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Lourdes Portillo and I first met during the screening of her unforgettable film Las Madres: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in 1987, a year after it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. I was living in Santa Barbara at the time, writing a dissertation on telecommunication policy and teaching a course on Chicano/a cinema. The organizers of a UC-Santa Barbara-sponsored conference on Third World cinema had asked me, the resident Chicana film "expert," to introduce the Chicana filmmaker and highlight the significance of her work. What I hadn't anticipated then was the extent to which Las Madres represented a turning point in Portillo's career as a filmmaker, winning twenty international awards and expanding the audience for her films beyond the U.S. borders. Nor did I realize until years later how that evening in Santa Barbara marked my life in fundamental ways.
Twenty-one years later, as part of my research for this book, I accompanied Portillo to the world premiere of Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena in Chicago. As I sat in that Chicago movie theater with an audience of mostly Latinas and Latinos, I was struck with how much things had changed. Las Madres had screened in an academic venue; Corpus with a general audience. Las Madres documented the struggle of social activists; Corpus, the legacy of a celebrity. The former was international and political in focus; the latter, local and cultural. At first glance, this seems like a contradiction, and if one is not familiar with her work, Las Madres and Corpus appear to be made by entirely different filmmakers. But then I too had changed in the span of two decades. My own analysis of Portillo's work had evolved from nationalist political concerns to a multilayered understanding of the production process. I no longer viewed films primarily through the detached lens of scholarly discourse. I was now interested in how emotions, love, audiences, and compassion play a part in the production process. In the following pages I aim to take you on what Reneé Tajima-Peña reminded me is my "intellectual process of discovery," that is, how I discovered the evolution of Portillo's aesthetic and thematic concerns and, in the process, discovered my own intellectual approach and methodology as a critic.
The international aperture for Portillo's films was a logical extension of her work. From the beginning, Portillo's scope and vision have been much broader than the orthodox view of artistic genres or social identities allows for. Her films demonstrate how one's cultural or social identity need not limit the choice of the subject matter. Her first two films depict women of different national and cultural identities: After the Earthquake/Después del terremoto deals with the plight of a Nicaraguan domestic worker in San Francisco, while Las Madres documents the struggle of the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina. Just as she crosses the borders of ethnic and cultural identities, so too are her films and videos genre-benders, crisscrossing various genres, like documentary and fiction, experimental and docudrama, melodrama and mystery. Her work refuses to be pigeonholed into one category or filmic style. Each film or video is a hybrid, a blend of stylistic elements and combinations of, for instance, noir and telenovela (as in The Devil Never Sleeps/El diablo nunca duerme); telenovela with neorealism (After the Earthquake/Después del terremoto); and political satire with experimental video (Columbus on Trial). If anything, Portillo's stylistic signature is this defiance of categories and borders.
The idea for writing this book came to me ten years later, after conducting research and publishing a book on the Chicana and Chicano film movement. Portillo was one of a handful of early 1970s filmmakers who were still making films in the nineties. And even though she had remained on the fringes of the Chicano/a film movement, working instead out of the multicultural, multiracial sensibility of the Bay area, I included her in my study of Chicana/o cinema. Part of the reason I did so was because she self-identified as Chicana, thus meeting one of the criteria of Chicano/a cinema, which I defined then as "by, for, and about" Chicanas and Chicanos. More important, by making films for the Chicano/a community, Portillo met my second criteria. It wasn't until her third production (La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead) that Portillo decided to make a film about the Chicana/o experience.
While I situated her within a nationalist-based tradition, the Chicano/a art movement, I was mostly drawn to the ways in which her work complicated the definition of Chicana/o cinema by not conforming to the movement's nationalist ideology. Her films are about a whole range of topics (not just Chicano/a ones), and she works with multiracial production crews and casts across ethnic, class, gender, and sexual alliances—despite the fact that, as Portillo explains, her films are made "in the service of the Chicano community first." During the 1990s I wrote a book chapter and several articles addressing this hybrid complexity, partially because her work on the borders between two or more cultures and cinematic traditions has profoundly altered my thinking about the nature of social and artistic boundaries.
Shortly after relocating to the Bay area, I came in contact with the circle of friends and network of artists, intellectuals, and activists that Lourdes belonged to and eventually befriended her. This friendship has forced me to struggle continually with my own motivation for writing about her work, and has raised questions of professional integrity as well. After all, my formation as an intellectual is to some extent influenced by Modernist notions of scholarly work—the objectivity issue—but also the idea that the search for "truth" requires detachment and distance from the subject matter. Even though recent theories in the natural and human sciences make claims about scientific detachment and objectivity suspect, especially given the impossibility of separating the analyst from the object of analysis, somehow this theoretical insight—the idea that the act of observing itself affects the phenomenon observed—strikes me as too much of an abstraction to apply to daily life because it doesn't, for example, adequately cover the realm of human relationships. After all, a molecular biologist and a cell don't actually hang out and enjoy each other's company in a Berkeley cafe.
So I am often plagued with internal conflicts, anxieties, and self-doubts around notions of scientific objectivity and detachment, repeatedly questioning whether my ability to think critically about Portillo's work is compromised by our friendship. Would I write a similar analysis if I didn't know her personally, or if she had lived in the nineteenth century? Has my love and respect for Portillo as a friend clouded my ability to be truthful? Do my feelings for her compromise an honest critique? Do they get in the way of a critical analysis of her recent film? Am I like those baby boomer parents who, for fear of affecting their child's self-esteem, tell her how well she did, no matter how poorly she sang in the school play or how many times she kicked the soccer ball off-side during the tournament? But then again, I do keep reminding myself that this is not the case with Portillo. She does not need me to boost her self-esteem or to prove her merits. As her innumerable awards make evident, Portillo is legitimately talented, independent of any favorable analysis I may offer. Nonetheless, I have decided to be up-front about my relationship with Lourdes because I don't know how to get around this except by naming my own investment, but also because I cringe at the thought of someone dismissing my analysis for this reason, especially since friendships between artists and their critics are fairly commonplace.
