“Unlike the certainty of death, legacy is an open question.”
On November 22nd, 1988, Mexico’s most beloved and famous architect, Luis Barragán, passed away. His professional archive was bestowed to the widow of a former colleague who, unable to care for it, sold it. Eventually it would end up in Switzerland – an engagement present to the fiance of a furniture company chairman – where it has remained locked away in a private vault for nearly three decades.
But should anyone have the power and privilege to control an artist’s legacy in such a way?
This is the question that lay the foundation for The Proposal, the engaging, beautiful, and provocative documentary from artist Jill Magid. Magid calls the film “the last chapter” of The Barragán Archives, a project she started in 2013. Its goal: to see Barragán’s archive returned to Mexico for public presentation.
Magid is not foreign to the notion of challenging power structures, but she admits this project is different. Various interested parties have attempted to see the work returned, and so she is entering a story that has been in the telling for some time. Nevertheless, her respect for Barragán is clear in everything from her narration to Jarred Alterman’s cinematography. This is a story she is meant to have a hand in.
The core of the film revolves around letters sent between Magid and Federica Zanco, the once fiance to whom the archive now belongs. It starts with a simple request for Magid to visit, and quickly evolves into a battle of minds, with each letter acting like a move on some mental chessboard. Magid and Zanco are adversaries, there’s no arguing it, but it’s clear they understand each other’s intentions, even if they believe them wrong.
Magid bides her time while staying at Barragán’s home, discovering more about him by looking through his garden or record collection. She doesn’t dote too long on his architecture – along with the archive, Zanco also owns the Intellectual Property rights to Barragán’s work, so Magid must tread carefully – but the beauty in his craft is palpable.
The Proposal starts to lose momentum as it enters its second half. Magid puts in action her plan to recover the archive, a plan that involves securing some of Barragán’s ashes. Some viewers will be eager to find out what she has in mind, but those who predict her intention, or who already know the story, having heard about it as it unfolded, may find the latter half of the second act frustrating. The slow pace is designed to build anticipation for the titular (and brilliant) proposal in the third act, and the controversy that follows, but the film suffers as a result.
Zanco alleges that Magid has crafted a character of her in order to depict her as a villain. Ultimately, she doesn’t need the help. As filmmaker Heinz Emigholz, who attempted to make a documentary about Barragán’s work but could not afford the outrageous price Zanco put on the rights, puts it, her actions are “active censorship perpetuated through capitalism”.
Despite what might be said about Magid’s proposal – the reaction to which is seen in the closing minutes – The Proposal as a documentary is undoubtedly a fine exploration of the issues it addresses, and a resounding testament to the exceptional work of its director.
The Proposal screens March 8th and 16th
as part of ACMI’s Documentary Showcase.