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Oscar-nominated filmmaker to discuss her work Thursday

Lourdes Portillo, a feminist filmmaker and Oscar-nominated director with a worldwide following, will be the featured speaker at a talk sponsored by the Lehigh University Humanities Lecture Series at 4:10 p.m. Thursday in Room 210 of Drown Hall.

Portillo will speak after a viewing of her film Senorita Extravida, or Missing Young Woman.

This gripping 2001 documentary investigates the disappearance of more than 200 young women from assembly plants that line the Mexican-American border. Portillo’s investigation unravels the layers of complicity that have allowed the brutal rapes and murders to continue in a culture that, she feels, tacitly condones human rights abuses and violence against women.

Portillo’s film, which drew heavily on the testimony of the families of the victims, won accolades at the Sundance Film Festival, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as special honors at several other regional festivals.

“Portillo is one of the most respected documentary filmmakers of our time, and we’re fortunate to have the opportunity to view her film and discuss her work with her,” says Alex Levine, associate professor of philosophy. “Her 1986 documentary, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, about the mothers and grandmothers of victims of the Argentine military dictatorship, took the documentary film world by storm. She is a very compelling filmmaker.”

Adds Gordon Bearn, professor of philosophy and director of the Humanities Center: “Lourdes Portillo's film will explore the dark side of globalization, which involves global cities allowing terrifying violence against women. Both her film and her talk will address the continuing need for a more just globalization.”

Filmmaking as destiny

Portillo, who was born in Mexico and identifies herself as Chicana, has focused her films on the search for Latino identity. Working in a richly varied range of forms that span television documentary to satirical video-film collage, Portillo blends documentary and narrative in a powerfully poetic mix.

Frequently, Portillo’s films have strong political undertones, which she attributes to the fact that she came of age during a critical period in the Chicano movement.

“It was a very specific historical moment for Chicano people in this country,” she told In Motion magazine. “I was very much politicized. I felt that I had a duty. I felt like I was on a mission to represent ourselves in a very broad and complex way.”

Portillo had her first filmmaking experience at the age of 21, when a Hollywood friend asked her to help out on a documentary. She knew at that moment, she later said, that filmmaking was her destiny.

Her formal training began as an apprentice at the San Francisco National Association of Broadcast Engineers, which led to a job as a camera assistant. After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1978, she used her funds from the American Film Institute Independent Filmmaker Award to create the internationally praised After the Earthquake/Despues del Terremoto, about a Nicaraguan refugee living in San Francisco.

A series of critically acclaimed films followed, including the 1985 Oscar-nominated film, The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, which chronicled the development of the Argentinian mothers’ movement to demand to know the fate of 30,000 “disappeared” sons and daughters.

Other films include La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead, a loving portrayal of Mexican and Chicano holiday; Columbus on Trial, which commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Italian explorer’s “discovery” of America in ironic fashion; and The Devil Never Sleeps, which explores the Mexican psyche.

Currently in progress are a collaboration with renowned playwright Maria Irene Fornes and a National Endowment for the Humanities project on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the 16th century Mexican nun, poet, and intellectual. Portillo is also developing plans for two narrative films: the story of a teenage Chicana in the 1950s, and what she calls a “stylized lesbian detective story.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Wednesday, November 05, 2003

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