A Conversation with Lordes Portillo
[Mesilla, New Mexico, April 5th, 2003]
My father's family was an immigrant from Zacatecas. He came into Chihuahua, met my mother, and married her. He decided that he wanted to immigrate into the United States, otherwise we would have remained in Chihuahua, I'm sure. And from there, we moved first to Mexicali, so I've lived in the border for many years. And from Mexicali, we then moved to Los Angeles, and then I moved to San Francisco.
The Camera under Erasure: A Coda
The career of filmmaker Lourdes Portillo spans some difficult decades in the American cultural landscape. That the 1970s were a decade of economic crisis for the United States is not difficult to recall if we remember the long gas lines. If we then further recall that the closing of the 1980s are punctuated by the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Gulf War crisis, we get a sense of the magnitude of what Lourdes Portillo accomplishes when Las Madres: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo receives an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 1986. Neither those decades nor those thereafter have been exactly congenial to politics that have anything to say but the most laudatory things about American liberalism and the free market. And yet beginning with her 1979 After the Earthquake/Después del Terromoto, Portillo has not ceased to project a critical vision of postmodern American culture and society. Her most thorough critic to date, Rosa Linda Fregoso notes this persevering [End Page 68] persistence of a critical political position in her work throughout her career: "Portillo is a filmmaker who first made films during the early 1970s as a member of the Marxist collective Cine Manifest, first working as Stephen Lighthill's assistant in the collective's feature, Over, Under, Sideways, Down (1972). Nearly thirty years later, she remains motivated by the political ideals of the early formative period" (Introduction 5).
With this succinct introduction my aim is not to supply anything like a comprehensive overview of the work of Lourdes Portillo. The reader can best benefit from that project through the critical and cultural work of Rosa Linda Fregoso. Rather, in this short essay I want to pursue the hypothesis that in Lourdes' Portillo's oeuvre the camera is under erasure, a term I hope to define as much by ostensive as expository means. Erasure forms a complex network of historical linkages within Western epistemological and ontological discursive formations reaching back to Plato inasmuch as mimesis lies at its core. The crisis of representation that erasure represents signals a massive turn in the history of European modernity.1 The death of the author as Roland Barthes enunciated it and the author function as Michel Foucault elaborated it are only two articulations of this massive critical turn. Jacques Derrida describes this massive critical turn within the Western epistémè as that historical moment in European modernity "...in which langauge invaded the universal problematic; that in which, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse" (249). The semiology of Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 20th century circulates throughout the revaluation of Western epistemology and ontology. The cultural awareness that the play of differences in language and indeed in the life of signs in general befuddles any straightforward belief in the theory of representation—the mimetic mode as such—calls for a constant vigilance concerning the myriad ways that language always already represents and misrepresents, and not as some accident or fall from transparency to opacity. The cultural production of Chicanas and Chicanos registers this revaluation in a variety of ways.
Fregoso's introduction to her superb study of Portillo's work takes us a long way into the effect of erasure at work in the aesthetic and political concerns of Lourdes Portillo's oeuvre; the politics of love is the expression Portillo adduces to work within today's fragmented cultural field (1-23). It is this practice that one sees at work behind and in front of Portillo's camera and that proposes that the author never existed in the first place. Things falter behind the camera as much as they do in front of it. As such, a different approach is required, one that does not proceed business-as-usual, privileging the authority of reason as objectivity. Just as Anzaldúa turns to a politics of the body that compromises the authority of Enlightenment Reason, so Portillo devises a theoretical practice in her filmmaking that allows emotion to enter as a necessary partner in the business of producing a film. Fregoso names this dimension of Portillo's work "the vulnerable observer" who produces "vulnerable' filmmaking" (Introduction 4). My readings of Portillo's films agree with this general assessment as well as hope to clarify briefly the ways these vulnerabilities of the camera operate under an economy of representation that no longer banks on the funds of essentialism. The politics of identity that appear across the screen in Portillo's work, I maintain, are the ironic counterparts of her politics of love. In sum, because, like the devil, the camera never sleeps; it is always out and about wreaking havoc and mischief throughout the realm of aesthetic realism and identity politics.