Similar to the insider's knowledge of a culture, my relationship with the artist can prove especially valuable for readers precisely because I have observed intimate aspects of Lourdes' life, those subjective and emotional dynamics which inevitably come into play in artistic creation. While I am not in favor of psychologizing the work of art or of analyzing an artist's intentions, I still maintain that an artist's personal life and subjectivity undeniably inform her creativity. In writing about Lourdes' work, I allowed myself to be what the anthropologist Ruth Behar calls a "vulnerable observer," to make my emotional connection to her as a friend not only evident to readers but also a central part of my study. I did so because it is precisely this vulnerability, this emotional engagement with Lourdes, which allows me to bear witness to some of the psychic dimensions to her art.
A witness is someone who provides testimony about something they have seen, and in nonsecular traditions bearing witness refers to the act of testifying about elements one may not necessarily encounter with the naked eye, the mind, or cognition, but may observe through other ways, such as through feelings, through the heart. Friends can bear witness to each other at deeper, more profound levels than persons who are strangers. Friends bear witness to intimate details, faults, or strengths in character: to private, vulnerable moments. As a friend, I know Lourdes in both public and private settings, perceive the difference between her public persona and her private self when her guard is down, pay close attention to those passions and fears which infiuence her choice of subject matter and editing decisions. In the past few years we have shared the tribulations of our professional lives as well as the uncertainties and joys of motherhood. As a "vulnerable observer" I bear witness to her incessant devotion to creative endeavors and to the life of an artist. This personalized, emotive connection to Lourdes and her work is something I learned not from theory, but from Portillo's example as a practitioner of "vulnerable" filmmaking.
I write to introduce readers to an internationally acclaimed Chicana filmmaker who has given voice to the realities, cultures, and perspectives of people who are neglected or misrepresented in the media, as much as she has worked to push the documentary form forward. Portillo is a political filmmaker who first made films during the early 1970s as a member of the Marxist collective Cine Manifest, first working as Stephen Lighthill's assistant in the collective's feature, Over, Under, Sideways, Down (1972). Nearly thirty years later, she remains motivated by the political ideals of that early formative period. While Portillo has expanded her perspective to include other forms of social analysis besides class (i.e., antiracism, sexism), she still maintains an old, relentless allegiance to the underdog, the dovntrodden. Portillo's images represent a complex, assorted, and endlessly astounding vorld, offering viewers new, multilayered ways of seeing which speak to the amazingly intertwined, multiplex realities of the twenty-first century. She presents viewers with a vision of an intricate world in which life is not just a matter of good versus evil. Portillo's films depict a journey, paralleling the filmmaker's, of constantly struggling with questions. She is unique in her perspective, for unlike most political artwork, her films do not provide definitive answers. In many ways, the cinema of Lourdes Portillo challenges our normal assumptions about the nature of political cinema, continually pushing the boundaries of conventional models.
She began testing the limits of artistic codes and conventions with After the Earthquake/Después del terremoto, a film she made with Nina Serrano in 1979. Not only did the film actively push the boundaries of political film with its syncretic style—the blend of neorealism and telenovela aesthetics—but it was also ahead of its time in telling the story of the Nicaraguan diaspora in dramatic form at a time when most political films used documentary formats. The story in Las Madres, on the other hand, is told in the familiar political style, yet, unlike the distanced tone of documentary films of the eighties, the intimate, personal, lyrical narration in Las Madres brings viewers into the subjective reality of the interviewees. She tests the limits further in La Ofrenda. A documentary which at first glance appears to be about cultural tradition, its poetic, meditative lyricism masks a submerged engagement with the politics of sexual repression and mourning around AIDS deaths in the gay community. And the older Portillo gets, the more audacious, adventurous, and gutsy she becomes, boldly trying out avant-garde techniques and styles. In Columbus on Trial, she mixes witty political satire with novel experimental video techniques. Portillo breaks with documentary codes in The Devil Never Sleeps by making contact with the audience and even questioning the documentary's premises and criteria for truth and accuracy, including its reliance on visual evidence. Beyond these tangible, material elements observable in her films, there is another important way in which the filmmaker tests the limits of the realist political genre. Portillo makes herself "vulnerable" as a filmmaker, and she does so not simply by inserting the "I" of the filmmaker into the text, but by making films that call for an intellectual and emotional engagement from the viewer. She elicits this emotional response from her viewers by insisting on an emotional connection between producers and the subject matter. Rather than conform to conventional models, Portillo fundamentally alters our perceptions of political documentaries with her approach to making films.
The cinema of Lourdes Portillo deals with a wide range of themes— from gender politics to culture, state repression to AIDS; however, the leit motiv in all of her work is love and compassion—qualities one does not usually associate with political documentaries. Conventional wisdom assumes that documentaries are supposed to educate, inform, offer analysis, and—in the case of political documentaries—move us to act upon the world. As viewers, we divide the cognitive from the emotional, expecting documentary filmmakers to present their audiences with logical pro and con arguments and analysis. Rarely do we think of the filmmaker's relationship to her subject matter in emotive or spiritual terms, for that would be too subjective, stretching the limits of objective analysis. For valid historical reasons (i.e., the populist legacy of fascism), the Left has been wary of linking politics with emotions or the realm of the psyche. As in Ché Guevara's notion "sin amor no hay revolución' (without love there can be no revolution), Portillo uses the idea of love in its spiritual rather than romantic sense to redefine and reaffirm her commitment to social change.
