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I don’t believe I am so different from the rest of humans inhabiting this shared home, in fact, I owe some of my traits to a couple of them. But I do believe in uniqueness – no one else can see what you see. Even when there are only two people on a deserted beach staring at the same sunset happening at the same time. One of them is thinking “What am I doing on this beach, God, I have so much work to catch up on, I should be at home right now. It is just the sun setting… it’s gonna happen tomorrow again, and then again, and again”. The other is thinking: “I’m probably gonna be late for that work meeting but… how I’d want to stop time right here and now and try to memorize every shade of orange and red that are having the greatest dance in the sky, the salty breeze and the crashing waves washing the footprints left on the sand, reminding us of our transience”. Frankly, neither of them are wrong or right, both are the product of different experiences, empiricism, understandings of life; ergo, different priorities. 

But, just between us, there is an absolute elation and soul enrichment that can only come from being able to admire the greatness of simplicity, to just sit down, breathe in, observe and let yourself be amazed. Being alive is chaotic, quite dispersed and fragmented. To give yourself is part of the process of humanity. I believe we find ourselves in other people’s words and creations because vulnerability is what makes us, intrinsically, connect with others. There is so much strength in vulnerability, it is always exhausting trying to appear tough because life has made you do it. Sometimes you just have to admit there is too much softness in you for that to be entirely true.

As that song from the movie La la land (2016) goes “A bit of madness is key to give us new colors to see”. I made an oath ages ago to remain loyal to my madness, the only oath I’ve carried with me through the deceiving, sordid stairs of ascent, or… descent? As humans, we like to wander and get lost. Us artists, we create a million extensions of ourselves in our art, leaving pieces of ourselves in an attempt to understand what surrounds us, to understand ourselves. But do we ever find ourselves in one of the infinite versions of us we created and that others created of us? Who are we, beyond the genius of our creations? These are extensions of ourselves, but they don’t hold our entire truth, nothing but ourselves really could. But we can always try, and I think that is what keeps the process interesting.

Image: Still from the short film ”La gente parece mariposas al fin” (2022). Image credit: Valeria Zelvaggio.

I recently directed a short film that I wrote. It came to life because I was lucky enough to find an amazing group of people that believed and trusted in what I had to say, who respected the urgency I felt to tell the story so much that they were willing to make it theirs. It is not just me in this process. Not any artist, or person, has done it alone. I couldn’t have made it alone. We are a collage of every single person that supported and believed in us, that protected our hopes and dreams, especially at the times when we couldn’t even do that for ourselves. I believe that this is the wonderful thing about artistic processes: the transformation of the process itself and of those who give themselves so that a certain vision becomes tangible. People become tools, means, their souls slip through the blinds of the being and impregnate themselves in the collective creation. A living force of combined energies.

The short film touches on universal subjects such as love, friendship, illness, rejection, the quest for meaning in life, grief and transcendence. It is my personal vision and perception on these matters, but despite being partly based on very personal experiences and feelings, they are universal and collective; thus, more than one person is able to see themselves reflected on them because I firmly believe that the more vulnerable your work is, the greater the possibility of a real connection.

When I was growing up and would watch award shows with my family or the behind the scenes of movies, there were rarely any women as head of departments, writing or directing. It always upset me; however, back then, I didn’t ask why, I just assumed that was how things were. But one day, I might have been fifteen already, my vision on things shifted due to a realization I had and I started questioning everything. I became insupportable to my teachers, parents and to a lot of people my own age as well. At that point, I knew what I wanted to do with my life, I had it all figured out. I was gonna go to drama school and become an actress, to write and direct the plays I dreamt of. Funny how you think you know everything at sixteen but nothing once you reach your twenties. But down that road, the more I learned, the more I kept thinking “Why are there more straight white men being recognized in the field of the arts? Are there no people of color, no women’s work out there worth speaking about?”. No, that’s not the reality. The reality is we live in a discriminating, misogynistic society that hates seeing women being loud, vocal and successful. So when the time came to pitch the project to people that would want to work on it with me, I knew who I wanted: we ended up with a crew of seventeen members, fourteen of them being women and folks from the LGBTQ+ community, all of them in major positions.

