Here’s how you make a no-budget narrative feature film:
Spend a year writing and rewriting a screenplay. About 100 pages or so. Don’t pay yourself. Organize about 30 friends to show up at 6 AM to work ten hour days. Persuade them to do this for free. Next, convince total strangers to let these 30 or so friends into their home or place of business to use their living room as a movie set. Again, for free.
Repeat every day for two or three weeks. It’s a wrap. Congratulations, you are now 1/3 of the way done. You now have to edit the film, prevail upon musician friends to donate songs for the soundtrack, for free, and dodge creditors.
Did I mention? It’s the mid 1970s. There is no such thing as HD video. No Final Cut Pro. No websites with handy low-budget production tips. Instead, dozens of rolls of 16mm film have to be shipped to a lab hundreds of miles away for processing. If that living room scene comes out too dark (or not exposed at all), too bad, you cannot afford to reshoot. There is no Fed Ex. No Sundance premiere as mythic goal justifying it all. No cell phones to wake oversleeping actors.
Imagine making this feature length film with no training, no PBS grants, and no rich uncles. Indie role models to emulate don’t exist yet: Spike Lee is still in Junior High; Jim Jarmusch not yet in film school; Slacker, and the so-called birth of the American independent film movement, still 15 years off. You have no choice but to invent DIY cinema as you stumble along.
All you know for certain, from the very beginning of your long strange trip, is this simple fact: At the end of the day, at the end of your struggles, Hollywood will not buy your movie. It will not screen in mainstream theaters. It will never play on TV. You are Chicano. They are not interested in your life. You live in the West Side of San Antonio. Your subject matter is the inner-city community around you.
This simple fact does not deter you.
To get fellow raza to see your film -- and they will, by the thousands -- you will have to pack your single, precious movie print, all that you could afford, into the trunk of your car and drive the countless miles from Texas to California, renting theaters along the way, charging tickets at the door. You eke out a profit. You are exhausted. Your personal life in shambles.
You do this again. Three times in five years.
Welcome to the world of independent filmmaker Efrain Gutierrez.
But as with most quixotic efforts, the struggle to keep making his movies eventually took their toll on Gutierrez. After making his last movie in 1979, the then-disillusioned filmmaker disappeared for almost two decades. His films, largely forgotten. The scarce prints scattered about, deteriorating, lost.
Then, bit by bit, article by article, a new generation of writers and academics became aware of Gutierrez and his work. Gregg Barrios’ important essay “A Cinema of Failure, A Cinema of Hunger,” a short two-page analysis compiled in one of the few books published on Chicano cinema, in particular kept the Gutierrez legend alive. Among those eventually recognizing the filmmaker’s work was the restoration program run by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Gutierrez’s barrio trilogy was soon chosen by the prestigious program for film restoration.
The UCLA Archive is world-renowned for recognizing and saving important works from throughout the history of cinema. These include silent-era classics, movies by Fritz Lange, John Cassavettes, as well as other celebrated filmmakers. Now joining that illustrious pantheon are the narrative feature films made by Efrain Gutierrez.
And what a delightfully subversive inclusion it is: alongside images, say, from elegant Hollywood musicals of glitzy showgirls and Fred Astaire dance routines, now stand Gutierrez’s bleak shots of Chicano murals in the Alazan-Apache courts. Of junkies shooting up. Of Steve Jordan and his conjunto band. Of cumbias and beer cans and shouts of “Orale!.” Of sagging chain link fences on Chupaderas street. Of Mexican American life, both noble and tragic.
But first the lost films had to be found.
Some turned up in closets. Others in long forgotten storage rooms. After their discovery, each print’s individual quality had to be established. Some were in better shape than others. The restoration experts then copied, re-colored, re-printed and pieced together a movie from the various parts. The first Gutierrez film to receive the treatment was Please Don’t Bury Me Alive, next was his second film Amor Chicano es para siempre, and now, newly restored for its Texas premiere at CineFestival, the last of his films, Run Tecato Run, a story about a Chicano heroin addict trying to go straight. But in typical Gutierrez fashion, the addict is a discharged Vietnam veteran, haunted by the killings he had to do in the war, who picked up the drug habit while serving his country.
Probably the most technically accomplished of the three films, Run, Tecato, Run is set in the urban landscape of the San Antonio West Side, as well scenes in Corpus Christi, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and an especially fascinating sequence involving lowriders in Fresno, California.
In this project, the self-taught filmmaker was just beginning to master his craft, yet still maintaining his distinctive cinematic voice. Gutierrez was never afraid to let his camera linger on the world around him. With an almost documentary like scrutiny we see glimpses of real cantinas, the dilemmas of day-to-day working class Mexican American life, the clothes, the styles, and of course the power of the Brown faces. Dozens of them. Young, old, well-off, some, not so much. Over thirty yeas later the authenticity of these raw and poetic details communicates a specificity of a South Texas Chicano culture never seen anywhere else.
So how do you make a low-budget narrative feature film? A statement that will endure over three decades later? Easy. Record the truth. Gutierrez did. And even as mainstream U.S. critics have yet to acknowledge the trilogy of films, American independent cinema is far richer for the work.