Tuesday, April 28, 2009

SFIFF52: AL MÁS ALLÁ—On-Stage Conversation With Lourdes Portillo & John Anderson

Linda Blackaby, Programmer for the San Francisco Film Society, had the honor of bestowing upon Lourdes Portillo SFIFF52's Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award, which honors the achievements of a filmmaker whose work is crafting documentaries, short films, animation or work for television. In as many years as I have been attending the San Francisco International, the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award has been given to such luminaries as Jan Svankmajer, Robert Frank, Johan van der Keuken, Faith Hubley, Kenneth Anger, Fernando Birri, Pat O'Neill, Jon Else, Adam Curtis, Guy Maddin, Heddy Honigmann and Errol Morris. Portillo—the "elegant insurgent" (as scribed by filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña in her commendable program essay)—rightfully joins that esteemed company.

Blackaby provided a brief background of Portillo's career: Lourdes was born in Mexico. She moved to Los Angeles when she was 14. She started filmmaking as a member of the Marxist collective
Cine Manifest and then as a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. She is the mother of three sons and has been making films for 30 years. Her first film was the narrative After the Earthquake (Después de Terremoto, 1979) set in Nicaragua. In total, she's made 14 films, including several shorts. She does installations. She's had eight major retrospectives, has traveled around the world for this kind of recognition, and we're happy to also be recognizing her here. In 1986, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo—made with Susana Muñoz—was nominated for an Emmy, an Academy Award, won the Special Jury Prize at the United States Film Festival, and the Coral at the Havana Film Festival. Yasha Aginsky, an editor of Las Madres, recently remarked about making that film: "Lourdes is one of the funniest people I know. We laughed throughout the editing of Las Madres." How does someone who makes films about serious human rights issues still laugh? Renee says: "These are the dissonant sensibilities of Lourdes Portillo—the elegant, the insurgent, the fearless, the wickedly funny…." Many other festival prizes have ensued since Las Madres, including the Golden Gate Award in 1995 at this festival for The Devil Never Sleeps (El Diablo Nunca Duerme, 1994); the Sundance Special Jury Award in 2002 for Missing Young Woman (Señorita Extraviada, 2001); and you see how it goes? I could go on.

There have been various grants and fellowships for Lourdes, including three from the Rockefeller Foundation, a Guggenheim, and most recently a United States Artists Fellowship. Friend and advisor Gail Silva says, "Knowing Lourdes for 30 years has been an adventure. Each new film is different from the last, yet all have a universal consciousness, and a depth of humanity that translates to any audience. And she's brave. Señorita Extraviada has engendered serious threats to her life, yet for the last seven years she has continued speaking out against the murders of young girls in Juarez."

Lourdes is known all around the world, yet she's the sort of person who last week received this shout-out by Galería de la Raza in their weekly calendar: "Rock on, Lourdes! We love Lourdes. She's as bad ass as they come. She's the perfect tía, so to speak, but also a reminder that—in this heady male-dominated industry—there's some sparkling reminders that vision and good old-fashioned persistence can come together and inspire us all. We honor you, Lourdes."

At this juncture Lourdes Portillo walked onto the Sundance Kabuki stage to accept her Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award. "I've spoken in public a lot and I hardly ever get nervous," Portillo admitted, "but today I'm really nervous and I feel like I have to maybe drink. I'm profoundly honored to have been chosen by the San Francisco Film Society to receive this award. My very special thanks to you, Linda. I'm delighted to be in the company of filmmakers I have long admired, the previous awardees. This moment is so fitting to recognize the most talented collaborators a filmmaker could have. I want to share this honor with
Vivien Hillgrove, editor; Kyle Kibbe, cinematographer; José Araújo, sound recordist; and Gail Silva, advisor and, of course, many others here today who have given of themselves for the films we've made. You have been my team, my friends, and fellow artists, and I thank you. I'm very grateful."

