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When I spoke to my dad (pictured above, with my uncles, trying to look cool) about my current interest in non-theatrical exhibition, he told me again about ‘Cine Mejoral’. This was a free film show, projected on a wall, which he remembers attending when he was growing up in a small town, Chinchiná, in Colombia’s coffee region. He remembers sitting on benches in a patio with his brothers and friends, watching Westerns and Mexican films. It was the early 1960s and the town had a fine permanent cinema, where they would often spend “social triple” on a Sunday afternoon, but Cine Mejoral was free, as it was sponsored by Mejoral, a brand of painkillers. My mother, from a smaller town not far away (Pácora), also remembers these free film shows in the village square, projecting on the walls of a wealthy family’s house.
I remembered this story when Richard McDonald mentioned that some of the cinema vans used by itinerant projectionists in Thailand were bought from pharmaceutical companies. Of course, health campaigners and educators had been using mobile film units for quite a long time. In Colombia, the Ministry of Education had cinema vans at the end of the 1940s. But as soon as we started Googling, it became evident that Cine Mejoral was part of something pretty big.
Mejoral’s promotional cinema operations spread across Latin America, sticking to the same pattern. A simple search brings up examples in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Mexico, El Salvador, and Peru. In Colombia, I find a mention from the North-East border with Venezuela and the cold, remote highlands of the South. The stories are all very similar: the Mejoral van would turn up in the village, using a loudspeaker to announce the evening entertainment (hence Quechua speakers in Peru dubbed it ‘the talking car’). They would choose a wall, usually the outside of a school or municipal building, on the main square. People of all ages would turn up, sometimes bringing their own rugs or stools, to watch Westerns, slapstick comedies, and Mexican action films. They would bring snacks, typically local products like corn parcels (humitas) in Peru, or ‘cuca’ biscuits and cheese in Colombia. The nostalgic remembrances of these outdoor cinemas talk of the excitement and fun that they brought to these rural audiences.
The apparent uniformity of Cine Mejoral throughout its thousands of local instances across a very large region is interesting. So what’s behind it? A market expansion drive coupled with an ideologically motivated project of Continental integration. A perfect storm of capitalist interests, neocolonial politics, and mass media. All this to sell painkillers?
It’s a story that goes back to the aftermath of the First World War, when the German company Bayer was forced to give up their Aspirin trademark in the US and sell up to Sterling Drug. A later agreement allowed Bayer to retain the Latin American market for aspirin. Bayer was part of IG Farben and deeply entangled with the Nazi regime from the 1930s. As the US entered the war, reclaiming the Latin American consumer pharma market for American companies became as much a strategic goal as a commercial opportunity. The film trade press Cine Mundial reported in 1942 on the start of the Mejoral marketing campaign:
Sterling has 29 offices and 13 factories in our America, which will manufacture, advertise and sell new medicinal products to counteract the influence of German drugs. The campaign, of course, has the full support of each national government. (Cine Mundial Feb. 1942 p. 96)
Continental unity through shared cultural expressions was one of the strategies of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA), headed by Nelson Rockefeller during WWII. The OCIAA had been lobbying Hollywood to change their usually offensive representations of Latin America, as part of the ‘Good Neighbour’ policy . By the time the US entered the war, the Rockefeller Foundation had already experimented with Pan-American Radio programmes for a few years. Radio was thus the first line of work for the OCIAA, which, as Jose Luis Ortiz Garza explains, had four main propaganda goals, one of which was promoting “hemispheric solidarity”. Content was broadcast on short-wave from the US, recorded on discs for local broadcasting, or scripted to be recorded locally, and it included music, variety shows, thriller serials, and historical programmes.
Archive research by Ortiz Garza shows that Sterling Drug (the makers of Mejoral) made a deal with the OCIAA in 1942 whereby the pharma company would buy over US$335k worth of airtime and print, and give 10% of it for OCIAA messages. Sterling also agreed to broadcast the OCIAA anthem and play it on its loudspeaker cars. Beyond its efficacy as direct propaganda, the huge publicity budgets invested by US companies in Latin American media was a bribe, or at least an enticement to toe the Allied line. Writing about Mexico, Ortiz Garza argues that
Many companies, apparently pursuing commercial goals, became peculiar branches of the propaganda or foreign affairs ministries. This was clearly noticeable in the case of manufacturers and distributors of patent medicines (n.d., p. 7, my translation)
Bayer had already had mobile cinema vans in Latin America, so when Sterling sought to claim the aspirin market for Mejoral, they had to step up. Without proper research it is impossible to say when exactly ‘Cine Mejoral’ was born, and with what equipment, and how its intricate routes were traced, or what role it had after WWII (which is when my parents remember it). This is exacerbated by the fact that ‘Cine Mejoral’ became a generic name for free outdoor screenings, which were later organised by the Church or the municipality. But whoever takes this on as a serious research project will be entering the fascinating realm where geopolitics and childhood experience come together around a sheet on a wooden frame, and the Lone Ranger gallops into a village square deep into the Colombian mountains.