Interview by Alexandra Hidalgo
This review is part of double feature on the film Mosquita y Mari. Please check out Shewonda Leger’s review of the film.
You are the daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. In which ways have your experiences as the daughter of immigrants influenced your artistic identity and your filmmaking practices?
I have seen my parents persevere! And they did it with a shit load of dignity and humility. Filmmaking is a tough road, not to compare it to my parents’ challenging road as immigrants of color, but it is long and can make people very bitter along the way. I have often kept my parents’ journey in my heart, hoping that I can keep my self respect as I go about my life.
It was your work as a youth organizer in San Francisco in the 90s that led you to decide to learn filmmaking. What was it about your activist experience that inspired you to pick up the camera?
I always knew that mainstream media played a large role in creating and maintaining a culture of conformity and oppression. What I didn’t know was that I could take the camera into my own hands and shift that culture. In the end, that’s what interests me more – the idea of creating art as an artist and social justice seeker. As an organizer I belonged to a community of young organizers of color that wanted to inspire a generation of changemakers and the way we went about that was using the arts – poetry, street theater, and video. We saw the arts as a bridge to our self-reflection, to our healing, to voicing our lives, and to each other. It was a very smart, committed, loving community that I belonged and that space we created for others – for ourselves – changed my life. I had never experienced the arts in this way. So, yeah, I picked up that camera deciding that it would be my change-making weapon.
Your approach to filmmaking is to create activist projects that have been made through an activist process. For your first feature, Mosquita y Mari, you teamed up with Communities for a Better Environment and for your current project, Los Valientes, you’re working with Dream Activists PA. Can you talk about your process working with these organizations and how such collaborations inspire what ends up on the screen?
I have to go back a bit to answer this question. I started my filmmaking within a collective called Womyn Image Makers (WIM). WIM was about exploring the idea of being a collective because we disliked the dominant hierarchical structure that exists for film. It’s such a collaborative medium that signaling out one person never made sense to us. Filmmaking is about working within community. I think what we set out to do taught me a lot about how empowering that process can be, as well as challenging. Just because your politics are coming from the heart doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. But it’s that experience of being in community that can often bring an energy to a film. Sometimes that energy uplifts the film and sometimes it can take it down. But usually, the outcome is beautiful. Ultimately being a part of WIM made me a much stronger collaborator. Thus when it came time to make Mosquita y Mari the idea of collaborating expanded for me. I wanted to do it on so many levels; not just artistically between the creative team but, I wanted to think about the ways the filmmaking process can engage the very communities we’re writing about. On both Mosquita y Mari and Los Valientes my collaborations with my community partners have been about creating an exchange of energy and resources. As members of the communities I’m writing about help us by sharing their experiences, they in turn have access to the knowledge and resources my team of filmmakers and I have to offer. People might say I’m adding more work to my plate but the process feeds into what comes across on film. There’s a spirit there, in the movie, and I believe it’s born from that exchange–that energy–shared between us.
Besides your work with local activist communities, you also founded Womyn Image Makers, a film collective of queer Xicana filmmakers who grew up in urban settings. How has Womyn Image Makers helped you grow as a filmmaker and why do you think women filmmakers need to come together?
WIM was co-founded by a group of four mujeres (women). We came together knowing that we wanted to create films that reflected our identities because there was such a big void for our perspectives. We inspired each other to stay true to our voices and we supported each other in telling those stories. We never had to stop and justify why this was important. I think these kinds of spaces are important for women filmmakers particularly when you are an emerging artist. The last thing you want to happen is to create art that is a diluted version of who you are.
You also worked with Patricia Cardoso in her groundbreaking film, Real Women Have Curves. What did you learn from that experience and how important do you think it is for Latina filmmakers to mentor each other?
Patricia is a very generous mentor. She brought me into her process with open arms because she knew that I was emerging and hungry to learn. As her assistant, I learned that every film has its politics. And while those are at play, it is super important to remain centered. At every turn you are making decisions and want to make them without letting the complex nature of making a film get in the way of your creative choices. I thought it was amazing how Patricia was able to keep focused on the vision of her film when dealing with all kinds of things that sometimes felt like they had nothing to do with the actual film. So lots of juggling and negotiating and staying calm. Prior to assisting Patricia I had only made a couple of short films with the WIM collective. As you can imagine this experience was tremendous for me. Not only was I on a professional set, but I was watching a Latina steer the ship. It was very inspirational and I am extremely grateful to Patricia for allowing me such a rare opportunity to witness her at work. It’s not often this happens and that’s partly due to the fact that there aren’t many Latinas making feature films. But the more we–the ones who are making films–open the door to the younger generations the more we can in real ways provide exposure, experience, and connections that are vital to shaping emerging filmmakers.
Mosquita y Mari draws from your own life growing up as the queer daughter of Mexican immigrants. What was your process in blending together your own life with a fictional story?
