Memory and Film: A Conversation with DIY Filmmaker Caitlin Díaz
At 29, Caitlin Diaz has had the privilege of working with world-renowned clients as a colorist, archivist, and filmmaker, amassing an impressive body of work that shows her nuance and passion for working behind the camera. She currently lives in Los Angeles, working freelance on various projects from her home studio, but her heart is and has always been rooted in the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas. As her "source of inspiration and security," Caitlin recently undertook her most arduous and personal project yet: an independently produced and financed feature film based in RGV about women and transformation. In our interview below, we trace Caitlin's deep connection to her hometown, her experience as a woman of color in the film industry, and the power of DIY culture.
Mia Rodriguez: You’ve said that your work “explores the state that is commonly and absurdly called existence.” What does it mean to you to exist in the modern world as a Latinx?
Caitlin Diaz: Existing in this world is very layered and I try to retain as many experiences as possible, good and bad. Being a Mexican-American woman from South Texas plays a huge role in my life and how I perceive the world around me. Living authentically is always my goal--being resilient, sincere and compassionate all at the same time. It’s a difficult balance, especially as a woman of color, but (in my opinion) necessary to strive towards.
MR: As a colorist and archivist, a lot of your work is intrinsically nostalgic. What are your earliest memories of film, color, and capturing memories? Was it a hobby that developed into something more?
CD: Nostalgia definitely is the spark when conceptualizing a new project. All of my films pull from the past to help me understand the person I am at the current moment. We’re constantly in flux. Memories help bind the chaotic nature of my evolution as something constant, something I can always go back to. I’ve always been interested in knowing more about my family history, cherishing the stories that my grandparents, parents, tías and tíos share with me. So I hoard old family photos, record the stories and digitize any and all home movies. I’m obsessed with the past: the idea of what was once there and now isn’t, how things (and people) have changed. It continues to fascinate me.
MR: Your work ethic and aesthetic eye have allowed you to work with big clients such as The Estate of Ana Mendieta, Calvin Klein, Swarovski and artists like Nick Jonas, Enrique Iglesias and Beyoncé. What was it like the first time you saw your work shared with the world in such a big way? What did working with these brands and artists teach you?
CD: My work ethic is a direct correlation to me being a woman of color (morena) in an industry dominated by white males. I’ve always felt that I had to prove I belonged, that I was capable. I'm not afraid to ask for help if I need it. I think it's important to know and accept your limits. Many times I've been thrown into a project with no prior knowledge, so I must ask questions in order to do my job properly. I love learning and hate when things get too routine.
When I began working in LA, I was exposed to a lot of new workflows and machinery. I learned so much from my colleagues and developed really great relationships and valuable skills. My favorite job quickly became film restorations—every step in the process requires an incredible amount of attention to detail. It’s a match made in heaven because I’ve always been attracted to methodical processes. The most rewarding aspect of working on a digital restoration like the Estate of Ana Mendieta or Belladonna of Sadness is knowing that you’re a part of something larger: preserving the material for future generations to enjoy.
All these projects have taught me to approach my work with a more exacting eye. Currently, I work out of my home studio as a freelance film colorist and editor, so organization is always my top priority. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned from working on big projects is to not allow stress or frustration to take over. Sometimes when things go awry (hard drives failing) or you’re up against a tight deadline, it’s easy to get caught up the chaos. But when you step back and take a look at the issue from afar, you realize the pettiness of worrying and you’re usually able to find a way to solve the problem.
MR: Recently, you’ve entered into the post production stage of your first feature film, Puras Ilusiones, which takes place in a fictional town in South Texas, part of the Rio Grande Valley where you grew up. A favorite critical theorist of mine is Nancy Duncan who co-wrote a book called “Landscapes of Privilege,” in which she describes the connection between identity and place, landscape and memory. She says that “landscapes are integral to our identities,” describes them as “emblems of our individual and collective memories,” and that “threats to the landscape are often interpreted as threats to identity.” What are your thoughts on the landscape of the Rio Grande Valley? What does it represent to you? What memories of yours and your family dwell there?
