Womyn Image Makers

By Cindy Yurth Jan 06, 2009

Thanks to the evolution of digital technology, making movies and distributing them is easier than ever, and more people of color are working their way onto the big screen. But persuading a production company to invest in an independent film is a different story.

“That’s still an old boys’ club—an old white boys’
club,” said Maritza Alvarez, a queer Xicana writer
and cinematographer.

As of 2005, only 7 percent of directors working on the nation’s top 250 films (by budget size) were women. Of those, Alvarez doesn’t know how many are women of color or how many are lesbians, but suffice it to say, it’s a smaller number.

If an independent director does get backing for her film from a production company, “they’re going to make you cut out a few things,” Alvarez said. “You have to compromise your story. That’s the one thing, as an artist, you never want to do.”

Alvarez isn’t waiting to be discovered by the big studios. Together with three queer Xicanas—writer and director Aurora Guerrero; Claudia Mercado, a writer, director and editor; and production designer Dalila Mendez—Alvarez formed the filmmaking collective Womyn Image Makers in 1999 to support their projects. Although they’re not household names, they are turning heads. In 2005, Alvarez’s film Pura Lengua (All Tongue), directed by Guerrero, made the cut for the Sundance Film Festival, and another production, Viernes Girl, was shown on HBO.

Set in the L.A. Latino punk scene, the semi-autobiographical Pura Lengua features a devastating breakup between lesbian lovers and a brutal encounter with an anti-gay cop—not the kind of film you’re likely to encounter at the local six-plex.

“Our films deal with a lot of political themes, gender themes [and] sexuality,” Alvarez said. “We all have our own vision, but we’re coming from a similar place as indigenous Xicanas from East L.A. who grew up poor or working-class. It’s not a perspective you see much in the movies, if at all.”

The four members of the collective met in the 1990s through Xicano activist circles and a program called “Project Involve” that brought together emerging young filmmakers in the Los Angeles area. They have varying levels of formal training, some of which has been acquired since Womyn Image Makers was formed. In an interview with cinematographer.com, Guerrero described the style of Pura Lengua as “guerrilla filmmaking skills with dashes of formal training.”

“True guerrilla filmmaking is going out on the street without a lot of formal training or a lot of resources and doing whatever it takes to get your story across,” she explained. “Maritza and I have film school training, but we didn’t have much of a budget, and there was some of that, ‘Well, we don’t have a permit but let’s just go into this restaurant and start filming.’”

Guerrero recently completed the script for her first feature film, Mosquita y Mari, about two 15-year-old Latinas grappling with sexual undercurrents in their relationship (check out the film’s website at mymthemovie.com). It will be the group’s first feature-length film, although Guerrero said she’ll probably have to go outside the collective for funding.

The next move for the collective, Alvarez said, is building “a sustainable support system” for artists: expanding their network to include more women of color, especially young filmmakers, and setting up their own space to hold screenings and trainings.