The first draft was very close to what I had lived. And once I got that out of my system I went back and started to fill it out more and make it more contemporary since I had grown up in the 80s, and although that would have been cool to depict on screen I think present day Latina youth are way cooler. What was challenging, however, was thinking about “dramatizing” situations I had lived. That’s when the lines between fiction and real life can get complicated. Part of what took me so long to write was this feeling or pressure I felt to add “drama” to the story. A few people along the way said to me: “Real life doesn’t always make for good drama.” I took that to mean that not enough was happening in my story and I had to somehow ramp it up for viewers. But whenever I did that my wonderful and smart writing mentors would flag it as feeling fake. And, yeah, I agreed with them. When writing the “drama” I didn’t feel connected to it anymore. Then I realized that I didn’t have to veer too far from the truth when ultimately the story I wanted to tell was a very intimate and honest story.
Mosquita y Mari is the most accurate, yet loving representation I’ve ever seen of Latinas living in the United States, and your cast, including the extras, is all Latina. Do you think it is important for us Latin@s to tell stories about our own people and if so why?
For way too long people other than Latinas have been telling stories about our communities in the United States. Many of those films have influenced a one-dimensional understanding of Latinas. It aids in the criminalization of brown people. I think who better to tell our stories than us. Who better to capture the nuances that make up Latinas than us. But I’m not a hater, if Latinas feel the need to tell stories about non-Latinas, go ahead. The way I am experiencing the world today, if I were to make a film with non-Latinas, then I’m continuing to keep us invisible.
In Mosquita y Mari’s end credits you write, “grateful for the honest writing of Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa.” What role does the work of theoretical thinkers/artists like Moraga and Anzaldúa play in your filmmaking and scriptwriting processes?
The first time I ever came across literature that reflected my experiences was when I was introduced to Moraga and Anlzaldúa. They wrote about the intersection of queer, brown, female and queer. That has been central to my work as I too find that I can never pull apart the different communities that I belong to; the different lenses I see the world through and live my life by. That coming together of worlds is painful, beautiful, and real. When I write, I draw on their inspiration and boldness.
I was struck by how lyrical Mosquita y Mari’s cinematography was. Playful light and dust have a recurring presence in the film. Can you discuss your collaboration with cinematographer Magela Crosignani in creating the film’s visuals?
Mosquita y Mari is the type of film that relies on the image to transmit what the girls are feeling internally because much of that isn’t being communicated verbally between them. Thus, Magela and I shared and discussed lots of visuals, thinking about mood and tone and how to best express that. We also discussed camera movement and thinking about how and when the camera would move with the girls. We asked questions like did the camera move with the girls early on or did it move when their connection started to build? There’s also something that happens while on set that is very intuitive and organic between you and your collaborators, like the DP. I think it has to do with trying to be in the moment and allowing yourself, like the actors, to be fully immersed in the world of the characters and the story.
You ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for Mosquita y Mari. Are you planning on running one for your current project Los Valientes and do you have any advice for filmmakers working on their own crowdfunding initiatives?
I’m debating whether Los Valientes will go the kickstarter route. Ideally, yes, because I love the idea of community being my “financiers” BUT I fear that Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites have been played out too much. It seems people are burnt out on donating and I don’t want to put a campaign out and not meet my goal. But I can’t say no just yet. It’s a lot of work and I would need to ask for a substantial amount of money. Maybe folks can talk me into it?! I don’t want to discourage others from using crowdfunding as a means to make their films. Just know it takes TIME to coordinate.
You have also garnered support for both films by prestigious institutions like the Sundance Institute and San Francisco Film Society. Can you talk about how you developed those relationships for your first film and how you have sustained them for Los Valientes?
I don’t come from a family of filmmakers. When I was starting out I knew no one in film. But I understood that getting a film made would take a village. I needed to connect to mentors, to resources. I needed help opening doors. The best way to open doors is to show your work. I spent time with WIM building a small body of work that spoke to a unique perspective. Once that work was complete I applied to these organizations. Thankfully that and my script for Mosquita y Mari helped me get my foot in the door. Once I was in these programs I did my best to connect with my peers and my mentors. I took the time to learn and grow as a filmmaker. I appreciated everyone who took the time to listen to me and my story. And now that I made Mosquita y Mari I think these organizations are excited about wanting to see me make another film.
Los Valientes, which is in preproduction, also tackles topics of queerness and immigration. Tell us a little more about the film and how you see it forwarding the conversation about queer and immigrant rights?
I don’t know if Los Valientes is forwarding the conversation, but more like joining into the conversation. I’m particularly drawn to looking at the points in which social, political struggles intersect. There are these intersections but, these aren’t always addressed or heard. I think it’s important to examine the ways in which we are connected, especially when so much of what divides us is thinking that we have nothing in common.
What advice do you have for women filmmakers seeking to merge moving images and activism in their work?
I think it’s important work and should be pursued. Seek out the support of peers and film programs – they are out there. This is not a medium for the loner. Get out there meet people, talk to them, and more importantly introduce yourself to collaborators and make films that you can afford to make so as to get your feet wet and begin to get work out there. Shorts are a great place to start and can help you get noticed.