NYWIFT: Chavela Vargas – Lessons on Feminism, Culture, Women Filmmakers and Music

Iconic Mexican singer Chavela Vargas. (C) Ysunza/Courtesy of Music Box Films.
We welcome back the voices of our visionary sisters at NYWIFT and are proud to share their stories on a regular basis. Here, we get the inside scoop on Chavela, the new documentary about legendary LGBTQ Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, from the film’s co-producer/co-director Catherine Gund. Already a winner of over nine major awards at international festivals, this enthralling picture is a must-see.

By Margarita Sophia Cortes

It was back in 1991, when Catherine Gund heard a song on a record player outside Mexico City that would lead her to this day. “My girlfriends played me Chavela’s songs and told me tales of her womanizing, her irresistible allure, her deep voice, her audacity” said Gund.

Through the power of friendship and an old video camera in her backpack, she was able to record a once in a lifetime meeting with then 71-year-old Chavela Vargas. There in Vargas’ home, Gund and a group of women had an intimate conversation about life, love, music and passion.

That vintage interview with the icon would become the centerpiece of the critically acclaimed documentary Chavela, co-produced and directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi. Alongside that fascinating interview and vintage clips, the documentary features rare performances of one of the Latin world’s most trailblazing artists.

We sat down with co-director Catherine Gund to discuss her personal connection with the artist, how Chavela Vargas is still relevant today, and of course, the music.

“There is something so powerful and unique and individual about Chavela’s music, despite the fact that her songs come from the most traditional Mexican music.” Vargas sang love songs to women as an openly gay artist, a dangerous decision during those times. Gund explained how the co-directors used Vargas’ songs to narrate the film because “Chavela chose songs that narrated her life.”

CHAVELA’s co-directors and producers Daresha Kyi (left) and Catherine Gund (right) at Berlinale 2017. (C) Brigitte Dummer/Berlinale 2017

Just as Vargas herself was a feminist muse for women, this documentary, made by women filmmakers, also mirrors the importance of women’s voices. In the film, you hear Vargas proudly state “It is a blessing to be born a woman.” Gund echoes that message as she explains why it’s vital for women to keep producing more films. “We have experiences we see in a certain way. We have ways of processing them that men don’t necessarily begin with, or end with.”

Although Gund never went to film school, she had her eye on certain women directors including legendary filmmaker Julie Dash. Gund remembers how moved she was after seeing Dash’s iconic film Daughters of the Dust and the feeling she experienced would be a lesson in filmmaking she would never forget.

During one of Gund’s screenings of Chavela in Mexico, she recalls seeing a small boy in the audience with his family and asking him how he knew of the artist at such a young age. The little boy pointed to an older man sobbing from watching the film and told Gund it was his grandfather. It was then that Gund realized her lessons of “creating a feeling” became palpable in this documentary.

The film draws in audiences immediately as it begins with the colorful artist saying “Ask me where I’m going, not where I’ve been.” We are then taken into Vargas’ unconventional life: A woman born in Costa Rica who ran away to Mexico City as a teenager, becoming a rebellious sexual pioneer and then disappearing for almost 15 years. It wasn’t until Vargas’ final years in her life that she would become a muse to filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, earn a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, and sell out performances at prestigious concert halls around the world.

Gund says, “For me, Chavela’s life is not a cautionary tale, but rather, a rich subterranean dimension of our own living.”

Chavela Vargas lived an incredible full life before dying at the age of 93 in 2012. Her unique voice and raw interpretation of love, heartache, pain and beauty has left her fans with a feeling they will never forget. The documentary, Chavela, captures the essence of that unforgettable emotion.

You can see the full conversation with Catherine Gund on Vimeo here (produced by Nimio Productions): https://vimeo.com/250728102 

Chavela is available now on iTunes, Amazon Instant, or GooglePlay and on DVD with special bonus features. Learn more at chavelavargasfilm.com.

Margarita Sophia Cortes is the Vice President of Communications on New York Women in Film and Television’s Board of Directors. An entertainment publicist who began her career in 2000, she is the principal and founder of MSophia PR and has led campaigns for films including the award-winning documentary Restrepo, the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, and the critically-acclaimed Starlet, The Deep Blue Sea, and Any Day Now. Visit msophiapr.com or follow her on Twitter at @BKprGal.

Learn more about the organization at nywift.org, and keep checking Honeysuckle for more news from NYWIFT!

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