Diane Paragas tells a timely and timeless story in her narrative feature debut “Yellow Rose”

Filmmaker Diane Paragas

“Yellow Rose” is the timely story of a Filipina teen from a small Texas town who fights to pursue her dreams as a country music performer while having to decide between staying with her family or leaving the only home she has known.

I was fortunate to speak with the director of the film, Diane Paragas (“Brooklyn Boheme”). “Yellow Rose” is her narrative feature debut. We talked about her 15-year journey into bringing this personally inspired story to the screen. We discussed her talented cast, specifically Broadway star Eva Noblezada (Hadestown and Miss Saigon) who plays Rose, the main character. Eva is a Grammy®-winner and two-time Tony Award®-nominee, and “Yellow Rose” is her screen debut. We also discussed Diane’s hope that people who see the film will leave their politics at the door and experience the journey of an undocumented Country singing teen. Paragas described herself growing up as a square peg in a round hole, feeling different in a Texas town, but coming to a place where she really knows her voice. And the story of Rose reflects that. The film is at once very timely, and timeless.

Today“Yellow Rose” releases in select theaters across the US.

REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?

DIANE PARAGAS: I wrote the script a long time ago, like over 15 years ago. I grew up in Texas, and when I went to UT [The University of Texas], I was a square peg in a round hole–this weird Filipino girl in the middle of Texas. Of course a lot of the story comes from my childhood and upbringing, but as the years went on and I kept pursuing the film, it started taking on another meaning, especially this version of the film. I leaned more into the immigration side of the story, which incidentally was always in the script, but I followed the mom’s journey a little bit more in this version. And the trajectory was more about Rose finding a home, as opposed to “A Star is Born”-type of journey. The narrative definitely shifted, and is a reflection of the times that we are now living in. 

But “Yellow Rose” was always about a girl who wants to be a country singer, and that’s really it. It was this very personal movie based on some experiences that I had. I feel that’s what you want in your first narrative project, for it to be something really personal. And I think that was this movie, it just took me a very long time to make it. 

Rose (Eva Noblezada)

MARTIN: You have an incredible cast. Is this the first onscreen role Eva Noblezada], who plays Rose? I’ve never seen her before, although I know she’d done a lot of theater. How did you find her for this role?

PARAGAS: Yes, this is Eva’s first film of any kind. She’s never been on a short, and she’s never even been on a set. She was all Broadway. Having said that, she was a Tony-nominee at the time we cast her. We shot the film in-between her finishing up with Miss Saigon and beginning Hadestown, which won the Tony last year for Best Musical. She was nominated again, so she’s a two-time Tony-nominee, and a Grammy winner for the Miss Saigon soundtrack. As she is a Broadway person, this film is going to be her introduction to most people. Eva’s just an extraordinary talent. I really hope people can see this performance. It’s something to behold. 

MARTIN: How did you get connected to her, was there someone in charge of the casting?

PARAGAS: No, I reached out to her manager and had mentioned the script, which she really liked. I consciously did not go to see Miss Saigon. We had already shot a short at that point, but I knew she was tied up. I just didn’t want to get my heart broken. When I found out the show was ending, that’s when we had this window to send them the script, and I went to see the play. I had dinner with her that same night and offered her the part on the spot because her performance in Miss Saigon is incredible, but mostly it was because the way that she acted was very cinematic, and that is what I responded to the most. Even with all of that, I didn’t know what to expect until we started shooting. She just blew me away. 

Priscilla Garcia (Priscilla Garcia) and Rose (Eva Noblezada)

MARTIN: I would love to dive deeper into the immigration side of the film and how it paralleled with the relationship between the mother and the daughter. 

PARAGAS: One of the big things of the film is the fact that there are many undocumented Asians in this country. I think often when you say “undocumented”, the first thing you think of is the Latinx community. Filipinos are the third largest undocumented population in the US. But it’s just not something that you see reflected onscreen. My parents who arrived here, came on a Visa, and when the Visa ran out, there was one point where we were in risk of being deported. But as reflected in the film, I feel our parents kept it from us to a large extent. We didn’t really know it was serious at all. But it was. Luckily we were able to stay legally.