"Politics is about your heart," she tells me. "It's about charity—it's love. That's what politics should be." Love is the guiding principle in her work, one of the criteria for hiring the members of her production team: "I need to love them in a very profound and accepting way," she says. And, in turn, Portillo demands love from each crew member who is hired, not in terms of racial or sexual criteria, but for "receptivity, heart, compassion, ability to communicate and to forgive." In relating to the subject matter—the theme, interviewees, actors—a loving, emotional connection is, for Portillo, the most crucial element at every level. "Even the production assistants have to have a heart," she explains. "They have to have feeling for the subject matter and they have to be open to it. I can't bear to work with anyone who is deeply cynical and critical of whatever it is that we are doing. We have to kind of really bow down to the subject, you know." Portillo has in many ways succeeded in translating this strong desire to bond emotionally with the subject matter into her final product, the film, which captivates audiences even more because the way she touches viewers' emotions enhances their intellectual responses.
In many ways, Portillo's work responds to a growing awareness about the limits of analytical thinking for altering and changing consciousness. I am now convinced that in order to raise awareness or to eliminate the ideologies of ignorance like racism and sexism, reaching the mind is insufficient. One must touch the heart along with the mind. As the politics of love at work in her films and videos shows, Portillo seems to have figured this out early on in her career as a filmmaker. I have seen all of her films dozens of times, in film festivals, theaters, and in the courses I teach on cinema. Years ago, I remember discovering with my students that one of the distinguishing features about her films is that they have a "heart center," what in T'ai Chi is called the "dan tien"—the site where all the energy of the body comes together. As I look back at the essays I published on Portillo's films, I realize that I was writing about this heart center, even though I didn't call it that. I had identified a center of bodily energy, a susceptible dimension in her film form, a love inscribed through the treatment of the subject matter—the camera's framing which gently caresses people and scenery; the lighting which softly touches them. Portillo makes every attempt to expose her own vulnerability, her emotional attachments, rendering subjects lovingly, with respect, compassion, and dignity. This heart center is itself a product of her commitment to a life connected to deeper, more profound forces than the demands of the capitalist market.
In tracking the politics of love and emotion in her work, I came upon the various social and artistic movements that left their imprint on Lourdes Portillo. She moved to the San Francisco Bay area during a vibrant moment in history: the 1960s. While I would not necessarily characterize her sensibility as countercultural—even though the icon of counterculturalism himself, the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, once gave her money to finish a film—Portillo's lifestyle would be considered countercultural to some people. She believes in spiritual enhancement and in the power of exploring the inner psyche, often consulting a Jungian psychotherapist who has guided her personal enhancement and growth through various film projects. The importance of Portillo's unyielding investment in self-exploration should not be underestimated. The various therapeutic and spiritual practices she employs have helped her to break down the imaginary barrier between her internal and external worlds, the distance between the self and the subject matter. They have exposed her and made her vulnerable, which has allowed her to bridge the gap between the filmmaker (observer) and the phenomenon (observed). They are practices of the heart, which soften the heart, keeping Portillo focused on efforts to render justice to the world she lives in and grounded in a political mission which she characterizes as "channeling the hopes and dreams of a people."
Another influence is the impact of Third World struggles for liberation and the new social movements on the development of leftist approaches to filmmaking. Portillo came of age as a filmmaker at a time when the avant-garde, the new Latin American cinema and the feminist and Chicana/o film movements, made their mark as alternative cinemas. As a bilingual and bicultural filmmaker, Portillo was uniquely poised at the crossroads of these various artistic currents. She openly acknowledges the new Latin American (especially Cuban) cinema and the political avant-garde as her primary influences; however, I would also connect her evolving stylistic approach to the feminist and Chicano/a film traditions, for reasons that will become evident.
Portillo was drawn to radical cinema's emphasis on linking artistic innovation with the revolutionary struggles of the Latin American Left because she too sought to combine her art with politics. Along with many of her generation, Portillo rejected the elitist notion of art for art's sake. She was also among a cadre of filmmakers who opposed the distinction between artistic experimentation and political commitment, which some on the Left, suspicious of the bourgeois individualism of the avant-garde, subscribed to. Artists like Portillo were determined not to sacrifice their artistic self-expression for politics or divorce their politics from art. She drew her vitality and creative inspiration from Latin American filmmakers, many of them working out of Cuba's ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos), who were reimagining alternative ways of seeing and being in the world by breaking with the Hollywood model. Radical filmmakers in Latin America were proving that one could use highly innovative techniques and still deliver a progressive political message.
Influenced by Italian neorealism, Latin America's radical filmmakers skillfully assembled masterful works of art, volatile and spirited indictments of the ruling order and its complicity with U.S. imperialism and colonialism. They disrupted Hollywood's goal of entertainment as much as they disturbed the viewing expectations of the film audience with alternative schemes. While Hollywood films were designed to distract audiences from knowing the real problems of the world, radical filmmakers sought to enlighten and inform their viewers. They countered dominant cinema's legitimation of the status quo with a revolutionary focus on the oppressive forces in society. In the face of Hollywood's rendering of passive consumers of meaningless images, Latin American filmmakers attempted to transform their audiences into social agents who would act to change the world.
