You Can Only Make a Good Film if You Look Inward

This article was originally published in Mapping Multi-Culturalism, edited by Avery F. Gordon, Christopher Newfield.

If you were to ask Lourdes Portillo for the short version of her life, she might say, as she said in 1989, "I was born in Mexico, and when I was thirteen years old, my whole family immigrated to Los Angeles. I lived in Los Angeles until I was twenty-one years old, and that's when I began getting into film. I had a friend whose father was a screenwriter for television, and she started making films and hired me; I worked with her making educational films. Then I went to Mexico and worked there for one year with another friend of mine who was an actress -- this was at the time of The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah and all that -- and then I came back to the United States and started studying film. And I've studied film at different places, but I have my degree from San Francisco Art Institute."

Portillo then worked in feature-length films, where she was trained as a camera assistant through the union NABET (National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians). "I worked on one of the first independent feature films in San Francisco, which was called Over, Under, Sideways, Down," she remembered. "It was put together by a group of Marxist filmmakers called Cinemanifest -- Rob Nelson belonged to it, John Hanson, (cinematographer) Judy Irola. So that was the beginning of working as part of a crew. Then I made an application to the American Film Institute (AFI) with my friend Nina Serrano, who is a poet and a writer; we asked for money to make a film that had something to do with the Nicaraguan insurrection -- at the time, the Sandinistas had not won, and we wanted to make something that was very realistic, not so much didactic and revolutionary in the sense of spouting a lot of the stuff that was happening at that time in the Nicaraguan communities. We got the money from the AFI and we started making this film -- we wrote the film and we directed it ( After the Earthquake, 1979). That was first film that I made that really got out there -- not in a big way, but it got a prize in Poland at the shorts film festival in Krakow."

After the Earthquake is the story of a woman who emigrates to San Francisco from Nicaragua after the 1976 earthquake. There, she works as a housekeeper and finds herself torn between the traditions of her homeland and the new world she discovers in the United States. Those conflicts become foremost in her life when her boyfriend comes to visit from Nicaragua; Portillo ends the film with the couple's conflicts unresolved. After the Earthquake was cutting edge in portraying Latina characters who, depending on their age and how long they had been in the United States, understood only Spanish, some both Spanish and English, and some only English.

After the success of After the Earthquake, Portillo decided to collaborate on a documentary film about the group of Argentinean mothers who have been demanding information from the government on the sons and daughters who have "disappeared.” “I got together with another friend of mine, Susana Munoz," she recalled. "She was from Argentina, and we started doing our research and we went to Argentina and we started making connections with the mothers in order to make this film." Portillo and Munoz began work on Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in 1983, finishing the film in 1985. Las Madres was powerful enough to earn Portillo and Muñoz an Academy Award nomination for best documentary the year it was released.

Las Madres cost a paltry $167,000 to make. "We didn't pay ourselves any money; that saves a lot of money," noted Portillo. "We figured that we needed to make the film, we needed to hurry up and do it; it was important to do it in a certain amount of time. We couldn't get paid. So we had to struggle. If you really want to do something, you have to make sacrifices, unless you're terribly wealthy."

The success of Las Madres "affected our (Portillo's and Muñoz’s) relationship as partners," said Portillo. "It made it very hard, because as soon as you have a little bit of acclaim, then there are things that one could receive that the other one doesn't receive; there is jealousy. I think it also spoils it for a filmmaker to have a very successful film and then make a more humble film after that. The audience is expecting more dynamite. But you have to grow as a filmmaker, and you can't be making Las Madres I, II and III."

Portillo and Munoz also collaborated on the 1989 documentary La Ofrenda (The Offering), a study of the celebration of the Day of the Dead both in Mexico and by Mexican Americans in the United States. Although La Ofrenda did not receive the acclaim that Portillo and Muñoz’s earlier collaboration had, it can still be seen in repertory cinemas and on public television almost every Halloween. "It's so different from Las Madres," noted Portillo. "It's about culture; it has nothing to do with injustice. I think people expected us to come up with a film about injustice and inequality. That's a sensationalistic way of looking at film. But there are other things in the Latin-American culture that have to be explored in order to round us off as human beings -- we can't always be relating to the American public as victims.

"Stylistically, I think all three films (After the Earthquake, Las Madres, La Ofrenda) are very different," commented Portillo. "The very first film that I made was not documentary, but dramatic. I had never directed a dramatic film, but I just went into it and did it. I loved it."

In 1993, Portillo made the short video Columbus on Trial. To mark the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus's arrival in America, Portillo brings the explorer back from the dead and into a courtroom, where he must stand trial for the atrocities committed against the native peoples of the New World, including the rape of native women. Columbus is cross examined on the stand by members of the Latino comedy group Culture Clash. With the video, Portillo offered two views on colonialism.