We’ve had our brush with immigration with my own family, but I certainly know a lot of people that have undocumented status. It’s just known as part of the Filipino-American community. This was definitely something that I wanted to focus on, because it’s a big issue within our community. 

Rose (Eva Noblezada) and Dale Watson

MARTIN: What was your reason for bringing the stories of immigration and country music together?

PARAGAS: It just kind of fit together in the story that I imagined. I think it was a metaphor for her loving this music and having the place where the music originated not love her back. Not just the music world, but the country itself was rejecting her. It just seemed like a convenient metaphor. 

MARTIN: What do you hope people will get from this film, besides just falling in love with the story?

PARAGAS: One thing that I was very conscious about when I made the movie was to not be this polemic film where you’re beating this ideology down people’s throats. I wanted it to be a human story that showed the humanity of what happens when a mother and daughter get separated. It’s not about pointing fingers, it’s not about forcing people to take a stance on an issue, but simply to show the experience itself. Like what happens, and how does it feel? I hope it gives a window into the lives of the undocumented, particularly young people who get taken on this journey and are not party to being the decision makers, yet they’re left in this position where they are either separated from their families or deported.

Rose (Eva Noblezada)

I also just hope people can leave their politics at the door, and give this movie a chance. I remember telling Eva, part of my pitch to her to be in my film was that I wanted to make a classic film that was timely and timeless. The kind of movie that movie lovers love. In this film, you have a romance, you have music, all the things that make a movie great. And I think it’s the kind of film I hope will bring back that love that we have of the theatrical experience, or being in a theater and hearing that beautiful sound–in this case, Eva’s beautiful voice. I think that there is something for everyone in this movie, and I just want people to get to know this character. She’s such a great character, and such a great story to follow. 

Rose (Eva Noblezada)

MARTIN: Advice for Emerging Female Filmmakers?

PARAGAS: I think the story for me was that I was just told “no” a lot. I was just told this is not a story anyone wants to see, it’s not a film that there is an audience for. Even after we made it, we were told that from a lot of buyers. A lot of festivals didn’t take us. At the end of the day, we were sold to a major Hollywood studio, and will be released in hundreds of theaters across the country. My advice would be, stick to your guns, and tell a story that is as unique to who you are as artist, and as a person. Because I think it’s changing, Hollywood is changing. There are so many platforms that you can make movies for, you can make content for, that are wanting to see these stories that are unique from female perspectives, people of color, from all types of people.

And don’t make a movie that you think people will want to see, make a movie that is personal to you. In film school, often you watch these movies, and there’s a tendency to want to be a copycat of those films, or to think these are the type of films that are getting into Sundance, and getting out there. Or the tendency to imitate your auteur hero, when really you want to figure out what your own voice is. Stay with that and you’ll get noticed, and will find people who will believe in you. But always stay true to yourself. It’s a simple thing, but I have the living proof that it’s worth it too, to stick to your guns. 

Rose (Eva Noblezada) and Elliot (Liam Booth)

Isabel Sandoval beautifully elevates the marginalized in “Lingua Franca”

Isabel Sandoval

“Every image or sound is a vessel for emotion: rapture, despair, sensuousness, fury, a combination of these. That makes cinema a kind of legerdemain: the art of sculpting such seemingly artificial elements to create a singular, genuine emotional experience.”

–excerpt from Isabel Sandoval’s director’s statement

Isabel Sandoval is not just about making great films, she is about making meaningful films that express her vision and point of view. Through her personal approach to filmmaking, you feel more connected to her and the world she is in. I love her fresh take on the city of New York, and how she elevates the marginalized through her third feature, “Lingua Franca”. The film is so much more than the premise, but the premise is a strong foundation to her film.

“Lingua Franca” is about a trans female immigrant, Olivia (Isabel Sandoval), working as a caretaker for an older woman with dementia, named Olga, with the goal of getting a green card and becoming a citizen. While working for Olga, she starts a relationship with Olga’s grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren), who does not know she’s trans.

We sadly lost Lynn Cohen, who plays Olga, earlier this year. Lynn does an amazing job in one of her final roles. She was very passionate about playing Olga, and you can listen to her passionate words on the film’s IG page about this film.