Yet their contempt for Hollywood was really a minor part of the equation, for these filmmakers were waging an ideological war against the forces of U.S. imperialism incarnated in the Studio system. In so doing, they were practicing "concientization," a revolutionary principle first alluded to in liberation theology and then in the various manifestos coming out of Latin American (e.g., "For an Imperfect Cinema" by Julio García Espinoza; "Aesthetics of Hunger/ Violence" by Glauber Rocha; "For a Nationalist, Realist, Critical and Popular Cinema," by Fernando Birri). Concientization entailed decolonizing the mind—liberating the image, and hence the imagination, from Hollywood's colonial hold. It was a principle that guided cultural workers fighting against the powerful economic, political, and social institutions running the artistic and social world of the times. Latin American revolutionary filmmakers like Sara Gómez, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Humberto Solás, Glauber Rocha, and Patricio Guzmán deployed concientization within highly self-conscious film styles, making artists like Portillo aware that one did not have to sacrifice artistic experimentation for politics.
Portillo came to this understanding early on in her career. After working with leftist filmmakers in Cine Manifest for several years, she earned an M.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute, studying film as an art form, with special emphasis on its vanguard and experimental aspects. The New Left's investment in realism had proven to be a limitation for Portillo, who turned to the avant-garde as a way out of the confining mantle of a realist aesthetics. Fusing the avant-garde techniques she had studied at the Art Institute with the aesthetic practices of Latin American filmmakers, Portillo broke out of the straitjacket of realism, venturing beyond the U.S. cinema verité and French avant-garde legacy of the seventies. Yet despite the liberating influence of the vanguard, it soon became dismally evident that neither of these two pillars of alternative cinema were sympathetic to the concerns raised by feminists. It was precisely this widespread disregard for and total indifference to the gravity of women's oppression within capitalism, among activists in the New Left and the various nationalist and anticolonialist movements, which sparked the formation of the feminist film movement.
Portillo was not directly involved in, nor did she associate with, the early feminist film movement of the seventies, yet she has much in common with the project of "cinefeminism." While her early work did not directly embrace the incipient feminist goal of combating patriarchal capitalism, her first film, After the Earthquake/Después del terremoto, did in fact tackle the thorny issue of women's oppression within Latino patriarchy. Portillo once remarked that she has never considered herself a feminist, but I would qualify her statement by pointing out that she is rather a different kind of feminist, a Third World organic feminist whose take on feminism is not informed by the consciousness-raising groups of the women's liberation movement, much less by feminist academic theory. She has more in common with Mexican women who similarly frown on the label "feminista," even though they actually practice a form of feminism that Sonia Saldivar-Hull calls "femenismo popular." Theirs is a feminism honed in the trenches—on factory floors and in sweatshops, in the marketplace and in the fields, in the bedroom and in the streets; fine-tuned while they clean floors and cook, caring for wealthy homes and children, for their own children; living alone, with a loving partner, with an abusive husband. Theirs is not a feminism learned from books, but culled from the micro details and practices of everyday life. From her own experience as a wife of a traditional husband, a mother of three sons, a lesbian in a homophobic culture, a woman in a male-centered world of cinema, Portillo developed her own brand of feminist consciousness.
In making films, she responded much like other feminist filmmakers, realizing early on that woman as woman was not represented on the screen—neither did she have a voice nor was the female point-of-view visible, and not just in Hollywood but in the progressive and avant-garde cinemas. With Las Madres Portillo breaks bread with feminist filmmakers, heralding her strong commitment to women's struggles. So too does La Ofrenda partake in the feminist film movement's desire to document women's everyday lives on-screen. And with Vida, Columbus on Trial, and Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena, Portillo furthers the feminist goal of rendering meaningful portraits of women—recovering the heroes in women's history, their voices, perspectives, and points-of-view. Similar to filmmakers in the feminist film movement, Portillo inordinately attends to the details of interior spaces, the domestic sphere, family dynamics, and gender relations. Like it or not, Portillo wears the legacy of cinefeminism on her sleeve.
In all fairness, Portillo's resistance to the feminist label is in part related to the preponderance of whiteness and classism in women's liberation and the feminist film movement, which has undoubtedly kept many women of color at bay. Even so, Portillo's disavowal of feminist identity may be more related to cultural reasons. For a Chicana with strong roots in Mexican Catholicism, feminism is tantamount to Malinchismo, a betrayal of the culture, of the race, of all that is sacred to the familia, the Holy Family of God and Nation. Being a feminist is a heavy cross to bear for a Chicana, more so if she is a lesbian.
This is probably why Portillo was not arrantly embraced by her counterparts in the Chicana/o film movement during its heyday. Few today would admit the contempt they felt then for women's struggle or the machismo they expressed, which was called to my attention by one of the few women filmmakers working out of Los Angeles in the early days of the movement. Fortunately, we now have access to the writings of Chicana feminists working in other sectors of the Chicano/a art movement, who bear witness to the pervasive sexism in Chicana/o cultural identity politics. From my own research, I can certainly testify to the many ways in which the early Chicana/o movement filmmakers "disappeared" Chicanas: through an aesthetics of objectification, narcissistic preoccupation with male heroes and history, and neglect of female voices and perspectives. And when it came to film festivals and conferences on Chicano/a cinema, women filmmakers were rarely invited to the party. While it must be recognized that Portillo and Sylvia Morales (another early Chicana filmmaker) were in fact included in the first anthology of Chicana/o cinema, published in 1982, one of the authors erroneously referred to Portillo as a Nicaraguan filmmaker and the editor failed to mention the instrumental role she played as cofounder of Cine Acción— one of the oldest Latina/o media arts organizations in existence to this day. Throughout those formative years of movement politics, Portillo remained on the periphery of the Chicano/a film movement, in part because her ideological perspective was broader than that of Chicano nationalists, but also because she, along with many other women filmmakers, was marginalized in the canon of Chicano/a cinema. It wasn't until I wrote an essay recognizing the significance of the works by three pioneering Chicana filmmakers (Portillo, Sylvia Morales, and Esperanza Vásquez) that Portillo's imprint on the Chicana/o film movement was finally acknowledged.