I try to visualize work as a playground. This allows me a certain degree of freedom to experiment new things without having my insufferable inner critic stepping out of her eccentric decorated cage that she deliberately leaves the door open, like a nosy, gossipy old lady, eavesdropping, ready to make her presence noticed at the most inopportune moments. I chase the possibility of constantly rediscovering the world again, like a cat that stares at the same tree outside the window everyday, the motion of its leaves in the wind blowing and the sun sneaking through them, casting shadows on the people passing by, like it is a novelty. Sometimes we lose that, myself included. In those moments, we are letting go of our inner child’s hand, blinding their eyes, sacrificing their vision in exchange for cold logic and comprehension. It is challenging to maintain that feeling of surprise when you are in the maelstrom of adult life. 

Nevertheless, it is crucial for me to find ways of reconnecting with that part of myself, to see the world through old eyes, the eyes of a child that has a zillion questions about every major and insignificant aspect of life, the vital necessity to know why does cream appear on milk when you heat it and why I don’t like it, or why is the sky blue and not green, or what does it mean to die, that is excited to experience everything for the first time. And because of this, everything I do is an extension of this curiosity, hunger and urgency, that is nothing other than endless conversations with the child I once was.

Image: The crew behind the short film ”La gente parece mariposas al fin” (2022). Image credit: Valeria Zelvaggio.

In this particular project, I didn’t know everyone before starting. That can be quite risky, for me at least, because I like working with people I can connect with, which is a tremendous privilege. There were a lot of people in the crew that joined the project when it had already started, not because I particularly wanted it that way but because things happened like that—spoiler alert, it worked perfectly in the end—but I was feeling a bit startled at first, I’m not going to lie. For me, it is pivotal getting to know everyone personally, connecting with them on a personal level, thereupon, moving on to the professional field becomes easier, or harder. 

I sat down with the people I was meeting for the first time—we had previously met online and discussed business but did not have a face to face interaction—to just talk. It was quite a time that summer; sunny afternoons at my terrace with a bottle of wine, crafting the heart of the film with my art director, realizing that the same verse in a song ached in us equally; sitting down in a park with my producer to share our childhood memories, all the things we thought we would be by now and how we were going to raise the funds to create this alternate world to tell this story; meetings with my director of photography at cafes on warm nights to dive deeply into each other’s personal universes, minutes into hours, going over the films that raised us and why it was so crucial having a woman on this position. The photography department, specifically in film, has been a male dominated industry since its conception. It is almost a tacit internalization that men are the only ones that can be great at doing this job. We know that there are plenty of women in wardrobe, hair and make-up, as editors and art directors, but hardly any women as light technicians, directors of photography, gaffers, camera operators; thus, I wanted to show that it was absolutely possible to have an all female photo department that was functional, efficient, creative, problem-solving; and I believe we did. Of course, things have gotten significantly better for women and minorities in the film industry, but there is still so much work to do. So much still to explore in what has been left to wander and rot in the shadows, we find rewarding gifts and stories in the sideways of history. Everything is so clear in the light, you can see right through it, it has already been explored, touched and told so many times. Resistance comes from within, is such an intimate act that has to come from the very personal to the very external, public territory. As the french quote from the second wave feminism goes: “what is personal, is political”.

A few years ago, I came across this interview. I don’t exactly remember who they were interviewing, so I can’t give you the name, but it was a French actress in the early 60’s. She was being asked about her experience in film and the roles she had played and the answer she gave got stuck in my mind until this day. “Have you ever played scenes that showed friendship or warm feelings between female characters?”, she just stared at one point for a second, in utter silence, then said “No, never, I’ve never done that”, then stopped again to rethink, digging into her memories to see if she actually had done it. Her answer remained the same.

