understand why. In a world of crime and corruption, which goes largely ignored by the media who know which side their bread is buttered on, Carmen is one of the few voices who does actual investigative journalism to expose those behind these injustices. As a result, she loses her job, is put under government surveillance, has death threats made against her, and has to send her child abroad for his own safety. That would break most people, but Carmen sinks her life savings into building her own radio station, one that can’t be taken off the air because it is hers, and continues to do her reporting on the internet, exposing even more of crimes of the powerful. It is hard not to see that as heroic. And everywhere she goes, people come up to her in the street to thank her for her work. They want to take pictures with her and thank her for risking her life to bring them the truth.
Mexico tends to get portrayed to the outside world as a clusterfuck of horrors, anarchy in all but name, a monolithic crime state. Which has two effects. First it blinds us to the actual complex reality of real people’s lives, and denies the constant struggle for justice made by the people. And secondly, it acts as propaganda to keep the Mexican people feeling like their situation is hopeless, that their problems are insurmountable. Where to start, in a world run by drug lords, corrupt police, and even more corrupt politicians?
This film is good at giving that complex contextual reality as part of Carmen’s story, necessary to be understood for Carmen’s story to make sense. The opening part of the film is a whistle-stop tour of Mexican political history. It may be fair to say Mexico has had democracy in name only, with the same party holding power for 70 years, as power became entrenched around a few powerful figures and the corrupt mechanisms that kept them in place. The first time this monopoly of power is broken, it results in a spiral of violence and chaos, as the disruption to established criminal power spews into wholesale horror on the streets. And there is a rush to return to the old establishment, who, even for all their crimes, can at least provide a predictable kleptocracy over this anarchy. Led by golden boy, President Pena, their promises for a safer Mexico are immediately dashed when 43 innocent students are disappeared by police and drug cartels. The outrage that follows is met with a government cover-up, and waves of popular frustration at the impunity of those in power. Into this steps Carmen.
Carmen exposes a scandal involving Pena and Chinese contracts. Unlike quiet domestic scandals, which politicians have made themselves consequence-proof to, this involved Pena having to cancel the contract, pay back six hundred million dollars to China, and publicly apologise to them. And from that moment, Carmen’s card was stamped. She was drummed out her job and the rest is history.
The film follows what happens next. It shows the hunger among the Mexican people for free press and genuine democracy. It shows the trials and strain it puts on Carmen as she tries to meet the same standards she has for her work under impossible conditions. And it shows Mexico is not a monolithic crime state, that there are diverse forms of resistance, that Mexicans don’t just take oppression lying down.