Lourdes Portillo Film Screenings
On the evening of Wednesday, September 28th, 2017, patrons of the Hammer Museum were treated to a double feature of filmmaker Lourdes Portillo’s first two films, After the Earthquake/Despues del Terremoto and The Mothers of La Plaza de Mayo. The screening, held in the museum’s Billy Wilder Theater, leads a string of performances and film screenings at the Hammer for their multi-medium exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, which showcases contemporary and modern women artists from all across Latin America.
After the Earthquake/Despues del Terremoto is Portillo’s first major short film and stands out in her filmography for its being a narrative, fictional film, as opposed to the documentaries that have won Portillo her deserved recognition as a visionary documentarian. The film follows several young men and women from Nicaragua, Mexico, and other countries who have immigrated to San Francisco, California. The film centers its focus on a young Nicaraguan immigrant named Irene, who struggles to adapt and conform to the cultural practices of America as she balances family and a boyfriend.
This first film from Portillo stands out for its quiet, poetic nature of displaying entirely believable and, indeed, even real lives of Latin American immigrants, without running too far into metaphors and abstraction. The trials and tribulations of the American immigrant are presented starkly, rarely appearing imbued with any sort of intention to twist or subjectify the stories it presents its audience.
Las Madres of La Plaza De Mayo, the second film of the evening, proved a much more sobering experience. The film, a feature-length documentary concerned with the titular Argentine women who tirelessly protest the disappearance of thousands of young men and women during the Argentine coup d'etat of 1976, was Portillo’s breakout hit, garnering her international praise for its unflinching commitment to telling a unique, feminine story that refused to go unheard in the Mothers of Plaza del Mayo’s decades-long protest. The film is almost entirely comprised of interviews with these women, who take to the Plaza del Mayo on a near daily basis to march, grieve and demand justice. The film is incessant in highlighting the individual tragedies of the Mothers, each interview subject giving an extremely personal account of their relationship to their children and husbands and sparing no expense in providing second-to-second details of the kidnappings and final moments they spent with their loved ones.
Portillo has a powerful gift in manipulating the way her audiences perceive her subjects: the stories told by the women in Las Madres can often homogenize in the viewer’s mind, presenting the atrocities committed by the Argentine military as a singular act of terror upon its citizens. Yet it is at these moments that viewers are suddenly drawn into the story of a single interviewee, over momentary details such as the weeping of one of these mothers, or of an idyllic anecdote told about the disappeared child they demand answers for. Rarely is there a moment in Las Madres where the viewer is not utterly captivated, not just by the tragedies presented in the film but by the uncompromising clarity Portillo carries into her craft.
The timeliness of the Hammer’s attention to Portillo and Latin American art in general cannot be viewed as coincidental. During a Q&A following the screening, Portillo herself stepped onto the stage to take questions from the audience, many of which were aimed at her personal experience as a Mexican immigrant. When asked by a young woman if she believed the events of Las Madres were possible in the United States, Portillo responded succinctly that while she didn’t believe Americans would let such things happen, “it’s possible. It’s always possible.” Portillo’s work embodies the duality of all great political art, starkly cautionary of repeated mistakes while unrelentingly reminding us to remain tolerant and open.