Columbus on Trial

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According to director Lourdes Portillo, when it comes to financing a film, a Chicana filmmaker has a better chance if she deals with this kind of subject -- delinquency, marginality, drugs, youth gangs and violence -- than if she addresses historical or cultural aspects of her community. But Portillo is determined and has transformed a commission from a television studio for the 500th anniversary of 1492 into a satire on American justice and a reconsideration of "official history.” Her film Columbus on Trial (1992), acted and co-written by the comic trio Culture Clash, imagines the trial of the Discoverer 500 years after the fact.

The entire culture of the Americas rolls past in 18 minutes of startling video collage. The judge and defense lawyer are Chicanos loyal to their Spanish roots and indulgent toward "the Great Man." The prosecutor, on the other hand, is stirred by his Indian origins and demands the conviction of "the Great Assassin." One witness, a black slave called “X,” worries that this parody of a trial will only produce a new acquittal. To be sure, the Discoverer is released, but in the end he is shot down in cold blood by... a young Chicana. Lourdes Portillo's biting film is highly prized by many teachers, and plays the classroom video circuit.

Lourdes Portillo's work with the irreverent comedy troupe Culture Clash, Columbus on Tnal, is a nutty, technically superb staging of a court battle between Columbus (Herbert Siguenza) and an American Indian lawyer (Ric Salinas) that nobody really wins.
      -- Robert Koehler, L.A. Times, February 1993

Like other Chicano films, Columbus on Trial contributes to the construction of a specific culture, and keeps the insurgent memory of Chicanos from being wiped out. In this regard, the vitality of the Chicano cinema participates in the real cultural flowering in the heart of the Chicano community.
      -- Le Monde, December 1993

1992 • Video • 18 min. • Experimental Narrative
Color • USA • Spanish and English • Subtitles
Distributor: Xochitl Productions, Women Make Movies, Video Data Bank

Collaborators: Culture Clash –

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.