SFIFF52: Lourdes Portillo, Persistence of Vision Award Recipient

Robert Avila April 27, 2009

The San Francisco-based and internationally acclaimed documentarian Lourdes Portillo once told an interviewer, by way of explaining her approach as a filmmaker, that she hated the obvious. For three decades, in films like Señorita Extraviada, La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead, and The Devil Never Sleeps, Portillo’s camera has continually taken us beyond the obvious—those things lying in the way of our vision of the world and each other—to contemplate the unnoticed, disregarded and unexpected. A truly independent filmmaker who has consistently worked outside the main avenues and currents of the industry, Portillo is an apt recipient of the
52nd San Francisco International Film Festival’s Persistence of Vision Award Monday, April 27.

A native of the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, who moved at age 13 to 1950s Los Angeles, Portillo relocated to the Bay Area as a young woman. She faced both racism and sexism as a Mexican American woman, became a mother and started studying at San Francisco’s Art Institute during the years of the great civil rights mobilizations, including the Chicano movement. She joined the Marxist film collective Cine Manifest in the 1970s, founding her own company, Xochitl Productions, in 1976.

Even in her earliest films, her political convictions were never dogmatic but nuanced, informed by overlapping perspectives, including as a Mexican-born Chicana woman, a lesbian and a mother. Her debut film, Después del terremoto (After the earthquake), a short black-and-white narrative made with Nina Serrano about a female Nicaraguan immigrant and domestic worker in San Francisco, championed the Sandinista cause while challenging the patriarchal assumptions embedded in its oppositional nationalism. In this otherwise conventionally structured narrative, Portillo reaffirmed the personal as political and the local as global, asserting her own independence as an artist and activist, while anticipating—as scholar Rosa Linda Fregoso pointed out in the first book-length treatment of Portillo’s work—vital lines of research in feminist, ethnic and Chicano studies departments over the following decades.

Portillo gave her young career a significantly higher profile with her second outing, the 1986 Academy Award–nominated documentary Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, a three-year collaboration with codirector Susana Muñoz that profiled the courageous activist-mothers of the disappeared in Argentina.

The impulse to unmask and unsettle the power relations in the most familiar regimes of everyday life—always with thoroughgoing compassion, a ready humor and a penchant for formal experimentation—runs deeply in Portillo’s work, and extends to the conventions of her own medium. Her films often provide opportunities for highlighting and dissecting the ways cinema makes its own claims to truth. This self-reflexive impulse operates in some of her most highly regarded films, including Señorita Extraviada (2001), the revelatory and deeply humanizing exposé of the harrowing murders of female factory workers in Juárez, Mexico; La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead (1988), which ruminates on Chicano identity while comparing Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and San Francisco’s Mission District; and the ground-breaking The Devil Never Sleeps (1996), a genre-blending look at a death in her own family that incorporated improvisation and overlapping narrative styles years before such brazenly experimental techniques became fashionable in documentaries.

Al Más Allá, Portillo’s latest, which screens as part of SFIFF’s tribute, advances the filmmaker’s self-aware and searching style in an ostensibly playful yet subtle and far-reaching 43-minute investigation. In it the real-life parable of three Mexican fishermen who find a wayward bag of cocaine drifting off the Mayan Coast becomes the occasion for an encounter between a documentary film crew and a small town transformed by the forces of global capitalism. The members of the crew (including such longtime Portillo collaborators as sound recordist José Araújo and cinematographer Kyle Kibbe) play themselves, but are led by a fictional stand-in for the filmmaker played with a comically inflated sense of self-worth by the renowned Mexican actress Ofelia Medina.

"It was a way of kind of making fun of myself and the inflated ego that documentarians get after a while," Portillo explained to me during a recent conversation. "I didn’t want to make fun of other people; I wanted to make fun of myself. And I didn’t want to make fun of myself," she added with a laugh, "so I asked Ofelia if she would be part of it."

"I thought it was a great opportunity," she continued, "because I was friends with Ofelia and she was willing to do it. We had a little money so we went, the two crews, Ofelia and myself. That’s it. There was no one else."

Medina’s wry portrait of a glamorously "heroic" (her character’s word) documentary filmmaker provides Al Más Allá’s purposefully drifting structure with a tellingly dramatic anchor. Portillo’s alter ego offers the audience a productive distance on the filmmaker’s subjective, complex role in the construction of the documentary’s traditional claims to objectivity and neutrality. By the end, as director and crew brainstorm ways of making cinematic sense of their desultory adventure, the narrative has become another product bobbing on a sea of dark and insoluble purposes, part of the larger economy of materials, bodies, and meanings first flagged by an errant parcel of narcotics.

But Portillo also acknowledged other, more complex issues at work behind the concept for the film and the exigencies of the shoot itself. "I had finished Señorita [Extraviada]. Over the course of all those years it was very traumatic for me, because I was a bringer of bad news to everybody with the film. I kept on going back to Juarez and I felt very traumatized by everything I saw." Her friend Medina was more than an artistic collaborator in this context; she was a form of protection. "I had been in such dangerous situations [with Señorita Extraviada] and going with her [to the Mayan coast] protected me, because everybody knew her."

Al Más Allá, she said, therefore carried competing agendas. "It’s a very complicated construction in my head. I wanted to make a film about [the fishermen], and I [also] wanted to take out all the demons I had inside of me." Consequently, Portillo remembered Al Más Alla as "probably the hardest film to make . . . because there were external ways that I wanted to make it and internal purposes. I was trying to do everything at once—and with no money!" she added with another laugh.

Moreover, the demons she sought to exorcise turned out to be nearer than she initially anticipated. Even as she and her crew engaged in a kind of self-mockumentary, they grew aware of the pervasive criminal activity that had recently transformed the town. In the film, as the director and her crew traipse around town on what becomes something of a wild goose chase, a sinister veil of silence and complicity also makes itself increasingly felt. "It was playful, we played a lot, and at the same time we were dealing with things that were so extraordinarily horrible—again."

The interview they recorded with an American woman ex-pat in particular broached subjects that recalled all too vividly for Portillo the underworld of deviance and violent crime she had confronted in Juarez. For the filmmaker, that was enough to bring this particular line of investigation to a close. "I had to stop. I said, ‘I don’t want to know anymore. I don’t want to go there anymore.’ . . . We never got anywhere [with the fishermen angle]. But we found this other thing out that was horrifying and has just gotten worse," she says, referring to the American woman’s tale. "People are starting to disappear there. It’s all organized crime."

While she called Al Más Allá her most difficult film to make, Portillo acknowledged that making films has generally gotten easier. "The more you make the easier it gets," she said. "But to undertake a big film with a big budget, that’s going to be the test." And it’s there on the immediate horizon. Portillo’s next venture will take her full circle, in some sense, being a return to a completely fictional narrative: namely a screen adaptation of a famous coming-of-age novella by Mexican American author Sandra Cisneros, another friend.

"I’m going to try to do The House on Mango Street," she avered. "Sandra asked me. I never thought I would do such a thing. But I also feel like it’s important to do. It celebrates who we are, in every way. I think it’s time to celebrate."

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