Notes from a Chicana Filmmaker

By Malinalli López

How I Was Inspired To Become A Filmmaker

Hey Everyone!

From launching my company XQL media this past year to working on a new short film and teaching cinema at Sonoma State University this year has been a whirlwind of adventure to say the least. Even with all of that activity I wanted to launch a blog the chronicles my journey into the filmmaking industry because my first love has always been writing.

I remember winning my first writing contest at the age of 10, when I was in fifth grade and the feeling I had of truly believing that magic is real and writing is what helped me to see that. Later as a teenager, I went on to do my undergraduate work at U.C. Berkeley where I would frequently go check out indie films at the local cool theatre, Pacific Film Archives. This habit began my love of films and my favorites were martial arts films from director King Hu to the emotionally resonant and dramatic films of Wong Kai War and Ang Lee.  Check out a list of the 100 Best Martial Arts Films of All Time here. I continued to watch these films over the years as I would fantasize about one day being a film director of both action packed and dramatic films.  Fast forward to getting married and having a child after graduating with a B.A. in Chicano Studies. I began my masters degree in Film & Television at the Academy of Art in San Francisco when my daughter was only four years old.

As I would sit and watch these martial arts films  over and over, it began to dawn on me that a similar drive as what these martial arts fighters displayed would be necessary for a woman such as myself to make it in the film industry. Rather than try to “make it” in Hollywood as many of my colleagues at the Academy were considering, my dream was to carve my own path to success, as a film director and make it on my own here in beautiful Northern California. I still believe that magic is real and it has taken a deep belief and faith in myself to attempt to shoot films, launch a digital media company all in one fell swoop this past year, be a single parent to my daughter and still keep going.

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ROGUE ONE (2016) & Three Myths On Repeat While I Was In Film School

Just recently having watched the film Rogue One I sat and wondered what brilliant casting director cast all of these cool actors of color? I then remembered when I was just starting out in film school and watched the film Birth of a Nation (1915). Birth of a Nation happens to be one of the most racist films of all time since it chronicled the birth of the Klu Klux Klan. The film had a deep and lasting impact on the narratives of race and racism in the U.S. in the early 1900’s. For all the structural shortcomings of Rogue One, I thoroughly enjoyed the beautifully diverse ensemble cast. Rogue One is not rooted in a specific geography or culture, yet was vastly entertaining. The director, Gareth Edwards does not attempt to transmit an imperialistic culture as Birth of a Nation, rather it tells the story of a motley group of rebels up against a vicious empire. Art is always political and as I started to compare the vast differences in the two films it occurred to me how many times while in film school I became acquainted with myths that were destructively wrong.

Myth #1- Films Should Feature Universal Stories

I heard this myth so many times, there was a period in my career where I really believed it. I wanted to tell stories so bad I wondered if my characters were wrong for being diverse. Yet, what saved me is that I kept reminding myself who I was writing for, where I come from and why I wanted to be a film director. I remembered that stories in Mexican and Indigenous cultures are medicine. Now that we have a president elect endorsed by the Klu Klux Klan we need good stories more than ever. Just as there is no such thing as universal medicine for every sickness, stories need to be unique and specific to the audience they engage. There is a reason why the Spaniards burned all of the Aztec codexes–they were erasing the historical memory of a people. Memory is a healing medicine for all of us who have suffered historical trauma and it comes in different forms; from stories, to prayer to physical healing. To erase historical memory is a way of obliterating the identity and power of a nation and a people. Great films are entertaining, and can transport us to different worlds yet they can also be transformative and a part of healing if they tell the specific stories that are needed. The Birth of a Nation is an example of a film that was extremely racist and toxic, in fact a court ruling in 1916 from the state of Ohio found the film so offensive it legally banned the film. The film was found by the court to have caused vivid psychological effects on impressionable audiences (women, children, and the “lower classes”) who were deemed more impressionable than readers of printed matter. (Source:

Myth #2- You Will Confuse Your Audience If A Script Is “Too Ethnic”

