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Latin America's Trailblazers

Hispanic Heritage in Film: Latin America’s Trailblazing Directors

The Frida Cinema celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month by honoring the Hispanic and Latino heritage in film. In this series of blogs, we’ll be highlighting Hispanic/Latino talent both in front of and behind the camera, and the impacts of these individuals on—and legacy in—film.

Latin America's Trailblazers
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973); Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017); Jorge R. Gutiérrez’s The Book of Life (2014)

Part 5: Latin America’s Trailblazing Directors

Concluding our Hispanic Heritage Blog series, we look at three directors from Latin America, each in a special class of their own. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jorge Gutiérrez, and Issa López are trailblazing directors whose respective styles are immediately recognizable. Chilean avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky uses a “take no prisoners” approach to his violent yet mystical imagery, challenging viewers to look beyond the traditional aspects of film for meaning. Mexican animator and director Jorge R. Gutiérrez created a revolutionary style of animation combining Mexican folk and pop culture with American influences. Mexicana director and writer Issa López jumped from the security of writing and directing romantic comedies to directing and writing the critically acclaimed gritty genre-bending horror film Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017). Through their films they challenge the status quo, creating visuals that surprise and enchant us.

Alejandro Jodorowsky

Alejandro Jodorowsky

Reggie Peralta: A Hispanic with a Slavic surname, Alejandro Jodorowsky makes for an interesting entry in this list even without taking his avant-garde cinematic offerings into account. The son of Jewish-Ukrainian immigrants, the Chilean director’s unique cultural background is an excellent example of the complexity and fluidity of Hispanic identity. It’s not a stretch to say that this diverse heritage reflects the colorful, multifaceted nature of his work. Take, for instance, the fact that he originally started out not as a filmmaker but as a theatre performer, working for a circus as a clown after dropping out of college. Indeed, Jodorowsky wouldn’t make his debut as a filmmaker until he moved to France, alternating between there and Mexico for much of his career (not unlike Luis Buñuel, another Hispanic director with surrealistic sensibilities).

Clip from The Holy Mountain (1973)

It was in Mexico that Jodorowsky produced El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), a pair of phantasmagorical romps replete with dreamlike narratives and occultist symbolism that are considered by many to be the first true midnight movies. The films’ fans have included such noted creatives as David Lynch, Dennis Hopper, and even two Beatles, John Lennon and George Harrison (with their manager Allen Klein even acting as a producer on Mountain). While his later movies didn’t achieve the iconic counterculture status that these two films did, they still speak to the director’s diversified talent and mind-bending tastes. Santa Sangre (1989) is his sexually-charged take on the slasher genre while The Dance of Reality (2013) and Endless Poetry (2016) are both attempts to tell the story of his life through the kaleidoscopic view of his filmmaker’s lens.

To go into the rest of Jodorowsky’s prolific œuvre—including his other films, comics, and something he calls “psychomagic”—would require a much longer blog post, but the five movies mentioned above earn him a place on this list many times over.

Children who survive wars on their own are, sadly, a universal thing. So, a version of this could have happened at many points in history and can absolutely happen in many places in the world now. Actually, there has been some discussion about the possibility of a remake.

Issa López
Issa López

Issa López

Darren Cassidy: Film scholar/writer/director Issa López began her career writing and directing episodes of Plaza Sésamo (the Mexican Sesame Street) and writing for a few of those sMexy telenovelas. Following her tenure teaching screenwriting at the Writing Studies Center of Televisa, she wrote the screenplay for Ladies’ Night (2003), the first Mexican film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio (Disney). Ladies’ Night was one of the highest-grossing films of the year in Mexico and it went on to win the Best Screenplay Award at the Cyprus International Film Festival.

In 2006, López wrote and directed her first feature Efectos secundarios (Side Effects), which satirizes high-school reunions in a rather extreme way. It was the first Mexican film produced by Warner Bros. and is currently the 15th highest-grossing film in Mexican history. López’s directorial debut was also nominated for 12 Diosa de Plata (Mexican Film Press) Awards including Best Director and Best Picture.

Clip from Vuelven (2017)

López also wrote and directed Casi Divas (2008), another highly-successful Mexican-American co-production. She also saw her screenwriting finding success and accolades throughout the 2010s.

2017 brought López’s most well known film Vuelven (Tigers Are Not Afraid) before a wide international audience. Her film has won universal acclaim since its release; she took the Best Horror Picture Director award at Fantastic Fest—the first woman and the first Mexican to do so—and her film was nominated for 9 Ariels (Mexican Oscars). Vuelven won the very vocal praise of such luminaries as Stephen King; Neil Gaiman; and Guillermo Del Toro, who announced at the 2018 Guadalajara Film Festival that he will produce the next Issa López film.

Jorge R. Gutiérrez

Jorge R. Gutiérrez

Isa Bulnes-Shaw: Though not a household name to the average movie buff, the work of Jorge R. Gutiérrez is instantly recognizable to any fan of animation. Though only a director of one feature film so far, his experience spans the 2000s to the present, across multiple forms of media as a painter, writer, character designer, producer, illustrator, and all-around bombastic creative force.

Born in Mexico City and relocated to Tijuana at nine, Gutiérrez’s love and passion for Mexican and Chicanx culture radiates from everything he does; it’s not influence, it’s simply him. From unique, intricate character designs to the worlds based on real ancient and modern places in Mexico, his work is a “cultural collision” that reflects his upbringing as a child who crossed the Tijuana border every day to attend school in the U.S., who early on had a love affair with the imagery of bootleg mashups, Luchadores, and much more. Even throughout his career as a student of Experimental Animation at the California Institute of the Arts, Gutiérrez’s films were stories rooted in Latino imagery and life, as was the case with his Student Emmy Award winning film, Carmelo.

Trailer for The Book of Life (2014)

Those who grew up in the 2000s know him as the co-creator and co-producer of the multi-Annie and Emmy Award winning Nickelodeon cartoon series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera (with wife and muse Sandra Equiha), one of the very rare instances of Mexican characters in children’s animation at the time. His directorial debut and lifelong dream project, however, wouldn’t be realized until 2014 with the release of the Golden Globe Best Animated Feature Nominee, The Book of Life (2014). He had pitched for fourteen years and was rejected by every major animation studio under the declaration that a Mexican story was not universal, had no commercial market value, or that audiences simply did not want to see something so explicitly Mexican/Latinx; it would later be produced by Guillermo Del Toro and feature the talents of Diego Luna and Zoe Saldaña. Development took another half decade due to its intricate and unique designs, almost identical to the concept art, with the figures crafted to look like handmade wooden figures existing in folk-art during post-revolution 1910 Mexico, and with a third of the budget of the most popular animated films from the biggest studios.

Jorge R. Gutiérrez is an animation darling for a reason. Despite decades of resistance, he’s made a career not only by telling his own personal, distinctly Mexican stories at a time when it was very rare, but ultimately elevating the best of both the U.S. and his homeland. His work speaks to a new generation of Latinx folks with mixed ethnic backgrounds and influences, who can be assured that who they are is not only normal, but to be celebrated.


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