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Prodigal Talent Returns: The Aurora Guerrero Interview
by Doniphan Blair
Director/writer/producer Aurora Guerrero prepping Paul Alayo as Pablo on a guerilla-style shoot on a street in South East—not East—Los Angeles. photo: Magela Crosignani
A provocative filmmaker decides to end a dozen year sojourn in Los Angeles to build her career here. Lured by the largess of a local foundation AND an "indie rate" from a prestigious Hollywood North company, she posted a feature shot in LA here—not the other way around—a promising development in the Bay Area's long quest to emerge as THE indie alternative to LA.
Moreover, her feature, 'Mosquito y Mari', got accepted to
Born and raised in the Mission's Excelsior district and then Berkeley, in and around the restaurants where her immigrant Mexican parents worked, Aurora Guerrero busted out early and big. She gay-identified, inspired by a community of young queer people she met in the famously gay capital of San Francisco, but also intellectually, heading to UC Berkeley where she kicked ass and double majored: Chicano studies and psychology.
Ironically, Guerrero expressed no interest in filmmaking until she started working as an activist in San Francisco. Double ironically, although she sees film as another form of activism and sometimes discusses it in that vocabulary, her work is edgy, graphic and aggressively dramatic—hardly the staid documentaries or preachy features of your father's (or in this case mother's) activism.
After moving to Los Angeles to study film at
, Guerrero settled into its vibrant indie film community and started making shorts. They were soon getting play both around town and internationally.
She came back to the Mission two years ago to assistant direct for Peter Bratt on his "La Mission" (2010), which also deals with queer issues in the Latino community (see
). Starring Bratt's brother, Benjamin, of "Law and Order" renoun—he makes a good flawed but searching macho— "La Mission" also followed the model of an indie-Hollywood North hybrid. Although the Bratt's did not obtain Hollywood financing, they gathered $2.5 million: enough to mix it up.
Guerrero came again last year when she recieved a
Kenneth Rainin/San Francisco Film Society
grant. After awarding $15,000 to $100,000 to ten filmmakers annually for a few years now, the Film Society's incubator is starting to bear serious fruit.
Indeed, Ms. Guerrero had already raised almost $90,000 on Kickstarter.com and shot her coming-of-age/coming-out feature, "Mosquita y Mari", in Los Angeles when the KRS/SFFS grant brought her back to the Bay where she was able to do post-production.
She did final mixes and color corrects at George Lucas's mythical Skywalker Ranch and San Francisco stalwart Video Arts (which recently went under after 25 years). As it completed and people saw parts, Guerrero became the talk of the town, receiving write-ups in
and elsewhere and then going all-state when "Mosquita y Mari" was accepted into the World Cup of Indie Cinema: Sundance.
So the race to get a "festival" mix out of Skywalker—not to mention in the December holiday rush—was on. Guerrero graciously made time for CineSource by telephone to expand on her themes, theories and work strategies.
Guerrero working with Laura Patalano and Fenessa Pineda on her provocative short 'Viernes Girl'. photo: courtesy A. Guerrero
I just looked at your '
' [a short about a young El Salvadorian woman seducing her philandering brother's girl friend). Very nice and graphic, you seem to have a strong graphic sense. Is 'Pandora's' [another Guerrero project] also on line?
'Pandora's' was a play that was Off-Off Broadway. I did documentaries of that, a couple of which maybe online.
It sounds like it is also gay-themed. Is that a proclivity of yours or is it that it is not addressed in the Latino community?
You rarely encounter a queer body [in Latino media] AND it is very much my own personal identity. All my films have had a character that embodies several identities and one of them is always LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual]. They are usually of color, Latino, working-class, female—sometimes male—and urban. So far most have been young and from an immigrant experience. I am always commenting on gender, class and ethnicity and how they intersect.
You seem to really like Los Angeles but you are from here and were up here working on 'La Mission.'
'Mosquita y Mari' was filmed in Los Angeles, in Huntington Park, which is South East of Los Angeles—not East LA! (A lot of people box the Latino community to being only East LA.) Several of my films have happened in LA, largely because I have lived in LA for 12 years and I am very much inspired by LA's many intersecting worlds and realities.
I am originally from the Bay Area—born and raised. But I only have one film, my very, very first—which no one has seen—set in San Francisco. After that, I applied to film school and I ended up in LA. I went to Cal Arts—I loved it—very intimate. I went to a big public institution for my undergraduate studies—UC Berkeley—so I decided to go to a small private institution where I felt I was being attended to.
It wasn't 'til I started working as an activist in San Francisco that I discovered film. I had no real training. I had stories, I knew I was a good story teller but I didn't know how to use film as a tool.
For a pivotal scene in 'Mosquito y Mari', Guerrero confers with her leads Venecia Troncoso (left) and Fenessa Pineda(right). photo: Magela Crosignani
You got the grant from the San Francisco Film Society and then—
Kickstarter came first, we raised money for production first and shot the film in Los Angeles but we had no money for post-production. I applied to San Francisco Film Society for post funds and we were lucky enough to get the grant. It was between Kickstarter, San Francisco Film Society and one small investor. They made this film happen.
