Vision test: Awardee Lourdes Portillo and critic/journalist John Anderson entertained an audience as they took on some tricky issues Monday at the Sundance Kabuki. (Photo by Pamela Gentile/SFFS)

SFIFF52 Blogs: Portillo's 'Al Más Allá'

David Winks Gray April 29, 2009

A filmmaker stands on the balcony of her hotel room in Quintana Roo, on Mexico’s southeastern coast, resting between unproductive interviews for the documentary film she’d like to make about three local fishermen who, rumor has it, found a large package of cocaine that washed ashore and sold it to the police. As she sighs and sits on the hammock, her crew busy filming cutaways on the beach below, she tells her lover, far away and on the phone, how difficult it is to be a documentary filmmaker. At Monday’s screening of Al Más Allá, Lourdes Portillo’s new short feature film, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the line draws a laugh from the large crowd. The filmmaker within the film, a partly autobiographical comic send-up of the documentary director as single-minded, blind tourist, has seemingly brought her crew down to Mexico to film her, and they capture the director’s every move with faithful ardor. When the directions to the house bought by one of the fisherman with his cut of the drug money instead lead to an empty field, the director’s crew races to positions from which they can get two camera angles of the director stumbling through the field toward the car. It’s as if this failure is so significant that one camera is not sufficient to capture it.

But of course the director, played wonderfully by Ofelia Medina, is right: It is difficult to be a documentary filmmaker, especially when you make films that, like Lourdes Portillo’s, do not fit into the parameters of PBS-friendly form. Portillo is the recipient of the 2009 Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award, and before the film screened she sat down onstage for a relaxed, witty hour-long chat with critic John Anderson that moved freely between different periods of Portillo’s career. The conversation began with Anderson drawing a comparison between Portillo’s work and the work of the griot in Jean-Marie Teno’s film, Sacred Places, also showing at the festival. Anderson pointed out that Portillo’s films tell the audience "things they already know, but won’t talk about."

 Portillo cited the conversations her family would have around the kitchen table during her childhood as the origin for this, when her family would spend hours discussing what was happening in the world. A similar urge to show the unseen motivates her film Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena, which she says she made in order to allow teen Latinas to see themselves on a TV screen. This motivation will come to fruition again in Portillo’s next project, which she revealed will be an adaptation of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.

Much of Portillo’s work has cast a reflexive glance back at documentary form, but as she stated during the onstage discussion, it was the success of the more conventional Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo that allowed her to make films like The Devil Never Sleeps and the harrowing Señorita Extraviada, about the raping and murdering of hundreds of young women in Ciudad Juárez that has continued for years with complete impunity. Her feeling that she was receiving so much attention for Señorita due more to the subject matter than the film led her to undertake the hubris-deflation of Al Más Allá, which was born out of the very same experience that the fictional filmmaker goes through. Portillo brought her crew to shoot a documentary about the story of the three fishermen, but began to experiment with the form of the film after receiving evasive answers to her interview questions.

In a normal mockumentary, the director is real and the subjects are "fake," actors standing in for real interviewees. Al Más Allá reverses the modus operandi; here the interviews and subjects are real, and it is the director who is a fake. Despite the director’s blinders and her inability to talk about anything other than drug trafficking or the Mayans, played for comic relief throughout, the interviews provide glimpses of truth, whether through one woman’s thoughtful disquisition on the economy or the feeling of unease that lurks behind many of the interviewee’s evasions, and that becomes apparent when a wealthy American woman living in town begins to speak of recent disappearances. Near the end of the film, as the crew gathers on the hotel balcony, one of the crewmembers bemoans their film’s failure, because they haven’t uncovered a complete story. Medina responds that she can just salvage it with a voiceover, or some creative editing. The director’s response is funny, like so much in this film, but it also contains some truth within a film that resists any sort of "complete" story. It’s testament to the magic of Portillo’s filmmaking that she turns this failure into a success, and makes it seem so easy.

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