Camila Saldarriaga is an award-winning Colombian director and multi-disciplinary artist that has spent her life traveling between Bogotá, Miami, and Los Angeles. Camila works with equal fluency between the worlds of fashion, film, art, and commercial photography. She is dedicated to embracing diversity as well as spotlighting social issues and female experiences in her work.
Activism and social progress are very prevalent throughout your work. In what ways, aesthetically or narratively, do you translate that activism into your films or other work?
Let me tell you a bit about myself and my background in order to tell you why and in which ways I translate activism in my work. When I was twelve years old, during the late 90s in Colombia, political tension, violence, and crime had a high impact on my family. For this reason, my mom and her husband at that time applied for an investor visa and moved us to a suburban neighborhood close to the Everglades called Pembroke Pines, FL.
During my teen years, our move from Colombia to the US had a very significant shift in my identity. Colombia is a country where gender oppression and toxic masculinity were, and still are, very dominant. My middle/upper-class family and our friends and relatives were all very similar. I moved from a conservative, privileged, and controlled environment: an all-female Catholic Private School to attending a mixed-gendered diverse Public High School where the teachers could not speak about religion. There were kids from all walks of life, from African Americans to South and Central American Hispanics.
Growing up as an immigrant female in the States opened my eyes to different ways of life and possibilities. Even though the States still has many social and political issues, I had the liberty to create my own story. These experiences inform my creative choices in my art: growing estrangement from my own country, family, my constant search for belonging, the reclamation of my unique self.
The same way I constantly work on being honest with myself, I tell my subject's stories through a photograph or a film by approaching each of them with honesty and compassion. I become just the visual translator of their memories by subtly highlighting social topics that have affected them -- inequality, identity issues, racism, gender stereotypes with subtlety, honesty, and in a human way so that it is relatable.
For instance, I intuitively collaborate with other artists to narrate their life experiences to express a theme I want to explore in my own life. There are specific issues or topics I want to investigate or dig deeper into, or there is a life experience that I relate to.
My short film ¡Mais Duro! was a story written by incredible writer and illustrator Amalia Andrade. In 2016 while I was visiting Bogotá, I read a short story she posted on her blog: "Calzones Amarillos" situated in the 90s' and narrates the story of a 12-year-old girl discovering her sexuality. While reading it, Amalia's writing connected me to my memories of discovering my sexuality. I could imagine it visually, and I immediately knew I had to make a short story about it. Every scene was clear in my head.
What perks your interest when looking for a documentary theme? Are there specific stories you're motivated to tell?
Any work I decide to create comes from a place in my heart where I know the story needs to be told, and I can become a safe vessel to hold the integrity of the narrative. Most of the time, stories come from personal experiences with close friends or family, especially for the narrative and documentary work.
The inspiration for Las Shapers comes from speaking to a friend about her experiences in the surf industry. This conversation sparked my curiosity to research and found, at the time 2017, there were no documentaries featuring women shapers and glassers, so I saw an opportunity to highlight these inspiring and creative women. I felt I could relate to their stories and obstacles as a female filmmaker.
What personal takeaways did you gain from making Las Shapers and ¡Mais Duro! (or other projects)?
What a great question! I always love to reflect on my work after it is done, especially in a documentary. The outcome is very different from what you plan it to be.
From Las Shapers, I loved how their husbands were present when we visited Cher's and Valerie's studios. I noticed how supportive and beautiful their relationships were with their partners. Though not in the documentary, Valerie shared with me that without her husband being so supportive with her daughters, she could not shape boards during the weekend since she has a full-time job as a Biochemist during the week. The documentary shows how partnership, teamwork, mentorship, and friendship are essential in the industry and life.
¡Mais Duro! is my first self-directed and produced short film, and I don't think I could write all the things I learned by doing this process. Filmmaking is a craft, a passion, and everything I do is connected to and comes from the heart, or else it would be easy to give up. Making a short film requires dedication and commitment to the process, especially hardships. Even with the challenges ¡Mias Duro! started my path as a director and confirmed that storytelling is my true passion.
You work in several different mediums, whether it be film, photography, or zines. How does your approach to each one differ? Does one medium work better to relay a subject or theme versus another?
My approach is the same with most of my projects. I always want to convey a story; whether it's a film or a photo, I use my same creative process - having a subject, identifying the theme/storyline, and then creating an aesthetic world around them that defines them. Each medium has its beauty, but a key factor for me, more about practicality, can be based on the time and budget and how much I can dedicate to the project.
Photography sometimes can be more accessible and immediate rather than filmmaking. Making a film requires an idea or script that is more challenging to materialize. It requires more pre-production, a bigger crew, and a higher budget.
Outside of your creative practice, where do you pull inspiration for your work in your day-to-day life?
