At each of the film festivals I have worked for the last few years, I have always made a point to focus a special key light on the female filmmakers. I never tire of celebrating their work because there is inevitably something unique about their inspiration, effort or struggle to get their films made.
And the 14th Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival has a particularly varied and rich crop of female filmmaking artists to pay serious attention to:
From Yvette Edery’s absolutely charming, joyful and clever puppetry animation with her short film, JILLIAN DILLON, to actress Isabel Cueva’s directorial debut with a to-the-point, yet nuanced essay on the shared internal struggles of humanity on either side of the Iraqi (or any other) conflict in her dramatic short, IN THE NAME OF FREEDOM, both films successfully navigate the short film hurdles to either delight you (in the first case) or devastate you (in the latter).
Meanwhile, call-to-action documentaries from Consuelo Alba (EL ANDALON) about a true living, breathing and healing saint in Mexico and Sarah Vaill’s (Women With Altitude) breathtaking journey up a literal and figurative mountain with a group of women facing the demons that still torment them from a history of abuse through a Bolivian adventure fills your heart with the very real challenges, heartbreak and triumph of exceptional people.
The experiences making their films could not be more varied. However, each of films from these directors share a true feminine spirit that flows through each dramatic beat or documented revelation. Each shared some thoughts with me for this week’s column:
What inspired the tale of JILLIAN DILLON?
The music of Robert M Charde. He wrote the song and asked me if I would animate to any of his music and I fell in love with ‘Jillian’.
What came first – the concept of turning perceived flaws into attributes to champion or wanting to do create a character like a “hippoplatypus”?
For me, it was the hippoplatypus turned champion.
Explain the animation technique. Why did you employ that specific approach as opposed to another form of animation?
I’m a puppeteer (which if you ask me is the oldest form of animation there is) and I think puppetry encompasses a lot of unused techniques, which are powerful, and I wanted to show just how powerful they are. We make no effort to hide rods, strings, in fact, the puppets are 2 dimensional in a lot of ways, toy-like, but you are entranced the entire time.
I think a lot of professionals have reservations about working with puppets but it amazes me because they call computer animation “traditional” at this point. Computer animation is relatively new and a still expanding field. Puppetry is as old as the cave man. We’re hard wired to like it if it’s good enough. Of course, a lot of people know that, so you see some poor puppetry out there because it’s relatively popular also. That said, it’s a largely unexplored medium by modern filmmaking professional standards that I personally have largely explored.
Did you (or do you) have female role models in animation?
Mary Blair. Kathy Mullen. Lynne McVeigh. Ilka Schonbein. I wish I knew more. I wish I personally was friends with and knew on a one-on-one level, more female animators who I respect and admire. It’s quite a feat to be a solo female animator. Not just someone who is working in animation but a single woman who by herself produces, directs, animates, entirely on her own. An Auteur. I can’t say I know many. I don’t know of any conferences.
As of recently, JILLIAN has gotten into 11 Academy qualifier festivals in the last 6 months and many of these festivals are dumping the film in with experimental, kids, family, and music video blocks. I’m happy “she” has a wide audience and that she breaks so many molds but I’m sad and disheartened to see that these festivals don’t have an award for best animated film! If she’s in competition, she’s with the other shorts, all lumped together. I think if you’re representing the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences in any way, you should reflect their values and have an award for best animation, every year.
One festival I went to announced an award for best film by a female director and I was really pretty psyched because I was one of three films out of the 100 they showed that year that was by a woman! At the ceremony they skipped the award entirely. Just didn’t announce it. I asked the festival director about it three times over a period of the next 2 months and was totally blown off and then finally told, JILLIAN didn’t win it so I should just stop asking. So I did. But I made a point of asking and of saying these things over and aloud because I am privileged to teach in the film school at NYU and I have a responsibility to those kids. I can’t go home and look them in the eye and say I found out first hand that their work was getting shafted in any way and I said nothing for them. Being a teacher is like being a parent. If you mess up, they will call you out on it. It is the first level of responsibility in my life I was ever willing and happy to bring aboard in my life. I love it. I think about those female role models a lot but I think about my girls (and boys) more.
Producer – Director – Production Designer. Of the three disciplines, which is the biggest challenge for you? Which gives you the most unbridled joy?