Blackaby then introduced John Anderson, contributing film critic for Variety, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Film Comment, ArtForum, Village Voice and—here Blackaby chuckled—Schizophrenia Digest. Anderson is a past member of the Selection Committee of the New York Film Festival and the author of
Sundancing, Edward Yang, and I Wake Up Screening (with Laura Kim). Anderson and Portillo sat down to chat.

* * *

John Anderson: It's really nice to be here. I'm flattered. I was watching a film yesterday afternoon in the festival called Sacred Places from Cameroon which makes—both explicitly and implicitly—comparisons between film and the griot. It dawned on me that you are in that position.

Lourdes Portillo: I saw that film. I thought about that too.

Anderson: The fellow who runs the cine-club says that the griot tells people what they don't know. I thought, "I'm not sure that Lourdes would agree with that." Sometimes you tell people things they know and don't want to know.

Portillo: Yes.

Anderson: Feel free to address that at length.

Portillo: Yes or no is not enough for you? [The audience breaks into laughter. Lourdes addresses them.] We don't know each other that well so I have to be careful not to hurt his feelings.

Anderson: I'm a film critic. I have no feelings.

Portillo: Whatever. [Laughter.] No, y'know, I was brought up this way. At the kitchen table in my house we spent hours and hours with our parents addressing things that people didn't want to know. The news would come in, my father would discuss it with us, they would joke about it, they would talk about it, comment about it, and it was part of my life. When I started making films, I thought that was my journey: to tell people things that maybe they didn't want to know; but, to do it in such a way that it would activate them to do something to help, y'know? Yes, I agree that is kind of what I do.

Anderson: It's very unusual to hear someone say that they grew up in a household where people talked about things. Usually what you hear are reminisces of families who didn't talk about the very things that should have been talked about. To what do you attribute that? Your family sounds like it was rather special.

Portillo: No, no, not special really. I come from a working class family from the north of Mexico. I feel that's a very Mexican kind of thing that happens in families. In fact, I was talking to a friend of mine who—when I came to his house—he said, "Sit down and talk to me. Let's sit at the kitchen table and let's talk." Because that's where all conversations happen and all the truth is spilled out, y'know? Things change once you go in the street. You can't say all the things you can say at the kitchen table. It's kind of a Mexican tradition, I would say. I don't know if anyone agrees with me or disagrees.

Anderson: You came from Chihuahua at 13, which seems very significant. The name Ofelia keeps popping up in your movies and there's that whole Ophelia Complex. A young woman is at the cusp of such insanity.

Portillo: I was thinking of Dante; but, you're right, Ofelia keeps coming up. For me, 13 was very tragic because I was torn from my country; a country that I really loved and I still love and, of course, I've re-created in my memory and in my films. It was a very difficult journey, y'know? But I felt that I had the essence already of a person that had been formed so that I had the strength to fight, I had the strength to struggle, and I had self-possession. I was myself by then to go forward in a country that really diminished me as a human being. Being in school, I saw girls that were Mexican that had been born here or had come much earlier and they had already been destroyed. It touched me. It propelled me to make things that were meaningful, that treated us like human beings, that looked at us as full human beings with intelligence, with humor, all the things that we had. So yes, 13 is very special.

Anderson: In preparation for all this, I've been thinking about all the questions in terms of documentary filmmaking and—at some point—I thought, "Lourdes doesn't really think of herself as a documentary filmmaker."

Portillo: No, I do; but, I also think of myself as an artist that can do other things. A documentary filmmaker—because, again, I'll go back to Los Angeles where I landed as an immigrant—the only thing that I could have done (because I had fallen in love with film after an experience I'd had working on a film for a friend of mine), the only thing that was available to me with the mark of being a Mexican, being all the bad things that people projected onto me, the only thing I could do was educational films. That was the avenue that was open to me. So I said, "If this is the only avenue that's open for me, then I will do the best I can with what I have and with what I can do." I do think of myself as a documentarian and I love documentary but I love all other kinds of filmmaking.

