First film in New York Times Op-Doc series by Mexican directors tells story of radio host killed on-air

A new documentary about Mexican activist Atilano Román Tirado, who was killed on-air in 2014 during his weekly radio show, is the first in a series of short films by Mexican directors showcased by The New York Times’ Op-Doc Series.

Young Mexican filmmaker Betzabé García of Sinaloa created the 10-minute documentary short titled “Unsilenced.” The project was inspired by García’s first feature film “Kings of Nowhere,” which won several awards, including the SX:Global audience award at SXSW, according to The Times.

“This story is not just about my friend Atilano — it highlights the culture of censorship that has grasped our entire country,” García wrote. “Atilano’s killing by gunmen inside a radio booth during the live broadcast of a show dedicated to airing the demands of his movement was a clear message of intimidation to the people, meant to quiet anyone who was also thinking of protesting injustice.”

“When audio from the murder was retransmitted across the country by hundreds of other media outlets, the killers were able to amplify their message of violence and intimidation,” she continued.

“Unsilenced” is narrated by Román Tirado, who García met in 2009 while working on “Kings of Nowhere,” according to her statement in The Times.

Román Tirado was a leader of a group of residents in Sinaloa state displaced by flooding caused by construction of the Picachos Dam, according to previous Knight Center reporting. The group protested the displacement and conditions of their new government housing.

In the documentary, Román Tirado said that about 40 members of his group were killed in five years.

“And it’s all very clear to us,” he said. “It’s a form of government intimidation, to make us stop fighting."

After he was moved to a new home, Román Tirado started a radio show called “That’s how my land is,” which he taped at the radio station for the newspaper El Sol de Mazatlán. He talked about the displacement and other news, according to Associated Press (AP) reporting.

On Oct. 13, 2014, one of two armed men who came to his radio station made his way into the room where Román Tirado was working and killed him. Listeners of the program heard the shots.

The AP said “it was the first on-air killing in recent memory in Mexico.”

According to the documentary, no one has been charged for his murder.

Seven media workers, including Román Tirado, were killed in Mexico in 2014.

García's film is the first in a series by Mexican directors to be released by Op-Docs over the course of this year. Submissions are still being accepted.

The New York Times’ editorial department started Op-Docs in 2011. It describes the project as a “forum for short, opinionated documentaries, produced with wide creative latitude and a range of artistic styles, covering current affairs, contemporary life and historical subjects.”

The series of films by Mexican directors “is a chance for us to get beyond the familiar stories dominating news headlines to showcase perspectives on Mexico from those who know it best,” The Times said.

Kathleen Lingo, commission editor for opinion video at The Times, told the Knight Center that she was inspired to do the series after attending the Morelia International Film Festival and DocsDF in Mexico.

“I was inspired and enlightened by seeing films by Mexican directors about Mexico because they are so different that the films Americans make about Mexico,” she said. “Not that there is anything wrong with Americans making films about Mexico, but there is something really powerful about filmmakers telling their own community's stories.”

García’s project was released on March 22 and is available online. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles and is accompanied by a director’s statement available in either English or Spanish.

Lingo said the team from The New York Times en Español, the media company's recently launched website for Spanish-speakers, helped with translation on the project.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.