With Kickstarter, we set a goal to raise $80,000 in 30 days. The way Kickstarter works is if you don't meet your goals, you don't cash in anything. Even if you are at $79,000, you loose all of that.
Why do they do that?
They probably have multiple reasons. What it provided for us was drama—rose the stakes—if we didn't meet this goal that money would be lost. I am sure some how we could [raised the money] but all the organizing, the time spent, it would have been difficult. Everyone knew that the stakes were very high. If we didn't make the 80 K, we would loose the opportunity to shoot the film this summer .
[We said,] 'We have been trying to raise this money, it has been very hard, but now we are turning to you, our community, to help us make this happen! If we don't make that $80,000 not only will it be it my loss but many people would feel that loss.'
[They said], 'Oh my god, I am invested in this story. I want to see it made. In order for that to happen we have to give and we have to give within this time frame.'
It is dramatic. We were 40 grand out about 48 hours before our campaign closed—which is a HUGE gap! I don't think Kickstarter has seen a project raise that amount in such a short period.
But the stakes and the drama really swelled and everyone came out and we made our 80 thou. If it was
[another fundraising site], what ever you raise you walk away with. If I was in that situation at Indiegogo with 40 grand 48 hours out, a lot of people would be like: 'She walked away with 40 grand, that is a lot, she'll be fine,' But with Kickstarter, it was: 'Oh no, she is going to walk away with zero.' Dramatically, it played a big roll.
That sounds good, since films are dramatic from beginning to end, as you well know. Raising the money is dramatic, shooting the film is dramatic and the story has to be dramatic. So you got 80K from Kickstarter and another from the Film Society?
88 thousand for postproduction.
Did Video Arts and Skywalker give you a deal?
Skywalker was definitely into us negotiating a price within our budget that would allow us to access their facility. They are pricey—state of the art—and they cost a pretty penny! I happen to know one of the account managers out there; he has been following my project.
For the final mix?
Yes. I have been in a sound studio for the past seven or eight days.
That sounds really cool. I am gathering they have an ad hoc 'Help-out-the-Indies' program.
Yeah, they want to make room for small films. They get the big films out there—obviously, independents don't compare to those budgets—but they really tried to carve out something for my film.
More than anyone, you are in a good position to compare indie filmmaking in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We have a reputation for being pro-indie but is that valid or there something to be said for the free-wheeling nature of Los Angeles?
To be honest with you, my relation to the indie filmmaking world in San Francisco is still yet to be discovered since I recently moved back to the Bay after being gone for a long time. The San Francisco Film Society is starting to connect to this community. I know some of the filmmakers like Peter Bratt ['La Mission'] and Barry Jenkins ['Medicine for Melancholy', see
] but I can't speak too much to the community in the Bay.
Los Angeles, though, it is very much the center. The scene in Los Angeles is big—BIG!—because a small number of filmmakers actually work within the system. There are tons of filmmakers in the independent category, a lot of conversations and sharing of resources. There are programs and non-profits helping independent filmmakers. It is very much alive and I am very much a part of that scene. How it compares to San Francisco I can't say.
Los Angeles has a lot of everything. As a Northern California film journal, one of our themes is not how we can beat Los Angeles but what are our advantages and how we can play off of those.
I look forward to connecting more to the independent film community in the Bay now that I have finished production on the film and I will be in the Bay on and off—probably more on than off. You need services for independent filmmakers but the heart of the independent movement is the people. You have to have a sense of community. Right now I don't know where that community is and I haven't sought it out.
The Mission got a little dissapated with the dot com boom but there is stuff happening all over. I recently saw an indie feature made by a Latino gentleman from the Fruitvale district of Oakland. He told me there was little community of filmmakers in that area.
So 'Mosquita' will world premiere at Sundance [in January 19-29, 2012 ]. Are you on schedule [for completion] or will it be a nailbiter?
No, we are good. All the film stuff will be finished at Skywalker. We are going out HD, tape, unless we get into a festival where it is absolutely mandatory [to have film]. Theatre distribution is for the most part film—art houses are going digital—but we will cross that bridge when we come to it. [laughs]
Have folks been approaching you with other projects and are you going to stick to your theme?
I think I am going to stick with the themes I have been addressing. It is what I know and it is the unique lens I view the world through. For the most part, I am always open to collaborating with other artists and see what other stories come my way. But in terms of what I write, I will stick by those themes.
How about Cary Fukunaga from Oakland who did 'Sin Nombre' and then 'Jane Eyre'.
That is an interesting second film! [laugh] I don't know if he knew that was coming his way but he got excited about it and took it. That's what I am saying: If something exciting comes my way [I will take it]. But I'm starting to write something that could be my second film. I'm hoping that after people watch 'Mosquita y Mari' they will want to see more of me.
Judging from your
you have written, directed and produced everything thus far. You might have to move on from that one-woman operation.
