Artist Dora García Considers Alexandra Kollontai and Mexican Feminism

The newest of artist Dora Garcia’s films on feminist revolution, Amor Rojo’s simultaneous exploration of Soviet feminist Alexandra Kollontai and today’s Mexican feminism is the most compelling yet, but it misses the politics of the contemporary moment.

Alexandra Kollontai at her home in Moscow, April 1946. (Sovfoto / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Early in the film Amor Rojo, artist Dora García’s exploration of the legacy of Bolshevik feminist Alexandra Kollontai and the contemporary Mexican feminist movement, a narrator reads Kollontai’s thoughts on solidarity over dramatic footage of recent feminist protesters in Mexico lighting a bonfire. Solidarity comes not from the mere recognition of “a community of interests,” Kollontai wrote, but from the “capacity for love . . . in the broadest sense of the word.”

A revolutionary, Soviet diplomat, writer, and important thinker on communism and the condition of women, Kollontai has been the object of a small revival in recent years, inspiring writing by left feminist thinkers like Kristen Ghodsee and Jodi Dean and discussion in socialist-feminist reading groups. García has been leading this reconsideration.

Kollontai’s work and life was the subject of García’s exhibition Red Love at an art space in suburban Stockholm in 2018, which was followed by an anthology of the same title reflecting on the communist thinker’s legacy. The title was an allusion to Kollontai’s 1923 novel of the same name. (I wrote about García’s anthology and the Kollontai revival for Lux in 2020.)

Since then, intrigued by Kollontai’s time as Soviet ambassador to Mexico, García has been exploring the Bolshevik thinker’s legacy alongside a consideration of present-day Mexican feminism and queer movements in a series of compelling films and exhibitions. I interviewed her for Jacobin about this work last year, when García’s exhibition Revolution: Fulfill Your Promise! was at Amant, along with the first two films in the Kollontai trilogy — Love with Obstacles (2020) and If I Could Wish for Something (2021) — and a read-aloud of Kollontai’s letters by contemporary women, called Letters of Disappointment (the latter is still online).

Amor Rojo (Red Love) is the third film and related exhibition in the series. It is the best of the trilogy, going even deeper into the character both of Kollontai and of Garcia’s contemporary sources than the earlier films. It’s also more emotionally resonant and sensual. Both threads of this film, Kollontai’s life and Mexican feminism, are well rendered and inspiring, but I was disappointed that they never quite intertwine.

The contemporary Mexican subcultures and characters are beautifully vivid and deeply felt, with the return of La Bruja de Texcoco, a trans performer who also appeared in the earlier films, as well as some group interviews with members of a queer commune.

Kollontai’s own history, which is told through interviews with Mexican scholars, is also portrayed well. As in the other films, in Amor Rojo, García has a keen sense of the tactility of the archive. She evocatively focuses on rubber gloves, manila folders, old clippings, and century-old pamphlets that have ripped and must be put back together. Such objects can tease you with tangible glimpses into a person’s life. The experts offer insight and are given plenty of space to talk about Kollontai, her work, and her time in Mexico.

Through her sources, García offers a thoughtful exploration of how different the Soviet Union and Mexico are, because Mexico, despite a long history of anti-colonialist struggle, never had a communist revolution. It’s an important distinction, but one that leaves the viewer curious about leftist feminism in Mexico. A historian speaks of Mexican second-wave feminism, mentioning that after being forgotten for decades, Kollontai’s work was revived in the 1970s.

Yet despite the vivid presence of García’s genderqueer and trans youth, and the atmospherics of pro-choice protests and demonstrations against sexual violence, it’s not clear how Kollontai’s particular feminist ideas are resonating in Mexico today — if indeed they are. While García has great footage of feminist protests in Mexico, we don’t see this movement connected to women’s workplace fights — central to Kollontai’s politics — nor to Kollontai’s reimagining of family life.

On the latter point, García interviews members of a queer, anti-capitalist commune. But she doesn’t ask them much about any of the themes that would have most interested her Bolshevik subject: Do they have children? How are the children cared for, and who does that labor? Where do romantic couples fit into the life of the collective? How do they socialize housework?

Of García’s contemporary Mexican subjects, we don’t learn whether they hold jobs outside the commune or are active in their unions. About their politics, it’s clear they are anti-capitalist, but she doesn’t ask them about communism or socialism, or any questions about what kind of society they are hoping to achieve through their activism.

Possibly García doesn’t see the Mexican activists as part of those traditions because Mexico and Russia have had such different histories, but the film would be stronger with more attention to such convergences and departures. It may be that many queers and feminists in Mexico are mainly engaged in fighting against social conservatism and bigoted violence rather than for socialism, but we’d still love to know what they make of the questions to which Kollontai devoted her life. Members of a left feminist queer commune surely do have much to say on these subjects.

To be sure, some of Kollontai’s preoccupations would seem anachronistic to many young people today, perhaps including communism and revolution itself. More intimately, Kollontai was preoccupied with how to fix relations between men and women, while, globally, many present-day women and queers are more concerned with how to avoid being violently coerced into heterosexuality.

But maybe the shared spirit of 1920s Kollontai and queer Mexicans in the 2020s matters more than these specific divergences on ideology or issues. Refreshingly, in a time of aesthetically austere politics around the world, one clear through line binding Kollontai’s story to that of the young Mexican feminists is eros. Love and sex were always at the center of Kollontai’s work, and she was often mocked for that by other communists, who found personal matters trivial.

Her most famous essay is a letter giving advice to a young communist on love, called “Make Way for Winged Eros.” The film concludes with a long performance by La Bruja to an audience that looks ecstatic to be there together: the last shot of the film is a three-way kiss.