Excellent question. Being a producer is the biggest challenge because it is the easiest for me in many ways. I am a kickass producer. I get things done quickly and efficiently. It is the least challenging and something I do because I need to, therefore, I can get tired of it fastest and even though I’m tired, I need to keep going, which is really hard.
Directing is my joy. Unbridled is a great word for it too. I cry out of happiness a lot. When my crew of 40 came together in a space the size of a trailer to produce a live-action animation in the toy theater style using paper marionettes in 19th century ink iconic style and we made a domino sequence that makes the entire 4 minute film look like its done in one shot, one take- I just sat myself down and wept. And the whole crew was silent for a moment, and then, they broke out into a massive cheer, applause, woots, the whole magic movie ending, just real life. That’s what I live for to tell you the truth. Those moments of triumph, “Director.”
Would you seek out other women to work with on future projects or do you have an estrogen quota?
(Laughs) No estrogen quota. Yes. If any woman who sees my work likes it and wants to collaborate, this is her call to contact me at email@example.com. See, I’m serious about that. I gave my info. I owe a lot to the women who worked on Jillian Dillon. Alyssa Diaz the Art Director was amazing, Jessica Polanieki the Models and Sets Head was a joy, Amanda Menaker my Assistant Producer is a mega-talent. Mary Odbert, my personal assistant and zen’s namesake… These were the women I gave my giant, weeping, bear hugs to when we finished the last shot of the film as the whole group was cheering. My team. I love them.
Have you been supported in a tangible way by other women on your filmmaking journey?
Yes. But it’s not so much the tangible that lasted with me as the sincere. There were women who stood by me. There were women who took the front lines and put their money where their mouth was and laid their time, money, effort, and names on my career, and they did it more than once. In the long run, it’s not the people who did you one favor and were gone that stick with you and leave their mark on your life. It’s your patrons, relationships, built over time, that tattoo themselves in your art.
Why write and direct and star in this film about Iraq after so much has dealt with the Iraq war in various ways?
Well, I wanted to do a subject that was current and would affect people and the war was perfect for that. It didn’t shy me away that Kathryn Bigelow had done her film. I just wanted to give my message in my own little way. And basically just inspire peace and humanity in a very simple way because in this small way it analyzes the bigger spectrum of the war. These people are enemies yet we still have a human responsibility to love one another. That’s why I chose it.
Also, as an actress I wanted to show what I can do. You can’t always show what you can do when you’re just an accessory in a film or get the opportunity to do something really powerful and transforming unless you’re famous. I wanted to develop a character that was really 360 degrees from me. I’m a huge fan of actors like Sean Penn, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett – I love when people can transform.
Of those three disciplines, what comes the most naturally to you? Which one brings with it the biggest learning curve?
Acting is something I’ve been doing since I was a kid. To me after you do something for so long, it becomes second nature. But with directing and writing, I think that probably writing was the most difficult. You have more structure and you’re limited by certain things. With a short you have length restrictions and I needed to keep it to a couple of locations. And that was a big challenge because I knew that was a key to be able to produce it with no money. But to keep the interest of the audience and the suspense, that was wonderful to see it unfold once I had shot it and see that it could be done. Writing was also difficult say, like during a scene when I have two characters saying the same thing but in a different language – but you don’t want it to be cheesy, you want it to be realistic. But I had a great actor who was able to sell it.
What was the bigger challenge making the film: The practical limitations (budget, locations, equipment, etc.) or “getting it right” (real knowledge of what it’s like to be on patrol in Iraq, torture techniques, etc.)?
I think once you do the research you have to trust it and my technical advisor on the set had served 15 years with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq so I really had some great knowledge there.
And when you’re on such a small budget, it is limiting because I wanted to show the insurgents come out of the cave at one point, but we could only suggest it with the (insurgent’s) headpiece. You’re budget DOES limit you, so that was the biggest challenge.
Ultimately, it teaches you a lot about short filmmaking – you’re not supposed to tell a feature-length story. You’ve got to have a strong beginning, middle and end and keep the audience’s attention throughout the story.
Did you receive any skepticism over doing this project or your ability to do it due to the fact you are a woman (or has Kathryn Bigelow blown that completely out of the water now)?
No one really thought that I couldn’t do it. Some people may have doubted I write, direct, produce AND star in the film, but you now what you can do. I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything but you know what you can do and you believe in yourself – and in Hollywood you really have to believe in yourself – and that’s the driving force. But I never really questioned that. My parents taught me that if you really want to do it, do it and the only one that can stop you is God.
Because God won’t give you the filming permits?
(Laughs) That can stop you, that’s for sure.
Let’s talk about the torture scenes: You have to direct the other actors to hit you and hurt you. Describe that process. Do you think their approach was colored more by the fact that you were their director or a woman?
We had a stunt coordinator, but I’ll tell you some actors can’t really get into it. The guy who does the majority of the torturing/beating..it was really tricky because I couldn’t really get it out of him. I was almost worried because he wasn’t putting his body into the punches. He wasn’t selling them. And I had to give him more freedom, and told him to “go for it” because he was being too careful. So I took some real ones. And the whip? My hands were tied in the back and at times it caught me on the arm and it was fine because sometimes you need that for the reality. But the whip hit me and I was like, “Wow, that really hurt”. But it was good because I reacted. And that had to be there.
Was your crew primarily male?
Because of the timeframe, it just happened to be that way. On my next film, I’m going to try and put more women in there but when you’re getting so much help for free, and it’s just there, then you just go with it.
Has making IN THE NAME OF FREEDOM increased your desire to do write and direct a feature now or was this a specific story and project you just had to do and now you can return to your “day job” as an actress?
From the beginning we intended to make this story into a feature. We’re almost done with the script and we have big dreams for it. It’s such a beautiful story and the short kind of happens in the middle of the feature.
How did you learn about Sergio Castro and his work?
In 2008, my husband John and I took a road trip from California to México, and one of our last stops was San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. A friend who leads cultural tours in México highly recommended that we visit Don Sergio’s museum. When he gave us a personal explanation of his amazing clothing collection and shared with us photos of the work he does, day in and day out, we were blown away. Immediately we told him we wanted to support him in some way.
There are many aspects to his story (the healing, the museum, the building of schools, etc.). How difficult was it to hone the focus or divide it evenly for the sake of the film?
Structuring the film was extremely hard because Don Sergio wears so many hats. We realized early on that we had to create a very straight forward story. An earlier cut even included “chapter dividers” to make sense of the different aspects. The final version doesn’t include that additional text because the film shows what he does in one day of work: visiting patients in villages during the morning, taking care of people at his museum during the afternoon, guiding tours at night. Throughout, we added layers precious information: his background as an agronomist working the land, his health care philosophy, his important contribution building schools, the importance of his collection and his current situation.
EL ANDALON has a relatively short running time. Explain the decision making behind that result. Is there any ambition to “add to it” and make it feature length or did you feel the subject was better served by the current length?
I don’t discard the option of adding to it or doing a sequel. In fact, Don Sergio’s story is so rich and multifaceted that I was constantly tempted to keep working on it and add more elements. However, we were aware of Don Sergio’s tough economic situation and decided that it was more important to get the word out about him on a timely fashion, rather than wait to try to have a more polished, longer film.
The directing duties were shared by yourself and John Speyer. Give some details as to how that dynamic worked. Was it pre-determined or did it more-or-less, naturally evolve over the course of the making of the film.
My husband and I make a great team because we have different skills/traits and good communication. I’m the director & editor and he’s the producer & sound designer. We both took intensive training to learn how to use the camera and editing software. From the beginning, we agreed that we would both share the camera.
Once in location, we took turns with the camera and filmed using our own unique approach. It happened very organically, we were covering different things with the camera and complementing each other, but I was in charge of the day-to-day filming process, storyline and interviews in Spanish.
Looking back, how much of that division of responsibilities was influenced by your gender differences?
I guess our initial division of responsibilities (sound vs. people) were based on gender differences. But me being in charge of connecting and interviewing people was due mostly to the fact that I was born in Mexico and Spanish is my first language.
Do you think being a woman helped or hurt at all in making the film? (People more or less willing to talk to you, access issues, different ideas as far as story focus, etc.?
I think being a Mexican woman helped the film because people, starting with Don Sergio, felt comfortable around me. I guess that could have worked against me if we were talking to funders, because I have seen that women often aren’t taken seriously, especially when English is their second language.
This is an affecting story about a man whose very life is almost completely a mission to help others. Did that cause the film to become “more than just a film” for you? Have you become active in helping finding funding to support his work, etc.?
It’s definitely more than a film, it’s a call to action. Besides applying to film festivals, we’re inviting everybody we know to learn more about Don Sergio & support him. We’re hoping to show the doc to non-profits, organizations, schools and universities, to spread the word about his great work and show the youth an example of a flesh and blood hero. I’m also hoping to talk to young Latinas about women and filmmaking in general.
While producing the film, I started collaborating with Patricia Ferrer, a Mexican-American Physician Assistant who has helped Don Sergio in person and by creating a website where people can make paypal donations: www.yokchij.org My job was to translate into Spanish the website and the brochure she put together to promote his humanitarian work and museum. I’m happy to say that she’ll be attending the premiere of EL ANDALON this Sunday at 11:20am at the Mann Chinese 6.
We’re also in conversations with a non-profit foundation and the Rotary Club here in Watsonville, both of whom have expressed interest in sending medical supplies to Chiapas.
What came first – your involvement with the group going on the trip to Bolivia or your decision to direct a documentary about that group?
Although I had documentary production experience at that time, my involvement with the group came first. They were already named Women With Altitude, and they called my employer the Global Fund for Women to seek its contacts with women’s groups in Bolivia and to invite a representative of the organization to come along.
I was overjoyed to say yes: as the Program Officer for Latin America at the Global Fund for Women, I had already visited with several of the Bolivian groups 5 years before and I spoke Spanish; in my past I had been an Outward Bound instructor in Montana and Mexico and a lifelong climber but I had not yet had the chance to do any high altitude mountaineering; and most importantly, the mountains had been essential to my personal empowerment and recovery after a sexual assault over a decade ago. I trained, did outreach, and raised funds for the expedition for the next 6 months.
The team had already arranged with a documentary director to film the expedition and the women’s groups in Bolivia, but he dropped out 2 weeks before the departure date. I stepped into his shoes and found an experienced DP, Arthur Yee of December Pictures. Arthur had a bit of mountaineering experience, too, so we were fortunate that he was not only able to accept the job on short notice, but that he came with two cameras, sound equipment, and the wherewithal to climb and film at the same time. The success of the trip helped give me much of the endurance and hunger to take our documentary through its long post-production process to the finish line.
Why was/is climbing a mountain an effective way to deal with the issues and emotions and hurdles women face with domestic abuse?
Speaking from personal experience to rebuild myself after abuse by a former boyfriend, I can attest that the effort and the environment involved in mountaineering is something that expands you, re-acquaints you with inner strength and physical power, helps you face fear and confront peril, trust people with your safety again, and simply makes you dig deep.
The mountains were not only literal but also our metaphor for the long road to overcoming violence: you start in the dark, maybe you feel afraid and alone, the summit is impossibly far-off and the ascent seems overwhelming, even life-threatening to attempt. But you take one step after another, it’s safer and better if you tie in with others, and you get there, section by section, navigating each hazard as they come. Until there’s only sky.
The vastness of that sky helped me connect with something greater in myself than all the pain I had left below. And when I came back, the world around me literally looked different, and I truly felt different, better, new. It was a before-and-after experience in a positive sense, unlike the assault, which was before-and-after in a negative way, and there was catharsis in the effort it demanded of me.
Women who have experienced any form of abuse resonate or respond strongly to the stories in the film, and so do people who have faced struggle, grief, and have sought the vastness of the horizon for solace, perspective, or peace.
Let’s get technical. Did you man the cameras during the climb? If not, could you describe how you directed those that were while you were in the middle of it yourself?
We were fortunate to locate through Docu-Link our DP Arthur Yee of December Pictures, who has shot numerous documentaries including Aging Out and Small Voices and had climbed Mt. Shasta before coming on board the Women With Altitude expedition just ten days before departure. We used two cameras, expedition life batteries, and lavaliere as well as shotgun mics. I ran around La Paz and El Alto with Arthur and directed the interviews with the Bolivian activists, while he handled all the interviews of the climbers, including myself, enabling me to remain a genuine member of the team. We hired an assistant mountain guide to carry the tripod, and Arthur was literally a trooper for pulling out the camera at numerous points during each ascent and filming. Sometimes this entailed going ahead, and sometimes hanging back, particularly to allow the viewer to reach the summit with the climbers. Despite his herculean endurance, the DP finally hit a wall at 19,800 feet just one pitch before the summit of Huayna Potosí, our tallest peak. We rappelled down to him, put the video camera in the hands of the still photographer, and short-roped Arthur to the summit. Now, that is great behind-the-scenes footage, let me tell you.
