Interview with the Directors of CHAVELA
Movie • 1 hr 30 min • Documentary, Feature, Premiere (Netherlands)
MEXICO / USA, Completed Jan 2017
DIRECTED BY Catherine Gund, Daresha Kyi
New Renaissance Film Festival interview directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi about Chavela, which recently won the Second Place Audience Award at the Berlin Film Festival. Catherine is an Emmy-nominated producer, director, writer, and organizer. Daresha is an award-winning filmmaker and television producer with over 25 years in the business. Chavela gets its premiere in the Netherlands on Saturday 4th March 2017, at theNew Renaissance Film Festival, Amsterdam.
Synopsis: Did Chavela really creep into women’s bedrooms late at night to steal them away from their husbands? Did she spend a year living with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera all while carrying on a passionate romance with Frida? Was she really a shaman too with “special powers?” These are a few of the incredible rumors people loved to tell about Chavela. Some are true. In her amazing journey from a 14-year-old rejected runaway from Costa Rica to world renowned, Grammy winning Mexican icon, Chavela’s joyful, painful, musical and deeply spiritual journey to self-acceptance is the heart and soul of Chavela.
How does it feel to have ‘Chavela’ shown for the first time in the Netherlands?
Daresha: It has been a pleasure and an honor to be chosen by Chavela to share her gorgeous, heartbreaking voice, fierce presence and profoundly inspiring life story with the world and spread her legend even further. I am grateful that my love of this wonderful warrior woman will reach the people of the Netherlands.
Catherine: Music and art transcend all boundaries, especially geographic impositions. It is important for us to exchange our creative powers and to celebrate freedom of expression. Chavela has a quiet but devoted following. It’s thrilling to open new hearts and minds to her suffering, her pain, and her ultimate transcendence.
What inspired you to make a documentary feature about the Grammy winning Mexican icon?’
Catherine: Death was surrounding me during the AIDS crisis. When I lost my best friend, I fled to Mexico City and ended up staying there for months. It was 1991. I carried a big old Hi-8 video camera in my backpack which was a habit from recording street demonstrations and everyday moments in my community, in an effort to create our own imagery since we were missing or maligned in the mainstream.
Through our video cameras, we got to represent ourselves – queer people, people of color, people with HIV – in all of our beauty and emotional brilliance. Finding and filming Chavela followed the same impulse. She was largely unknown then, at 71 years old, also queer, missing and maligned.
My new friends knew she was struggling with alcoholism, that she had recently broken up with a lover, and that she was having a hard time. The lesbian feminist community in Mexico at that time was fairly small and intertwined, as is its tendency, and they didn’t feel like Chavela was being honored as she deserved to be. Here was this huge, global icon who seemed to be sailing off into history as a back up singer, the second act, the accompanist, never the star. But nonetheless, they knew she had been fearless and they revered her for that. She had stood in her truth and her power, never changing pronouns in the songs men had traditionally sung to women. They loved her music and they loved her bravery. She never pretended to be straight. She never married a man. She was always herself, from the beginning. She was their hero.
It was a miracle that we got the interview. She invited us into her home in Ahuatepec. She had never talked so much with kindred strangers for hours like she did with us. She talked about personal things, finding love and losing it, struggling to be recognized for her talents and generosity, her full throated emotional delivery. She spoke about the joy and pain of encountering people who knew her, who called her either “diva” or “dyke.” We knew it was our opportunity to share her story with a broader audience. But we didn’t know her story was only half way done. She predicted her own grand trajectory when she begins the film saying, “Don’t ask me where I’ve been. Ask me where I’m going.” How could we have known?!
Those interviews provide the fulcrum of the film Chavela. She had her small art house fame, but she had yet to go to Spain, yet to perform on an huge world famous stage like Sala Caracol, Bellas Artes, the Olympia, or Carnegie Hall. And at the time, she implored us, “Don’t forget me.” We haven’t. I like to think this film follows in the tradition of my work on AIDS in the late 80s when we were “exploding the stability of the official history.”
Daresha: I’ve always been attracted to stories about underdogs who triumph. A Latina lesbian wearing pants, chomping cigars, and swilling tequila while carrying a pistol and singing love songs to women in the late 1940s in Roman Catholic, super macho Mexico? It’s hard to be more marginalized (or more bad ass) than that! Presented with the opportunity to tell the story of someone who went from sleeping on street corners, passed out in an alcoholic stupor, to selling out Carnegie Hall, appearing in a movie with Salma Hayek, being Pedro Almodóvar’s muse and winning Spain’s highest honor – how could I resist?
How did you connect with the people you interviewed and access the archive material?
