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Adventures in Feministory: Filmmaker Lourdes Portillo

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A black and white photo of Portillo with a camera behind herLourdes Portillo has a decades-long film career. Her films, which tend to focus on Chicano and Latino culture and identity, range from realism to avant-garde, fiction to personal narrative, with every kind of genre-bending in between.

Born in Mexico, Portillo got hooked on filmmaking while helping a friend make a documentary in Los Angeles. She moved to San Franciso in the 1960s, and got an MFA in film from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her own filmmaking began in the early 1970s as member of Marxist collective Cine Manifest. She was one of only two women included in the 1985 volume Chicano Cinema, the first anthology on the topic.

Her first film was Despues del Terremoto, or After the Earthquake, which she made in 1979 with Nina Serrano. The short film follows Irene, a Nicaraguan domestic worker in San Francisco. She used a blend of neorealism and telenovela aesthetics to tell the story of an immigrant adjusting to new life.

Her 1986 film, Las Madras: The Mothers of Plaza del Mayo, made with Susana Muñoz, documented the Argentine women who gathered weekly in the Buenos Aires square to demand justice and accountability for their loved ones "disappeared" by the government. The film worked to highlight a woman-led movement, and was nominated for an Emmy and Academy Award in the United States, and won more prizes internationally. "Women have not been represented properly, myself and Susana Muñoz felt that way when we made Las Madras," said Portillo in a PBS interview. "The were considered the 'crazy women' of the Plaza del Mayo. They were not really given their due. In investigating the story, we figured out 'You know? This is not right. Let's make it right. What are they really doing and what have they done?' And I think over and over again, my interest—totally unconscious—of investigating the role of women in political activities or in human rights, has surfaced to the top. It wasn't something I set out to do consciously. It just happened."

In Lourdes Portillo: The Devil Never Sleeps and Other Films, Rosa Linda Fregoso (film critic and friend of Portillo) notes this attention to women as well. Through her films, Portillo "renders meaningful portraits of women—recovering the heroes in women's history, their voices, perspective, and points of view. She attends to the details of interior spaces, the domestic sphere, family dynamics, and gender relations."

Her film Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena, went places the 1997 biopic starring Jennifer Lopez didn't. Portillo, who had never heard of Selena until the singer's untimely death, became fascinated with her career, legacy, and fans. She travelled to Selena's hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, and through interviews with fans and family, ended up with a story with more heart than the Hollywood version. Click here to hear Portillo talking about why she made the film, including the importance of seeing Latino figures both in pop music and filmmaking.

A collage of four of her movies

Some of her other films include Vida, a playful melodrama that dealt with AIDs, La Ofrenda, which looks at Mexican and Chicano celebrations of Day of the Dead, and Señorita Extraviada, on the murdered women of Juarez. Here is a video montage Women Make Movies put together of some of her works, including Corpus, Columbus on Trial, Las Madres, and Señorita Extraviada. Even these snippets show the varied style of her work and how she deftly played with and melded genre. (For a full list of her films with summaries, click here.)

Portillo continues her work today as a member of Xochitl Productions, a film production and distribution company that expands the dialogue around Latino and Chicano issues and identity. This past June, the Museum of Modern Art presented her work in a retrospective titled La Cineasta Inquisitiva.

A recent picture of Lourdes Portillo sitting by a lamp. She has short grey hair and glasses and looks at the camera with interest.

To read more about Portillo's work, check out LourdesPortillo.com, the book Lourdes Portillo: The Devil Never Sleeps and Other Films by Rosa Linda Fregoso, and this 2010 POV interview (below) from PBS, all of which informed this blog post. In this talk, conducted in 2010, Yance Ford speaks with Portillo about her influences, the documentary form, and the politics of her work.

Previously: Justine Merritt, Peace Maker and Piece Maker, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Queer Pioneer

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