For more than four decades, the revered filmmaker Lourdes Portillo has made projects with a lens on social justice, particularly focused on issues affecting women and children in her native Mexico and her adopted home of the United States. Her films not only strive for truth, but also push the boundaries of documentary filmmaking and challenge established cinematic forms. "For me, I think that the art that I do is in the service of helping people," Portillo says. "That's my concern, really."
As a teenager, Portillo's family moved from Chihuahua, Mexico to Los Angeles, a seismic change that would influence her entire body of work. In the '70s, she moved to San Francisco to officially begin her filmmaking career, first as a part of the Marxist collective called Cine Manifest, and then as a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she received formal training. "That was the beginning of thinking that I could make films that could actually move people to do something that would be good for everybody," she reflects.
Portillo's work includes her 1985 feature debut, The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which she co-directed with Susana Blaustein Muñoz and which received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the 58th Academy Awards, as well as The Days of the Dead (1989), The Devil Never Sleeps (1994), and Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena (1999).
The acclaimed artist and activist's work is currently being highlighted by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures as part of its Significant Movies and Moviemakers gallery, on view through Jan. 5, 2025.
"It was unexpected," Portillo says of walking through the Academy Museum's exhibit for the first time. "That's how I felt. And I was surprised. But when I actually walked into the vignette, it was really, really touching. It was a very beautiful rendition of my work — what I've intended to do, what I've tried to do. And it was there demonstrated, very physically. I was very touched."
A.frame: The Academy Museum hosted a screening series of your work earlier this year, and you appeared for a number of Q&As. What was it like to watch your body of work with an audience today — in the case of The Mothers of the Plaza of Mayo, nearly 40 years after you made the film?
The whole thing was very touching. I was very touched to look at my work and try to remember when I was doing that and what I was feeling then. It was kind of like a review of what my principles have been. That's how I felt. And they were really demonstrated in the way that I would have liked it. Because a lot of times when we are not the people in the spotlight, we tend to not be represented as we are, and rather what the public is sometimes thinking.
In an oral history with the Academy, you said that Charlie Chaplin movies were some of the first films you saw when you lived in Mexico. What were some of the other early films that had a really big impact on your life and your career?
I don't know the title of the film, but I remember being very small and going to the Cine Azteca, which was around the corner from my house in Chihuahua, and I saw a film about pirates. And I remember that there was a shot from the mast — from the top of the ship — and I was so taken by that. It really impressed me. That is a silly thing, but that is one of the things that I remember. But the other ones were the cinemas that I attended there in Chihuahua — the Cine Colonial, Niños Heroés, Azteca. There were some Mexican films that I loved very much because the humor is also exceptional. That was as a child.
Then I go to Los Angeles and I see films like The Ten Commandments. The big films. I had to be 19 or 20 years old, and I remember going to see some films that were not run-of-the-mill films, that were more experimental films, and that also impressed me so much — that someone can just pick up a camera and make a film. It made me feel like the audience could be powerful as well. The maker can make whatever he or she wants. It gave me ideas, and I just went on like that. The other films that I loved were [Federico] Fellini films like 8½. That was a stunning rendition of life, and I couldn't believe it.
There's a throughline in your films about both art and activism, which stemmed from your early days of experimenting with film in San Francisco. What shaped your approach to documentary filmmaking?
I learned some techniques from my professors, like George Kuchar, and then I started thinking, 'I'm living in a city that is very activist driven.' I felt that I was part of that. I thought, 'Well, I'm going to try to get these two things together and experiment with that.' That was the beginning of thinking that I could make the films that could actually move people to do something that would be good for everybody.
You've also described your filmmaking as 'a work of the heart.' Can you speak more about that approach and how it's evolved over the years?
When I was young, I realized how hard it was to make a film. It takes so much energy — especially if you're a kid like me. I'm from the working class. In those times, you couldn't really hope to be a filmmaker. You'd have to be like the son or the daughter of someone that was very powerful. It was difficult to really become a filmmaker and make meaningful films. I saw that some of the films that were educational were not meaningful — [they] didn't talk to me, didn't speak to me, didn't touch me. So, I said, 'How do you do it?' That generation, we were very much involved politically. We saw how the Russians did it. We saw how the Polish did it. We saw how the Cubans did it. So, that was an example, and they were an inspiration to all of us to change and to do things for the good.
We were idealistic, like young people are. I decided, I can kind of coalesce all these things together and try to say something that might help people. The reality of living in the United States as an immigrant, it's very painful, because the first thing that happens to you is that you realize that everybody's trying to crush your sense of 'can do.' Your sense of really being important in this society, having something to say. You're already diminished. It's very complicated. One of the things that was really significant for me was the fact that I had a father who was wonderful. He would say, 'I just saw something in the newspaper that so-and-so crossed the English Channel, and you are such a good swimmer. Why don't you give it a try?' I saw this woman all covered in whale blubber in a picture in the newspaper. I was a good swimmer, but I didn't want to do that. But that inspiration, that 'can do' attitude of my father, helped me a lot. A father is very important to a girl.
While living in San Francisco, you got your start working amongst a community of fellow filmmakers, artists, and activists, many of whom became your collaborators. Over the years, how has your creative community evolved?
When you're younger, you're more hopeful and you're more adventurous, and you do more things. As you grow older, you focus on the things that you really love. And that's what I've done. For me, I think that the art that I do is in the service of helping people. That's my concern, really. And that, I think, principally comes from having gone to Catholic school all my life, and all the ideals and the morals that my mother and father taught me — how to treat people and how people should be treated and all that. Now that I'm older, I continue to have the same ethical kind of view. In meeting all the other people — all the poets and all the writers and all the muralists, everyone — they all inspired a little something in me. I really have a lot of inspiration from other people and a lot of things that happen in the world. It's like a collage.
Your films have had an undeniable influence on generations of younger filmmakers, both in the States and across Latin America. What are you most excited to see from that next generation, or what are you hoping that they'll be able to explore?
Well, exactly that — to be able to look into your life, see what is important to you, see what you can do to help and make a work of art. To me, that's art. Art is many, many things, but to me, it really is recreating experience.
In terms of everything that you've created and, like you said, wanting filmmakers to push boundaries, to play with forms, to be more experimental, how do you personally approach taking those risk? Were there times where you thought, 'this might not work,' and it did? Or maybe it didn't work and you kept moving forward?
When I was younger, I was more afraid. You think, 'Oh, is it going to be okay?' Or, 'People are going to think it's stupid.' The more you practice your craft, the more confidence you have in what you're thinking is correct. If you're not in love with an idea, don't do it. That is a stupid idea if you feel like it's a stupid idea. If you have an idea that you know that you've worked it every which way, and that is what you want and that's what you will do — then it'll be fine. That confidence is a matter of practice. Just practicing. Being aware of what you're thinking. Because sometimes we're not aware. We're thinking, 'Oh, they're not going to like it.' You can't think like that. I'll do everything so you like it. I will fall in love with my idea. I will perform it or create it, and they will love it — whether they like it or not.
You're working on a film with Guillermo Gómez-Peña, which you have called your 'last project.' Can you share a bit about that project and how it fits into your filmmaking journey?
It comes to a conclusion, in a way. The conclusion is this: That the retelling of our lives, the recounting of our lives, the revival of our memories is our work of art. We have to accept [that] we're mortal. I'm almost 80 years old, so I think about it as the end. And I feel that I just want to leave the message to young people: 'Don't forget what you live through, and tell it to other people.' That's my ultimate message.
By Eva Recinos