For the longest time, the mold of representation of the feminine and of women in classic cinema was repeated until exhaustion: the woman as a projection of masculine desire and imagined by and for men, mere extensions of the male protagonist. Women, for the very first six decades of film, were relegated as objects, never as subjects, their own desires and sexualities were annulled, as they were not relevant to the male consumer. The absence of a female gaze made it impossible for female consumers to see themselves reflected and/or represented on the screen. There was a systematic exclusion of female and women’s narratives, since they were condemned to be the sole support of male protagonists. Not to mention women or people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and other experiences that belonged to marginalized groups. Black or indigenous women were poorly portrayed as maids or slaves. It was not even a possibility that they could be women that desired, that felt things deeply, that longed. It is pertinent to mention that in Latin America, speaking as a Peruvian woman, the process of women’s oppression was different from the European one due to colonization. Unlike the white European woman, the indigenous woman in Latin America worked to be able to pay the tribute of the time and to support her family, while the husband was forced to work in the mines. Many of these women paid the tributes and taxes sexually—an elegant way to say they were raped—to the conquerors, who, progressively, took away their erotic capacity to the extent that they appropriated their reproductive capacity, separating them completely from pleasure and desire. This is essential to fathom why women, especially mestizo and indigenous women, accepted this subordination imposed by men in different spheres of their life; the Europeans were the ones who brought, with their occupation and colonization, among other things, this model of organization to America, Africa and Oceania. In the long term, this castrating action resulted in profound loss of identity, a wound that is yet to heal.

Therefore, the process of decolonization becomes vital for the recovery and vindication of minorities’ dignities, in which light is shed on new forms of self-government, freedom and the creation of new consciences. If our systems are legitimized and built on sexism, heteronormativity, the gender binary, misogyny, white supremacy, racism, and these damage and profoundly affect people’s lives, decolonization becomes the key for change, for the practice of democracy in its entirety and outside the capitalist approach.

It is necessary, if we want to achieve this transformation, to become self-critical and reflective selves, that we become capable of understanding and unlearning colonial practices, that we let ourselves rethink and question the legacies of yesteryear and how they affect our reality and what do they mean for the oppressed, for the otherness. Only then can we begin to discuss a collective practice of emancipation, in the full sense of the word, that is applicable to all aspects of life, such as desire and sexuality, for example. It is precisely for questioning the norm and leaving the established, socially accepted identity scheme that people can begin to explore their sexuality for their own satisfaction, their own needs and pleasure. The experimentation has allowed women and queer folks to enter a world of different possibilities, of reinvention. What produces the feeling of two bodies encountering and intimating is not possible when one’s perception is the constant one-dimensionality—the one-dimensionality of the human being prevails, in which other dimensions have been sacrificed in favor of the one where we become useful individuals of consumption that serve a purpose to capitalism—which impedes sensoriality.

Experimenting raises very important dichotomies around pleasure. The sexual revolution and the visibility of female desire are a way of doing politics. Michel Foucault understands sexuality and desire as issues of social concern, so he extends their discussion to historical and social spheres, having in clear the subjectivity of what this represents for each subject. Perceiving other people’s pleasure as ours and taking it into account, introducing it to our universe of constellations, opens the possibility of considering new forms of ethics (Foucault, 1988). We have to let go of our ego in order to be carried by someone else’s rhythm.

I think that love is the key and the basis of everything, because in love there is a willingness, a willingness to connect and to admire. Admiring is an act of love because it implies a generosity in giving yourself to someone else’s depth, to someone else’s prisms, different from what we are used to.

Plenty of women and queer authors have questioned the early waves of feminism, raised discussions about gender and the disproportionate importance given to the biological identity, unraveled it and affirmed that it was nothing more than a socio-political and cultural construct; therefore, it is a concept that can be vindicated in theory and in praxis. When discussing women in film, they did not focus on the image of the women per se, but on the construction of a character imagined and produced for the male gaze. Studies of feminism in cinema, to date, have evolved and have extended its object of study to criticize and reflect on the representations of sexuality, race, ethnicity, and religion on screen (Mulvey, 1989). Today, more than ever, with the popularity and rise of social networks, the viewer no longer has a passive role: they can directly contact the creators and actors, to have influence in how and what is going to be produced. The internet plays a very important role as a place to create a community and give a sense of collective belonging and identity to minorities. Sometimes we set fire to our own forests, trying to find ourselves in the ashes, to rebuild us from zero. The quest for identity and for our place in the world is a universal experience we all can relate to.

