Through its lyrical structure Chavela takes viewers on an evocative, thought-provoking journey through the life of iconoclastic, game-changing artist Chavela Vargas. Chavela’s relaxed, conversational tone as she chats with a group of young lesbian admirers in footage Catherine shot in 1991 offers viewers a rare, intimate look at this iconic singer at a pivotal time in her journey. Having just returned to the stage after 12 hard years lost to alcoholism, and a painful breakup with the love of her life, the interview occurs just before she heads to Spain where she’ll rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Strong, funny, and vitally alive, she was in her prime at 71. This unique interview serves as the spine running throughout Chavela, which explores her fascinating life from her birth in Costa Rica to her everlasting presence on earth in the form of passionate love songs and deep relationships that people will never forget.
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For a few magical months, I found myself living and loving just south of Mexico City in the warm winter of 1992. My girlfriends played me Chavela’s songs on record players and told me tales of her womanizing, her irresistible allure, her deep voice, her audacity. She moved all who met her. I had to meet her. Before cell phones put a camera in everyone’s pocket, I carried a video camera in my backpack everywhere I went. I begged my friends to help me create a face-to-face moment with Chavela. I wanted to ask her some questions in my broken Spanish, make her laugh her gorgeous laugh, feel her magnetism, hear her raspy tones, and squirm at the power of her promise. I asked her if I could videotape our conversation. She agreed and she did not disappoint. It is no wonder she is called The Rough Voice of Tenderness. I became obsessed with her ability to draw people in. I was fascinated by her lightness and ease, her masculinity. And with her song. But I came home and put those master tapes away. A decade later, I clamored to be among her fans smiling ,with eyes closed, dreaming when she performed at Carnegie Hall. Then, among friends who treasured her, I mourned when she passed away three years ago at the age of 93. Finally, last spring, I decided to unearth my archival footage to see what I had captured all those years ago and there in her full glory was Chavela – relaxed, confident, and poetic in her raw honesty. It was a veritable gold mine of footage. For me, Chavela’s life is not a cautionary tale, but rather, a rich subterranean dimension of our own living. She is not a role model, but a muse. Not only an elder, but a frame for our contemporary desires. My friend Daresha and I had always wanted to make a film together, so I showed her a small section of what I’d shot. She was mesmerized. Before she even knew who Chavela was, and all that she had accomplished, Daresha fell in love with her too and committed to help me produce and direct the film. It was a seamless, easy, even joyful and natural transition. We want to share our passion and discovery with others. Chavela is emerging from our collaborative revelation, investigation, desperation to hold onto the familiar yet inimitable magic of Chavela. The importance of this work lies in its ability to strike a powerful chord in all who see it, to make viewers recall their places of deepest passion and yearning, and to feel that love is a productive, if abstract, land in which to live.
In 1993 while working as an Associate Producer on ITVS’ multi-genre four part series, Positive: Life with HIV, I met this smart, funny, sexy beast commonly known as Catherine Gund and immediately recognized her as kindred. She felt like family from the very start. Political, passionate, and deeply in love with life and human beings with all our fabulousness and flaws, she knew the power of media to change hearts and minds and was actively wielding it as a catalyst for change. I deeply admired her activist spirit and herbelief in possibilities. Flash forward twenty-odd years later, through multiple milestones including births, deaths, break-ups, a marriage (and divorce), and more projects than we can count, Cat and I have sometimes drifted but never disconnected – always circling back to pick up right where we last laughed. I have watched in admiration as she founded her production company, Aubin Pictures, to build a body of interesting, challenging and enlightening films, all while raising a family of four bright, bold, and beautiful people. A whirling dervish in perpetual, graceful motion, it’s hard not to be mesmerized and moved by Cat’s dance of life. So, imagine my excitement when she invited me to join the dance with these simple words, “We should make a movie together.” I didn’t even know I’d wanted to do it until she said it, but once spoken, the words became a mantra. “We definitely should make a movie together!” And off we went in search of a subject that would burn bright enough that we’d be willing to tend the fire for however long it took to get the job done. When she first told me about the footage she’d just digitized that had been in storage for over 20 years, she tried to explain who Chavela was by singing like her. I was not convinced. We laughed and decided to sit down and screen it together – and that moment changed the course of our joint history. As soon as I saw Chavela, I was intrigued. She wasn’t even singing, just sitting around talking to some friends but I had that visceral, gut reaction where you just know. Even though I still didn’t know any of the details of Chavela’s powerful story, I recognized her too, as kindred. And I knew hers was a story worthy of my time, energy, fire, desire, and oh, so much love.