Anderson: You have been deconstructing—if that's the word—the documentary process within your films from very early on. I don't know if you could call them mockumentaries; but, in The Devil Never Sleeps for instance, you are constantly questioning your own process and your own ethics as a documentary filmmaker, not necessarily coming to any conclusions, at least not within the frame of the film. So there's an ongoing debate within the documentary community about what constitutes good documentary making, whether it's the journalistic, whether it's the craft, whether it's the art. Frankly, Lourdes, you're one of the people I would pick as an example of—often you'll see a non-fiction film and you'll think, "Why isn't this a book? Why isn't this something other than a film because there's no reason for it to be a film?"—which you would never say about one of your films because they're so visually elevated.

Portillo: I've flirted with notions that have been coming through a whole academic world about documenting myself. It was probably an inspiration to go on that route. To play with documentary. To not take it so seriously. But to adhere to the truth. There is an adherence to the truth and there are no lies I can tell in my films. Be playful. Expand the medium. It doesn't have to be the boring PBS stuff.

Anderson: Speaking of which, what is your relationship with PBS?

Portillo: Don't ask, don't tell.

Anderson: There seems to be a lack of responsibility of certain cultural institutions in this country.

Portillo: Absolutely! They haven't responded to the numbers. How many people are here? Who needs to be addressed? That's why my journey as a documentary filmmaker is not over until I see a lot of Latinos making films independently, addressing issues that touch us. The PBS thing is pasteurized. Is that the right word?

Anderson: It's a very kind word. Which brings us to Al Más Allá in a way. I find it hilariously funny. Partly because I know so many people involved in documentary making and the people who need to see this film are probably the ones who wouldn't get it.

Portillo: They're not going to like it.

Anderson: No. But it does reflect upon the notion that—for a field that's supposed to be filled with renegades and rebels—it is, as you say, often pasteurized and formulaic. There doesn't seem to be a seat at the table for anybody who's bending the rules.

Portillo: That's true. For that, I'm just so surprised being here in front of you with this award.

Anderson: For your persistence.

Portillo: My son called it the stubbornness award.

Anderson: I had a conversation with a distributor tonight and we were talking about all the poor documentary filmmakers in the world and she said, "What? Are you kidding? Most of them have trust funds. How do you think they make these films?" [Hissing rises from the audience.] Not everybody; but, the distributor said that's the dirty little secret we're operating on.

Portillo: Definitely it's hard to make a living being a documentary filmmaker. I don't think it's easy. It's a labor of love and it's an adherence to justice and truth and then to play with it is horrible—that's what I do—play with the form. But some people take it very seriously and don't want to deviate from that. I just saw a film that was about a mayordomo, a butler, of a very wealthy family and it was a beautiful film; but, it was shot in 35mm, y'know? It went on and on and—though it was quite beautiful—I realized that the person who made it had means. Some things require those means and some people have them and other people don't have them and still make beautiful stuff and I applaud those filmmakers that have a real theme and a drive to tell a story.

Anderson: Where have you found funding? How have you been able to make your films?

Portillo: I was fortunate initially to have made Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo with Susana Muñoz because that film—with the help of many filmmakers here today—made a name for me. It was much easier after Las Madres because it received so much attention and awards and everything that I was able to raise money for the next film. So it's a matter of having a really good piece and then the road gets paved. That's not to say that it's not hard. It's incredibly difficult in sacrifice. But NEA, Rockefeller, when there was money, we were given money. We were trusted.

Anderson: Wouldn't you say that—formally speaking—Las Madres was one of your more conventional films?

Portillo: Yes. Also, it was not entirely my film. If I had begun my career with The Devil Never Sleeps, I wouldn't be here. I'd be there [Portillo references to the audience].

Anderson: You made a comment once that living in Mexico was like being in a telenovela, which I thought was fun.