When I decided to write this book about Portillo, I soon recognized my own limitations in that I knew little about the nuts and bolts of making films. More than anything else, I was driven to understand what Julia Lesage refers to as the "filmic mileau"—the whole process of film production rather than just the film text. I felt the need to immerse myself completely in the making of a film, to observe first-hand its evolution from beginning (the concept) to end (the product). In the world of film criticism, we critics write mostly about the meaning of the text, in some cases relating our analysis to the social context or to pertinent historical issues. Rarely do we analyze films from the perspective of the production process. Few critics provide a first-hand account of how a film is made, of how it is filmed, how the shooting and production schedule is assembled, the length and duration of a film shoot. Nor do we take into consideration how those least glamorous parts of documentary filmmaking—the grueling eighteen-hour days; the hours of waiting for an interview or an event to happen; the canceled interviews; the arrangement of lights, cameras, and sound recording; the technical malfunctions, difficulties with battery-packs; or the weathering of climatic hardships—affect the meaning of the final product. It was in the context of gaining a broader understanding of this "filmic mileau" that I asked Lourdes if she would let me participate in her next production. The opportunity would come soon enough, a little over a year after the death of Tejana singer Selena Quintanilla.
Portillo considers her Selena documentary, Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena, to be one of her minor films, even though in the following discussion I dedicate a substantial amount of space to the video. Certainly Corpus is not in the same league as Las Madres, The Devil Never Sleeps, or Columbus on Trial in terms of budget or aesthetic achievements. The reason I have chosen to spotlight Corpus has more to do with the role it played in my own formation, the fact that my intimate involvement with the making of Corpus influenced my own intellectual process of discovery and evolution as a critic. Through Corpus I came to reject the conventional academic method of analysis as too one-dimensional and limiting, and instead brought all my resources—my scholarly knowledge, understanding of the subject, on-site witness of and participation in the production process—to bear in conveying more fully the filmmaker's motivations, intentions, aesthetic choices. Thus, my involvement with Corpus is how I came to this point.
In July of 1997, I spent a scorching week participating in and observing the shooting of Corpus. In many ways, Corpus felt like my own home movie. Not only was it shot mostly in my hometown of Corpus Christi, but it was I who had introduced Portillo to Selena's music a month or so before she died. Not that I was a fan of her music (though several of my siblings were), but I was interested in the singer's growing popularity in the Tejano music scene. After visiting my family in early 1996, I shared with Portillo details of my trip to Corpus Christi, including my mother driving me to the Selena boutique, a largely desolate store where the singer sold her collection of tinselly apparel and beauty products. Portillo had never heard Selena's music, so I played her an old cassette compilation of Tejana singers, which included Selena and "la reina de la canción tejana," Laura Canales. A few weeks later, Portillo would once again hear Selena's name, this time during a visit with her own family in L.A. on the weekend Selena was killed.
For months after Selena's death, Portillo toyed with the idea of making a film about the Tejana icon and applied for funding to produce a documentary. As part of my ongoing research on Latina representation, I continued to collect all the Selena material I could get my hands on, including newspaper clippings, videos, English and Spanish language magazines (of reputable and tabloid variety), books, articles on the Internet. Portillo and I apprehensively awaited the upcoming (March 1997) release of Greg Nava's film Selena, and as I had anticipated, we were both extremely disappointed.
Mostly we lamented the film's missed opportunity, the weakness of a plot held together loosely by a series of spectacular musical performances. Dramatic tension in the story was also weak, focused around Selena's relationship with the men in her life: her father and husband. The best thing about the film was Jennifer Lopez' uncanny resemblance to Selena. But apart from that, the film was not particularly engaging. It was also really not about Selena but about the family patriarch, Abraham Quintanilla (played by Edward James Olmos)—the only character portrayed with any depth. Viewers hardly got to know Selena; as a character she remained enigmatic, a cardboard Barbie-doll figure. Most of my distress centered around the way in which the film sugarcoated the hard life of performers—those grueling rehearsal schedules, fatiguing nights on the road, and exhausting back-to-back performances. To quote filmmaker Reneé Tajima-Peña, who accompanied me to the prerelease screening in San Francisco, "This film is People magazine's version of Selena's life."
Later Portillo and I discussed at length the looming presence of the patriarch in Greg Nava's version of Selena's life. Portillo decided then to make an alternative film, one that would follow the story into places where Nava had refused to go, filling in the gaps of his sappy tale and providing details that had been published in recent books written by journalists close to the story. The initial focus for Portillo's version of Selena came later in March, when I attended the screening of Nava's film in Corpus Christi during its national release.
My second viewing of Selena differed, not so much in my perceiving a different message, but in my witnessing how the film touched her hometown audiences. I attended the screening with my mother, brother, and sister-in-law in a theater filled to capacity, with more than six hundred people—a cross-generation of Chicanos, Chicanas, Tejanas, and Tejanos: babies, young adults, children, and the elderly. As the film ended, I witnessed and connected with an overpowering feeling of despondency looming throughout the theater, a sadness so thick one could slice it with a knife, a sentiment so contagious it made me cry along with many who filed silently out of the aisles, miserably broken-hearted. My sister-in-law, Sylvia, poignantly captured the mood when she said, "The movie made us relive her death all over again—the tragedy, the sadness." I found myself bearing witness to her observation even as I continued to lament the gaping hole left by Nava's film. Fortunately, others in Corpus Christi also felt something profoundly lacking in the film. I met with my brother's friend Anissa Rivera, a reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times who had recently written a story about audience reactions to Selena. "Even those who liked the film," she told me, "felt that it failed to capture the soul of Tejano music," and Anissa went on to explain the film's most obvious omission: "The fans' point of view."