Beyond being an amazing filmmaker and actor, Isabel Sandoval is a great writer. Cinema Femme is not only about sharing stories of womxn in film, we also share advice from one filmmaker to another. Isabel’s piece in Filmmaker magazine is very powerful (here are links to Part One and Part Two of the article).

“Lingua Franca” is now streaming on Netflix. This film is a must-watch, especially during these times. Thank you Isabel for your poignant work that’s full of beauty.

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: A French filmmaker once said that directors make the same film over and over again over the course of their careers. We keep revisiting the same themes, issues and conflicts. For me, my go-to theme that I always become drawn to are women who are either marginalized or dis-empowered, who are forced to make intensely personal or private decisions in fraught socio-political settings. That’s what happened in my second feature, “Apparition”, which is about Roman Catholic men living in a monastery in the woods who find themselves under siege on the eve of the declaration of martial law in the Philippines in 1971. 

When I started writing “Lingua Franca,” I was transitioning. I was undergoing my gender transition. And halfway through my writing, that was when Trump actually got elected. I was plunged into a despair and hopelessness. It was a dark time, and I think that was an emotional state that I wanted to capture and instill in those two things, my transition and Trump’s election. Both shaped the premise of “Lingua Franca”.  It’s about this undocumented trans woman who is trying to pursue a path to citizenship, and in the process becomes emotionally involved with a man who doesn’t know that she’s transgender. 

MARTIN: I love how you use New York as the backdrop of the film as you explore the fear of being an immigrant during the times of Trump’s immigration ban. Could you go into your thoughts of using New York as the world of your film, and exploring what it felt like to be an immigrant in a city that was built by immigrants?

SANDOVAL: I am very cognizant of the fact that there have been a lot of films set in New York, and they have a particular gaze of New York. You see that with the Safdie Brothers movies, Spike Lee movies , even in Lena Dunham’s series “Girls”. It was important to me to distinguish myself as a filmmaker, and as a voice, one who was Filipina, trans and an immigrant, and impose my singular aesthetic and perspective that feels different than those of other New York movies that have been made before. 

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) and Olga (Lynn Cohen)

I felt like Brighton Beach in particular is a defiantly and even stubbornly immigrant neighborhood. It’s a very Russian Jewish neighborhood. In a way, it feels like a self-contained world. It has its own character, personality, and it’s extremely remote. I live in Crown Heights, which is still in Brooklyn, but it’s 30 minutes north of Brighton Beach. Whenever I go to Brighton Beach, I feel that I’m whisked off into a totally different planet or country. I just wanted to show a hidden or secret New York that we don’t see a lot of in cinema.

Aside from Olivia and Alex, the other important relationship in the film is between Olivia and Olga, in that they are mirror characters. These are two immigrant women who migrated to the US at different points in their lives, and are experiencing their own kinds of displacement. With Olivia, that displacement is political, geographical and it’s more obvious because she is an immigrant without papers. In Olga’s case, the displacement is more psychological, because she is dealing with dementia. Her sense of self and memory is slowly slipping away from her. I wanted to establish their relationship early in the film with that scene in the kitchen.

Alex (Eamon Farren) and Olivia (Isabel Sandoval )

MARTIN: I love the exploration of sexual awakening in the film, the way you film the intimate scenes. What were you trying to represent or bring to the gaze through those scenes?

SANDOVAL: To be honest, those were the first scenes that I wrote, and then I built the story of the film around them. It’s because those images represent a kind of gaze in an intimate scene that I’d never seen before in American cinema. You rarely see the female gaze when it comes to desire, in sexuality, and much less in the trans female gaze. As a filmmaker, I’d like to think I’m pioneering in a way that I’m a trans filmmaker who’s actually making a film about trans protagonists. I want to include that kind of scene. In the first scene, it’s more of a fantasy sequence. It’s a trans woman who is the agent, the active agent of desire, and not just its object. She’s actually comfortable and celebrating her sexuality in that scene.