Portillo: It's true! Anybody will tell you that.

Anderson: Another comment of your's was about collaboration where you said it's not your favorite way of working.

Portillo: No. I hate it. [Laughter.]

Anderson: That's what I heard.

Portillo: I like to collaborate when I'm the boss. [Laughter.]

Anderson: Your sense of humor is often commented upon but, you know, you draw short of derision when you're dealing with your subjects. The film that makes me think of that is your Selena film, where you could have gone off.

Portillo: That's a great comment.

Anderson: Thank you. That's for the people who hissed at me before. What was your motivation with that film? It seemed like an unlikely subject for you in a way.

Portillo: In a way; but, y'know, I want to be truthful. I want to portray people as they are. "Short of derision" is so observant of you. I'm always on the cusp of derision. Fortunately, I have an editor who is the most moral, wonderful editor who prevents me from being a complete criminal. [Laughter.] I think if I were allowed to let go, I would be really fearful.

Anderson: Getting back to Selena, you were dealing with people who—in someone else's hands—could have been made into the objects of ridicule in many instances. Like the woman at the grave.

Portillo: Yeah; but, y'know, the father wouldn't have let them. I had to pacify the father. The father would not give me the rights to the music if I didn't do what he wanted me to do. I did a little dance there. I tried to get what I wanted and at the same time be critical. I understand what you're saying about the woman by the grave; but, I think worse than that was who the father really was. He was a villain. He was like a Shakespearean character. He would have been a great subject for a documentary. He had a lot of control.

Anderson: Who did you make that film for?

Portillo: Teenage girls. So that they would see themselves. For the first time Latina girls saw themselves portrayed on the television screen. They saw a brown girl that looked like them. You can't forget the historical impact Selena had. That's why I wanted to make the film. Up until that moment for girls in Texas—like I told you when I came to this country I saw girls who had been destroyed—when I went to Texas, I could see girls who had been destroyed. But at the same time, in Selena, in some way, they had some self-worth. So that's who I made the film for.

Anderson: You've stated that your fascination with Mexico also involves your fascination with death.

Portillo: Yes.

Anderson: Could you talk about that a little bit?

Portillo: Well, y'know, in Mexico death is a part of life. Again, I'll go back to my parents. Around the kitchen table my parents would say, "When I die, I want you to do this and that." They would always mention their deaths. Death is a constant companion. They always made reference to it. It's not something to be afraid of. It's just something that is. A fact. At the same time, later on in the Day of the Dead film, you see the joyful aspects of death. Later on that became darker and darker, like in Señorita Extraviada, y'know? But death is a part of life and I accept it in that way; but, I must say that—after making Señorita Extraviada—I don't want to make films about death anymore. I want to make films that don't deal with violent death.

Anderson: For those who might not know what Señorita Extraviada is about, it's about the Juarez murders of … how many women? Hundreds?

Portillo: Yeah, hundreds. I mean we don't know how many women; but, to this day, women are still being murdered in some ritualistic way by narcotraffickers.

Anderson: You were threatened after making that film?

Portillo: Oh yeah. Everybody who has made an impact on the community of Juarez is threatened. I was threatened when I showed the film in the exterior of Mexico when I went to Europe and traveled all over. The Mexican government became aware of the impact the film was having on people and—when I returned to Ciudad Juarez—one day I was there with other people who were doing a function to help the women. A man took me aside, a Secretary for the Attorney General, and he called me by the nickname my mother called me—my mother was dead—and he said, "I know where Esmeralda Street is." That's where I live. He said, "Yes, I do. I know this and I know that" and I said, "Oh, that's nice, that's good; I got to go now." I realized that was a threat. That they knew everything about me. Absolutely everything. Sometimes when I show the film to this day—it's been many many years—but there's always someone in the audience, a man generally … I don't know if I should say all this. In any case, I'm always asked, "Well, are you going to make another film? Aren't you going to follow it up?" and I always have to say, "No."

