How does one pay a cinematographic tribute to an icon such as Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, who embodies utter simplicity and utmost complexity at the same time? This is what filmmakers Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi achieved with their documentary Chavela, a moving and thought-provoking portrait of the enigmatic singer who helped change the way we see ranchera music and who redefined what it means to be a female singer in the macho world of Mexico. As one of Chavela’s friends explains in the film, in order to survive, Chavela had to be more macha than the most machos.
On top of being a vivid depiction of some of Chavela’s most important life events, from her childhood in Costa Rica to her moving to Mexico to becoming a star in Spain, Chavela is also the story of a fruitful and exciting collaboration between Gund and Kyi. Intuition and creativity are the themes of both Chavela’s life and Gund and Kyi’s partnering. “I’m a super intuitive person and not a stickler for formality, labeling, or rules,” Gund explains over email. “In the world of filmmaking, as in life, we can make our own rules, follow our own instincts. At some point, Daresha and I felt like co-directing, so we did that!”
And co-directing is its own duo-like journey, like a song performed by two musicians. “Co-directing is a delicate dance that requires two distinct individuals to move to the same beat over a long, sustained period while they nurture a creative vision into existence,” Kyi says over email. “Like many expectant couples, you hop onto the wild, rollercoaster ride of birth full of excitement and joyful anticipation, until you hit that first drastic drop. That's when doubt creeps in. But by then it's too late. The ride doesn't stop to let you off! Not only are you deeply committed, you're in love - with your film. And it's this passionate desire to give birth to a beautiful, moving, and meaningful movie that pushes you way beyond your comfort zone, challenges you to work hard to find compromises and solutions and to put your personal desires aside and do whatever's best for the baby (film).” While the imagery of partnership comes naturally to Kyi’s mind, one also wonders at the tantalizing reference to a “drastic drop.”
That birth was only possible because Gund and Kyi agree on many levels. They have “similar political and aesthetic sensibilities,” Kyi adds. And they both wanted to "honor Chavela's gorgeously empowering legacy and introduce her to a wider audience.” Kyi confesses that Gund and she both "felt strongly connected to this bad ass woman and wanted more than anything to create a work of art that would continue her tradition of moving people to self actualization....and to tears.” So, they let Chavela “guide” them. But Kyi also explains that “the birth process can make you swing from wanting to smack anyone in sight to reeling with wild, uncontrollable ecstasy. It's a messy, unruly process that sometimes feels like too much to bear." That said, there is no sign of dementia in the sagacious rendering of Chavela’s life and personality: Chavela is a thoughtful and level-headed film.
The documentary consists of a sequence of interviews in Spanish with subtitles. Gund felt particularly comfortable about making a subtitled film with “a musician or an artist of some kind because [their] work transcends language barriers,” she explains. She hopes people aren’t too “burdened by reading subtitles.” “For me it can detract from the lusciousness of the film,” she says, “but there is no way around that.” Ultimately, Spanish was the most authentic choice for the film.
Looking back, Gund now understands that the genesis of the project was her filming a group conversation between a few female friends and Chavela, at Chavela’s house. It was in the 1990s, in Morelos. Two years ago, Gund decided to add to that footage. “The idea was to make it seem like one continuous story,” she says. “We were able to use the conversation from the early 1990s as a fulcrum -- something that balances us in the middle. After that, [Chavela] gets swept away by this other kind of life: Lots of music and lots of celebrity, which is not exactly how her life was before.” The film, however, gives a sympathetic portrait of the older, regal Chavela that is anything but a caricature of her earlier self.
Just as Chavela’s life was filled with various friends and music business people, and just as her successes would not have been possible without the help of venue owners, lovers and producers, Chavela is the result of a collaboration between various talents. “Filmmaking is all about exciting and powerful collaborations,” Gund says. “Camera people see things a certain way. Editors, like our brilliant editor, Carla Gutierrez, mold scenes and provoke meaning in aural and visual juxtapositions. Producers help identify crew and often guide storytelling in their work on fundraising (most grant writing demands are opportunities to hone the message of the project, to see what works, what inspires, what falls flat or seems less than meaningful).” As with a band, the aesthetics of a film are defined by the entire community involved with the film.
A case in point is the archival producer, Adrian Gutierrez, who worked on the documentary. He “spent hours in Mexican museums, libraries, TV stations, and universities scouring the stacks for images of Chavela and her counterparts, of Costa Rica in the 40s, of Acapulco in the 50s, of Mexico City in the 60s and so forth,” Gund explains. “He found photos of Jose Alfredo Jimenez and Frida Khalo and Elizabeth Taylor at her third wedding. In a film like ours, which is about seventy percent archival, this material tells much of the story. His contributions were vital."
And Chavela faced more complex challenges than the recent Lee Morgan biographical film I Called Him Morgan: A Moving Portrait of Jazz Trumpeter Lee Morgan: while Gund and Kyi used a widely divergent archive and were burdened by Chavela’s unrestrained fictionalizing of her own life, the Morgan documentary is organized around the taped recollections of a single witness -- Morgan’s wife. That approach provided a steady narrative linearity to the film. So the fact that Chavela manages the almost impossible task of rendering the truth about Chavela’s essence is all the more riveting.
Should the unflinching co-directing duo decide to take on new projects, the results will certainly prove as fruitful and original as their first offspring Chavela.
Chavela will be screened at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival on April 23 and April 29; it will also be shown at the Montclair Film Festival on April 29 and at the HotDocs Canadian International Documentary Festival on May 3, 4, 5 and 6.