Long and juicy conversations with strangers, music, and nature!
Is there a story that you would like to tell that informs your practice, life, or art on a deeper level?
Yes, I am developing a film about a teenage girl's experience of moving to the US. The film is informed by my personal story when I moved to the States. I'm thinking about the concept of magical realism that connects us with our ancestral lineage in Colombia. Being in my 30s, I am very interested in digging deeper into motherhood vs. not motherhood themes and all the stigmas around women who decide not to have children.
How does your cultural upbringing in Colombia influence your work and approach? Are there any Latin or Colombian filmmakers that have impacted your work?
I spent most of my life in between Miami, Bogota, and Los Angeles. Given my strong connection to my South American heritage, each location has served as an opportunity to experiment, develop my unique style, and strengthen my fascination with using atmospheric color palettes to tell stories. Beyond films, a lot of my inspiration comes from indigenous culture, the warmth of our culture, our people, the unknown places I've traveled to, and the photos I took with my 35mm camera.
Tell us about the Youth Cinema Project and your involvement with the organization.
Youth Cinema Project was founded by Edward James Olmos and is a non-profit organization that works with at-risk youth in public schools. We are a group of filmmakers who do very specific and advanced film workshops, from writing scripts to pre-production and post-production. The objective is to use filmmaking to teach kids critical thinking and grow their interpersonal skills and empathy.
Working in this program has been very gratifying to me. I can only speak about myself, but as a filmmaker, you can get caught up in a rabbit hole of producing, making films, and waiting for an outcome that connects to the deepest part of your ego. What I love about mentoring is that it grounds you. It reminds you every day of the purpose of filmmaking, which is to inspire others, tell your own unique stories and be vocal about them.
As a female director and artist, do you have any constructive advice for women and girls who want to pursue work in film? What obstacles have you had to overcome to get where you are now?
I honestly think that fear can be our biggest obstacle. There are many external things that can become obstacles, like the capitalistic system that we live in and of course the white-male film-dominated industry. But, those are things that we have no control of. What we have control of is facing our deepest fears, not being afraid of the unknown, and taking chances. We all have to value our work-- and by proxy ourselves-- by putting it out there.
I always use this quote as my mantra whenever I'm having doubts or find myself vibrating in low frequencies:
Here are a couple more things I'd like to point out:
Make the story that you know only you can do or tell.
Understand that in this universe, there is room for all types of stories and artists. There is space for all of us, and we need your story to be told.
Don't compare your success to others. Love yourself no matter what. We all have a different journey, and society's version of success is the biggest failure of capitalism.
Create a community of other creatives!
Throughout the years I've learned that a connection within is what keeps me going on this journey. Not focusing on external gratifications.
What does girlhood or sisterhood mean to you?
Understanding that even though this is a very complex society, there is SPACE for all of us to SHINE. The more empathic we are, the more supportive we are to each other the more we all can grow and become fulfilled. Sisterhood, to me, understands that we need allies, and we are also responsible to nurture, educate and raise men to become women's best allies.
Tell us about your last ZINE? Are there any new ones?
"She Would Become it's a collaboration with Courtney McCullough. The zine invites you to experience Courtney's journey of self-acceptance with gender nonconformity by embracing her totality. Struggling with gender identity from a young age, we explored Courtney's external conditioning to be less exploratory of her own identity and the internal liberation that followed. Woven by Courtney's personal memories, Camila's artistic eye for texture and emotional resonance, and graphic designer Alexandra Velasco's elegant style. The unique zine features 32 pages of color film photographs, text, and vintage fashion. Each zine features a handwritten numbered edition limited to 100 copies."
For now, I don't have plans to make a new one; however, this was such a fun experience that I'd love to make a couple more. I decided to make this with Courtney because I was tired of uploading 35mm pictures on my Instagram and just seeing "likes." I wanted to take my photography and make it a personal experience by touching the pages and reading through the poetry rather than just seeing it on a screen.
Is there anything else you want to share with us? What books are you reading? Maybe a favorite piece of Poetry?
Yes, during the pandemic, I read a couple of inspiring books Isabella Ayende, The House of Spirits, and Belonging by Toko-pa Turner, and Letters to a Young Poet, by Ranier Maria Rilke.
The lyrics from the song Eco Sistema by Sara Hebe on the playlist:
Las Shapers Inertia Article
She Would Become: Purchase Zine
Amalia Andrade Arango Instagram
Jackets by Alexandra Velasco @dreams_incarnate
Gabriel Sweet Photography @Gabriel_Sweet
All photos by Camila unless otherwise noted in the credits
Film Snapshots of Cher Pendarvis boards & friends by Camila
Photos of Youth Cinema Project via Instagram account
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