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CHAVELA Film looks at chanteuse and sexual outlaw Chavela Vargas
by Sari Staver
2017-10-11

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There is a stunning new documentary about the life and times of iconic chanteuse and sexual outlaw Chavela Vargas.

Vargas, who died in 2014 at age 93, was a darling of Mexico City's bohemian club scene in the 1950s, when she challenged mainstream Mexican morals by dressing in men's clothing while she sang songs intended for men to woo women, refusing to change the pronouns. The tequila-drinking, cigar-smoking rabble-rouser sang at Elizabeth Taylor's marriage to Mike Todd ( and ran off with Ava Gardner ), and lived with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera for more than a year.

The new documentary tells Vargas' life story, an amazing journey from a 14-year-old rejected runaway from Costa Rica to a world-renowned, Grammy-winning Mexican icon. With Catherine ( "Cat" ) Gund and Daresha Kyi as co-directors, Chavela has taken the world by storm following its premiere at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival, where it was awarded the second-place audience award. After its busy film festival tour, the film has gone or will go into commercial release in the United States, with fall screenings in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. It has also been sold to television and film distributors in dozens of cities worldwide. [Editor's note: The movie, in July, won the Audience and Grand Jury prizes for Best Documentary Feature at Los Angeles' Outfest.]

In a telephone interview with the Bay Area Reporter ( BAR ), Gund said she was "thrilled and excited" to be presenting at the Castro Theatre during the then-upcoming San Francisco LGBT film festival. Gund, who identifies as queer, has another documentary, Dispatches from Cleveland, screening during Frameline. That documentary tells the story of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by gunfire by police but was blamed for his own death by local prosecutors. "Dispatches" is a docuseries, with five chapters showcasing how intersecting social-justice movements are empowering marginalized groups, including those within the transgender community.

"Yes, I've been very busy," said Gund, who had two children graduating from high school on the evening of the BAR interview in early June. A New Yorker who began her film career making videos of ACT-UP in the 1980s. Gund went on to make a number of award-winning documentaries. Her work gained national attention after her film "Born to Fly" was nominated for an Emmy after screening on PBS' Independent Lens series.

Kyi, a freelance film and television director and producer currently living in Atlanta, has made films such as"Most Daring ( 2007 ) and La Voz Kids ( 2013 ). Kyi also produced Gund's film Dispatches from Cleveland. The co-directors met and became friends decades ago, agreeing that someday they "should make a film together," said Gund. That day came two years ago, when Kyi got involved with this film—first as a producer, then as co-director.

Work on the film began in 1992, when Gund spent the winter just south of Mexico City and first heard Vargas' music on her friends' record players. "And, of course, I heard all the stories about her womanizing and her irresistible allure," said Gund.

Gund's friends arranged a meeting with Vargas, who agreed to be taped. "I immediately became obsessed" with Vargas' ability to draw people in, Gund said. But when Gund went home to New York, she got busy with other projects and put the tapes away. When Vargas died three years ago, Gund unearthed her tapes, "a veritable gold mine of footage," she said. "I knew I had something rich and unique."

Realizing she had what might be the beginnings of a new project, Gund showed her friend Kyi a section of the footage. "She was mesmerized," said Gund. The two spent the next two years finding footage of interviews and concerts, as well as doing their own interviews with people who had known Vargas. With grants from wide-ranging sources, the two were able to complete the film on a "half-million-dollar budget," which Gund says is typical of documentaries of this type.

Already an established filmmaker with enough awards to fill several walls, Gund said she is nevertheless thrilled with the reception her new film is receiving. "It's been unanimously positive," she said. "We've had great luck selling it overseas. Europe, Central and South America, pretty much everywhere. We knew Chavela had a gigantic and enthusiastic audience in Mexico, and we were thrilled to learn that she resonates everywhere people see the film and hear her music."

There will be a special preview screening of Chavela ( with co-director Catherine Gund in attendance for a post-film Q&A ) on Tuesday, Oct. 17, at Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. The film officially opens Friday, Oct. 20. See MusicBoxTheatre.com .


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