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The sepia-toned footage contains rare glimpses of Mexico from a vanished era: Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata entering Mexico City with a throng of troops, a pile of burned corpses, a child in folk dress celebrating the country’s independence, an artillery platoon preparing to fight counter-revolutionaries.
The images, captured on five reels of preserved nitrate film, have been compiled into a historical documentary that will receive its world premiere Friday at the Library of Congress as part of a two-day series of events focused on the United States’ southern neighbor.
“A Celebration of Mexico” will mix film, live music and dance with panel discussions and exhibits of works by artists including Diego Rivera and items such as the earliest printed map of Mexico City, from 1524. The library will also use the occasion to honor anthropologist-historian Miguel León-Portilla with its Living Legend Award for his efforts to preserve Nahuatl, the pre-Columbian language of the Aztecs.
The events come as Mexico’s reformist president, Enrique Peña Nieto, tries to reshape the nation’s energy policy and trade and security arrangements, and while Congress remains gridlocked over immigration policy and the question of whether to grant legal status to the approximately 6 million undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States.
Organizers say the displays and discussions might provide some context for current events by revealing new perspectives on the Mexican-American experience. One item of note is a drawing of a crowned Madonna by the self-taught artist Martín Ramírez, who migrated north seeking work but spent most of his adult life institutionalized in California mental hospitals.
“Mexico is one of our closest neighbors but many Americans have only a limited understanding of its cultural patrimony,” said Francisco Macías , a senior legal information analyst at the library who also serves as project coordinator. “The hope of this is to give people a very unique glimpse of Mexico one wouldn’t normally see.”
One prevailing theme is the outsize influence of the Mexican Revolution, a conflict fought roughly from 1910 to 1920 that marked the first major political and cultural upheaval of the 20th century. The uprising challenged the regime of Porfirio Díaz and a feudal-like system dating to Spanish rule that concentrated power in the hands of wealthy landowners.
The violent struggle not only led to agrarian reforms and new economic rights, but also prompted hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to legally immigrate to the United States. It also inspired innovations such as the muralist art movement that blended political expression with public art and gained a foothold in the United States during the New Deal.
The documentary that will be premiered is the only such compilation from the silent-film era and will be screened to a live piano accompaniment of period music. The fragile reels were part of New Jersey collector John E. Allen’s extensive private film archive before they were donated to the library.
The preservation took place at the library’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va., with input from restorer Gregorio Rocha and the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía.