Ela Bittencourt's column explores South America’s key festivals and notable screenings of Latin films in North America and Europe.
“We need to see our experiences validated, otherwise we don’t exist. And if we don’t exist, we become diminished,” says Lourdes Portillo, the filmmaker behind Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena (1999), a documentary short that screens in the current Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) retrospective, "¡Sí Se Puede! Pioneers of Chicano Cinema", spanning Mexican-American films from the 1970s to the 90s, and focusing primarily on the Chicano community’s rising socio-political awareness.
Urgent issues of representation ripple through the entire program. From Selena (1997), a biopic about a music star, Selena Quintanilla, directed by Gregory Nava and starring Jennifer Lopez, in which we watch Selena’s budding talent consistently protected and bolstered by her father’s loving yet adamant admonishing her to always “be who you are deep down,” and so not to frown upon singing in Spanish, to Portillo’s chronicling the effect that Selena’s break into the music scene had on young Chicana women, who finally saw their own hopes reflected in the adored pop icon equally embraced by mainstream media.
The series’ curator, Jesse Trussell, anchors the program in a broader, socio-political context. One of the documentary features in the lineup, A Crushing Love (2009), by Sylvia Morales, could have easily run in another passionate program, "Tell Me: Women Filmmakers Tell Their Stories," curated by Nellie Killian recently at the Metrograph. The "Tell Me" program included Geri Ashur’s Janie’s Janie (1971), a story of a disillusioned housewife’s transformation into an outspoken single mom. Whereas grassroots organizing is nascent in Janie’s Janie, in A Crushing Love it comes to the fore. The film has two time frames—the present, in which Morales films herself in the process of making a movie about Chicana women activists in the 1970s, and then the past, captured in archival materials. The film documents Mexican-American women’s struggle for rights and adequate wages, as well as often bringing up their children alone. The interviews with those children, now grown up, add a sense of continuity, while archival interviews poignantly capture the women’s political fire.
Another documentary that complements A Crushing Love, Si Se Puede! (1972), by Rick Tejada-Flores and Gayanne Fietinghoff, is a short that details the organizing efforts of Chicano farm workers, fighting for a minimum wage and for protection from child labor for their communities. Si Su Puede! documents a widespread call to hunger strikes orchestrated by farm workers. In one touching scene, Coretta King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, arrives at the scene of a strike to support the farmers. The political protest can also take a more lyrical form, as in I Am Joaquim (1969), by Luis Valdez, an incantatory dirge for the lost illusions of Chicanos, in the face of consistent exploitation and prejudice, and filmed in a highly theatrical style, with the participation of César Chávez’s United Farm Workers.
At the heart of the program lies El Norte (1983), by Gregory Nava, an epic story of two young siblings from Guatemala, Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez), who after being hunted down by plantation owners in retaliation for their father’s efforts to organize (which cost him his life), cross the borders into Mexico and then the United States. In the current climate, as President Trump starts to evaluate the materials for building the wall with Mexico, and has taken the steps to dismantle the Dreamers program of ex-President Obama in order to keep even the youngest immigrants out, it’s hard to think of a film that speaks more potently to the desperation and to the incandescent hopes that many young foreigners still place in America (in contrast to the Millennials who, toughened by the government’s cynicism, are reported to have given up idealist aspirations).
El Norte is often analyzed in the context of socialist realism, but its direction and acting are much more naturalist and fluid than this label suggests. Instead, it is a politically tinged melodrama, which Roger Ebert famously called, “The Grapes of Wrath for our time.” Nava doesn’t quite share in Steinbeck’s folksy flourishes, but both lean towards gravity with a distinct painterly touch, notably in Nava the dark voluptuousness of his colors and the richness of textures, plus the compositional tendency towards striking juxtapositions and, at times, the uncanny. In one funeral scene in the Guatemalan village, the starkness of gray bare crosses contrasts with the colorful striped clothes of the local women, while the shapes of the crosses are reflected in their streamlined silhouettes. The uncanny elements have earned Nava the title of a magical realist. That magical realism certainly isn’t as pronounced as in Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novels, in which virgins ascend to heavens, but in the scene in which Rosa comes home to find that her mother had been taken by the militias, butterflies flutter mysteriously in the air. Later, when she is saying goodbye to her land, about to depart North, white petals suddenly spring up from the ground—the earth’s farewell, or a gift from her murdered father. Perhaps even more chillingly, as Rosa flees her village to meet up with Enrique before crossing the border, two elderly women repeatedly call out Rosa’s name as she passes. Their blindly staring eyes, insistent voices and haggard appearance, plus the dark, murky atmosphere of the scene, eerily recall such moments as the witches’ hour in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, hinting at prophetic forebodings and the tragic denouement of Rosa’s own fate. In such fluid moments, when melodramatic action halts and realism meets the lushly fantastical, Nava’s film achieves its highest potency.
In his review of El Norte, Ebert noted another important aspect of Nava’s filmmaking career—his activist temperament, which echoes the program’s overall theme. In Nava’s case, it not only made him one of the pioneers of independent American cinema and El Norte one of the first low-budget features to be nominated for an Oscar, but also led to his co-funding with his producer and co-writer Anna Thomas of Independent Feature Project, which since 1984 holds Independent Spirit Awards, thus actively recognizing and promoting American indie films.