Laura Varela sees things that others do not see, and as a documentary filmmaker, she shares her vision by exploring new styles in storytelling. She tells history with detail and force, and in her recent work, combines filmmaking with actual live art installations.
“My work is about those things that I know were not right, and now I can try to change them.” When she was 16 years old, growing up along the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, she saw a man shot to death, just 10 feet in front of her. She saw Mexican American Vietnam veterans dying from drug overdoses. The violence that is reported in the press and media was the everyday social environment in which she grew up and which now inform her filmmaking: “I saw a lot of tragedy, things children should not see.”
Varela produced and directed “As Long As I Remember: American Veteranos” in 2009 and her masterful command of the stories of three artists, Vietnam war veterans, surely comes from seeing this human pain during her teen years, so close and personal. The documentary aired on PBS nationally and is now on DVD. It is hands down gripping in its exploration, in rare intimate fashion, of the agony soldiers live with after war. Three Mexican American artists are the subjects, and if your view of war and pain has come only from the sensational news angles or facile depictions of sad moments, Varela’s movie will change you. To get inside the ideas and emotions of these three men it takes a filmmaker who understands Mexican American beliefs, how family relationships work, how gender roles are socially taught. Varela receives letters from Veterans who found, in her film, the expression of something that they wanted to but could never put into words.
“Filmmaking is my activism,” she says. Her neighborhood was middle class and she knew she had to leave the violence and that education was the path. She knew this by “learning about the Chicano movement, learning from feminist theory, really looking at history, people’s history.”
Laura Varela is coming to Houston on March 28 to screen her film, “Enlight-Tents,” a short film about the art installation she daringly set up in front of, and on the face of, the Alamo. It screens at the Aurora Picture Show art event, “An Evening of Texas Mexican Film, Food and Meaning” during which a 9-course indigenous cuisine chef’s tasting menu will be served to guests as they watch her film overhead on a giant screen.
For “Enlight-Tents” she projected slogans and faces of Native Americans to create a monumental slide show using the Alamo as a projection screen. Her film is the adaption of the installation. She did receive permission to project the images but did not have to explain beforehand exactly what the images were going to be. She collaborated on the project with Vaago Wieland, an artist colleague from Germany.
According to Sarah Fisch, writer for San Antonio Current, “some say that Laura Varela and Vaago Wieland’s ‘Enlight-Tents’ installation on the Alamo grounds…and its photographic projections of faces of color…onto the Alamo’s stony face — unnerved a starchy Old Guard.” Art pieces, whether structure or performance-based, are not welcome at the Alamo. Not any more.
“I want to raise topics, explore solution, there may be solutions…That for me is filmmaking.” As part of the Chicano artist community, she believes that artists inspire us to see what can be. She asked herself sometime ago, “What can I do that I love and can make change?” The answer is filmmaking.
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