In the actual love scene, I wanted to do away with the predictable approach, which is to string together a bunch of images of naked bodies gyrating against each other. There is quite an obsession and fixation over trans bodies in particular, but I just wanted to have the camera hover over her face and take in Olivia’s expression. She’s enjoying herself sexually, but she’s also starting to realize that she’s becoming sexually intimate with a man is not aware that she’s trans. You can see the sense of hesitation and worry about her face. I shoot it in a way that can make it feel so raw and gritty in order to achieve that type of realism. I think you see these conflicted emotions in Olivia’s face, and it ultimately helped to flesh her out as a character, and give her depth and complexity. It’s like a decoy in that I set up what on the surface feels like a sex scene, but it’s also a pivotal character moment for Olivia.

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) and Alex (Eamon Farren)

MARTIN: Eamon is very impressive in this role. I first saw him in Twin Peaks: The Return, and he’s such a versatile actor.

SANDOVAL: I’m also a big fan of Eamon’s work in Twin Peaks: The Return. I thought he had a very interesting face as well. He has an interesting character face. I thought he could really add an aura, an erotic danger, but also humanity to someone like Alex.

MARTIN: The film is so sensory, and what I mean by that is that you can feel it. The way the music is present, but quiet, yet part of a scene. And the sounds of the train, the wind, and the snow. Can you talk to me about the use of sound in the film and the feeling you were trying to convey through the sound and ambient noise?

SANDOVAL: I think part of my approach is that I really like mining the tension from the dissonance between the placid and serene surface image and the tensions rolling underneath. In the opening and closing montage, for instance, you see images of Brighton Beach, but it’s juxtaposed with the voice-over of my character, speaking my native tongue, Cebuano. You also hear the sound bites of Trump talking about targeting immigrants as well as news reports of immigrant children being snatched away from their parents. I kept them to a sound bite because I feel sound really does do a lot of heavy lifting, in terms of influencing the mood and atmosphere of a film. So that is what I wanted to do in a film like “Lingua Franca.” As she is trying to live her life in the spaces that she feels safest, the world outside still threatens to intrude and invade the cocoon she set for herself.

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval)

MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female and non-binary filmmakers?

SANDOVAL: My advice would be take as much creative risk as you can, especially as you are making your first work, because you still have the freedom to do so. At the end of the day, with all of the festivals, and the industry, they are not necessarily looking for the most technically polished work, or the one with the highest production value, but they are all looking for talent. They are looking for a unique, distinctive, and singular voice. You should just go for it. 

Sonejuhi Sinha’s refreshingly raw thriller ‘Stray Dolls’ flips the American dream

The American clichés of “Bonnie and Clyde”, the “American Dream”, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, are mixed together in the refreshingly raw new movie, “Stray Dolls”. It focuses on three women who are outsiders living on the outside of the law: Riz (Geetanjali Thapa), a petty criminal and an immigrant from India; Dallas (Olivia DeJonge), a southern runaway teen; and Una (Cynthia Nixon), an immigrant from Eastern Europe. These three women represent the reflection of the broken edges of the American dream. The filmmaker is Sonejuhi Sinha, also an immigrant from India, came to the United States as a teenager. I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Sonejuhi, and loved that she’s telling the stories of female outsiders. The film is available on demand and streaming on various major platforms today (see below). Go check out the film and start a conversation with your friends about this American dream-flipping thriller.

Sonejuhi Sinha

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?

SONEJUHI SINHA: In 2015, I made a short-film called “Love Comes Later” which was about an immigrant who works for a motel, and decides to commit a petty crime to survive. It was a ten-minute short-film and it premiered at the Cannes film festival. That was when I started to think about what it would look like in a bigger feature. How would I build the world out to include more characters? What am I trying to say? So that’s where it began. Then I volunteered at the WPA (Women’s Prison Association), and really started to come across stories of women falling into a life of crime.

For a lot of them, that step isn’t conscious. They happen to fall into crime, either to survive or make enough money to buy food for their families, and suddenly they are labeled as criminals. Incarceration rates for women in prison has increased ten times in the last ten years. I found all of this really fascinating. I wanted to play in that space where I could really create a character as a woman of color who was also very flawed. I wanted the audience to watch the characters make choices that we didn’t necessarily agree with, but it would make us ask ourselves whether we would have made the same decisions in their shoes. This brings enough empathy to the character to involve us in her journey. 