"I'm a Latin American," she explained, "I'm a Mexican, so I feel that being who I am -- and in making films, you have to make films that really touch you, that really are a part of you in some way, and you can only make a good film if you look inward -- so I am very interested, to put it in a superficial way, in making films about Latin Americans, but as I say, it has to do with my inner self and how close I feel to the subject. There are people who have dedicated their lives to making, say, Chicano films. I don't feel that way. I feel that I am a little bit broader in that respect. I'm interested in a lot of things: I'm interested in Brazilian music, I'm interested in the life of immigrants -- deeply interested in that, because I am one.

"I think there is a big lagoon of ignorance on my part," she added, "about why I really make films, but also I have the idea that when I came to this country, people did not understand me or the culture that I came from; they had a lot of preconceived notions about who I was. I think that film is the way that I have found of rounding off characters, exploring the inner life of people, the different aspects of human drama, filling in all the elements that make a human being, and in making a human being, having that human being be understood and not be seen as a stereotype. I think that was the greatest impetus for making films, and to this day, when I think about a film, that's what I want to do -- I want people to understand who I am and who the people I come from are."

Although Portillo's focus may consciously be on Latin Americans, other aspects of her experience also wend their way into her work. "I've made things unconsciously," she remarked. "I've made things that were close to me, that I was familiar with -- if you're going to portray someone in film, you want to be able to do it in an honest and true way, so you do what you know most. I never consciously said, ‘I’m going to make films about women's issues'; I just thought these stories were interesting, and they happened to be about women."

Financing, as it is for many women directors, has been a struggle. "Most of the films that I've made have been given grants," Portillo noted, "and I've made films for very little money. I don't think I could exist as a filmmaker if I had not made films for very little money, if I had not gotten grants, and if I did depend on filmmaking for my livelihood. Las Madres made some money, and we could probably live on that money for one year -- and that's a whole lot of money for (an independent) film, for two people. I don't really expect to make money on filmmaking -- I'm not in it to be supported by my work; it's more like a labor of love and sacrifice. I happen to have an income from something else, but that's the only reason I exist -- as a filmmaker. Otherwise, I'm sure that I would not be making films as often as I do. It's like anything else, like writing -- if you don't have a steady income, you cannot make it as a writer; you certainly cannot be writing all the time, you have to make a living.

"As women, we are more accustomed to disappointment, and we also are more accustomed to persevering," she noted. "I don't think it's any easier for men (in independent film) than it is for women -- if anything, we can take the punches a little better, because we're used to it.

"I don't think that people (in the film industry) have as much confidence in women. In Hollywood, they'll give a film to a twenty-five-year-old guy to direct -- no sweat. There could be a woman who's been working, trying to get a feature for the last ten years, who is capable, can do a beautiful film -- she won't get the job. It comes from the top: It comes from the producers, it comes from the distributors, it comes from their decisions how far a filmmaker can get. Basically, it's the producers or the big studios. If they decide that you're going to make money for them, they're going to push you. You can be a Martian; it doesn't matter. But somehow the issues that women deal with are not interesting to those men, and not interesting enough to promote. Our issues are irrelevant in the world of Hollywood cinema. To compromise, in this regard, never gets you anywhere. Sometimes you have to compromise as a filmmaker because everything goes wrong. But in making a film, if you want to make a lot of money, then you make trash. If you want to continue, if you want to be an artist, and you want to pursue your career and develop as an artist, then you have to be pretty uncompromising; you have to retain your ethics. There's no other way."

Portillo does point to differences in being a Latina working in the American film industry. "I think it's going to be much more difficult for me to make a dramatic film, a feature-length film, than it would have been for Susan Seidelman or for Lizzie Borden; I think I'm going to come up against some real, heavy-duty problems," she noted in 1989."I don't know of what sort, but I think, first of all, that culturally I'm different than they are -- I relate to people in a different way. There's a certain aggressiveness that you need in film in order to get your way. I have a hard time being very aggressive and very assertive even though I know what I want. It's a cultural difference. I have to remain with my integrity intact and try to do the things that I want to do. I'll just get a son-of-a-bitch for a producer."

Portillo noted that directing a dramatic film is easier than directing a documentary. "I've made short dramatic films -- if I'd gone on shooting for five or six more days, I would have had a feature," she laughed. "You have more control over everything (with a dramatic film) . You can repeat things, whereas in documentary, you just catch what you can."

Portillo mixed fact and fiction, documentary and drama, in her 1995 film The Devil Never Sleeps. Ostensibly about the mysterious circumstances surrounding her uncle's death in Mexico, The Devil Never Sleeps also studies Portillo's own connections with Mexico and Mexican culture. The film received funding from the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and the National Latino Communications Center, and was broadcast on public television in addition to its film festival screenings.

Portillo has three adolescent sons -- "It's like being in production all the time," she joked. "They see the films, usually before anyone else; they come when I'm working and I show it to them. They're very harsh, so I have to laugh, or something. I actually admire what they have to say, but it's so harsh sometimes.

"I think there is a very hungry audience for things that are different, for things that they have never seen in film," said Portillo. "I don't make offensive films -- I try to make films that illuminate upon the human experience. That is my goal in life -- to make those types of films."