Here was what Portillo's documentary needed, a way to construct the story from an entirely different angle. Rather than focus on Selena's life, she could make a film about Selena's fans. Also, on this trip I had also heard stories from several local residents about the monopoly control that Abraham Quintanilla ("Mr. Q," as locals called him) exerted over the use of Selena's name, no matter how innocuous—as, for example, when Mr. Q obtained a court order for a police raid of a flea market to confiscate "unauthorized" Selena T-shirts, or when he filed suit against the guy who rented a tour bus he bought from Mr. Q to the Nava group making the Selena film. The focus on Selena's fans would be a way of avoiding Abe Quintanilla's meddling interference. Even though fan worship contributes to the enrichment of the Selena estate, fans have an autonomous existence, residing outside the commercial purview of the Selena trademark. As I sat with Anissa Rivera in a Mexican restaurant, eating my favorite kind of Tex-Mex enchiladas, in walked "the Devil himself " (as I referred to Abe Quintanilla in my journal), foreshadowing things to come for Portillo's documentary.
That summer I took on the job of associate producer (though I later decided to forfeit the credit), which involved lining up interviews, looking for places and events to shoot, setting up the crew's one-week schedule in Corpus, and acting as their tour guide. Portillo came into town a few days later and, with her all-female crew (Imiko Omori, Sarah Chin, Anya Portillo), charmed her way into the hearts of many Corpus Christi Tejana/os, including my family and friends, many of whom appeared in the film or served as contacts for other interviews. The focus of the film at that point remained solidly fixed on the fans, along with some of the more sordid details of Selena's life, such as her rumored love affair with a plastic surgeon in Mexico; the singer's obsession with her body, celluloid, and weight; Abe Quintanilla's purported sexual assault on Yolanda Saldivar and his threat on her life; and the lesbian subtext. High on our list of priorities for the film shoot was an interview with Yolanda Saldivar, who was then serving a life sentence in prison.
In the course of making this documentary, the focus began to shift, in part because some of our production plans fell through. For instance, Yolanda Saldivar's interview never materialized due to her lawyer's refusal to grant his permission, since there was an appeal pending; one interview took longer than expected, forcing cancellation of the filming of a Tejano dance; and some subjects failed to show up for their interviews, while others did not work out. Of course, these problems are not unheard of in the course of making any documentary. However, the most disconcerting shift came from Portillo herself, who midstream in the editing process changed the course of the documentary, which in and of itself is also a common occurrence in any creative project. The reason I have chosen to spotlight this as a disconcerting shift in Portillo's thinking is because I believe there is a lesson here for all of us about the social, political, and economic constraints of filmmaking, as well as about the limits of artistic independence and creativity.
I consider Portillo to be a model for younger filmmakers who want to pursue the independent route. Located on the fringes of commercial television and the Hollywood Studio system, Portillo has generally been able to make films on her own terms, with relative autonomy and freedom. To be sure, her life as an independent artist without the steady flow of a monthly paycheck has taken its financial toll, for as a single mother raising three sons, she has usually lived from grant to grant, often mortgaging her house to finance her next project. Nonetheless, her freedom from the constraints of private commercial media is what allows her to maintain her integrity as an artist, to develop an innovative and experimental style that subverts conventional aesthetics—qualities which I expected would continue to inform her Selena documentary.
A little over a year after the filming in Corpus Christi, Portillo invited me to an editing session of the Selena documentary at the Lucas production facilities on the Skywalker Ranch. Portillo has edited several of her films there, and after driving up there I can understand why. The Skywalker Ranch is ensconced in the Santa Rosa Mountains, forty-five minutes away from the major interstate, in a breathtaking valley. Portillo and Vivien Hargrove (her editor) shared an editing room in a building designed like a Mexican hacienda, with a large interior patio and its own cafeteria. They were in the final stage of editing, and toward the end of the day Portillo showed me an almost-final cut of the documentary. I was very touched by how Portillo had succeeded in capturing the spirit of my Corpus Christi paisanos—their down-to-earthness and their quirkiness—and at the same time avoided being condescending, as has too often been the case in documentaries about working-class folks (e.g., Michael Moore's films). Later that evening I wrote in my journal: "This is such a female-centered story, not at all spectacular, but plain and simple folks. She captures the down-home, down-to-earthness of people telling stories of her [Selena's] death, their feelings, the meaning of Selena in their lives, how she inspires them to write poems, visit her grave, perform in her name, carry on in her legacy. Portillo captures the simple beauty . . . the ordinariness of Corpus."
It was during this editing session that Portillo also shared with me the difficulties she was having in obtaining the rights to Selena's music. Not only w as the cost for the music rights well over the film's budget, but she had learned that Abe Quintanilla owned the rights to all of her music, including every one of her performances (even though Selena is a public figure, there is no fair use clause in this case). I cautioned Portillo about the potential for problems if she involved Mr. Q and suggested that she avoid dealing with him entirely. I also suggested she forget about the music, including the performances, since the news footage would provide viewers with the necessary historical context. Besides, the focus of this film, I reminded her, was on Selena's fans, not on Selena.
But it was also during my visit to Skywalker Ranch, observing Vivien and Lourdes in their editing mode, where I got a glimpse of the vulnerability in Portillo's style of filmmaking. I sat there watching both of them as they became profoundly enmeshed with the subjects on the screen, talking about them to each other as if they knew these people from Corpus intimately. The director and her editor were sitting before the editing screen, establishing an emotional bond, a loving connection with the fans who loved Selena. In the process of touching the hearts of her fans, Portillo would later convert into one of them, listening to Selena's music, admiring her talents, her beauty, her indigenous and African features, calling me on the phone several times to express a profound sadness over Selena's tragic end.