Anderson: Because you're afraid?

Portillo: Because I'm afraid. After I made Señorita Extraviada, after being threatened, I felt very vulnerable. I kept on traveling with the film and I kept on telling everybody what was happening and I felt more and more vulnerable. Then I felt like I was falling apart. I don't think that's unusual. People who work in this kind of activism feel that way. When I started to fall apart, I decided that I had to get myself together again. But it's taken many years. Finally, I feel just okay. I have like post-traumatic stress syndrome. I can't hear anything about the women of Juarez or how they died or how they disappeared because it upsets me. What is really amazing to me is: why didn't it upset me when I first was there? When I saw things? And I witnessed things? I think it's a process that people who are engaged in human rights to that extent of knowledge, suffer a lot for it in some way. I don't want to make myself a victim but I think it's good to tell this to documentary filmmakers.

Anderson: The other thing that might be helpful to documentary filmmakers is often what distinguishes a good doc from a great doc: it's the filmmaker's ability to get information out of people. I don't know if the word "wheedles" is correct there; but, people talk to you in Señorita Extraviada in remarkable ways. They're revealing things to you that are amazing. Do you have anything you can frame in the way of a "tip" to other filmmakers how you get information out of people?

Portillo: People ask me this a lot. I'm trying to figure it out. I don't know what it is. You have to feel like you're in that person's shoes. You have to treat them with respect and kindness. You have to really feel the curiosity that you have inside of you and express it and not formulate things, y'know? To be sincere. Sincerity is very important, y'know?

Anderson: Real sincerity?

Portillo: No, no, fake. [Laughter.] You devil! [To the audience] I don't know him very well and now he's showing me who he really is. It has to do with sincerity and truthfulness and how the person perceives you. If you're being fake, you're never going to get anything. If you have an agenda, you're not going to get anything. If you're sincere and you follow through. Also, you don't abandon your subjects. The people in Señorita Extraviada, we went there and then we came back and came back and came back many times. I can't say I gained their trust; they became my friends. They knew that I wanted to help them so they would tell me the things that they wanted me to know and the world to know.

Anderson: Is it sometimes the case that people need to be encouraged to say the things they want to say?

Portillo: I did that once and it was really tragic. Not really tragic; it was horrible. That's a strong word. It backfired on me, y'know? But not in any film that you've seen. That's hidden. No, I don't like to do that too much.

Anderson: That sort of brings us back to Al Más Allá because the filmmaker in that film represents everything you're not describing. She's not sincere. She's not looking for the truth. Or maybe she's blinded to it?

Portillo: She's blinded to it, yeah.

Anderson: Was there something in particular that inspired her? Anyone in particular?

Portillo: Y'know, Al Más Allá is really … I think what happened—I will put it to you as a personal experience—it was my response to everything that happened with Señorita Extraviada and the self-importance and hubris that overtakes you from getting so much undue attention as a filmmaker because your subject is so compelling. I felt that I didn't deserve that. Many times I was stumbling into ideas or into the truth or into the story. Al Más Allá represents me at my lowest.

Anderson: I wouldn't have thought it was you who inspired that character.

Portillo: Yeah. Sometimes I don't know what I'm doing. Many times. It was a means of making fun of my own arrogance and my own hubris and my own self-importance that I felt was so undue. That's partly what the film is about. At the same time, we were making a film and we were looking for a story and we ran into a different story. It's all about luck, also. The film is about luck.

Anderson: Have you had that happen in a larger sense? Starting with one story and having it turn into another story? In The Devil Never Sleeps, you knew everything ahead of time but for the viewer, of course, it becomes one story opening up into another story.

Portillo: Right.

Anderson: But I've often heard of films that start out to be about one thing and turn into another. It's the difference between knowing what you've got or not.

Portillo: That's right. In Al Más Allá it was really a surprise. It just happened as we went, as we moved along, that we found this other story.

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