Featured Fellow: Bethynia Cardenas
Applying For And Winning A Fellowship:
Bethynia Cardenas on the Hispanic Scholarship Fund/
McNamara Creative Arts Fund Grant
FELLOWSHIP I WON AND WHEN: I received The Hispanic Scholarship Fund/McNamara Family Creative Arts Fund in my last year as an MFA student to fund my thesis project, a ten minute film titled, Noche sin Luna (Moonless Night).
MY AREA OF ACADEMIC/PROFESSIONAL INTEREST: As an MFA in Cinema, my main focus is to develop my artistic voice, and to do that I want to develop narratives that deal with Latin America/Latino issues here in the U.S. and abroad in places like Mexico.
THE SUBSTANCE OF MY FELLOWSHIP PROPOSAL: For my thesis I was really interested in going back to Mexico to film an idea I had been thinking about since I was an undergraduate. The idea surrounds the assumed heterosexuality of men. I wanted to cast Mexican actors and work with a Mexican crew, because I felt that if I ever want to go back to Mexico and live there, it would be very important for me to start feeling comfortable with the industry there. I wanted to work in the place that inspired the film itself. I was very hard for me to even think about doing it anywhere else.
The whole film was developed through research. I was based on a real event that happened to a friend of mine while studying with me in Mexico many years ago. And that idea triggered this realization that really we never get exposed to some ideas when we are young or studying. So I really wanted to think about these things: What is homosexuality in my culture? What is heterosexuality in my culture? And how do they actually play out? So I started reading historical events surrounding homosexuality, and I started getting inspired, and I tried to put all the loves of my life into the project: I love Mexican cinema, I love gender studies, and I love Mexico City. I wanted to combine everything.
The idea was to a very short narrative film. I’m not yet prepared to do a feature, but I wanted to do a short as a way to investigate and understand why am I so fascinated with all these things: history, gender, Mexico City. So I proposed these ideas: What’s at stake if we don’t talk about issues of sexuality and gender norms? What happens to us as a society if we don’t speak about our reality as sexual beings, as Mexicans, really. Because I grew up with this whole concept that men, or real men, are not homosexual. There were just two ideas of gender that I grew up with: you are either a man or a woman. If you are a man who likes men, then you are a woman. I didn’t see it that way; I saw different shades of sexuality. I thought a film that deals with these issues and is subtle could provoke dialogue. So the main purpose of the film was to make people question. The story is about two closeted professional men romantically involved with one another. And the film investigates how homosexual men and the communities in which they are embedded deal with the issue of sexuality.
I picked certain locations because they important historical locations. I picked a specific mass of residential units, ‘Unidad Independencia,’ the first progressive housing community/unit that resulted from a social awakening in Mexico. It’s iconic: it was a milestone in Mexico at that time to create subsidized housing for workers on this massive scale. John F. Kennedy was there when it was opened. The location helped me ask, “What is progress? How do you show progress in society?” It provided a contradiction in my story. Progress is people living well and social rights and equity. But what does this mean? Does progress include all sexualities, becoming more conscious about how we address and talk about our liberties? So this place was a subtle counterpoint to my narrative. I filmed it there because I love being part of the historical. The location has so much history: there’s no other place like it in Mexico City, or anywhere else I’ve lived.
LOW POINT IN THE APPLICATION PROCESS: Starting all over. You think, “Well, I’ve done one scholarship. I can just get what I wrote from that one and cut- and-paste.” But no, but for this type of award, you really have to propose a whole new thing. Not only are you writing a personal statement, you are also asking them to fund a specific project. By that time I had received many rejection letters from other organizations from which I had sought for funding, and the film was budgeted for $36,000.
