By Juan Caceres | SydneysBuzz February 19, 2014 at 8:30AM
'Las Marthas' follows two young women as they prepare to 'debut' at a Colonial Ball hosted by the elite Society of Martha Washington. The Ball is held each year in a month long celebration of George Washington's birthday. And these Mexican-Americans do not mess around when it comes to celebrating ol' Georgie's birthday. They go in. Elaborate one-of--a-kind gowns and all. Yes, Mexican-Americans celebrating the birth of a man who pretty much stretched the border a little further south to claim territories that once belonged to Mexico. This is not 'Bizarro World'. It's Laredo, Texas. What makes 'Las Marthas' unique is Chicana filmmaker Cristina Ibarra's skillful and mindful exploration of the complexities to find a fascinating coming of age story culturally steeped in history.
LatinoBuzz: If one is to judge by what's been show on film and television, it seems the border stories all have a recurring theme and there was little originality left. How did you stay away from the “other” Laredo, Texas border stories as much as possible?
Cristina Ibarra: Growing up along the US/MX border in El Paso, Texas I felt somewhat alienated by what I saw on television in both Mexico and the United States. Especially when it was news reports about the border region. But I didn’t really have the tools to express this discontent until I left home. Now that I am a filmmaker, I enjoy telling stories that break down some of the more common stereotypes. My producing partner, Erin Ploss-Campoamor, likes to quote novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has this great TED talk about the danger of perpetuating a “single story” about a culture. We feel like our film breaks down that “single story” about the border, and Latinos in particular. Which is not to say that we are dismissing the importance of films about immigration, the drug war or violence. We are simply adding a new voice to the mix. Deepening our perceptions about not just the border region and Latinos, but also reminding ourselves that as Americans, we live with multiple identities within us. My goal is to make films that embrace the nuances and contradictions of these many different stories.
LatinoBuzz: You've explored Documentaries and Narratives now, what's the biggest difference in your approach or even what are the similarities?
Cristina Ibarra: I feel like I use many of the same building blocks when it comes to story. For example, in both documentary and fiction films, we need to set up the world, connect with the protagonists, and understand their conflict. That is useful in both kinds of films, even if the production approach varies. Of course, the most striking difference is that in fiction, you have more control of the story before you go into production. You can build all of the necessary creative relationships before going into “battle,” so to speak. My documentary productions have evolved much more slowly, as I have gradually built relationships with my subjects. This kind of production is much more intimate. The relationship is a collaboration, as it develops, the story deepens. So the production process can be quite long. Documentaries work when you are able to capture and connect with a real person who is letting you into their world. But I feel like those skills translate well into narrative fiction films as well, where I often try to achieve a similar level of authenticity.
LatinoBuzz: What type of Stories do you want to keep creating?
Cristina Ibarra: Complex, nuanced stories…hybrids. I love exploring the borderland contradictions of my childhood. I enjoy working in both fiction and documentary. I want to continue to do both. But I’m also eager to experiment some day with combining the two and building a hybrid film. My childhood playgrounds were my father’s junkyards, or yonkes, one in Juarez, Mexico, the other in El Paso, Texas. I want to use his yonke as a metaphorical inspiration to mix and match used parts from my documentary and fiction work and recycle these elements into a new kind of storytelling approach. Erin and I have been talking about how we might do that in our next film 'Love & Monster Trucks'.
LatinoBuzz: How did you settle on these protagonists? Did you become close or keep a distance to allow them to be themselves?
Cristina Ibarra: As soon as I saw the colonial ball gowns that Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez designs, I was captivated. Then I was lucky, because I was able to meet many of the debutantes in Linda’s studio, when they came to get their gowns fitted. It was an incredible opportunity, because I was able to talk to these girls as they were undergoing this amazing transformation into young women. They were being taught how to present a very polished exterior. They were getting lessons in etiquette, how they speak to their elders, how to talk to the media. And here they are, meeting this strange filmmaker who is asking them to open up, and basically do the exact opposite of what they have just been taught. It was not easy. So I ended up following the two girls who opened up to me the most: Laura Garza Hovel, a legacy daughter, and Rosario Reyes, a guest representing Nuevo Laredo. And they naturally became the protagonists of the film. We just got lucky that they happened to come from two different positions in Society, because it helped create a richer and more complex coming-of-age portrait.
