Mosquita y Mari writer and director Aurora Guerrero answered some questions (by email) fresh from the film recently winning Best Actress (Fenessa Pineda) and the Audience Award for Outstanding First U.S. Dramatic Feature Film at Outfest in Los Angeles.
Women and Hollywood: There are not many films that focus on the coming of age story of two Mexican girls. Why did you think your story would be one that could break out?
Aurora Guerrero: I'm not so sure I thought it would break out. One hopes for that type of result but you just never know what factors will work in your favor. I think I just was concentrating on making the best film I could under the circumstances I was given. That's all I could really do. I also think that I chose to tell a story about a time that most people, regardless of background, could identify with. It just happens to be set in a very specific community in Los Angeles.
WaH: This is a very personal film for you. Talk about what it was like putting your own experiences into the movie?
AG: It was a mixed bag. I mean breaking the silence around who my first love was while I was growing up was very liberating and healing. Coming from such a personal place also really gave the film that tone of realism. What got hard was that in purging out a part of my life I was also purging a bunch of other things. Part of my learning curve as a novice screenwriter was peeling back the layers and getting to the core of the story. I was really blessed to have two amazing writing mentors who helped me along the way. They always encouraged me to be okay with a simple story. Not that Mosquita y Mari is a simple story. What I mean is I kept it from getting caught up in a saturated narrative. Instead, I just let the audience sit with the girls and trusted that that was enough.
WaH: Talk about the transition from making short films to making your first full length film.
AG: Going from a short to a feature is like going from crawling to flying. It's a big jump, really. Everything triples – size of crew, budget, shooting days, the cast. Not to mention the stakes – as a first time feature filmmaker so much rides on this film. There is lots of pressure to make a GOOD film. And not just a GOOD film but one that will somehow stand out in the sea of GOOD films. I think making shorts is really about giving yourself the opportunity to learn what your strengths and weaknesses are. That's really important to know before getting to your first feature. In many ways you can't afford to make too many mistakes while on that feature.
WaH: What were the biggest challenges for you in making this film?
AG: Definitely the money. When my producer and I were finally ready to shop the script the economy crashed. Talk about bad timing! On top of that I was very specific about my vision for the film. I wanted bicultural, bilingual young actors from the community of South East LA. Not many people felt confident about financing a film like ours. Once we did get the funding it was very bare-bones. Our 18 day schedule forced my crew and I to compromise on a few things.
WaH: You really are a huge kickstarter success story. Talk about what the campaign meant to the film.
AG: Like I mentioned, we weren't getting anyone knocking down our door to fund Mosquita y Mari. The economy was horrible and my film was about two young Chicanas vibing off each other. Our film took a HUGE turn when we made our Kickstarter campaign of $80,000. It's what put us in production. Not only that, we had the most ideal investors any indie filmmaker could dream of. They didn't expect a profit. They just wanted this story to take flight. Our KS donors were giving us their blessings to go out in the world and make something that they would one day call their own. And that's exactly what we did.
WaH: Talk about the Sundance experience. What did you get out of it?
AG: Going into our world premiere I was extremely nervous. Sundance comes in two parts, you know. First is getting the news that your film has been selected. That's always really validating and thrilling. The second part of the Sundance experience is presenting your film to an audience that is primarily made up of people from the industry. This is the part that can either make or break you. I couldn't help but wonder how people would respond to this film. I didn't know if people outside of the Latino community or queer community would find themselves into it. After we screened I think that's when I realized I had something special. The response was very positive and celebratory. I would have to say that when I left Sundance in January I was feeling a lot more confident.
WaH: This is a quote from the press notes: "As a writer I have consistently centered the invisible in my films from my characters to the place they call home." Can you elaborate on that?
AG: I'm talking about the marginalized – the Xicana, the female, the queer, immigrant, of color. I identify with all of these communities and part of what has kept me going in my career as a filmmaker is striving to share stories where these communities are made visible and human. It's the lens from which I work and will continue to work.
WaH: You were very deliberate in putting together grassroots partnerships like the one with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) to help get the film done. Talk about that experience and what you learned from it?
AG: I didn't want to do what so many entitled people do to marginalized communities. I didn't want to just take from this community and not give anything in return. Ideally, I think there should be a partnership between you and the community you're documenting. If they open up their doors to you, then in what ways can you be of use to them? That's the question I came to CBE with. I wanted to make sure Mosquita y Mari was somehow beneficial to the community of Huntington Park. Together, CBE and I developed a hands-on mentorship program for the youth in the area. Anyone interested in media was brought on to the film and mentored by one of the department heads, depending on the interest of the young person. CBE and I also talked about making the film available to the community however possible, especially because it can serve as a tool to talk about identity within an immigrant community. I went into this partnership with CBE a firm believer in its potential to make filmmaking a positive and powerful experience for many. I guess I walked away re-affirmed that collaborating in this way is how I'm meant to work as a filmmaker.
WaH: What was the one mistake you made that you will do differently next time?
AG: There were a couple of times I didn't trust my instinct and paid for it. No more of that!
WaH: What advice do you have for other female filmmakers?
AG: Don't shy away from telling the story you want to tell. I think we often look for permission to be able to make the films we deep down want to make. Give yourself that! I bet if you allow yourself to create freely you'll probably end up with something unique.
WaH: How can we get more stories like yours for people to see?
AG: We need more producers to get behind great projects and filmmakers! Ultimately we need orgs to support filmmakers like me and these types of projects. We didn't make Mosquita y Mari without Sundance, Film Independent, the community that came out during Kickstarter. It was my producer Chad Burris, Bird Runningwater, Jim McKay, myself that got this done. It's the pairing of the right people with right projects – for example attaching people who didn't care about the profit but instead wanted to see me and the film's content out there. When people are motivated by art and content, not money, these films happen.
WaH: What are you doing next?
AG: There's a strange phenomena happening in Los Angeles immigrant communities right now that has inspired me to write a script. I'm super excited about it. I'm also developing a pilot for television along with a couple of filmmakers I hugely admire.
Mosquita y Mari opens on August 3rd in New York at the Cinema Village.