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Lourdes Portillo curates “From Latin America to Hollywood: Latino Film Culture in Los Angeles, 1967-2017,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' contribution to the Getty Foundation's “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA” project, an ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art.
One of ten distinguished artists recognized for their body of work.
This is an exhilarating time to be a documentary filmmaker. In my own work and in the work around me, I see the possibilities of visual storytelling opening up on every front. True, each generation of nonfiction filmmakers devises new ways to observe life and probe its underlying truths. But I believe that, as individuals and as a community, we are on the cusp of inventing new languages that will change the way future documentaries are made and how they engage and enliven viewers. I am glad to be part of the change.
A few words of introduction. I was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. My filmmaking expedition began when I was an art school student in San Francisco in the late 1970s. I was drawn to filmmaking because I never saw people like me – and stories like mine – on the screen. In the 1980s I entered a generation-defining community of San Francisco Bay Area filmmakers. While there was scant interaction between the camps of progressive social-issue documentarians who saw their work as an agent for change, and iconoclastic artists who had little patience for “informational films,” both were passionate about the possibilities inherent in the moving image. As both an art school student and human rights advocate, I traveled freely between the documentary and experimental film communities, often crewing on their projects while continuing to test the boundaries of nonfiction storytelling in my own work. Their support and encouragement set me on a path that continues to this day.
My first documentary (the Oscar-nominated Las Madres: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, 1985, with Susana Muñoz) adopted the valued documentary convention of journalistic rigor and set me on my filmmaking path. But in the films that followed, my hours and after-hours of art school experimentation moved closer to the center of the frame. My films became more personal, more creative and, frankly, more fun for me to make and for audiences to watch.
The turning point was The Devil Never Sleeps (1994), the first film that possessed me from the moment I got the idea. It released me from nonfiction orthodoxy, freeing me to listen to my intuition – and to make my most personal and culturally resonant film to date. In this film I return to my home in Mexico to search for the elusive truth behind my Uncle Oscar’s mysterious death. The project became my playground for formal experiments, integrating clips from Mexican television soap operas, 8mm home movies, archival footage, family photographs and stylized visual reminiscences. The Devil Never Sleeps married my investigatory skills, my distinctive artistic sensibility, and my impulse to put people like me and our stories on the screen. At once jazzy and baroque, it laid the tracks for all of my subsequent films, however weighty the subject matter.
I return often to the subject of human rights, most notably with Señorita Extraviada (2005), which took on the grisly story of hundreds of kidnapped, raped, and murdered young women of Juárez, Mexico. With sparse facts available from the police to aid my investigation, I drew upon literary devices of allegory, metaphor and poetry, translating them into visual imagery to create both a profile in courage of the women and their families and a requiem that will outlast the eventual solving of the murders.
Señorita Extraviada marked a critical juncture for me as a human rights activist. As I traveled with it throughout Latin America and to other continents, presenting it in festivals, on college campuses, and to civil liberties groups, I understood for the first time that this is my job as a filmmaker: to teach, mentor and inspire others to be fiercely courageous and endlessly creative in making documentaries that confront oppression.
The doors continue to open. Al Más Allá (2008) embeds a faux documentary within a narrative story that takes place along Mexico’s Maya coast. This fiction-nonfiction hybrid remains droll, despite its sobering inquiry into the downside of the globalized economy.
Today I imagine documentary filmmaking as a pact with the future, a promise that the important work in developing the syntax and vocabulary of new languages for nonfiction storytelling is underway. The potential is great, as our films become a laboratory for layering story, image and sound, carrying Eisenstein’s pioneering use of montage to unimagined places in nonfiction work. I foresee documentaries and hybrids that draw upon visual tropes, that borrow from cultures throughout the world (imagine an indigenous approach in which the story never ends) and that trust improvisational instincts. And I predict that audiences will be quick studies. I can hardly wait.