To say that the camera never sleeps is to say that its authority to represent anything like a verisimilitude of events is under erasure. Erasure as such is an abbreviation for the loss of the transcendental ego, specifically, the authority it draws to itself under the name of Enlightenment Reason. It is a hallmark of this age we call postmodernism to exploit this historical awareness that European Enlightenment is as much an incomplete project as a failed one. Horkheimer and Adorno have not been the only ones to point to the frailty of modern Western epistemology, referring to Enlightenment Reason as epistemology that does not know it is mythology: "The principle of immanence, the explanation of every event as repetition, that the Enlightenment upholds against mythic imagination, is the principle of myth itself" (11). Portillo negotiates the loss of authority with insight through the practice of the politics of love. Her early experience with Cine Manifest gives her among her first opportunities to practice this form of productive insight. Working with the collective Cine Manifest, Portillo commits herself, as she says, "to a strict way of looking at film. First of all, there was an ideology behind why we did everything that we did, the way we did it. I saw that there was a lot of room for experimentation" ("Interview" 50). Here we find straightaway a tension between the ideology of content—what should a work of art represent—and form—how should it do it. Portillo acknowledges with gratitude the lessons learned from working with Cine Manifest at the same time that she acknowledges a lacuna in that experience. Portillo leaves Cine Manifest to go to San Francisco Art Institute to earn a Master of Arts in Film, largely it seems, because she recognizes that gap in her filmmaking experience: "After Cine Manifest, I decided that I didn't know very much about film and that I wanted to know a lot" ("Interview" 49). At the SF Art Institute Portillo practices the lessons she learns with Cine Manifest concerning experimentation, including breaking out ideology as a form of the politics of love. Parting ways with Cine Manifest proves less traumatic than putting into practice the politics of love when she starts her filmmaking career.
Her first film—After the Earthquake/Después del Terromoto—forms part of her studies at SFAI and furnishes unequivocal evidence that the politics of love are full of risk and danger. Portillo co-directs this short narrative film about Nicaragua and the Sandinista struggles with Nina Serrano. The experience [End Page 69] with this film grants Portillo a strong sense of her talent but also leaves her with an alienated subject. Portillo sees the potential for film to inform through the documentation of events but she also comes up against resistance when she tries to enhance that potential with the aid of a dramatic style of representation. The Sandinista movement in the United States, on whose support Portillo and Serrano counted, breaks with their project: "there was a break with them because they wanted us to do a documentary that they had been used to seeing—very factual, very political, very one-sided. Since we got an AFI grant, I figured in a certain way it was my film, so that I had control and could do what I wanted. So we broke with them and did the narrative film" ("Interview"51). Not only should we notice the move from impersonal subject to first person singular and plural in the grammar, we should also notice the conditions under which the project moves forward without Sandinista support. It is the AFI grant that persuades Portillo in a certain way to make After the Earthquake/Después del Terremoto as she and Serrano want to. The realism of documentation bows to the innovations that a dramatic style of representation introduces into the politics of filmmaking. Not so much in defiance of realism but as their own re-invention of it, Portillo and Serrano proceed. The re-invention of the protocols of documentary filmmaking is here a form of mythological thinking that does not submit to the binary of truth and falsity.
Before it has a name, La Madres begins in an engaged conversation with her co-director Susana Blaustein Muõz, a friend and colleague from Argentina also attending the Art Institute. Portillo and Muõz go to Washington D.C. to visit a friend and while there find out that there is to be a luncheon for all the mothers of the disappeared. They attend the luncheon where the opportunity opens to meet one of the mothers of the disappeared, René (sic) Epelbaum. Responding to a question from an interviewer concerning the origin of Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (1986), Portillo puts its origin inside and outside the politics of love. "So you're saying that Las Madres came about originally by chance," asks the interviewer, and Portillo responds with a principle of charity that withholds nothing: "Las Madres came about...well, not exactly by chance...yes, yeah kind of...yes" ("Interview" 60). The time spent in producing the film underscores the contingency of the politics of love under which Portillo, Muõz and their crew labor. Everything about the process speaks of contingency, from its origin, to the search for financial backing, to the conflicts at the scene of editing. Portillo has to largely absent herself from the scene of editing, allowing Blaustein and another associate to do the selections and combinations composing the film: "I would come in," she says, "see the work that had been done, and we would talk about it, and then basically I wouldn't spend a lot of time in the editing room because of this incredible conflict. I participated in a lot of the decision making, but I couldn't be there making little cuts and just the everyday editing" ("Interview" 65). How Portillo's absence in the editing room contributes to the ultimate composition of the film is an effect that erasure theory is bound to explain. One thing that is clear about her absence is her awareness of the necessity to let the pretensions of the transcendental ego slide under the power of the film's subjects(s): "I felt like we couldn't go wrong with that film. Whatever we did, it was right, because the mothers just carried it" ("Interview" 66). Portillo's dislocation from the scene of editing is at once a displacement of auteur theory and an affirmation of the difficulty of practicing the politics of love.