“Stray Dolls”

MARTIN: Your female characters are fascinating. Great casting, especially Cynthia Nixon, whom I love. What’s interesting to me is that I have never seen women onscreen represented this way. Usually when you see women oncreen in motels they’re prostitutes, and just seen as such. You never really go deep into their story. Can you talk about what you were trying to bring to screen with these characters?

Cynthia Nixon as “Una”

SINHA: You touched on something really interesting, that women in motels are hyper sexualized and usually seen as prostitutes. I wanted to flip that with the female gaze to explore sexuality in a healthier way. Female characters as immigrants onscreen are put into small boxes. Either they are prostitutes, or they are barely surviving. We have this sense of pity for them, or they are complete criminals. I really wanted to explore what’s in the middle, and what the gray area is. That way, we can see the characters as completely human and full of these complexities.

Riz

Riz is an Indian immigrant character–she’s queer, and we get to really see what sexuality is to her. We subscribe to making Dallas really well-rounded. She is explosive and unpredictable, but she’s also a child, extremely vulnerable. She almost hides her vulnerability with this acerbic side. And of course Cynthia Nixon brought so much of her personal truth to her role as Una, and she did such an incredible job. Una is an interesting character because she is an immigrant who came to the US when she was four or five, so she has had more opportunities than an immigrant like Riz. But at the same time, she is the “Trumpian” figure, in a sense, since she thinks that, ‘If I pull myself up with my boot straps, why can’t you?’ And I’m going to exploit you like the Americans exploit us.

I wanted to create characters who were not good, and not bad, but somewhere in the middle. They were trying to make the best choices for their own destiny. 

Riz and Dallas

MARTIN: After reading your bio, your personal story is so unique–growing up in Northern India, then going to the Himalayas for boarding school. How did you bring your unique story to this film, as an immigrant yourself? 

SINHA: I grew up in India until I was 13, and moved to America. In fact my parents moved there before me, and left me in the Himalayas. They said, “We’ll go first. If we make it, then we’ll send for you.” Then a year later, they were like, “We’re going to make it in America, pack your life, and then we’ll meet you at JFK.” That was the longest trip I had taken by myself on a flight. And I flew to New York, and I think that was a turning point for me. Before that point, the idea of identity was really simple–I was Indian, and I lived in India. But then moving to the US, it suddenly made me realize the duality of it, it was just more complex. I was Indian, but also American, and I had an American passport. I still feel that I’m neither American nor am I Indian. And I feel like an outsider. So that aspect and that transition has filtered into my writing, from the beginning, and into everything I’ve written and directed. It seems to seep into everything I make.

But I want to make a story about outsiders. Riz is obviously an outsider, because she’s an Indian immigrant. But Dallas is also an outsider because of socioeconomic reasons. She’s a runaway from the south. And Una is an outsider and so is Jimmy [Robert Aramayo], really. I wanted to examine the circumstances for outsiders in America. Dallas and Riz find themselves on the seesaw, because they are equal–they are equal outsiders together. The film is personal, I feel. I’ve infused a lot of my feelings into it, but I also am trying to say something about outsiders in America now.

Dallas and Riz

MARTIN: You see in a lot of films, such as “Bonnie and Clyde”, the fantasy of thrill-seeking through a life of crime. But in this film it’s more like “Bonnie and Bonnie”, that idea of taking life into your own hands. Also interesting to me is the “Dolly Parton” part of the film. For example, how Dallas is so obsessed with her, quoting her, wearing a blonde wig, stuffing her bra. And the symbolism in the ending when Riz and Dallas both take off wearing blonde wigs. Could you talk about what you were trying to convey through this thrill-seeking life of crime, and how the idea of “Dolly Parton” played into that?