It's never really been a one-woman show. I've been blessed to have the support of many, many people but I definitely want to go a little bigger. I am not talking studio bigger, just a little more budget, so we are not killing ourselves while making these films, while not compromising the vision.
The total on this was around?
It was an indie budget, below 500K.
You probably had a lot of in-kind services that can't be gauged into that?
The team on 'Mosquita y Mari' were mostly your associates from Los Angeles?
Actually no. The co-producer is from the Bay Area [but] the lead producer is from Oklahoma. I met him through Sundance. The creative team behind the film is a mixed bag of artists from LA and the Bay, I guess because I have my foot in both these worlds.
And how do they get along?
Oh, fine. My editor Augie Robles is from the Bay but he has been in LA for a while now too. He is from Sacramento and spent a long time in the Bay but has been in LA for around 15 years—we never loose our Bay Area identities. But, you know, you build community in LA—he loves it. A gay Latino, also a writer-director, he has been in TV for a long time. He stepped out of it to do my feature.
It is good to have collaborators who understand the issues.
Yes, definitely, all the creative team were people of color, Latino, the majority queer identified—lot of young people.
Do you think, generally speaking, we have gotten over a certain hump in the last decade with queer issues and exposure in the media, like with 'Ellen' and 'The L Word'?
I think we are heading in that direction. I think there is this new wave of artists that are tackling that identity. There are very few to point to that have really looked at ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality. But I feel my generation and the generations to come are really pushing that complexity, going beyond just queer identity to what it means as whole when you belong to many different communities.
The filmmakers who went to Sundance last year who are bringing that voice to LGBT communities are Dee Rees who did 'Pariah' [about a 17 year-old black girl coming out] and Maryam Keshavarz who did 'Circumstance' [an Iranian film on a similar subject]. They are both my peers and they both put out these queer women-centered films in very unique settings.
We are starting to see that conversation dissect other layers of that identity. My voice, Rees's voice, Maryam's voice are very important because they are somewhat marginalized in the LGBT community. A lot of people will benefit as the LGBT community incorporates all voices— is not being monolitic and male gay-centered.
The LGBT community will gain a lot from these films [but also] the general public and the Latino community. These are issues in the Latino community we need to tackle. In the past people used to be closed to these topics but I definitely think that has changed and our community is very hungry for this material.
Some of my gay friends/film critics were a little critical of 'La Mission'—that the boyfriend was a white kid—but I thought that was realistic because the Castro is right on top of the Mission, so there is a lot of contact.
Every film is going to have its critics. Peter [Bratt] made his choices and they were very intentional. Those are good questions to ask him, if you have an opportunity, because he is very intentional. There is so much mixed racing in this film, he is obviously making a point. He doesn't hide his political stances.
Critics who have a thing with one [character]... Obviously the film has a structure and they have to ask what [the director's] intentions were and maybe they can get to the politics of it.
I thought it was find it perfectly realistic. It also gave Benjamin [Bratt's] character the opportunity to go talk to that woman up on the hill.
I thought it was a good film of the macho man trying to deal with his feeling and the ending was very good.
Yes, open ended and it hit home for a lot of men.
You are of El Salvadorian descent?
Have you taken your films down there?
My films have travelled but not with me [laughs] unfortunately—I wish I could go to all those place—Mexico, Colombia, very much the activist circuit: queer, human rights, feminist, scholars, stuff like that. Some film festivals are really grass roots; activists have heard of [my] films and wanted to show them in their community centers.
I am sure that feels good but I imagine you rather have it seen as drama not activism.
No, actually I think that film is an activist tool. I tell stories and some people can experience them but I also hope that activists doing work on the ground could use these films. I hope that my films work on multiple levels.
What would be the three top levels you hope your films work on?
Definitely on a mainstream level: I think that all communities can benefit from these stories. In terms of stories, accessible to different audiences both in the way you tell stories also the way you put your film out there.
On another level, community and grassroots based, where the film can be at community screenings and open up conversations for communities to have. I don't try to STEAR a conversation in a certain way—I just hope it starts, whatever it is. Hopefully change will come, either personal or a larger public change, and the film can contribute to that. Those are two levels.
It seems you are interested in the romance and the art of it as well.
I also like the graphics of the one film I saw. Very few films have used split screen so effectively. Was that a split screen or were you shooting down the middle of a wall?
We took a living room and created two bedrooms with this wall but we ended having to split the screen [to edit] for story, performances and takes. For different coverage and angles, you had to move in and shoot the individuals, so for the most part it was split screen.
If a young Latino—or any kid filmmaker—came to you, is there something you'd say to them?
I would say to not forget the nature of filmmaking, that it is collaborative, inherently. They [should] seek out community to enjoy the medium to help get their films made: collaborate on production, feedback-wise, intellectually, so they can make the best film they can.
They shouldn't make it in a vacuum. Equipment is much more accessible now and finding that community of peers shouldn't be that difficult.
Posted on Jan 01, 2012 - 01:20 PM