Making My First Feature: An Individual Mourning Process Becomes Collective

Article by Mara Avila
Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo

Copy Edited and Posted by Iliana Cosme-Brooks

It was March 2014 when I decided to start analyzing how the Argentinean media had covered my mother’s femicide on July 19th, 2005. While I was finishing my Communication Sciences BA at the University of Buenos Aires, I embarked on an audiovisual thesis so I could meet my graduation requirements and, at the same time, do something meaningful with my life story. My aim for the thesis was to make sense of my mother’s murder and try to give something back to society. I selected Eduardo Cartoccio as my thesis chair, and I started working on the script of what I thought would be a short film but would eventually become my first feature documentary. 

Mara stands at a table over a large book on a stand in a library, doing research for her film.
Still from Femicide. One Case, Many Struggles.

My original idea was to focus on analyzing the news coverage about my mother’s femicide. Her name was María Elena Gómez, but many knew her as Mariela, or rather, “Miss Mariela.” She was a 53-year-old English as a second language teacher, born and raised in Buenos Aires. Then, on July 19th, 2005, she went out with her partner, Ernesto Jorge Narcissi, and he stabbed her to death. 

Part of what happened the days that followed this—the most tragic event in my life—is what I cover in my 2019 documentary Femicide. One Case, Many Struggles, after a previous journey of mourning, struggle, and learning about filmmaking. 

After meeting the woman who would eventually become the Executive Producer, Carolina Reynoso, I decided to apply for funds at the National Institute of Arts and Filmmaking (INCAA in Spanish), and I was awarded two grants (one in 2015 for project development and another in 2016 for production). Thanks to this funding, the original idea of making a short film about my mother’s femicide could now become into a feature about her. 

Throughout 2015, I took a scriptwriting workshop in Buenos Aires with filmmaker Gustavo Fontán. It was a tough process. I had to revisit the different episodes in the story of my mother’s femicide while trying to write a script I could be proud of. The story needed to help me to speak as the daughter of a victim while also addressing universal subject matters, such as mourning, justice, and gender violence as political and social issues. 

Mara stared down the camera while sitting at a table, a man holding a clapboard in front of her.
Avila between takes for Femicide. One Case, Many Struggles.

Although writing the script was a deep and painful process, it helped me to find the right tone and organize the information about the events. I was the protagonist in a personal story, but I was also a character in a larger story about grieving and struggling daughters in Argentina and around the world.

The shooting of the film asked me to relive my mourning process, but it was also empowering. It coincided with an enlivening of the Argentinean feminist movement that unfolded through massive demonstrations, especially after the historic protest under the banner of “Ni Una Menos” (No more missing women) on June 3rd, 2015. Since then, for myself as the character in the film and its director, along with Argentinean society as a whole, nothing would be the same. 

After an enriching process of shooting, editing, and post-production, the documentary premiered during the week of International Women’s Day in March 2019. I feel thankful to have been able to premiere the film when I did, considering the unprecedented crisis that the Covid-19 pandemic has meant for the film industry.  

Women stand in a line outside of what appears to be a government building, holding up large lettered signs that spell "Mariela Presente."
Still from Femicide. One Case, Many Struggles.

The film has kept on travelling—as I like to put it—after its release in 2019, despite the pandemic. Even now, the documentary is still taking part in different festivals, and I’ve been participating in debates and talking to the media not only about the film but also about what the families of victims of femicide demand. As a result, I am often contacted by victims of gender violence and the daughters of femicide victims. Students and teachers who knew my mother have recently reached out after almost sixteen years to share their nice memories, as well as their mourning processes. The documentary focuses on the issue of mourning, but in this case we know it is a collective grief, as it has been the case with the children of those who were killed and who were disappeared during the 1976 Argentinean dictatorship. They have also made their own documentaries.

All in all, the process of making and then screening the film has been a rewarding but painful experience, for I am often in contact with mothers, sisters, and family members who have lost someone because of gender violence. This happened repeatedly throughout 2019, when I traveled around Argentina, giving talks about the topics the film depicts. It was particularly touching to travel with my aunt Teresa Avila (also a character in the story) to Bolívar City, where the film was featured in the 8th Leonardo Favio National Film Festival. It has been enlightening to share my documentary at schools and universities to help promote the implementation of “ESI” (Integral Sex Education), a 2018 law that sees sexual education as a basic human right and thus requires it as part of the Argentinean curriculum.

Avila stands with a group of dancers in a dimly lit set, smiling and laughing between takes.
Behind the scenes shot of the contemporary dance scene.

What matters to me the most is the relationship between filmmaking and the possibility of making a change in the world we live in. That is why I believe we need to keep on struggling to tell our stories and, in Argentina, to demand that the National Institute of Arts and Filmmaking (INCAA) keeps on guaranteeing the funds that make these kinds of films possible and that allow diverse documentary filmmakers to develop their projects. 

These days, I work at the University of Buenos Aires with Eduardo Cartoccio, with whom I supervise students working on documentary projects. In many cases, they deal with social justice and political issues, and many of them are first-person documentaries. It is one of the most rewarding activities I have recently engaged in. I am also working on a new documentary project that was born in confinement last year, which will hopefully help to bring light to issues related to mental health and the body as political ones. In the end, the answers lie in our bodies, and we need to keep healing both individually and socially. 

Watch the trailer for Femicide. One Case, Many Struggles here. Learn more about the film by visiting its website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Connect with Mara by visiting her profile.