Filmmaker Guillermina Zabala shines a light on activism through film

The title of the short film 2011 I, me, lightby San Antonio multimedia artist Guillermina Zabala, succinctly captures the nature of her work as a photographic artist and documentary filmmaker.

Light is the primary medium she uses to create images, and the films and photographs she makes illuminate the identity and personality of their subjects.

“Cinema is about light,” Zabala said. “This piece was an opportunity for me to start tackling other subjects [to light].”

Originally made for the 2011 Luminaria contemporary art festival, the film was later screened at the McNay Art Museum in 2014.

The documentary Juanito’s lab, which Zabala directed with her husband Enrique Lopetegui, follows the career of San Antonio musical prodigy Juanito Castillo. It was selected as the opening film for the 42nd annual CineFestival at the Guadalupe Arts Cultural Center in 2021.

More recently, Zabala won the Premio Mezquite Jury Prize at CineFestival 2022 for Best Texas Short for Documentary Las Artivistas: the journey from artist to activista 22-minute film that follows three young Latino artists as they combine artistic creation with a drive for social justice.

The film by filmmaker Guillermina Zabala Las Artivistas: the journey from artist to activist won the 2022 CineFestival Premio Mezquite Jury Prize for Best Texas Short Film. Credit: Nick Wagner/San Antonio Report

La Plata in San Antonio

No documentary has yet been made on Zabala’s journey. Born in La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires in Argentina, Zabala went on to attend film school as a teenager. She described the school as similar to SAY Sí’s film and video program, where she served as director of media arts for 17 years.

The La Plata film school had been shut down by the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, but was revived in the early 2000s by former teachers from the school.

“That’s exactly where I started thinking about the importance of social activism,” Zabala said, and realized that “film and video are very powerful mediums for social activism.”

When she reached college age, she visited an uncle who lived in Los Angeles and ended up staying to pursue a career in film. Her journey as an immigrant is documented in a photographic collage presented recently at the Centro de Artes during the second round of the New York Foundation for the Arts Immigrant Artist Mentorship Program exhibit.

The many disciplines incorporated into filmmaking, from writing to photography to editing, appeal to his multidisciplinary sensibility as an artist, Zabala said, and could be key to filmmaking’s particular power.

“The film format is so powerful,” she said, in part because it can present multiple perspectives on the same issue.

“Film incorporates so many different disciplines that it moves audiences emotionally and intellectually in ways that other artistic disciplines may not necessarily do,” she said. “It really transports you to another place. But then when you come back from that experience hopefully the idea is for you to think, reflect and become more aware.

When Lopetegui was offered a job as music editor at San Antonio-based Latin magazine Rumbo, Zabala wrapped up her plans in Los Angeles and joined, taking the job as SAY Sí and quickly becoming part of the cultural scene. from the city.

Empower voices

For I, me, light, Zabala asked other performers to face the camera and write an identifying word in the air using a bright light attached to their index fingers. Community artist Andy Benavides wrote “Smart”, the name of the youth education program he runs with his wife Yvette Benavides, and musician Max Baca chose the word “Blessed”.

Each subject was empowered to choose their own word, and Zabala said she found the process of watching them struggle to encapsulate themselves fascinating.

Enhancing her subjects’ voices is among Zabala’s strengths not only as a filmmaker but also as a teacher, according to performance artist Sarah Tijerina. Tijerina first met Zabala when she was a student at SAY Sí.

Zabala taught her students the importance of “being brave and brave enough to say what you have to say,” Tijerina said.

Jon Hinojosa, President and Chief Innovation Officer of SAY Sí, said Zabala’s continued work as an artist enhances his ability to teach effectively.

“We’ve always been looking for mentors and teacher artists who will be great role models,” he said. “We did it perfectly with Guillermina because she is an incredible artist and her work is so important and profound,” especially for marginalized communities and communities of color.

Tijerina appears as one of three artists from San Antonio in The Artistsin a scene enunciating a spoken word poem about the pressures of assimilation she felt as a young Latina trying to fit into a predominantly white culture, straightening her curly hair every day for five years.

Zabala is unusual as a director for creating a collaborative atmosphere and empathizing with her subjects, Tijerina said.

“She has such a natural way of getting people to open up and be vulnerable without forcing it,” Tijerina said. “She was able to create a relationship with her subjects, instead of just telling us what to do.”

Art as activism

Marcella Ochoa, a San Antonio native who lives and works in Los Angeles as a writer, director and producer, served as a juror for CineFestival 2022. She said she was connected to Zabala’s film on many levels.

“I resonated with the topic because I know what it’s like to have to assimilate and the in-between of feeling Mexican and American and figuring out where we fit in this country,” said- she said in an email to the San Antonio Report.

“I also know what it’s like to be Latina in a male-dominated, white entertainment industry,” Ochoa said. “I really resonated with these women using their art to empower themselves and create change through their art for our community as I try to do the same in my work.”

Filmmaker Esmeralda Hernández also appears in The Artists and said she hadn’t necessarily considered her artistic activism until Zabala framed it that way.

“We had a conversation about the Chicano movement, and if I consider myself an activist, I had to think about it,” Hernández said. The Artists concentrates on his film Cakewhich tells the story of a young girl’s birthday party disrupted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who detain her father.

When Hernández viewed her work through the lens of Zabala, she realized that “through my art, I really have a voice that makes me an activist because it pushes these images against the norm and against the stereotypes we have”.

Zabala sees herself reflected in her young subjects. Manufacturing The Artists was “a bit revealing [experience] for me too,” she said, “in terms of validating or reinforcing my own process as a Latinx artist.

She said that in making the film, she wanted to explore how art and social activism intertwine, “and how they can be together and be stronger. [for it].”

And Tijerina sees Zabala, whom she and other SAY Sí compatriots call “Gisha”. as a reflection of his own artistic goals.

“Gisha, herself, I consider her an artist,” Tijerina said. “In all of her work…she posts stories that she knows need to be heard.” In The Artists“She was the perfect person to open up the space for young people to do because she has her own journey.”

About Debra D. Johnson

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