Reading La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead (1988) through the lens of erasure, one gets the distinct impression that, despite their name, identity politics are much more about the dislocations of identity and the need to keep re-inventing the politics which the category of identity sanctions. Fregoso condenses this point in her reading of La Ofrenda under the binary of the continuity/discontinuity of cultural traditions such Dia de los Muertos: "While the Day of the Dead celebration unifies the documentary's narrative, the meaning and rituals associated with the celebration differ in each context" ("Devils" 88). The differences evoked by the celebration of Dia de los Muertos on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border serve to show that identity solicits identity without ceasing to be a category useful for sanctioning identity politics. In Oaxaca, the celebration of Dia de los Muertos is at once a sign of a cultural tradition that brings the local community together and a sign of libidinal forces unleashed throughout the community. Portillo's camera focuses on how the unloosening of libido disturbs traditional gender roles with her portrayal of a cross-dresser. In San Francisco too, Portillo's camera focuses on the way the celebration of the Day of the Dead is put to political use by the gay Latino community. As the gay Latino community celebrates the Day of the Dead, the issue of AIDS becomes the focal point. While Fregoso puts the continuity/discontinuity trope to good use in her reading of La Ofrenda, the trope does falter, paradoxically, on the terrain of authenticity identity. No doubt Fregoso is aware of the trope's frailty, inasmuch she states in an earlier study of La Ofrenda: "The film's departure from the cultural politics of nationalism resides in its concern with the 'production' of cultural identity, as opposed to the 'archaeology' of an identity politics" (Bronze 116). Here, the signifier "production" displaces the signifier "archaeology," an operation that effectively calls into question any notion of authentic identity based on origins. The fact that the celebration of the Day of the Dead stretches back to pre-Columbian times and that by contrast its celebration in San Francisco is of recent invention—that each is a production in its own local space—implies that each version of this cultural tradition has its own singular history; if these singular histories intersect, historical linearity is broken. Perhaps the production of cultural identity and politics in singular spaces such as Oaxaca and San Francisco can be better grasped by the appellation "greater Mexico," which the folklorist and ethnographer Américo Paredes [End Page 70] invented to designate anyplace where Mexicans are present. The appellation resonates with an ironic logic that both defies the national boundary between the U.S. and Mexico as well as affirms the transformations that identity suffers under the political and economic forces that give rise to the diaspora of human populations.
