"Not just the pyramids and menudo" Interview by Fred Salas -- The Films and Videos of Lourdes Portillo

"When you make ripples -- that's success."

Not just the pyramids and menudo

An interview with Lourdes Portillo conducted by Fred Salas

Lourdes Portillo. Photo © Nic Paget-Clarke.

The following conversation with Lourdes Portillo was conducted by Fred Salas following a screening of Lourdes Portillo's documentary movie La Ofrenda -- The Days of the Dead at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego, October 29, 1998. Lourdes Portillo is an Oscar-nominated director with over twenty years of film-making experience, having created ten major films. Her films have been shown world-wide.

Fred Salas is founder and director of the Este Lugar Border Film Festival, co-director of the San Diego Latino Film Festival, and program curator of Cine Club. He sits on the Selection Advisory Committee of the Sundance Film Festival Screenwriters Lab.

Fred Salas: How long have you been making films and videos, Lourdes?

Lourdes Portillo: Since the early '70s.

FS: How did you get started?

LP: I got started working in L.A. I was a kid, going to college and I got a job from a friend of mine who was making documentary films for an educational film company. I realized that I was really very good at it. It was the only thing that I was really good at, I couldn't even type.

FS: But you could make beautiful art.

LP: Yes, I didn't realize that I was an artist. But it's great when it happens and you find out that you are.

FS: When you started making films, where you trying to do a specific thing? Why did you start making them?

LP: First of all I was trying to experiment, to figure out how to use the form. What was the best form for me? What was it that I was trying to say?

I come from a very specific historical moment for Chicano people in this country. I was very much politicized. I felt that I had a duty. I felt like I was on a mission to represent ourselves in a very broad and complex way.

A scene from Las Madres

FS: I always get the feeling from your work that you are trying to answer questions about identity and culture, the family...

LP: ... the role of women, despair, love, betrayal.

FS: The first time I saw Ofrenda, and even tonight I saw it as a beautiful celebration (of the Day of the Dead) but I find it somber because we do, as Mexicans, have this passionate affair with death. I take it very seriously. It's whimsical, but also to me it's a very serious piece.

LP: It's a very historical piece. Also its style, the documentary style I was developing at that moment was very different from what I'm into now.

FS: What are the differences?

LP: It was much slower. It had a different tone. It had a different rhythm than my films have now.

FS: They are much quicker now and they overlap. They are much more experimental. Like Diablo.

LP: Yes The Devil, and also Sometime My Feet Go Numb.

FS: El Diablo also a sense of humor in it.

LP: Yes, the humor of the piece is important to me. Films are a little bit like medicine. You want to put a little bit of honey in there.

FS: How about sound, music?

LP: I'm a big fan of music in general so I always try to use music that really touches my heart. I figure that once you put it together with the image you can do that. I research music a lot. I buy a lot of music and listen to a lot of music.

FS: Which leads to your new work about Selena.

LP: Yes it has lots of music though not particularly the kind of music that I love. Selena's music is very young for me. But I like it. I ended up really loving Selena's songs, listening to them all the time. But I didn't originally like them. Some of them are a little bit too disco, too cumbia, too derivative.

FS: What brought you to that subject, Selena?

LP: I thought that the theme of Selena was being developed to such an extent that had so much to do with the drama of her life, so much of who she was going to become, that I thought it would be very interesting to see who Selena was effecting. All these young girls. What was it doing for these young girls? That's what brought me to the theme of Selena. Selena's fans basically.

FS: Did you get those questions answered?

LP: Yes I think I did. But in this tape, the Corpus tape, what I bring up is a series of propositions.

FS: Challenging your audience to answer them?

LP: Yes to think and figure out what does it mean. What am I looking at?

FS: I love the title.

LP: The title, the title Corpus - A Home Movie for Selena. It's a very humble tape. It's not a very flashy tape like The Devil. It's done in video. It's very very low budget. It has a different look to it.

FS: What are your feelings about a screening, something like tonight, what your piece brings out in people. You could feel the buzz in the audience. What are your thoughts?

LP: It's half of being a filmmaker seeing what it does to people. To see that people respond to it, that it touches them in some way, that it is a part of them. I think that's what the artist does, it channels the desires of a people - that's all I'm doing, channeling the needs and desires of a people. So when you see it come back to you it's really wonderful, a beautiful feeling.

FS: What are you thinking about doing next?

A scene from Columbus on Trial

LP: I'm going to do a mystery about the 160 women that have been murdered on the border. It's going to be a noir film. It's going to be a documentary but experimental. Different from The Devil. I haven't really decided what the style is, but it's about the disposability of Mexican women. How easy it is to kill them and get rid of them and use them. They are just like raw material. It will be a heavy one, a sad one.

FS: Your pieces have so much style. They are documentaries as fashion -- the best of that. Are you conscious of that?

LP: Yes. Totally I am very conscious of that. The color, the themes, how I'm going to use it, the structure.

FS: Do you think there's more mainstream acceptance of you now as a filmmaker?

LP: Oh yes I think so. I have such a big body of work at this point that I think more people are aware of it. It makes it easier for me to work, so I can go on and make the next thing.

An image from La Ofrenda

FS: One thing that interests me is our relationship. I was part of a younger audience discovering ourselves. I started really getting into your work, seeing myself on the screen, but then it evolved into being swept away by your style, the fashion, the music. Do you ever think about how you are effecting Latino culture, young Latino culture?

LP: I think about it. One of the things that happens in Chicano art, it becomes very staid. Everything is kind of the same. There's always these references to the Aztecs, this whole thing. But I think Chicano culture is also very varied. It has a lot of aspects, very sophisticated aspects, very intellectual aspects, very stylish aspects. All that has to be captured and become a part of what represents us. Not just the pyramids and menudo.

FS: The same old same old. I recently went to a film screen in Los Angeles and there was a Mexican film critic, a scholar, traveling with this film series and he started to give a speech, and it was the same. I turned to the guy I was with and I said ‘you know I've heard this speech twenty-five times'. The culture is so new they are afraid to get in there and dissect it, which I think is what you've tried to do, to experiment with it, to grab the parts that are hard to face.

LP: Well, I think we are a traditional culture so we are always going back to tradition and finding that that's what holds us up. But I think we are also not traditional. There are kids who are really exciting like Jimmy Mendiola who's talks are modern, hip, who are talented. There's a lot of those kids in the universe that have to be pushed to the limits.

I also feel like the dialogue in this nation has to do with Black and white. That's always happening. Minorities are always Black. It's never other things like Chinese or Mexican. We have to become a part of the dialogue. We have to become sexier n a way. We don't have jazz, we're not sexy like Blacks, we're kind of boring. (Fred and Lourdes laugh.)

FS: How about commercial success? Do you ever wonder about that?

Lourdes Portillo and Fred Salas

LP: I'm basically a person who wants to work. I have a lot of things to say. Commercial success would be great. But I think I'm just not a commercial filmmaker. I don't have what it takes to have a commercial success. My taste is too marginal, not popular enough. I could make it popular but then I wouldn't be saying it the way I want to say it. Do you know what I'm saying? It's just something that has eluded me.

FS: Yet it's still important that, for example with all the people that were here tonight, you touched them the way that you did. That's success.

LP: Yes, exactly. When you create ripples -- that's success. For me, when you ask people to think, that's a good proposition that I define as success.

FS: I think you are hugely successful. Thank you very much. Muchas gracias.

A final note:

FS: Who has been a major influence for you as a filmmaker?

LP: Orson Welles.