CD: The RGV will represent my core being para siempre. The geographical and social landscape of the area is what drives me to explore this connection. I love the history of the area, the people who inhabit it, the culture and its close proximity to/relationship with Mexico. At the moment, 45’s border wall and industrialization of the untouched coastline (LNG export terminals) are two major concerns residents of the area have. The Valley is constantly referred to as one of the poorest regions of the US and, being so close to the Mexico border, one of the most dangerous areas of the country. There is more to the Valley than the negativities the press focus on. Memories from my childhood are pleasant: riding bikes on unpaved streets, day trips to Camargo or Migel Aleman with the family, pumpkin empanadas, raspas and breakfast tacos, thrifting at the Ropa Usada (10 cents a pound!), palm trees, mesquite trees and chachalacas…I can go on forever. It’s a beautiful area that is constantly overlooked and under-represented in the media. The Rio Grande Valley holds a lot of weight in the conversation about race, immigration, gender inequality, income inequality, reproductive rights, LGBTQ issues and countless others. It’s important we share these experiences and stories with the rest of the world.
MR: Following that train of thought, how much of Puras Ilusiones is based on your own experience growing up there? What makes you want to revisit and immortalize RGV now as an adult?
CD: Ironically, it was after I moved away from Texas when my interest in the RGV began to influence my work. I wrote Puras Ilusiones on and off for about 5 years. I pulled inspiration from memories I had and stories I invented based off old family photos. Both my grandmothers have wonderful stories from their lives. Nostalgia is always fun to explore. The land became a character and I kept daydreaming of desert ranches. I knew that whenever I decided to make the film, it would be shot on my family’s ranch in the RGV. So memories and historical events became the constant musings during the writing process. Last year in the midst of #NoDAPL, I read an article about a similar situation happening in the RGV. At the same time, it was the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Melon Strike—an event that sparked the United Farmworkers movement in Texas. The film evolved into a type of research project and a way for me to capture the beauty of the area.
MR: The plot of Puras Ilusiones is about female self-discovery, but it also tells the story of the grassroots campaigns, history of the land, and social justice activism you've mentioned is happening in the RGV region. Art and activism continue to be at the forefront of a lot of social change we see and have been seeing for decades. Personally, how do you see art and activism influencing each other, working together, to fight for justice? Do you believe art can be activism?
CD: Art and activism most definitely go hand in hand. The night of the 2016 election, I was extremely emotional, scared for what the future held and saddened by the possibility that I would never be able to make this film. The next day [my friend] Lauren texted me, ‘Girl, we HAVE to make your movie now.’ And that’s what lit a fire under my ass to get this production rolling. I realized this was my way of resisting the new administration, of addressing issues regarding gender, race and class through cinema, of disproving stereotypes. It gave me purpose and helped me harness pent-up energy. Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by the news and social media, feeling like we always must have an opinion on every issue. A big part of activism is listening to others. Making this film was my way of meeting other people in the RGV who were resisting and hearing their stories. It was a way for me to give back to the community that shaped me into who I am today. The film became a tangible way for me to fight back.
MR: As your first personal, narrative film project, what has it been like directing and guiding your cast? Did you work organically off of their energy and chemistry or was there a set script and storyline? What have you learned from working with veterans and newcomers alike?
CD: I’m used to making films in a pretty isolated way. My previous work is all paint on film, so my process was working alone in my studio painting, splicing, editing, coloring. I love documenting objects/places in life and cutting them together to express a feeling or memory. Puras Ilusiones was a huge departure from how I had previously made films, so I approached it as a large-scale collaboration. I worked with trained actors and non-actors resulting in a range of experiences. Individual activists and organizations such as Save RGV From LNG and La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) also joined the cast and crew, which allowed us to showcase the work they are currently doing in the Valley. Resistance in the area is strong and it deserves to be talked about.