The fact that Bolivia could make a claim for outpacing the US as far as sexual self-realization [gender self-identity and independence] and gender respect issues are concerned was a revelation to me personally. Was that common knowledge to your group or was that a discovery that was made along the way to prepare for the climb?
A few of us had worked in partnership with or witnessed the global grassroots women’s movement in action elsewhere around the world, and I was already familiar with the Bolivian women’s groups that we met. Still, the vision, sophisticated organizing strategies, self-sustainability, and in this case, their 5-year plan made a strong impression on me all over again. We don’t always see such community engagement, accompaniment, and grassroots organizing in the US anymore.
I also noticed the inclusion of men in the Aymara women’s organizations. Often, women may not yet hold village leadership positions, but their cooperatives and economic development efforts command the respect of male authorities. Opportunity to participate is often extended to the men in their families as well, who reciprocate with respect and support for the results of their organizing and enterprises.
We can note that there was a higher level of gender violence reported in Bolivia than what is generally reported in the US, but violence certainly knows crosses all borders of geography, income, ethnicity and race. What Bolivians reminded us was that local leadership and mobilizing by women and by men alike are key elements to social change, gender equality, violence prevention and community development, and the new indigenous-led politics, rights-based approach, and environmental justice movement of Bolivia today are reflecting that on a national scale.
How did the fact that you were a member of the group help your ability to film them and make this documentary? And how did it hinder the process?
Being a member of the climbing team, I was able to convey and share the link between mountains and overcoming domestic violence through my own story as well as my professional background (Outward Bound and the Global Fund for Women). This bridge was important, because the hybrid nature of the journey and the film itself was not always easy to characterize to prospective supporters or sponsors. However, to be authentic in my role and experience as a member of the climbing team, I gave the role of interviewer of the climbers to the DP. It was sometimes a challenge for him to probe deeper on the issues or challenges we faced; it might have been easier for our team to open up to a woman already familiar to them.
In that way, I was a trusted and known colleague to the Bolivian activists, and this helped in the interviews and for them to take the leap to accept our invitation to join the trek to Base Camp. For us, this allowed us an act of reciprocity for the hospitality we were shown, and it brought balance to the purpose of the journey, serving Bolivian and American counterparts alike.
Finally, by putting myself and my own story in the film, people come directly to me with poignant reactions and personal testimonials. I had never shared my story before this film; often the viewer who confides in me never has either. It’s a profound sharing, recognition of strength, and breaking of isolation, and it continues to help me on my own path.
Was there concern either going into the project or approaching the editing process that just filming people climbing a mountain could become boring on monotonous or were you fully confident that there would be plenty of excitement and/or drama along the way? Did you do anything throughout the process to address those kinds of concerns?
Mountain films are in a much-loved sub-genre on their own, more lately joined by extreme sports and environmental or wild animal activism stories in the documentary realm. The act of climbing and the vistas themselves are so breathtaking that I never once considered if it would seem monotonous on film. I knew the audience for these films is expanding rapidly among men, women, and youth, and yet there is a dearth of ones that feature women.
If anything, I wish the cold hadn’t drained the batteries on our lavaliere mics so often. Hearing the heaving, panting, cursing, and screaming with effort that it took to climb the final pitches on Huayna Potosí would have notched up the drama even more. But the rockfall helped—I thank god there was no injury. It was a miracle—in all my years of climbing I have never seen a helmet crack in five places and the climber live to tell about it.
Also, we knew that group dynamics are challenging in an expedition and ours was no exception. However, the most dramatic of such moments had the potential to hijack the more important emotional core of the film, so finding that balance in the editing room was a careful and painstaking process. This is where the most cutting and lifting of scenes happened—we worked on it in many different ways in the edit room until we found the emotional architecture that worked. Showing rough cut screenings with peers and other audiences was essential as well.
Finally, do the other members of the group consider this the most awesome “home movie” ever?
Yes! Although their weddings and children’s births are probably a close second. All kidding aside, I often play the score when I am working, traveling or outdoors, and it motivates and inspires me every time. The film itself makes me tear up and touches a deep well of emotion whenever I watch it. The experience on that summit and the milestone of finishing the film always resound a key message in my mind: it really is worth it to set your goals that high.
Posted on August 19, 2010 in Features, Films Gone Wild by John Wildman
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