When we talk about art, we talk about freedom of expression, but, inherently, we talk about censorship. Both have a symbiotic relationship. It is always important, in artistic work, to have ”uncomfortable” conversations because they are necessary. Bringing topics to the table that are normally taboos is essential in order to strip them of their pejorative charge. Shedding light becomes a necessity when keeping silence forces us to live in darkness and secrecy.

Always, within what I do in the field of art, I try to contribute to the change of certain negative schematizations that we have been carrying on our backs as a society. Of course, I’m not saying that a single film, or exhibition, or a single art form of any kind is going to change everything. I would not dare to say such thing, but if anything that I do contributes, in the slightest way possible, to initiate a debate, to rethink something, to change someone’s perspective on a matter, or to simply entertain those that need an escape from their reality, then I feel I’m going in the right direction. We don’t often know how to recognize the things that surround us all the time: forces of power, political and social structures, norms. And I believe that is something art can walk us through like a mentor: teach us to really open our eyes, to make us more empathetic, connected and grounded, to create new ways of understanding the novel languages that are being introduced to us. Communication has a transcendental importance because what we see and hear forms our perception and, therefore, limitations of the universe and our collective imagination.

Attempting to live off of art in Latin America, especially in Peru, might be considered foolish. Given that the minimum wage for a regular job is, converted to American dollars, $289, that is not remotely enough to cover everything a person needs in a month, let alone if you have a family to support. Therefore, deciding to devote and give your life to any artistic field here is the biggest love letter to your craft you can possibly write. Plenty of people still jump in the pool, expecting fortune and fame, and I would understand that if we were in an industry like Hollywood, but here? C’mon, let’s not be delusional for a moment, shall we? You can have your fleeting moment of relevance that is going to vanish into oblivion alongside all the ephemeralities of other’s illusions (or delusions of grandeur), that are empty.

I don’t believe for a second I am above any of this. As humans, we have this desperate need to transcend, to embed meaning in everything without really comprehending anything. There is this cynicism very present in us, the contradiction inherent to the human condition: the knowledge that we are nothing more than transitory beings but, in juxtaposition, the deep-rooted desire to transcend. As Patrick Modiano (2009), a french writer says, we are all ”men of the beaches”. In the sand the trace of our steps doesn’t last more than a few seconds. So, it makes no sense to grieve over what we are leaving behind, which is nothing more than the trap of the ego. But it is a tough thing to do, strip yourself from it, isn’t it? Everything is basically crafted to the millimeter to keep feeding it and making it the compass of our lives. I’m not going to lecture anyone or give advice on how to accomplish that, because, frankly, I’m still figuring out how to do it in my own life. Plus, I hate unsolicited advice; although, sometimes it can be one of those things you really need to hear at a specific moment in time.

The moment in which desire and pleasure from and by the female gaze are introduced in cinema, with characters that are multi-dimensional, that deeply feel, that can create profound bounds with others, the female spectator becomes someone who also has the right to desire and not just be presented as an object for the male gaze. As a consequence, the woman can see herself reflected, identified and represented with the characters seen on the screen. I am a huge fan of movies that have lead female, queer characters that have personal universes that are so rich and complex (just like in real life), and that you can catch a glimpse of that in every careful, crafted detail of the film. 

Image: Still from the short film ”La gente parece mariposas al fin” (2022). Image credit: Valeria Zelvaggio.

The short film I wrote has two main female characters, and the story appeals to the conception that only love and death change everything, that love is quite everything in life and it is futile to pretend that another balance can make things function; that grief comes from all the unexpressed love that cannot be transferred elsewhere once the loved one has left this earth plane. One loves all people in different ways, it is a love that cannot be compared because each individual is unique, because that love carries, simultaneously, a singular language that cannot be spoken with anyone else. Hence, you can’t just ignore it once they are gone. Perhaps there is no other option than to make a different version of them in your head, a version that does not know your daily anxieties, your fears, that makes you cry or laugh and that you love so much. When you are bound to someone by love, a love that transcends time and space, it doesn’t go away when they leave. It is really a story about the urgency of life, the sacredness of it, how fast everything is. You are going to be dead for far longer than you are going to be alive, so you might want to, at least, try to enjoy it.

Image: Still from the short film ”La gente parece mariposas al fin” (2022). Image credit: Valeria Zelvaggio.

