Interview by Alexandra Hidalgo
You studied filmmaking in your native Peru and then received a Fulbright scholarship to get your masters in film at Ohio University. How did those two experiences compliment each other to make you the filmmaker you are today?
It was for me the perfect combination. Being from Peru defines everything I want to shoot and how I want to shoot t. It is for me, my main influence. My experience at OU gave me all the tools and the technical knowledge to make my work, and it also gave me the amazing experience of living and studying abroad, which totally changed who I was because it gave me a whole new look of the world.
You have worked as a Second Assistant Director on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds and with Disney, Paramount, and other big studios. How do those experiences influence your documentary filmmaking? How is working for TV and film studios different from crafting an independent documentary project from the ground up?
Well, definitely there is a budget difference! Those experiences help me a lot because working in those shows makes you learn a huge deal about storytelling. There could be millions of stories out there, but I think it is important to focus on how to tell them in a way that people find interesting. I love how those shows are able to sustain a story and make it compelling over multiple seasons.
Can you tell us how Mistura, your first documentary, which deals with the Peruvian gastronomic festival of the same name, came about?
I had been working in the States for a couple of years and was always missing my homeland. I was working as an Assistant Director for TV shows in LA. I loved it but I was really looking forward to having the freedom to make a project of my own. So Mistura came out of the blue. I was in Peru visiting family when the press conference of Mistura was taking place. It was an amazing event that involved so many different Peruvian people, that I just had to do it. It was weird. I became obsessed with that fair immediately.
Mistura has a great variety and richness of participants and locations, from the festival, its chefs, and attendees to indigenous farmers growing potatoes in the mountains. Can you tell us about your planning and production processes for such a complex story?
It’s funny, it actually all happened in one week. I found out about the fair and decided this was my chance to direct something really special. However, I was leaving Peru in a week to go back to L.A. I was lucky enough to get in touch with Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio and told him about my project, then asked him to help me by putting me in touch with the organizers. He was very nice and he also agreed to do an interview for the film. So in one week I met with all the organizers, talked to about a million people, and decided who our four main characters would be. It was wild having so many great stories to pick from. Everybody that is involved in that fair is amazing.
Mistura features a number of fantastic, candid on-location interviews. Do you have any advice for filmmakers trying to interview people in similar situations?
My best advice is minimal crew and no slate. I’d rather take the extra 10 minutes synching at home than scare the interviewees with the slate. I hate the slate and the sound people hate me for that. But when it comes to documentary what matters is the freshness of the interview. People must be relaxed and feel at ease. So no slate, minimal crew, and if it’s quiet enough, no lavalier—just the onboard mike.
Mistura has screened at numerous festivals and at theaters both in Peru and the United States. Have audiences reacted differently in the two countries?
I think in all cases people leave happy and hungry. Those are the main things. Peruvian people living abroad leave feeling lots of nostalgia as well. Many people have left Peru and not been back for a while, so it’s very emotional for me to see how this film brings them happiness in one way or the other. It brings them closer to Peru even if they are far away.
Tell us about Mistura’s festival trajectory and the fact that it was picked up by National Geographic. What strategies did you use for the film’s distribution?
My strategies were very basic. I knew nothing about distribution, so what I did was try to shoot everywhere festival-wise—which can turn out to be very expensive—and in terms of National Geographic, I was completely lost in terms of network distribution. Somehow they were the first thing that came to my mind, so I just looked them up online, filled a submission form, and sent a DVD. Two months later, voilà, it was part of their programming. The whole process was a bit more complex than that but it was great. It was my first job as a director, so I felt really honored that they liked my work. I couldn’t believe it.
You are currently releasing your second documentary, Finding Gastón. Tell us about the film and how it came about.
Finding Gastón is my second and biggest project. We are so proud and honored to be able to tell the story of Gastón Acurio and Peruvian cuisine. I have no words to describe how amazing this experience has been. I was looking for a second project when I found out about the G9 meeting in Peru. The G9 is a meeting in which 10 of the best chefs in the world gather together to assess how they, as cooks, can help and change things for the better around the world. This sounded great to me. However, I decided to do it way too late, so it never happened. While researching that project, I found out that a lot of international chefs have documentaries about them, and I thought, “Why doesn’t Gastón, a Peruvian chef, have his own doc?” He is such an important figure in Peru, and I personally have always admired what he’s done for Peruvian food. So that is how it started. We asked for his permission to follow him around—no script, no plan—and he was kind enough to agree. We explained that it wasn’t going to be all about him, but we would follow him around and find the stories that define and tell us about Peru and its food. He liked the idea, so we started following him. It was an eye-opening experience. Cooks in Peru, Gastón, his team, and so many others do amazing work. They are changing the country with their food.
Finding Gastón has some of the same participants as Mistura. How was the experience of documenting people a second time?
The only person that is there twice is him, everybody else is new. Working with Gastón again was a great experience. He is a very easy person to work with and there is a great vibe between him and his team.
Both of your documentaries revolve around the way in which food can transform our lives in a profound manner that goes beyond nourishment. Why do you think film is a good medium to explore that notion?
I think there may be other good ways to do it too, but film is how I feel I can show it, and I think it works, since all this transformation has to do with stories—the stories behind the food—and that’s what film is all about, storytelling.
How did your experience making Mistura affect your approach to Finding Gastón?
Well, it helped a lot in terms of camera approach. Shooting Mistura was wild. It was like being at war. There are so many people in the fair that you are always shooting in big crowds and with zero control of what’s going on. So Mistura gave us that experience, and it was great because that’s how we shot Finding Gastón. No planning, everything in real time, which gives the film a feeling of reality. We did do some preproduced shots of food, just because I was obsessed with showing it in the most beautiful way possible, but other than that and one of Gastón’s interviews, everything was shot on the spot and without any planning behind it.
Is the second film easier than the first in your opinion?
Hmmm… I don’t think so. I think it depends on your subject and what you’re trying to say. Mistura was extremely easy to do. Finding Gastón was a lot harder—many, many more decisions to make—but definitely just as fun, if not more, than Mistura.
What are your distribution hopes and plans for Finding Gastón?
We just finished shooting, so we’re just putting plans together. We do know we want to show it everywhere. We want these stories to be known by the world. I want Peru to be shown everywhere.
Your production crews for both your films were comprised primarily of Latina/os. Do you think that as a Latina it’s important to employ Latina/os for your film work?
I always try to work with Latina/os, yes, because it’s my background. I think we should always support each other.
Do you think that being a woman has influenced your career behind the camera?
Absolutely. I’m a hyper woman, so my cutting when editing is brutal, and I’m an emotional woman, so everything I do usually goes towards the emotional side of things. It tries to move people.
What advice do you have for women filmmakers as they embark on their own filmmaking adventures?
Don’t listen to men who tell you that you can’t do it. They don’t know what they’re talking about. You, as a woman, have just as much knowledge and craft as any man. So go for it!