Santiago Maza on Evidencing Empathy in the Midst of Tragedy in ‘After the Earthquake’

Photo courtesy of Santiago Maza
Photo courtesy of Santiago Maza

Picture this: It’s a seemingly normal day in Mexico City on September 7th, 2017. Except it wasn’t. It was the day when Mexico’s capital was jolted by an 8.1-magnitude earthquake, claiming approximately 98 lives. 

It was the most powerful strike in about a century. 

The world watched with their hearts in their hands as Mexico City tried to tend to their rescue efforts. But the impact extended beyond the capital. 

The earthquake swung — with forceful violence —  by Juchitan, located in Oaxaca. 

Despair painted the rubble, and people inhaled intoxicating debris for miles. Imagine being suffocated by the dust from walls at home that once kept you safe. 

It was a lot to take in. 

Yet, in 2017, mainstream media mainly focused on Mexico City, placing Juchitan and its people on a backburner.

A town full of color and feminine energy

Juchitan might not be the first town people think of when they think of Mexico, but it is a vibrant town home to many Zapotec people. 

A matriarchal society leads this town, where women are the head of the household — a breath of fresh air from the dominating societal norm. It is also a place where queerness is celebrated through the acceptance of muxes. 

Muxes are a recognized third gender among the Zapotec people in Oaxaca. They flaunt traditional dresses, speak the Zapotec language, uphold other cultural traditions, and frequently assume a woman’s role in the household.

Juchitan counts with a rich culture embedded in the arts, but, most importantly, many call it home. 

So, when Mexico-born filmmaker, Santiago Maza, traveled to Juchitan months after the catastrophic shake, it felt like a groundhog day. Maza witnessed a town that continued to live with the worst parts of 2017 brushing up from under their noses every.single.day. 

He knew this was a story that needed to be told, so he started drafting what would later become “After the Earthquake.”

Santiago Maza, Director of "After the Earthquake"

An image that tells the unspeakable

Understanding the impact of neglect is at the core of “After the Earthquake.” Maza gives the world a front-row seat on what not receiving funding after a tragedy may look like. This allows us to use a different perspective while understanding how it’s a humanitarian crisis that needs to be taken seriously.

Maza, a trained filmmaker who studied documentary filmmaking and screenwriting in London, traveled back to Mexico to work as an assistant director in fiction projects. 

Eventually, he started directing his own documentaries, which led him to create “After the Earthquake.”

Recently, the film was screened at Poppy Jasper International Film Festival, making it the first time the film had been screened in the United States.  

When asked what this film meant to him, Maza stated that he was excited to be able to bridge borders in telling this story because he knows how much of Mexican’s identity is shared between Mexico and the United States (California specifically). 

Find the complete interview with Santiago Maza and BELatina News below. 

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

What inspired you to create “After the Earthquake?”

There were a series of earthquakes in Mexico in the year 2017. But the biggest one that hit Mexico City was ten days after the one that hit Juchitan. Obviously, because it was the capital, the earthquake in the [Mexico] City grabbed the attention of everyone and people forgot about the other places like Juchitan –  and many others that were hit by the chain of earthquakes. So, when I went to Juchitan, months after the quake, it looked as if it had occurred the day before – all because help hadn’t arrived. 

Politicians had taken advantage of the help that was sent and was withholding it to use it for political purposes. That is when we realized that this story needed to be told because people were still struggling heavily with the earthquake, even though it was months after the tragedy. We needed to tell their stories, how their society was fractured, and what needed to be shared to provoke a change; this was the motor behind us making the film. 

How long did it take you to materialize the movie?

We made an initial trip two months before we started shooting. Then, we went back and started working with people in Juchitan. The actual shooting took seven days, and we later began the editing and post-production process. So, materializing the film from the first trip to when it was ready took ten months. 

What were some of the challenges you faced while filming it?

Well, the challenges we faced while filming –  being an independent production – you always struggle to find how to make the most of the resources you have as well as assembling a team that knows how to deliver a documentary film that is rich, fully fleshed, and that creates a universe of its own. All of this while doing it with a skeleton crew simultaneously.  I think this had its advantages because it lets us move more swiftly through the town, especially in a city still ravaged by the earthquake. The fact that we could move around on bikes or walk from one place to another was a real advantage. We also faced the challenge of having people trust us because most of us were not from Juchitan. As I said before, the help was withheld, and the media only wrote whatever they wanted. We wanted to show them that we were interested in working with them as a mirror and not imposing our message as an outsider – and that was a challenge in itself.  But we overcame it; we became friends with the community, and they opened up not only as individuals but they invited us into their world and shared their stories with us.  

What do you think is going to impact the audience the most about this film?

What I think is going to move the audience the most about this film is how this town ended up after the earthquake. Some parts of it looked like a warzone. It’s hard to watch, especially since it’s a town rich in culture and has its own yearly holiday where everyone dresses up and is so lively. Then, suddenly, seeing it as this gray place where this big tragedy had happened and that months after the earthquake, it still looked like a desolate place is not an easy view.  People will see that help wasn’t being sent to those who really needed it.

We were also lucky to find strong characters that embodied the community’s situation, and we were able to share how they lived and how this place has deeply rooted traditions. At the same time, we found a way to make them feel alive and share them with the people even after the earthquake. 

The documentary doesn’t show this, but in the end, the big holidays were on their way, and people wanted to give back that joy to the community and the visitors. You can see some of that spirit in the film. 

Do you hope this will raise more awareness of earthquakes and everything following them after people watch this film?

I would love for that to happen, but I have to say that I have to be realistic about this and think that this won’t happen. In the end, after every earthquake, people always respond straight away in the following hours and days, but what needs to change is the commitment to these communities that are affected. They need to understand that this is a long-term commitment, and it needs to come from the institutions, companies, and the media. It’s not just a big public announcement they make after the fact. 

I think that people respond positively to earthquakes, but what needs to change is within the big institutions; they need to understand that their impact can be felt at so many levels. 

I hope that can change, but I don’t think it will happen anytime soon. 

Who is your ideal audience for this film, and why?

This is a story about a small community and the earthquake’s aftermath. I don’t think it necessarily speaks to people who have experienced earthquakes or from Juchitan. On the contrary, it is much more universal and tells the story of survival and struggle, how people come together, and how communities are torn apart by tragedy.