“Reality is so bereft of humanity, so barbaric, that we cannot grasp it without the delicacy of art. Through art we can feel the loss and we can understand it without falling prey to sensationalism,” wrote filmmaker Lourdes Portillo.2 Portillo has been making films that explore issues of social justice and Latino identity for the last thirty years. The 1986 documentary Las Madres: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which she co-directed with Susana Blaustein Muños, was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Documentary. Las Madres tells the story of mothers in Argentina who become activists after the disappearance of their family members during the Dirty War (1976–1983). Portillo also directed Señorita extraviada (Missing young woman) (2001), the first documentary to gain international attention for the issue of feminicide in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.3 Portillo, a self-identified Chicana, narrates in Spanish her personal investigation of feminicide in Ciudad Juárez.4 She is both director and detective, searching through the lens of the camera for those responsible for feminicide. Portillo’s documentary is an example of a film in which the director becomes involved in all aspects of seeking social change. She is the director, the narrator, feminicide detective, interviewer, and activist.5 The film, which relies heavily on testimony from families of victims, was awarded a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival.6
I learned about feminicide in 2008 when I first saw Señorita extraviada. The documentary haunted me like a ghost, and thus I began to research and write about feminicide. In the following interview, which took place via Skype on March 5, 2010, Portillo discusses how the process of making Señorita extraviada has informed her understanding of feminicide in Ciudad Juárez.
How did you first become aware of the issue of femicide in Ciudad Juárez? Were you aware of the issue for a long time before you started filming Señorita extraviada? [End Page 215]
In 1997, I read a very short article that was in El Diario or El Mexicano. There was a little, teeny two-paragraph article saying that there had been about thirty women found dead under similar circumstances, and that it was a mystery. No one knew what was happening, but it wasn’t given a lot of importance. I thought, “My God, this is so serious!” That’s when I started following it.
What goals did you have when you began making the film? Did you feel that you could promote justice? Did your expectations change throughout the filmmaking process?
I felt that being from there I could do something to clarify what was happening. It couldn’t be such a mystery. I didn’t understand it. I thought maybe there would be some kind of clarification. I never thought that I could solve the problem, but I thought that I could shed some light on it.
A lot of officials say that femicide began in 1993. Is this an arbitrary date? You make the point that it is arbitrary from the opening of your film with the testimony of Eva Arce, the mother of Sylvia. She talks about how she, like her daughter, was also abducted and raped as a young woman.
Right. I think that Ciudad Juárez has always been a locus of crime. All kinds of illegal things happen there because of the fact that it’s so close to the United States. Anything illegal is always done in Ciudad Juárez. The whole commerce of drugs or even just goods has always been a problem, but the problems became bigger and bigger. The thing about women in Ciudad Juárez is that it’s such a transient place that it lends itself to a lot of different kinds of crimes against women. There are also people from different cultures within Mexico there that view women differently. I think that the crimes against women have always been there, but in 1993, Esther...