Film as Reflection

by Lourdes Portillo

This article was originally published as part of Sources of a Distinct Majority.

The choices of the present have been made in the past. I would like to go into the past as a source of inspiration and reflection. The prime recreator of celluloid reality can be a tool for reconstructing memory and for reliving nostalgia. It lends itself to romance, the romance between the filmmaker and his/ her memories. For people such as myself -- an uprooted, reluctant immigrant who for twenty-three years felt that everything valuable in life was left behind in Mexico -- it was difficult to create a sense of belonging or a sense of place. It took twenty-three years to realize that I was not going to return to Mexico. Coming to terms with my permanent stay required a gradual acceptance and final resignation.

When I first came to this country, we were just Mexicans, in the bad sense of the word. When I was a Mexican in the United States, I was made to feel like an outcast, like I did not belong here. Whenever I felt that way, I had a secret place where I could go and speak Spanish and dream of the past and of Mexico. That was my home, the only place I felt I belonged. I lived a life that was only half lived, because I was only here half of the time. I do not know if everyone lives yearning for a distant past, but I do know that people in this country from other cultures live in two worlds. How was I to incorporate the worlds of reality and dream? I had a feeling of emptiness in my heart and no way to fill it. Knowing that I would never return to Mexico and to the past was a part of my life, but it enabled me to realize that I had to construct a life here that had as much meaning as the past.

When I discovered film, I discovered a medium that was both pliable and susceptible to my desires. What could be more seductive than being able to reconstruct the past, the present, projections, introversions, phobias, manias and passions, as well as political ideas. For me, finding film was like discovering a lost continent. Not only could I make art, but I could remake and reconstruct the life to which I had once been so attached. I could bring political awareness to an audience. Filmmaking was the answer to my nostalgia and more. I felt the power of recreating my past and perhaps changing it a bit. I found the power of dreaming in celluloid images. As I continued to dream and remember the past, I translated those dreams to the sleeping images of the play of light and shadow. My work is not all nostalgia and dreaming, though. I also emerge from difficult political realities. I consider my political concerns for people to be obligations to denounce, to cry out and to change. This is not an obsession, but a real preoccupation. In many countries, one lives with everyday economic and political facts that fill or destroy cultures and nations. We cannot reflect, we cannot have dreams, without acknowledging how people live economically terrorized and politically powerless. We cannot dream and leave many behind, ignoring their pain and suffering. Above all, dreaming has to take place when we are awake.