Rebel explores the secret life of Cuban Immigrant who fought in the American Civil War, shattering the gender and ethnic boundaries of her time.
By Elia Esparza
On Friday, May 24th at 10PM (EST/PST), PBS/VOCES will premiere Rebel, the riveting new film written and directed by María Agui Carter.
Who knew that a Cubanita teenager was fighting in battle 150 years ago in the American Civil War?
Filmmaker Agui Carter found this historical nugget just too intriguing to pass up and set out to make a documentary. What she ended up with is a powerful film about the life of Loreta Janeta Velasquez, a Cuban immigrant from New Orleans who became one of an estimated 1000 women who secretly served as soldiers during this war period. Who was she? Why did she fight? Watch the film! It is an absolutely fascinating story and beautiful film.
Latinos only represent 2% of the directors working on TV and film, less than 1% of the writers, and 4-6% of actors in media today.
We caught up with the extraordinary woman who wrote, directed, and co-produced Rebel to ask her about the film, and about being a Latina working toe-to-toe in a mostly white, male-dominated profession called filmmaking.
Latin Heat: How did you discover Loreta Janeta Velazquez? How excited were you?
María Agui Carter: A Cuban woman fighting and spying in the American Civil War? That is the stuff of legend. I was excited to find that she had written a memoir, so we could hear an American Latina’s viewpoint across the centuries. Noone had heard of her outside of Civil War circles and I immediately knew that this rebel teenager who shattered the gender and ethnic boundaries of her time would appeal to our modern sensibilities.
LH: Before Loreta, were you interested in the American Civil War?
MAC: War is about people sacrificing their sons and fathers for a cause. War is about nation building. It’s been seen as the province of men – but of course women suffer its consequences as deeply. I was not a Civil War buff per se, but I was deeply aware that American democracy was built on the blood sacrifice of millions lost in the American Civil War. It is arguably our most pivotal event of American history. And the Civil War was not just the province of men – women were part of this war effort in every way, not just knitting socks, but as spies gathering intelligence for both armies, as nurses, even as soldiers in combat – over a thousand women are estimated to have fought for both sides disguised as men! The Civil War has been seen as a black/white event, but there were 10,000 Mexicans who fought in that war, entire groups of Spanish speaking recruits, and Spanish surnamed soldiers from Louisiana to Vermont signed up to fight on both sides.
LH: Has the process of discovering Loreta and filming this project changed you as a woman? As a filmmaker?
MAC: I began this film a documentarian. I had never imagined I would take on a period historical film with actors, 19th century sets, massive battle scenes. But Loreta’s memoir is one of only two books published by a Latina in the 19th century and her voice was so radical for the times. I thought I would find archival imagery of the large Cuban and Spanish community she was part of in 19th Century New Orleans and I found plenty of letters, newspapers and documents, but few photos. In fact, I ended up with only one photo of Loreta, and that one was not even authenticated, so I had to find another way to bring her story to life. I had spent a year reading and speaking to historians as a fellow at Harvard University’s History Department, then had the opportunity to live in New Orleans for a year as a Rockefeller fellow, combing through the city archives, walking the streets, listening to the music and mingling with the people of the city. At the end of the year I could imagine the smells and sounds and soul of that city in the 19th century so the dramatic scenes of her life came to me so vividly from my research.
LH: I read that you had an opportunity to screen Rebel back in 2011 to an event hosted by the White House and the U.S. Dept. of Interior. Do you think screening to U.S. president and other diplomats helped strengthen the focus of Latinos?
MAC: President Obama is greeted like a rock star, and I was so excited to be invited to share Rebel with him and the many illustrious civic and cultural leaders that day. I have to credit Ken Salazar the recent Secretary of the Interior for creating the American Latino Heritage Initative that brought us all together. I got a call from the National Park Service, which is one of the Departments of the Interior, and they wanted to talk to me about being an outreach partner with Rebel, which was in production and still seeking final funding at the time. It was so exciting to be the “artist/filmmaker” chosen to present at this White House event. But there are so many more stories for us to tell and so many incredible fellow Latino filmmakers today that it will be our collective work that will help transform America’s understanding of who we are.
LH: Did you always want to be a filmmaker? Where are you from? Your most admired film director?
MAC: I never even had a television until I came to this country from my native Ecuador when I was seven years old. I saw my first theatrical film when I was 11 years old. But I have always been an artist – as a child I drew incessantly, and I taught myself English by devouring entire sections at the Jefferson Market Library in the NY Greenwich Village neighborhood my mother brought us to. I learned the language of cinema by watching the “Late,” then the “Late Late,” then the “Late, Late, Late” movie on TV during schooldays way before I did cinema studies at college. And this magical world still transports me every time. It is a priviledge to be able to tell stories cinematically. I love so many kinds of films – from Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, to Jane Campion’s An Angel At My Table to Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil to Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby – the list is endless.
LH: To up-and-coming Latina filmmakers, what advise can you give them to keep them inspired, focused and stay strong above the fray of raising funds, attracting investors, grants, etc.?
MAC: Film is like fine wine – it takes some time to get it right, so don’t despair and don’t rush it. Choose carefully. Your time is precious – so work on stories that are authentic and meaningful. A good film is made by teams – find the best collaborators and let them make your work better. Nurture your fellow filmmakers – pitch in for their projects, find your people and always be generous along the way. There will be dark times when everyone around you says it can’t be done – it is the community around you that will get you through the dark times.
LH: What is next for you?
MAC: I’ve been writing a quirky coming-of-age feature about attending one of the most elite boarding high schools in the nation on a scholarship while secretly being undocumented, loosely based on my personal experience, for years and I hope to finish the script this coming year. And I’ve been mulling over an essay film about citizenship and immigration – using history, art, literature and science to understand how we can be a nation of immigrants that is so fearful of each new wave, rather than understanding that is the key to our strength.
Congratulations, Maria Agui Carter! Your film is beautifully directed and the major battle scenes are worthy of blockbuster feature period films.
Rebel is a film that continues where Ken Burns‘s Civil War series left off. In a labor of love that took her twelve years to complete, Agui Carter has created a must-see detective film about a woman, a myth, and the politics of national memory. Set your DVRs for Friday, May 24th 10PM/EST /PST.
More on Rebel:
Premieres, May 24, 2013 on National PBS/VOCES at 10PM/7PM (EST/PST)
Theatrical Screening at Frameline Festival at the Castro Theater in San Francisco on June 29th, 6:15PM
Screening at the Museum of Moving Image in New York City on Friday, July 19th, 7PM
Writer and Director: Maria Agui Carter
Producer: Maria Agui Carter with Calvin Lindsay
Original Music: Joseph Julian Gonzalez
Website coming in June where bonus videos and learning tools for teachers will be available: rebeldocumentary.com and don’t forget to visit Facebook.com/rebel-documentary