Her desire to include Selena footage in the documentary grew the more Portillo watched the singer's performances on video. Coincidentally, around the time Portillo's resolve solidified, she received a telephone call from Abraham Quintanilla, who expressed his willingness to help by providing music, including Beta video copies of performances, and footage of Selena unavailable elsewhere. Portillo then decided the documentary would be enhanced by an interview with Quintanilla, and she made plans to return to Corpus. But Quintanilla asked to see the latest cut of the film beforehand, so Portillo sent it to him. In confidence, one of the crew members told me that when they arrived to interview Quintanilla he demanded several changes, making it clear that if Portillo really wanted his help (i.e., use all the footage and all the contacts he had made available to her), then she was going to have to eliminate certain parts he disliked. According to my confidential source, Portillo objected: "But Abe, that's censorship." To which Quintanilla responded, "Yes, but who would know except the people in this room—and nobody's going to tell."
Eventually Portillo capitulated to several of his demands, cutting out some of my favorite footage, like the segment of an animated Tejano expressing in colorful descriptive terms his disappointment with Selena's modest tombstone (too critical for the patriarch). She also eliminated a scene that typifies Portillo ironic montage style, one in which a fan's voice is heard off-screen while images of Catholic saints and virgins appear onscreen (offensive to Quintanilla's religious beliefs). Once she edited the final version of Corpus, inserting the interviews of Quintanilla and Selena's sister, the film lost its magic for me. Eventually I viewed this final (prebroadcast) cut during the film's premiere at the Mexican Museum of Chicago. It was well received by the Selena fans who packed the theater, but I sat there lamenting the loss of the irreverent, biting humor of the earlier version—a style she had cultivated over the years and perfected in The Devil Never Sleeps. The following year, after Abraham Quintanilla viewed the final version shortly before its national broadcast on public television's Point of View, he demanded even more edits. To Portillo's credit she refused, agreeing to only one of his demands even after he harassed her repeatedly, threatened to sue her for libel, and attempted to block the national broadcast. Even so, from my perspective the final version of Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena is Portillo's most conventional documentary. And although she would never admit it, Abraham Quintanilla's overbearing presence looms large in this film. (Quintanilla was insistent that Portillo edit out the part where he says, "In the end, it was all worth it," and she eliminated it from the broadcast version.) I often joke that while "The Devil never sleeps" serves as a guiding metaphor in her documentary about her Tío Oscar's murder, in this particular case Portillo ended up "sleeping with the Devil."
The point I am trying to convey is the degree to which my involvement in the making of this documentary allowed me to come to terms with those lessons we fail to teach in film courses about the creative process. We tend to freeze a filmmaker's aesthetics; however, as I learned, artistic innovation and experimentation do not exist in a vacuum or outside of a historical context. Economic and political forces often impinge upon the creative process, no matter how hard the artist tries to resist them. In this particular case, it wasn't so much the power of one individual, Abraham Quintanilla, but what he represented—the music industry's monopoly control over music and performance rights—that played a decisive role in determining the final product. As an independent filmmaker working within a limited budget (the Selena documentary cost $130,000), Portillo was forced into a position of compromise, into contending with powerful corporations who owned the music rights (EMI Latin) and news footage (CBS), into facing the reality that even the public image of Selena is owned by corporate America. In other ways, though, the filmmaker was not entirely a passive victim in the game of image making but complicitous in negotiating away her own artistic principles. What has become clear to me is that Portillo's experience is not unique but, on the contrary, quite common in the lives of independent filmmakers, who often have to contend with the threat of lawsuits over issues of fair use. As Portillo told me afterward, "It happens in every film—we are always wheeling and dealing. This notion that you can just make a film about any old thing and say anything you want is fantasy."
In the process, I too have learned a great deal about my own stakes, my own investment, in films that are nonconventional or countercultural. Eventually I came to the realization that my overinvolvement with the project mostly had to do with the nostalgic investment and love I harbored for my hometown of Corpus—and these emotions competed with Portillo's vision. It was, after all, her film and not mine. (Yes, somewhere along the way I had forgotten, as my companion, Herman Gray, pointed out, that I am a critic and not a filmmaker.) But more important, I confronted the reality that as a critic I had become too attached to Portillo's innovative, experimental, and ironic style without taking into consideration the conditions that make this style possible.
As is usually the case, critics like myself are often out of touch with the pulse of film audiences, for this "inexpensively" made video has proved to be one of Portillo's most successful works and received numerous invitations, including one from the prestigious Venice Biennale Film Festival in Italy. Corpus may indeed lack the innovation of a film like Columbus on Trial or the masterful ironic critique of The Devil Never Sleeps, but even the final (censored) version is a gem in its own right. Corpus is first and foremost a love poem to Selena and to her fans, depicting a warm and loving portrait of the young fans who so adored the singer. It is a film that conscientiously (and I would add reflexively) validates the bodies of brown women by purposely voicing and visualizing them as alternatives to the emaciated, light-skinned blondes populating the media. More important, the filmmaker doesn't shy away from the complexities surrounding Selena—her somewhat enigmatic legacy as a role model. During the parodic scene featuring a gathering of Chicana intellectuals, including writers Cherrie Moraga and Sandra Cisneros, Portillo forces us to grapple with the negative underside of the singer's image: its hypersexualization. And for all the compromises Portillo was forced to make, she managed to once again validate the experiences of her people, a community that is often ignored and misrepresented in the dominant media.