Daresha: For most of the people we interviewed, I either contacted their representatives or reached out to them directly through email. Two I even found through Facebook! All were happy to share their memories of, and experiences with Chavela. It was obvious they still loved her, even the ones who sometimes hated her. Chavela remains a strong presence in the hearts and lives of those who knew her. One interviewee still starts each day by listening to Chavela read a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, another has dedicated an entire section of her altar to the iconic singer.
I knew that we would find everything we needed to make the film on our first shoot in December 2015 in Tepoztlán, Mexico. Diana Ortega, the woman who is said to have inspired one of the two songs Chavela wrote, “Maria Tepozteca,” said Chavela had visited her dreams for the first time since she’d died. Diana had been trying to decode the vision and now that she had met us, she realized the dream was about us! “You have Chavela’s blessing on your project,” she said solemnly. Well, part of my spirit relaxed completely once I heard that because I knew that as long as we did our part, Chavela would be working her magic from the other side and she’s got some serious mojo!
When we found Adrián Gutierrez, our Archival Producer, I knew Chavela had brought him to us and that he would find whatever archival material we needed to tell her story. Such a smart, cheerful, hard working and talented man, he’s the one who did all the dirty work to dig up the bulk of the archival material.
Catherine: Connecting with those who knew and loved Chavela was a long and winding process. At the beginning, it was mostly intuitive, finding who she mattered to when she wasn’t famous and then branching out to her later, more public connections. We started in Mexico with Jesusa and Liliana, the proprietors of El Habito where I filmed Chavela’s performances in the early 90s. We found Chavela’s younger friend-turned-Senator Patria Jimenez, whom I likely passed on the streets of Cuernavaca outside of Chavela’s house. And we reached out cold to wonderful, enthusiastic and willing celebrities like Eugenia Leon, Miguel Bose and Martirio. Like Chavela had done when I met her, they all invited us into their homes. Pedro Almodovar chose to be filmed in his dramatic, colorful, lively studio space. We were embraced by those who embraced Chavela. And they always offered tequila, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes once we were rolling, sometimes when we turned the camera off, always to celebrate their joy in reminiscing. But tequila, always tequila. Hasta el ultimo trago.
Is there a scene in the documentary that you found challenging to shoot?
Catherine: That’s a funny question for this film since there are really only three types of footage in it: my interviews from 1991, our numerous contemporary interviews, and extensive and provocative archival footage (and stills) which obviously we didn’t shoot. Although our recent interviews could have been traditional sit down moments, they are warmed by people’s comfort in their own spaces, surrounded by their books, photos, food, plants, and their recollections. Chavela is nothing if not authentic, and that is echoed in her memory.
Finally, I look back at the footage from 25 years ago, when I was 25 years old, and in many ways, I wish I knew then what I know now! I would have used a tripod (but those didn’t fit in my backpack). I would have hidden the lavaliere under her shirt (I was way too shy to do that). I would have held shots longer (but whatever). And I wouldn’t have filmed myself in the mirror next to her reflection (precursor of today’s selfie). But to change those things would have been a loss. My editor never stressed the amateurish quality over the magic of the mood and Chavela’s profound openness. Another interview like this just doesn’t exist and we did not squander our opportunity. We were young and honest and admiring and wide open. And somehow she reflected that back to us.
After our Berlin premiere, a filmmaker friend approached me and said she also had an interview from that same time period. “She was curt and cranky and mean. And she hardly told us anything. How did you manage to get this interview?” The stars aligned and with that you get a very young woman with short hair smiling into the mirror alongside her eminence, someone who has continued to visit me and has anchored herself as one of my lifelong teachers.
Daresha: Most of the shoots on this film were planned and executed under fairly controlled circumstances, so the challenges were more emotional than technical in nature for me. People often cried when they talked about Chavela and I’m highly empathetic, so I cried a lot on this film.
Then there was the shoot with Pedro, which was everything to a film geek like me! I must have reviewed and rearranged my questions a thousand times before we sat down. I was so nervous, at one point I almost forgot how to speak Spanish. It was like the time I interviewed Martin Scorsese. As a fan, you just want to hug them and tell them what their work means to you, but since that wouldn’t be cool, you shake hands and sit you butt by the camera before you make a fool of yourself.
But I was most anxious at Alicia Elena’s home. Even though she had responded to my initial inquiry enthusiastically, the stakes felt particularly high because she was the only woman we had found who had an intimate relationship with Chavela. No one had ever interviewed her before and I didn’t want to blow it. But luckily, Alicia and I hit it off right away. She not only opened up her home and her heart, but she allowed us to scan every single photo from two thick albums packed with private pictures of her life with Chavela that no one had ever seen! Now that’s trust!
What would you have done differently on this film?