SINHA: It’s interesting that you picked up on Dolly Parton at the end, because there is some sort of satire throughout the film. It satirizes the American dream, and Dolly Parton, in a way, symbolizes that. She says, “If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain.” Dallas repeats that kind of like a robot in the film early on, but we realize by the end of it how flawed that statement really is, and how illusionary, even for someone like Dallas. Dallas is American, but if you’re socioeconomically disadvantaged, you are not going to get the rainbow. America holds up this kind of mirage, and Americans fall for it as well as immigrants. The film holds the mirror back to a narrative in America, represented here by Dolly Parton’s words, that is perhaps flawed and not true. 

MARTIN: That’s so fascinating. I’m a huge Dolly Parton fan.

SINHA: I’m a big fan too! 

MARTIN: What are your thoughts about being a female filmmaker in today’s industry, and do you have any advice for emerging female filmmakers?

SINHA: I do feel optimistic about how new narratives are breaking through now. I made “Stray Dolls” to challenge the way that we look at women, the way we look at women of color, the way we look at immigrants. And it was really important to me to create a film that started to explore new areas of conversation and provoke the audience to feel new aspects of the female experience, as well as new aspects of the women of color experience. I do think there are other voices like me who are challenging everything we’ve seen so far, and sort of breaking a new mold. And I’m seeing more and more of that. I recently saw “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”–

MARTIN: My favorite film of last year!

SINHA: It’s so exceptional. So beautiful. It’s films like those that come along and just give you so much hope for new exciting voices to come onscreen. 

And then for emerging female filmmakers I would just say trust your instincts. If you have an instinct for something you think is really interesting, I think most people are going to tell you it’s not. But it’s because they don’t find it interesting, it’s you who finds it interesting. I would just say if you keep on going back to something worth pursuing, it’s worth spending time doing. Even if you get a lot of no’s, or get rejected from funding or grants or labs, it’s worth continuing to push through. I think if you find it interesting, and you’re the only one who finds it interesting, I feel there’s something to be said for that. Those are the voices we need right now. 

“Stray Dolls” is streaming on iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, On Demand and Fandango. 

Filmmaker Patricia Vidal Delgado breaks through biases in “La Leyenda Negra”

“La Leyenda Negra” comes to HBO Latino and HBO Max on 12/4

I love all of the interviews I do, but this one was very special. In a way, the universe brought director Patricia Vidal Delgado and I together, or rather it was meant to be. I was roaming around Main Street in Park City during Sundance and I had a few hours to kill. I really wanted to see a film at the Egyptian Theatre, so I opened the convenient Sundance app on my phone and saw the film “‘La Leyenda Negra” was playing at the Egyptian Theatre in thirty minutes. This film was not on my radar, but reading the description intrigued me, and it also happened to be the work of a female filmmaker. I got my name on the waitlist and I was in.

“Little Chief” a brilliant short-film by Erica Tremblay opened, and was then followed by Patricia’s film, a black and white raw beauty. The basic plot centers on an undocumented teenage girl named Aleteia. The complexities and the richness of her story goes way beyond what we’ve typically seen before in this sort of narrative, and it touched me. I felt the love and the passion of the Latino Compton community, and wished that the people in our government, and those ignorant about TPS (Temporary Protected Status) would watch this film. Because if they saw what I saw, their hearts would shift and open up to change. I am glad I decided to see this film for so many reasons, but mostly because it is so important and relevant. A couple weeks after this screening, I had the opportunity to speak with Patricia about her film. Read further as we dive in.

*Inspired by the film, I’ve used a still from “Le Leyenda Negra” to be the face of our short-film festival, coming this August!

Patricia Vidal Delgado, director of La Leyenda Negra, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Isa Saalabi.

REBECCA MARTIN: What drew you to this film?

PATRICA VIDAL DELGADO: So I had already shot in Compton. I shot a short film [“The Hood” (2019)], and I had worked with an actor named Juan Reynoso. Apart from being an actor, he is a teacher at Compton High. He is the head of the Media and TV department. He knew that I had such a good time shooting in Compton, and loved spending time with the people there, hearing their stories. So he said to me, “why don’t you come one day to meet my kids, my students? Because they are interested in pursuing acting.” I met with them, and I fell in love with them. I loved the Latino community in Compton. They kind of go through what every American teenager goes through, but they also have immigration situations that make them feel that they are under attack. That was kind of where the theme for the film was planted.