Ultimately I learned that artists like Portillo are complicated (and vulnerable) individuals motivated by a variety of factors, including love. This portrait of Selena started out as a gossip-driven concept and ended up a loving tribute to Selena. When I asked Portillo about her "love-affair" with Selena, she responded, "As a filmmaker I want to make people fall in love with her; that's my job. I fell in love with her, so why can't they? That's my treat to you." Yes, Portillo fell in love with Selena and, as is often the case, lost a part of herself in the process.
My current understanding and reading of her work in the end influenced the organization of this book. Divided into three parts, the book introduces readers to Portillo in Part One through a series of interviews conducted during the nineties. The first interview took place in Chicago on the evening before the premiere of Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena and deals with the collaborative nature of Portillo's work—a topic which actually originated months before, during an informal conversation in Mexico City. I had organized a panel on her films for the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies conference, and one day over lunch she discussed the process of improvisation and collaboration that informs her productions, which Herman Gray, who was sitting with us, characterized as a process typical of jazz bands. Portillo liked the idea of comparing her film crew to a jazz band, where no one instrument or musician dominates, because she prefers to view her crew as a collective rather than in terms of the traditional hierarchy in which the director is credited as the sole creative agent.
The second interview, on The Devil Never Sleeps, was recorded at Portillo's former office near Mission Dolores in San Francisco and originally published with an article I wrote on this documentary. In the interview, Portillo discusses the making of the film, the construction of its audiences, and the critical reception, both negative and positive, that The Devil Never Sleeps has received.
Kathleen Newman and B. Ruby Rich conducted the third interview during the historic "encuentro" (gathering) of women film- and videomakers from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Baja California. Of the three interviews published in Part One, this last one is the most comprehensive, covering most of Portillo's early career and providing details pertaining to her earlier films.
Part Two includes several essays which illustrate the application of a variety of theories and methodologies, often in combination, to the study of visual culture. These approaches include cultural studies, feminist film criticism, queer theory, discourse analysis, ethnographic studies, and spectatorship theory. The contributors are unified by a concern for the intersecting issues of social identities and differentials of power. My essay, "Devils and Ghosts, Mothers and Immigrants: A Critical Retrospective of the Works of Lourdes Portillo," is informed by a feminist cultural studies approach and explores the broad transnational focus of Portillo's films. By contextualizing her work within global capitalism, this article explores the ways in which Portillo positions women at the center of her stories and documents the effects of structures of domination on women's everyday lives.
Yarbro-Bejarano, Thouard, and Iglesias offer wide-ranging formulations and analyses of The Devil Never Sleeps, a film that has been instrumental in the evolution of the documentary genre of the 1990s. In "Ironic Framings: A Queer Reading of the Family (Melo)drama in Lourdes Portillo's The Devil Never Sleeps/EI diablo nunca duerme, Yarbro-Bejarano examines how the film "negotiates differentials of power" through its use of the cinematic apparatus. Informed by queer theory, the critic's incisive analysis focuses on the aesthetics of playful resistance and ironic critique in the film.
Thouard and Iglesias consider the relationship between the film and its audiences. Thouard's essay, "Performances of The Devil Never Sleeps/El diablo nunca duerme, situates the film within the feminist performance and performative documentary traditions. Even though the author draws from feminist theory of spectatorship, Thouard eloquently critiques its commitment to one version of spectatorship. She examines the film within various performance contexts, in France and the United States, and highlights the film's role as a participant in the performance.
In "Who Is the Devil, and Why Does He or She Sleep? Viewing a Chicana Film in Mexico," Iglesias provides an ethnographic study of actual viewers in Mexico, highlighting the conjunction of reception studies with textual analysis. In this analysis as well, the author examines what the film does to audiences and how audiences modify the film's original intent and meaning. Iglesias' work yields valuable insights into the film's reception by Mexican viewers as well as their perceptions of a Chicana filmmaker and her relationship to Mexican cultural heritage.
McBane's essay, "Pinning Down the Bad-Luck Butterfly: Photography and Identity in the Films of Lourdes Portillo," explores the role of photographic images in La Ofrenda, Las Madres, and The Devil Never Sleeps, teasing out the formal and thematic links of still images to the filmmaker's "consistent interest in the subject of death," which has "frequently noted associations with both the ancient roots of Mexican culture and with photography." However, McBane skillfully goes beyond the study of the still image's relation to the moving image, for the author proposes new interpretations of Portillo's use of the photograph to map out social identities and make reference to marginal or "deviant" sexualities in her films.
In rare instances do readers or viewers have an opportunity to examine what I would call the "seams" of a film, that is, those elements which go into the making of a film but remain invisible or hidden in the final product. Some would say that the labor of those who work on a film is what gets hidden behind the director's authorship; however, even these individuals are recognized in the film's credits. My reference to the invisible elements of a film is to archival material—the written maps for making a film and guiding the filmmaker throughout the production process. Part Three of the book contains a sampling of such preproduction and production materials: a funding application; script notes containing technical details about camera takes in each scene; and storyboard and production notes with narrative, visual, and technical information. I have also included written texts of the Spanish and English narration for La Ofrenda and the screenplay/script for Columbus on Trial.
In closing, let me say that I was led to this place by Hannah Ngala's words. "Tracking isn't instinctual or natural," she explains. "It only begins when you start seeing the ground under your feet instead of just staring blindly at it; when you acknowledge the pain, accept the uncertainty of hope, feel the fear of being saviorless, yet insist on paying attention to the small details of one's life once again. Tracking means immersing yourself in signs and in the knowledge that none of us goes anywhere without leaving a trail behind.'' I invite readers of this book to join me in tracking the trail that Lourdes Portillo's films and videos have left behind.