Catherine: If we had more time, I would have worked on the graphic representation of the song lyrics a little bit more. I wanted the graphics to fade on and off as she was singing, in a kind of immersive text, melody, language, passion bath. I wanted them to float around her more in concert with the tune and her voice. I think we achieved a powerful representation of meaning in two languages, one that resonates with singing differently than subtitling. But I still think it could have been even more heart-wrenching.
Daresha: When Cat and I first started the project we shared a vision of a non-linear structure that would use animation to illustrate various aspects of Chavela’s life. I found the idea exciting and really looked forward to animating some of the wild stories Chavela told people – like the one about how there were scales on the windows of her seaside home because beautiful mermaids tried to entice her to follow them to the depths of the sea every night. Animation would have taken the film to another level entirely, but unfortunately we didn’t have the budget for it.
Also, I would have liked to explore her mystical side even more. Whether or not Chavela was a shaman, many people shared stories of her magical abilities with us that I would love to have shared with audiences, but with only 90 minutes and such a full life, you have to “kill some babies” as they say in the business.
As co-directors, did you learn anything new from making ‘Chavela’?
Catherine: I’ve worked for 30 years in various strong and fruitful collaborations on my film and video productions but I had never codirected a feature length documentary before. Daresha has worked in TV production for decades but had never made a feature documentary before. We had to keep learning about communicating and celebrating each other’s contributions. I have a documentary track record but she speaks much better Spanish. We found a great “third wheel” in our brilliant editor Carla Gutierrez and we all feel super proud of our teamwork. Chavela would not exist without each of us giving it all of our patience, vision, dedication, and passion for the messages.
Daresha: I had never co-directed a project before. It’s a challenging process that teaches you to focus on what’s best for the story, above all else. I think one of the most important things in our favor is that Cat and I have similar aesthetic sensibilities and politics, which made many decisions effortless. We also shared a common sense (along with our editor, Carla Gutierrez) of the story we wanted to tell. It didn’t hurt that we also allowed our selves to be guided by Chavela’s firm hand at many points along the journey.
You are both established professionals in the industry. Have you always wanted to be filmmakers?
Daresha: I didn’t know there was such a thing as a “filmmaker” as a kid. I took a film class and made a crazy little experimental short in high school but it was many years before the independent film movement took off and showed me that one could have a viable career as a director. I got into directing by way of acting. I wanted more control over my image so I directed myself in a film.
Catherine: I started out as a painter but I found myself writing words on my paintings and so recognized my desire for more layers, more depth, a conversation that can take place between the image and the audio. I hated television when I was younger but I encountered the power of filmmaking through Paper Tiger TV which blew the old formats and predictable content out of the water. In fact, PTTV’s mission was to shine a light on how media constructs its audience, what exactly we give up when we are called to watch. I learned I didn’t have to turn off the TV, I just had to make shows about the people and questions I care about. In this tradition, we are chipping away at the stereotypes and general lack of images of those on the outside of the mainstream. But we have a long way to go.
Was there a film that inspired your ambition?
Catherine: Many films focus on the dazzling emotionality of music and musical artists. Some to great effect like Amy, Keep on Keepin’ On, Sing Your Song, Searching for Sugarman, Twenty Feet from Stardom, Janice, and What Happened, Miss Simone. Those were the documentaries I revisited while working on this project. But in general, many incredible stories told through film are stored in my heart since their first impact on me.
Daresha: I’m inspired by each and every film that moves me to laugh, cry, think, or get angry
What advice would you give to a documentary filmmaker starting out?
Catherine: Find a nugget that you don’t totally understand. Let the tiny fascination grow with your work and your collaborations. Discover something new so that you can share the power of revelation with your viewers. If it doesn’t interest you, it won’t interest anyone else either. Stick with it. Find mentors. Work with people who’ve done the work before and never stop yourself from imagining bigger than they do. Without the confines of convention and tradition and reality, your vision will be creative and persistent and beautiful.
And PS, if you can find any old footage pre-2000, anything shot before we all carried video cameras in our pockets, see what you can do with it, where you can take it, where it can take you. Cinema is not a very old art form in the scheme of things and there is so much left to be made of it, in form and structure but also in terms of content and understanding the power of the image and the power of representation.
Daresha: This is always a hard question for me because there’s no “one path” to success or one piece of advice that will work for everyone. But I guess the most important question you should ask yourself when you start a documentary is whether or not you love your subject or idea enough to dedicate two to five years of your life to it. Cause it’s a long haul and you gotta hang tough!
What do you want people to gain from watching ‘Chavela’?
Daresha: I hope that people who watch the film are touched by her powerful magic, moved by her artistry and her story, and walk away glad to know someone like Chavela Vargas once walked the earth.
Catherine: I want people to love Chavela as much as I do and to feel inspired by her bravery.