My crew and cast were completely invested in the project and it really showed. It was a wonderful experience to work with people who share a passion for what they're doing. There isn’t much dialogue in the script, so I encouraged my actors to improvise and inject a lot of their own experiences into the characters. There were only 10 of us on crew and we had a ton of gear to lug around. It was a grassroots, DIY production which meant we were constantly problem-solving. But it made the feeling of accomplishment stronger at the end of each day. We were also shooting all 16mm, which was a first for a lot of my crew. Our budget was extremely tight so we had to wait until we wrapped production to send all the film to be processed and transferred. My DP Lauren Pruitt and I were on edge for weeks until the footage arrived in LA. It looked so beautiful, I think we both cried a little out of relief. The biggest takeaway from production was the importance of enthusiasm on set. It was important to me that anyone involved was having a good time and never bored. It was wonderful to have such a lively crew and cast, especially since we had to work in the harsh Texas heat during many outdoor shoots. It also reaffirmed my belief in DIY filmmaking--not needing permission from anyone to make a film, not letting it become an elite art form. It can be done, but it’s a huge undertaking to see it through.
MR: We've seen in recent years a huge resurgence of DIY ethics in film, print, art, and online media; people really going back to their roots and creating things locally as self-taught artists. You're a huge believer of DIY culture and your volume and quality of work are proof that sometimes, you really do have to do it yourself. Can you tell us more about how DIY culture drives or inspires you? As an artist of color, have you found freedom through DIY?
CD: DIY culture became a very important part of my life in my formative years. Throughout high school, my friends and I would put on shows, mostly bands we had formed, in various places around the Valley like the local VFW or after-hours in the parking lot of a hardware store. Similarly, my sister and I would spend our weekends thrifting across the Valley, bring our haul home, cut it up and sew it into something new. We created the clothes we wanted to wear, the music we wanted to hear, the art we wanted to experience. There was a lot of that happening in the Valley while I was growing up; it came as a very natural way for us to express ourselves on our own terms.
The passion to create without hesitation stayed with me as a moved further and further away from the Valley. It’s pushed me to experiment with film. DIY culture forces you to stop making excuses. And in filmmaking, there can be hundreds of reasons why you feel you can’t make a film. DIY allows you to have control of what you are creating and to realize that there is never a wrong way to execute your ideas. Punk is the essence of DIY—complete, unapologetic self-expression. DIY filmmaking gives you the freedom to share your point of view because you don’t have to answer to anyone else.
MR: When can we expect to see the finished work and where would you like to premiere it?
CD: Puras Ilusiones is currently in post, which is probably my favorite part of the process. I’m editing whenever I have downtime between freelance work. My goal is to have it completed by late Summer/Fall 2018. I’d like to do a traveling screening throughout the RGV, specifically in the towns we filmed. I’m excited to share the film with the people who helped me make it and with the community that inspired it. Eventually, I'd love to have a 35mm film print made and screen the film on a larger scale so others can experience the beauty of the Rio Grande Valley.
MR: What does the future hold for you? Are there any other projects you’re currently working on or plan to start once Puras Ilusiones is released?
CD: My current goal is working with more female & female-identifying filmmakers, especially those who are trying to make their own stories come to life. It’s necessary to surround myself with others who are creating. I’m enjoying the editing process and taking my time with it because I hate rushing or forcing creativity. When I have ideas, I write them down. It’s hard to commit to a new project with the current one being in such a crucial state. But I definitely look forward to finishing the film and starting work on the next one.
Puras Ilusiones is a self-funded, independent film. Caitlin is editing & coloring the film herself but will be working with others on music, sound design, visual effects, subtitling and additional film transfers. If you'd like to help with the costs of post, please donate to the film's PayPal here
To see more of Caitlin's work, visit her website