MARTIN: How did you develop the main character, Aleteia [Monica Betancourt]? To me, I feel she is the heart of the film.  Could you talk more about the development of the character and the direction of the film?

Monica Betancourt appears in La Leyenda Negra by Patricia Vidal Delgado, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Matt Maio.

DELGADO: Her character was one of the first things that came to me. And you’re right, her character came first. Then the script branched off of the character. Despite the fact that she is very young, she’s an oddity amongst teenagers because she knows who she is, despite the fact that she is only seventeen going on nineteen. She is politically outspoken, she is very intelligent, very academically minded, and she’s also queer. But she isn’t afraid to be who she is, she doesn’t make any apologies for it. 

MARTIN: I love that, and that’s rare for a teenager. 

DELGADO: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I was definitely drawn to her. Had she acted before in film? I know that a lot of the cast hadn’t acted professionally before, had she acted professionally before your film?

DELGADO: No, she was a first timer. 

MARTIN: Wow, she’s already a star in my book. 

DELGADO: She’d be very happy to hear that. 

MARTIN: What was the intention for making the film black and white?

DELGADO: The idea for the black and white film is referenced in history, and it mentions colonialism, persecution, intolerance, and indifference. It essentially asks the question about tradition or change. So the idea to shoot in black and white to me, for me as a European, stemmed from that French idiom, “plus ça change”, and also after a discussion I had with my DP. We wanted the film in black and white to highlight the clarity of choices early characters were forced to make, potentially the determinant for immigrants in the United States. 

MARTIN: What I love about the rebellious side of Aleteia is that she likes to light things on fire, which I feel symbolizes the quiet rage that is going on in this country. When things are taken away from her because she is an immigrant, she lights up the very institution that is a part of the problem. Can you comment on those choices in the script and story?

Monica Betancourt appears in La Leyenda Negra by Patricia Vidal Delgado, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Matt Maio.

DELGADO: Absolutely, that was the symbolism I was trying to get across. Some audience members [at Sundance] were commenting about how she did something violent, something really wrong–

MARTIN: Yeah, I was there for that. I was like, ‘That guy didn’t get it.’ No disrespect, but I just don’t think he got it. But I definitely got it. 

DELGADO: I’m glad. Because that’s the thing, immigrants are people, and especially teenagers, they have a right to make mistakes, you know? They shouldn’t be held to different standards as a person. I think it’s unfair to demand that an immigrant should be perfect to have the right to call the country they’ve always lived in their home. 

MARTIN: Agreed, I understand the rage, and yes she’s a teenager, emotions are always so much stronger at that age. Especially with romantic relationships, like with Rosarito. It feels like the end of the world when you get rejected, and when friends stop talking to you. Everything is just so harsh and intense. For me in the context of the story, and her being a teenager, and dealing with all of these new emotions, it totally made sense. 

I appreciate that you take us to different places and different events. Especially that scene when Aleteia and Rosarito go to the quinceanera, and they are heading there on the skateboard. I love that you took us on their journey, throughout that whole day. What were you trying to illustrate by bringing us into this Latino community in Compton?

Monica Betancourt and Kailei Lopez appear in La Leyenda Negra by Patricia Vidal Delgado, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Matt Maio.

DELGADO: I was trying to make it organic to the story, and elevate their story, because Aleteia starts the film a little bit lonely. She’s an outsider, she’s new at the school, and she doesn’t really have any friends. It’s like Rosarito was extending that hand to her and bringing her into the Compton Latino community, which I have to say is so welcoming, and so warm, and embracing. I felt that was significant to show that in the film, because that was something I personally experienced too as an outsider, how warm and welcoming the Compton Latino community can be. 

MARTIN: Where did you grow up and what brought you to Los Angeles?

DELGADO: I grew up in Portugal, that’s where I’m from. I started making shorts in Portugal, and I realized if I really wanted to have a career as a director, I was better off leaving to the United States. The Portugal film industry is still very small, and there is still a lot of resistance against female filmmakers, especially young ones. 

MARTIN: I’m glad you came here, it is better here, or at least it’s getting better, but we still have a long way to go.

