Catherine Gund: Documentaries and the Urgency of Representation

What led you to pursue documentary filmmaking?

I’ve always been engaged in communications and growing community and documentary filmmaking is a clear form of both. I thrive on the creativity of molding a story and also on the urgency of representation. In high school, I experimented with photography and painting but by the time I was in college, combining words and pictures in a familiar time-based space felt most impactful. Filmmaking has endless potential.

What inspired you to tell this story?

When my best friend, who was Chicano, died of AIDS in 1990, I fled to Mexico and discovered Chavela Vargas’ songs through young friends who revered her. They saw my video camera, my constant companion, as I captured her concerts in a small hall, and they were determined to interview her. She invited us to her home in Ahuatepec. The resulting footage sat in my closet in a box for over 20 years. I realize now that Chavela had to finish writing her story so that this film could tell it. Her music moved me in 1991 and her music moves me today. But her soul and her choices in life are what truly rattle my core, reminding me constantly to life my one life as honestly and fiercely as I possibly can.

How did you find the subject(s) in your film?

In addition to Chavela, we followed leads like breadcrumbs, with one interview bringing us to the next. We finally got to spend some time with Pedro Almodovar who was so close to Chavela that she considered him her husband “here on earth.” But the real coup was connecting with her former lover after I heard Marcela (her guitar player) mention her name, “Alicia Elena.” I googled her to find that she teaches at the university in Mexico City and we sent her an email and she responded right away stating that no one had ever asked her about Chavela. She was so eager to share her story. Pure and profound. Everyone wants to touch Alicia now (she’s been joining us for Q&As in Mexico) and people want to hug her and know her because she simply and sweetly embodies the love that was Chavela. Now that the film is done, Alicia Elena is committed to writing out her own story about love, loss, and Chavela. I can’t wait to read it.

What was a particular obstacle you faced while making the film?

There was so little that got in our way. Chavela blessed this project from day one. Now I know three other people who shot interviews around the time of my interview in 1991 and in their footage, Chavela is short and cranky, not expressing the magic she showed to the two women and me when she welcomed us into her home for a conversation about feminism, identity, aging, and love. Her generosity, brilliance, and candor stuck with me through to the end. In fact, I felt like she kept appearing: guiding, sometimes dictating, laughing, promising, consoling, saving me again and again. Full gratitude and recognition to Chavela for making this film with me!

What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film?

I want people to feel love, honestly. I want them to feel like difference is positive, enriching, and generative. I want them to believe in themselves and all of those around them. I want them to know that we each have something to contribute. I also want them to choose Chavela’s songs when they’re picking the soundtrack of their lives because she transcends. And creates empathy. And there will only be justice when there is empathy.

Why are documentary films important today?

From why I started to make documentaries to why I’ve committed all my work to being in the doc field, all the way to this particular film coming out right now amidst the most authoritarian time in this country in our lifetimes – for all these reasons, I know documentaries can make a world of difference. When we watch documentaries, we see things, we feel things, we know things. We need that now more than ever because today is the day we’re living and it needs to get better. We all need to be better. And we can be. But we clearly need help. Documentaries can bolster. The possibility of documentary is the ability to scaffold the good, the better, and the best inside us.

Catherine Gund’s film Chavela will screen at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Thursday 28th September from 8.30-10pm. Screening tickets cost £5.50 including booking fee. She will also be hosting a unique day-long Queer Storytelling Workshop at the CCA on Saturday 30th September from 10am – 4pm. This workshop is FREE with registration (with or without a project) essential. In partnership with Scottish Documentary Institute. Ages 18+ only.

ACCESS: Level access at entrance. Accessible toilets available. For the screening, Spanish and English languages with English subtitles. Hearing loop. If you would like to attend and require BSL interpretation for the Q&A/Workshop, please email [email protected] and we will book this for you.

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