photo of Michelle Valladares

Absorbing culture, making movies

In a recent panel on body art at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, filmmaker Michelle Valladares '85 drew on her own experiences to comment on cultural appropriation. As a producer of independent cinema, she has made three feature-length films taking place within Native American, Mexican and Brazilian communities. Valladares herself is Indian, born in Bombay and raised in Kuwait until 1976, when her family migrated to Arizona. "In rejecting parts of one's own culture and adopting the rituals of another, there is a certain responsibility involved," she says, using the popularity of tattooing and piercing among Western teens as an example. "I have been invited to work in other cultures and I've found that the more I learn about the history and customs of other peoples, the more I look to my own history and traditions. Because migration and exile were such a large part of my childhood, I've always been acutely aware of what it is to live as a Catholic Indian in a Muslim community, or in the West, or to live inside a culture as an outsider."

Valladares's most recent work, "Landscapes of Memory," is a fiction film set in northeastern Brazil, an arid region where many of the peasants struggle with drought and political corruption. It was written and directed by her partner, Jose Araujo, and won the Latin American Cinema award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997, in addition to the Wolfgang Staudt Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Valladares studied the politics of water as an undergraduate in Professor Sara Schumer's Haverford class. "Since much of 'Landscapes' deals with drought, it's interesting to notice that I've been thinking about the same issues since Bryn Mawr," she says. Her first film, "Imagining Indians," a documentary by Hopi filmmaker Victor Masayesva, explores the issues surrounding the appropriation and repatriation of sacred, indigenous southwestern art and artifacts and "asks the questions: If Native Americans had access to cameras, would they imagine themselves differently? Would their images and their stories be told in a different way?" "The Devil Never Sleeps," her second film by Chicana filmmaker Lourdes Portillo, investigates the controversial death of Portillo's uncle in Guaymas, Mexico.

As producer, Valladares raises money, hires crews, plans the shoots and helps the director make decisions. "Most people are hired for a specific portion of the process," she says. "But the producer and the director live the life of the film. You are the film, and everything you do determines the life of the film. It's like pregnancy: You have to be there the whole time."

Twelve years of such intense dedication left Valladares feeling "burnt out," so she enrolled in an MFA program at Sarah Lawrence to pursue her poetry and take a break from "communal" work. She is writing a novel concerned with memory, exile and young women trying to negotiate the rifts among different cultures.

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