This myth belongs to the school of thought that attempts to pretend cultural and racial identiy is not part of U.S. history and that it is an imagined space. As much as the mythical melting pot in America is promoted, this belief attempts to belie the history of people of color. When another human being shares the fact that they have been through the same discrimination, that they have suffered the same pain and share a common understaanding, it is an empowering experience. It is when we study the mechanisms of survival of those that came before us that we start to have hope again. In Rogue One, just as the rebels are about to lose hope Jyn Erso reminds them that they need to fight or “be condemned to an enternity of submission.” For Jyn hope is real because she is fighting not just for herself but rather for those that came before her (in her case her parents who were both killed) and for the generations to come. In contrast to myth #2, Rogue One features a diverse ensemble cast without being deemed as “too ethnic” except by the alt-right the new racist right wing group. The film features beautiful performances from Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang and Forest Whitaker. Other actors in the film who are also noteworthy including Felicity Jones and Jimmy Smits yet the aforementioned actors really stole the show for their honest and nuanced performances. Notice that Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang evoke Eastern spiritual traditions that could only have that power, as played by actors who are of their caliber and background.

Myth #3- You Should Use Your Identity As A Latina In Your Marketing

This myth masqueraded as well meaning advice from several instructors. In other words, it was not ok for me to write “too ethnic” but marketing was a whole different beast where playing up my Latinaness could help me become a recognizable brand. I was definitely not ok with this advice because even though I do not believe the myth of stories being universal, at the same time I was not excited about being enclosed in a box. All storytellers, artists and filmmakers are powerful and they are also humans with shortcomings and biases. Artists are in a constant and monumental struggle to be brutally honest about who we are in creating art. I do not want to be labeled as a Latina director but rather as an artist that creates relentlesly honest films that are true to my historical memory. I carry the weight of my Chicana identity with me because I see it from the perspective of a specific historical process of reflection and a form of meditation on the pain that I have endured as a Mexican immigrant who has adopted U.S. culture. My identity is an inheritance and not a brand. Ultimately, I see myself as an artist and a filmmaker brimming with stories.

Looking In The Mirror

Looking in the mirror, I did not see a face that matched what I saw in the media or on films. My first peek into the world of filmmaking was sitting at my mother’s kitchen table where the vivid characters and narratives of her life in México came to life. Her frequent stories were often about heroes who had overcome incredible circumstances to win against all of the odds. As a result the narratives that I write as a screenwriter tend to favor the underdog.
There was one story in particular that stood out. It was about an uncle who had mistakenly gone to jail for murder but he was innocent. One day, while in jail during one of his daily prayers an angel appeared to him and let him know that he would be released shortly. True to his vision, my uncle was ultimately released. He had promised during his prayers that if he was cleared of the charges against him he would go to the Catholic church in his village every Sunday and perform an Aztec ceremony. My mother mentioned that he kept his word and every Sunday he could be found on the church plaza in a ceremony of honoring and remembrance.
What really struck me about this story besides the magical elements and ultimate release of my uncle, was the fact that being Mexican, my cultural heritage is one of a rich hybridity. In the case of my uncle, his deep religious beliefs honored both the religion the Spanish invaders brought, as well as kept his indigenous values.I cannot think of a film that honors the deep cultural innovations and hybridity that came out of the Spanish Invasion of México, told from the perspective of the survivors except for the gorgeous and stunning film, “The Other Conquest.”
The story my mother shared with me later inspired a screenplay I wrote in film school titled “The Blood of Heaven” which I also shot a short excerpt of and you can see here. The dramatic narrative features the protagonist, Reno Rosaldo who is a hardened gangster. When he tries to break free from gang banging and dealing drugs, his closest friend stabs him and Reno ends up in a hospital in critical condition. At the hospital, Reno befriends two Latino, young men: a college professor and an auto mechanic who support him in his struggle to leave the gang life. However along the way, there are several more attempts on his life and Reno ends up being shot in the ankle which permanently disables him, yet he manages to leave the gang life for good. As a way of giving thanks to the ancestors and in honoring his spirituality, Reno promises to perform an Aztec ceremony every week at the local Catholic church.
I see an incredible need for more filmmakers from Indigenous and old world traditions to tell their stories in the medium of film. This is a voice that is desperately needed in modern films because as a young Chicana I remember thirsting for the type of stories that gave me the courage to face numerous odds in my own personal journey. The stories that my mother shared with me, blended old world and new world traditions. They shaped my identity for who I was to become as an artist and filmmaker. Thanks to my mother, the films I create also rely on a generous use of magical realism.

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