Blossoms of Fire is a good primer for anyone whose knowledge of indigenous Mexicans is based on the plethora of badly written travel guides to that country's popular Pacific Coast. Maureen Gosling and Ellen Osborne's documentary looks at the Zapotec of the Isthmus, mostly working women who live in the twin villages of Juchitán and San Blas Atempa, Oaxaca. In the film, the women and, occasionally, their spouses and children, discuss the role of women in Zapotec society, the Zapotec language, and the ability of the Zapotec people to adapt to change. The consensus is that the women, while family-centered, are also financially independent. In Western terms, that spells matriarchy, which is what the filmmakers set out to illustrate.

The florid colors of the women's native dress, the kaleidoscope of hues and textures in the central market where the women ply their fruits and vegetables, the tropical pinks and greens of the towns' stucco structures, and the overall sensuality of Zapotec lifestyle are expertly captured by Mexican-born cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet (Before Night Falls). While the documentary is an eyeful, it's flawed by sloppy sound editing: Disembodied voices are heard on the soundtrack which are not identified on camera, and quotes from historical figures, read aloud, are too numerous and thoughtlessly inserted. To make matters worse, Gosling narrates in her bland, ill-fitting Midwest accent. She and Osborne take off on tangents, such as the Zapotec tolerance for homosexuality, or a festival in San Blas Atempa, and then strain to make these sequences fit in with the stated theme of the documentary, which is matriarchy.

The controversy over whether or not Zapotec women are matriarchs, supposedly begun by an article in Elle Magazine, is a tempest in a teapot, and the filmmakers' mistake in Blossoms of Fire is to use that Western measure to frame their documentary. Native lifestyle in Mexico, Maya or Zapotec or Mixtec, looks liberating to Western eyes because of our biases and our assumptions about the macho strain in Spanish or Spanish-influenced cultures. The filmmakers' wide-eyed discovery that Zapotec women control the family's wealth, and that this is proof of their independence, displays a rather myopic view of native culture in general, and of Mexico in particular. Gosling's peevish references to the silly 1994 article in Elle-it's a glossy, superficial fashion magazine-to highlight her more weighty approach, is a cheap grab at integrity. While Blossoms of Fire avoids the fluff and sensationalism of an Elle article, it is by no means the last word on Zapotec culture.

Blossoms of Fire is a debut for Gosling, whose previous experience consisted of 20 collaborations with Les Blank, most notably on the critically acclaimed Burden of Dreams, about the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. She took over Blossoms of Fire from co-director Ellen Osborne, who began the project years earlier. There are moments in the documentary when the filmmakers break through the cultural divide, such as when a midwife tells a humorous tale of a husband who assisted at his wife's delivery. It's a story that obviously provided months of amusement to the village women, but in the documentary it's a brief introduction to the subject of midwives. Gosling and Osborne were looking for Western-style feminism, for matriarchs, and the tales of midwives didn't click. Luckily, Xavier Pérez Grobet's images survived their editing and the Zapotec "blossoms" peek through.

-Maria Garcia