LatinoBuzz: Do you think perhaps, that maybe another filmmaker with a different sensibility or a different ideology might look on this Colonial Pageant and Ball in a much more negative light and shape the film in such a manner of how it may look to an outsider who is merely taking it at face value.
Cristina Ibarra: There have already been those kinds of news stories about the celebration, in which journalists portrayed the debutantes as frivolous, and questioned why their event was so expensive, considering all of the social and economic ills along the border. So the Society was very nervous about opening themselves up to criticism again. But I saw many other dimensions to the story that might not be so obvious to someone who just quickly parachutes in to cover the controversy and then leaves. My intention was always to examine this coming-of-age story in a much more intimate, complex and nuanced way. I absolutely agree that another filmmaker would bring another sensibility to the story. But it was important for me to stay true to my original intentions, even if it meant making a different kind of film than people expected.
LatinoBuzz: What type of Stories do you want to keep creating?
Cristina Ibarra: Complex, nuanced stories…hybrids. I love exploring the borderland contradictions of my childhood. I enjoy working in both fiction and documentary. I want to continue to do both. But I’m also eager to experiment some day with combining the two and building a hybrid film. My childhood playgrounds were my father’s junkyards, or 'yonkes', one in Juarez, Mexico, the other in El Paso, Texas. I want to use his yonke as a metaphorical inspiration to mix and match used parts from my documentary and fiction work and recycle these elements into a new kind of storytelling approach. Erin and I have been talking about how we might do that in our next film 'Love & Monster Trucks'.
LatinoBuzz: You have an impressive crew of notable filmmakers in their own right. How did you manage to get them to take this ride with you?
Cristina Ibarra: Sometimes the timing works out just right so that some of my best and most loved friends have been able to join me in between working on their own films. Natalia Almada, Eddie Martinez, Ray Santisteban, Craig Mardsen, Prashant Bhargava and, of course, Erin Ploss-Campoamor, all have their own stellar track records as filmmakers in their own right. Each relationship is different, but there is always love there. We each have to trust that we will bring our specific skills to the same vision. Filmmaking is a team effort for me. I love collaborating and working with friends who know what I am trying to do and love me for it.
LatinoBuzz: What is truth to you when it comes to writing?
Cristina Ibarra: Wow, this is a good question. Truth is an ideal and a principle to follow when writing. It doesn’t always look the same to every one person, but you know you have achieved it when your work connects with an audience. That spark of recognition and connection can be transformative.
LatinoBuzz: Who influences you aesthetically in both documentary and narrative?
Cristina Ibarra: All of my filmmaking friends influence my work in both forms. But there is one visionary artist, Lourdes Portillo, who has always been a beacon of light for me. She has such a wicked and brilliant sense of humor in all of her work. I also love that she is undeniably hybrid in her approach.
LatinoBuzz: I know you personally: As a Selena fan, did you hate Jennifer Lopez being cast in the movie? Did you hold that Selena lunch box of yours close to you and rock back and forth at night like a crumbling mess?
Cristina Ibarra: You are right, it is hard to please a Selena fan! I think I am in the minority here among my Chicana friends, but I actually really enjoy Jennifer Lopez as an actress, especially as Selena. She owned that role. I have some friends who worked on that film and we all love Jennifer Lopez from way back before she became J-Lo.
Watch Las Marthas for a limited time online and for local listings visit: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/las-marthas/film.html & dig: https://www.facebook.com/lasmarthasmovie for further updates!
Written by Juan Caceres . LatinoBuzz is a weekly feature on SydneysBuzz that highlights Latino indie talent and upcoming trends in Latino film with the specific objective of presenting a broad range of Latino voices. Follow [AT]LatinoBuzz on Twitter and Facebook .