There is a power to cinema, especially when it introduces us to a group of people who are marginalized, and there is a bias against. When you bring us into a community, and you see that it’s full of love and embrace, that changes things. What do you hope the viewer takes from this film?

Monica Betancourt and Kailei Lopez appear in La Leyenda Negra by Patricia Vidal Delgado, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Matt Maio.

DELGADO: My hope is that people who have not come across a film like this before, they will watch the film, and they’ll come out knowing a little bit more about TPS [Temporary Protected Status], and what’s happening to TPS holders today in the United States. Also notice there are immigrants like Aleteia who are very bright academically, and it is not fair that this is happening. Not fair that this is happening to someone so young, and so vulnerable. Maybe from there they can do their own research, and it will encourage discussion, and maybe people will vote differently.

MARTIN: Now I wanted to transition to a different scene, in contrast to the scene of the quinceanera, was the night in the gym, with the salsa dancing. Everything seemed a bit awkward, less of a flow, a little more stifled. That’s when you see things start to unravel. What was the atmosphere you were trying to elevate with that scene?

Irlanda Moreno and Dana Hathaitham appear in La Leyenda Negra by Patricia Vidal Delgado, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Matt Maio.

DELGADO: Well salsa is a dance that is male led, like all Latino dances. There is a dance, a tension between the leader and the follower. So for me, it was a set up for Rosarito and Monica to dance together.   

MARTIN: The actress [Irlanda Moreno] who played Monica, is such a personality. 

DELGADO: Yes. She kept having to tell people, “I’m not actually that mean in real life.” [laughing]

So that set-up was meant to have them be forced to dance together, while not talking to each other. So Monica was like, “I’m the boss, and you are my underling.” And Rosarito is starting to challenge Monica by saying, “I don’t want to be your underling anymore.” So that was kind of what it was about.

MARTIN: Can you share with me more about your Sundance experience. I saw that you brought the whole cast. What an amazing moment for all of them. 

The cast and crew attend the World Premiere of La Leyenda Negra by Patricia Vidal Delgado, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. © 2020 Sundance Institute | photo by Becca Haydu.

DELGADO: I mean it was amazing. It’s a life-changing experience because me and my team were plucked from obscurity. We never in a thousand years would have thought this would happen. I thought when I got called by the programmer that I was hallucinating. I didn’t think it was actually real. I had to wait until more emails came in until I was like OK maybe this is happening.

MARTIN: It’s happening, for sure. And so happy it is for you.

DELGADO: I think the best part–I remember one lady who came up after the premiere and saying “you know, I picked your film randomly, I didn’t even read the synopsis, and I was blown away. My heart breaks for these kids, and I want to learn what I can do as an American. What can I do to help to prevent this from happening to these kids?” And that’s what you make films for, to kind of galvanize people, and make them think, “If I can do something, I want to do it.”

MARTIN: Where is the film headed?

DELGADO: We do have a couple of festivals around the world lined up. We have a sales agent, so we are currently in talks for distribution.

MARTIN: That’s great news! Anything else you’d like to share about the film?

Poster image of La Leyenda Negra by Patricia Vidal Delgado, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

DELGADO: I could share more about the title of the film. This was a question that kept coming up in the Q&A. “Le Leynda Negra” refers to the demonization of Spanish settlers by protestant settlers. It essentially reflects a historical bias. Aleteia challenges the bias in her fight for truth, and that is what leads to her involvement in the underground political organization “The Compton Black Book”.

MARTIN: Did you have any advice or encouragement for emerging female filmmakers?

DELGADO: I think my biggest piece of advice is to make the film that you want to make. Not the film that your parents want you to make, or your friends want you to make, or your teachers want you to make–think what films there are that you personally want to make. I think a lot of filmmakers get hung up on “oh we don’t have funding, or we don’t have this, or this.” There is truth in making the film you want to make with the resources you have at your disposal, because you have freedom. You have freedom to write the story that you want to write, direct the way you want to direct. I would just encourage female filmmakers to be fearless, and to not make any excuses, and to not be afraid to make mistakes, because actually mistakes make you a better filmmaker in the long run.