MISADVENTURE(S) DURING THE FELLOWSHIP: The expense of making this film happen. Meeting actors who question your project at every level, and who do it with the idea that it will encourage you to make it better. Meeting with tons and tons of people and forming relations with them quickly. Being very diplomatic about what you ask and how you ask for it. Being very personal and open about who you are to convince people who just met you that they can trust you. And likewise, you have to trust them. Just because you have money or you have an idea, and you’re there, doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen. There’s more to it than just having the money. And the most fascinating thing that happened to me while I was in Mexico City was that I met so many talented people, way more knowledgeable about film and production than I am, and they were willing to share their knowledge with me 100%.
I the idea that I would have a local producer who would take care of all the issues that might come up for me, take care of what people want, organize the project, and all that. But that’s not necessarily what happened. He did gather all these people and introduce them to me. But really I had to represent myself. And as a producer I had to make thousands of decisions. I had to accompany people all the time: the art director and coordinator. I was amazed and really stressed about all the details about which I had to make decisions.
One thing I learned as a film student is that your film needs you to always be there, because only you know what type of image you have in your head. Nobody will take care of it except you. You have to be willing to sacrifice sleep, food, and personal time to make this happen. You have to meet every single person, talk to them, spend time with them, make them feel they can approach you if there’s a problem. And for a very shy person like I am, having difficulty with the language, I felt every day that I was pushing myself on a personal level to make sure that my film came to life.
BEST MOMENT DURING THE FELLOWSHIP: I had only managed to raise one third of the production costs. So the low point was when I was already there in Mexico during production, and beginning to see how expensive it would be to make this project happen. Without any other funding, it would be impossible—it would break me. I was thinking of using credit cards to pay for it; I was thinking of asking for loans to pay for it. In liquid funds, I only had one third. So I was going to have to use credit cards with high interest rates. But I had to minimize expenses to the extent possible because I would have to pay them back.
Then I got word from the Hispanic Scholarship Fund that I would be receiving the scholarship. At that moment I didn’t know it was going to take a long time for the money to reach me. But it made it okay to use the credit cards to make the project happen because the money would come in time to pay back the the debt. So that was a kind of a freeing moment.
I could concentrate now on the creative process. I’m going to free myself from all these financial pressures and say it will be taken care of—now I have a sponsor. And I felt encouraged to continue the project. I had been thinking, “Oh my god, how can I spend all this money on this project? I could give this money to a foundation that could do good in the world.” The encouragement really motivates you to continue.
The best moments also came after the film was completed. The production was complete. And I felt that I had made great connections with people. After you finish something like that, you miss it, you miss the chaos, and you miss making decisions. And you’re normal again. I enjoyed being the normal person. But there’s something beautiful about working with so many creative people, something that feeds you. You realize, “This is what really want to do.” I want to surround myself with people who love to make creative decisions and work on creative projects. I’m very thankful to my actors who were willing to share moments with me outside of the film. I saw them once again after we stopped filming, and they were very giving and gave me feedback and told me what I could do better next time. And they asked me how I was doing, and how the project will end, and if I got everything I wanted. At that point you’re no longer the director, you’re not a friend exactly, but you shared something. And because you shared this thing, you grow.
ADVICE TO APPLICANTS: This grant is very interesting because it’s very specific with respect to who they want to fund. They want to fund someone who is not only an emerging artist of Latino descent, but also an outstanding student, and a full-time student. I guess my advice would be that you have to do a lot of research to find all these opportunities out there, but you also have to know who you are and what you can contribute to the fellowship. Not just what they can do for you, but what you can contribute to them as well: your project. I think they were interested in funding a whole package, not just the film or the project per se, but also the person. So a great project is not enough; you also have to work on understanding the artist you want to be.
WHY I’D DO IT AGAIN: I did the fundraising for a whole year hoping that I would raise enough money to fund the project. I don’t regret taking a year to research, organize, plan and execute it.
WHAT I’M DOING NOW: I’m editing my film and organizing the finishing touches on it. I’m meeting with my advisors so they can give me feedback. And I’m planning film festival strategies so that my film can actually see the light of day!