​​Both characters embark on a journey that means different things to both of them. Eliza, the main character, finds herself in this process, she faces her demons, stops running because she has nowhere else to go. She realizes how easy it is to leave this earth and the fragility of everything, and in that, she sees a new world rich with so many possibilities. She has held and caged her emotions for so long that they are eating her alive. The act of confessing her love to her friend is itself an act of letting go and relinquishing control. Magnolia, her best friend, has her whole life together and how people expect it: a husband, a daughter, stable job, but she loses herself, her world is destabilized: she is going to lose her best friend, this person who has always been present in her life will no longer be in it. She doesn’t know a world without Eliza. They have a bond that transcends everything and it is something she never imagined having to deal with so young. And it is like yin and yang, in everything gained, there is also something lost. We are all constantly losing something precious to us, opportunities, possibilities, feelings. But in that balance is the meaning of life, it may seem unfair, but it is what it is.

At first, this was a story of unrequited love in the midst of a tragic circumstance such as terminal cancer, but as I developed it, it introduced itself, almost without realizing it, this need for Eliza to reconcile with herself, with the ghost of her mother, to say goodbye to her symbolically, to be able to leave in peace, with no baggage… Her initial goal was to confess to Magnolia that she loved her, but on this trip she realizes that, no matter how sick she may be, she is going to be fine, because love, after all, heals you. She is going to die, but she is going to be saved. Death is perceived as a possibility of transcendence, that we are energy, therefore, we cannot leave completely, we can only be transformed and reborn.

I think that touching these subjects happened almost unconsciously. Cancer has deeply impacted my life. I lost my grandfather when I was a kid to cancer, I almost lost my mom to it two years ago, I lost my grandmother last year to cancer. There is this constant talk of how cancer affects those who suffer it, but those who accompany them and how this affects them are not usually made visible. My mother had a very turbulent relationship with her mother all her life. Unlike Eliza, she did have the opportunity to close the pending issues in vita. I also think that I wanted to give my grandmother a kind of gift, with this notion of transcendence: the idea of ​​death is terrifying because we don’t know what happens next. I have chosen to celebrate her life. So, I open up this possibility of reunion with everything that once was known and dear to her, and that she will now be able to dance as she pleases without pain or fatigue on the other plane. And that is the same thing I wanted to give to Eliza.

Image: Still from the short film ”La gente parece mariposas al fin” (2022). Image credit: Valeria Zelvaggio.

This is a countdown story to the inexorable next day, in which Eliza is worried about the way things will end. The first extensive conversations they have are about the fear of growing up, getting to their 30s, the feeling of failure, about death and mourning. At all times they are reminded of the passage of time and the transience of our human state. But in the midst of these conversations or the apparent “chatty” characteristic of both characters, a precision of the body language of both of them is hidden, creating a subtext in the subtle interactions of small gestures and stolen glances. And I believe that small gestures, the importance of the personal, ends up being exceptionally grand. Which really reminds me of Emma Goldman, a remarkable anarchist icon of the 1800s. For her, the essence of any sustainable revolution should be integrated to sexual freedom. She wanted everything: wanted revolution but without it being devoid of beauty or tenderness; she deeply loved the arts, books and sex, and couldn’t comprehend why all of those weren’t able to coexist. “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”, she said, reaffirming her desire for self-expressed freedom. 

Within capitalist history, sexuality and female desire have been deliberately segregated because capitalism depends on the reproductive act to survive. Both desire and female sexuality, paradoxically, are places of oppression as of revolution. And for this reason, pleasure is revolutionary (Hemmings, 2014).

Text and images: Valeria Zelvaggio
Bibliography

Foucault, Michel (1988). Historia de la sexualidad, Tomo II, México, Siglo XXI.

Hemmings, C. (2014). sexual freedom and the promise of revolution: Emma Goldman’s passion. Feminist Review, 106(1), 43–59. doi:10.1057/fr.2013.29

Modiano, P. (2009). Calle de las tiendas oscuras (Vol. 725). Anagrama.

Mulvey, Laura (1989). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. En Visual and other pleasures. Palgrave Macmillan, London.