In The Devil Never Sleeps/El diablo nunca duerme (1994) and Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena (1999) Portillo turns the camera toward the family. An appeal to deconstruction makes sense of The Devil as well as her entire oeuvre becomes explicit in the critical work of Norma Iglesias Prieto, who asserts: "[f]rom a Mexican audience's point of view, the cinematic works of Lourdes Portillo, especially her documentary The Devil Never Sleeps, plays an important role in the deconstruction of Mexican culture" (144). Fregoso too seems intent on understanding the cultural work these films perform through the perspective of deconstruction. Speaking of The Devil in particular, she states: "Portillo breaks the silence around family unity and the family mythmaking enterprise so central to Mexican and Chicano/a nationalism and deconstructs the values associated with Chicana/o (and Mexican) families" ("Devils" 91). What is remarkable about this deconstruction of the societal unit called the family is that Portillo performs them while her camera is under erasure. In The Devil Portillo places herself on the other side of the camera, giving a performance that demonstrates a critical insight of deconstruction often enunciated in the phrase, "the inside is the outside" or "il n'y a pas de hors texte." As she and her crew work to solve/represent the mysterious death of Portillo's uncle Oscar, they turn to his widow Ofelia Torres with the hopes that she will give them a crucial piece of the puzzle. Portillo directs herself to Ofelia on the phone, asking for an interview with her, even as the phone call functions as just that sought after interview. Both, her conversation in Spanish with Ofelia and the English subtitles use the verb "prestar"/"to borrow" with the insistent tone of an appeal. "Prestame algo," "Lend me something," pleads Portillo with Ofelia, the widow of her uncle. How much Ofelia lends Portillo in her search to discover the truths of her uncle's life is left suspended, as the camera moves and cuts around the room to reveal the members of the crew in the experience of that suspense. Repeatedly, Portillo takes a close shot of herself wearing reflective sunglasses that act as a frame for Mexican soap opera, suggesting that with respect to the truth of her uncle's death, the mise-en-scène is also a kind of mise-en-abime. The Devil was the recipient of several awards in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Barcelona, Spain. If The Devil deconstructs the family on the Mexican side of the border, Corpus does something similar for the family on the U.S. side. Portillo's camera deconstructs the Chicana family in this home movie of the celebrated Tejana singer with a variety of techniques. Among the most potent are those in which she frames Selena's father, Abe Quintanilla. In those scenes, Quintanilla's own words testify to the role he plays in bringing tragedy into his family—a linguistic self-reflexivity quite reminiscent of the way Oedipus condemns himself with this own language.
Portillo's most recent work Señorita Extraviada (2001) provides copious evidence that the erasure of the camera and the politics of love go hand and in hand. In slightly more than the decade, 1993-2003, the murders of young Mexican women coming to the border maquiladoras to work now easily exceeds 300 in number. Rita González situates her account of this film within the categories of the said and unsaid, following Portillo's language: "According to the filmmaker, Señorita Extraviada deals with the 'two different languages' of Mexican society, 'the said' and the 'unsaid'. Portillo's interest was to tell the stories based on a culturally specific way of telling stories, one that stresses the eloquence of the unsaid" (236). Between these two categories we might also splice still a third, the category of the unspeakable. The politics of love that Portillo puts to practice behind the camera shatters the silence that has enveloped the gruesome character of this event taking place in the gap between Mexico and United States under the sanction of capitalist sovereignty. In her account of the process of filming Señorita Extraviada, Portillo recounts: "When I decided to make a documentary about the girls, I went to Juárez and found a deafening wall of silence: most people were too terrorized to speak out. The authorities, when questioned, gave only cavalier and confused responses. There was no way to make a documentary in which any approximation to journalistic objectivity could be claimed" ("Filming" 229). Behind the deafening wall of silence resides a gruesome terror as unspeakable as the horror that the ghost of Hamlet's father could not speak of during his wanderings in the night. However, this horrible terror is not a function of the literary imagination but of the fact that the murders have gone unsolved for so long. Reporting for the New York Times, Mireya Navarro states: "each time, as the officials have declared the problem solved, the murders have continued" (E3). Closer to the eloquence of the unsaid is the way Portillo affirms folk knowledge. González takes note of the eloquence the politics of love articulate through the agency of Portillo's camera and her subject: "In one segment of the film, the mother of a murdered woman Sagrario González recounts the moment when her daughter's parakeet gave her a sign that the young girl's body would be found. The incident is presented with all the filmmaker's attention to validate this form of cultural knowledge" (236). Not being a function of an epistemology that aligns with the empirical methods of criminology, the truth of the omen remains unspeakable, yet weighing heavily in the land of the living.
I have left Portillo's Vida (1989), Columbus on Trial (1992), Mirrors of the Heart (1993), and Sometimes my Feet Go Numb (1997), unread due to consideration of space. Therefore, not only is my hypothesis that the camera is under erasure with Lourdes Portillo left radically incomplete on this count, the hypothesis also requires further testing in terms of the specific historical terrain [End Page 71] that each film occupies. That is, many more historical links have to be made between the appearance of deconstruction in America, the disappearance of the author in postmodernity, Portillo's solicitude with the auteur theory, and her philosophy of film production as the practice of the politics of love. Until these links are made (stronger), the hypothesis I offer here remains hypothetical.