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(Mexico/United States/Canada, 1998, 88 minutes, color, DVD)

Directed by Vicky Funari
In Spanish with English subtitles.

Paulina Cruz Suárez..........Herself

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Vicky Funari and Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s Paulina is a hybrid: a “narrative documentary” that seeks the authenticity of lived experience, but focuses it through the magnifying glass of reenactment.  Here characters as vivid as any in the cinema emerge, go to war with another, retreat with bloody wounds…  In our contemporary therapy culture, everyone seems to have a youthful trauma to expiate; squadrons of counselors exist to help us manage our anger, to “put it behind us” with the talking cure and with little symbolic rituals. But what if, instead, you learned to nurture your hate, to shelter your secret sorrow so that it lived with you, more a trusted friend than an alien presence?  Would feeling worse make you feel better?

Paulina Cruz Suarez is a Mexican girl who suffers a freakish accident.  Her desperate parents sell her into sex slavery, and a life of serial cruelties. In later life, she becomes a maid, and meets the young girl who would grow up to be Vicky Funari, the filmmaker. Like many caregivers, Paulina’s relationship to her youthful charges becomes quite deep, and the severing of that connection at Funari’s adolescence is a difficult one. Eventually, the adult Funari returns to Mexico, and finds Paulina. The two become friends, and Paulina begins, unbidden, to tell the tragic tale of her life in servitude. And then Funari discovers something terrible about herself: the fact that she knew nothing truly significant about this “member of the family,” this woman she thought she knew as well as her own mother.  In fact, all she knows of Paulina is a false face that conceals her pain, a carapace to shield Paulina’s memories of a bitter youth, to preserve them against the mellowing that adulthood brings. Funari discovers that there will be little salving of Paulina’s wounds, and that Paulina will cure herself in own way. Funari decides to witness this process.

As Paulina told her story to Funari, Funari realized that her early attachment to Paulina was a matter of sentiment, not respect. Though they had shared the same house, Paulina was “invisible” to her. Such, the film suggests, is the true state of affairs across the class chasm between master and servant, a state of subalternity and even exploitation masked by cheap sentiment. Funari resolved to make Paulina visible to the world – and spent ten years as a filmmaker doing it.

Funari came to make Paulina after a career in feminist filmmaking. Among other accomplishments, she had been an assistant director on Lizzie Borden’s landmark narrative about sex workers, Working Girls (1987). But after completing a documentary on lesbian couples who had undergone artificial insemination, her gaze turned inward. She found Paulina’s story to be a profoundly cautionary tale of underestimation, and of the colonialism that gets into the very skin of its subjects. 

Fred Salas, the co-director of the San Diego Latin Film festival, celebrated Paulina’s strange beauty. The film, he says, “skips across a green, fetid, Mexican canal of  memory, emotion, and color.” Funari immersed herself in the colors and sounds of Mexico like a religious novice, finding out about her own youth as she came to know this woman who had been such a stranger to her. What she discovers, and what she shows us, is the fragility of really knowing anyone. The film that combines footage of the real Paulina with reenactments of her life and interviews with people who have known her, scrambling deadpan documentary with over the top melodrama. This film of such shattered substance may finally have no greater claim to veracity than the youthful Funari did many years ago when she blithely assumed that her understanding of any other human being was somehow a privileged state of understanding – instead of the perpetual mystery most of the rest of humanity must always remain for us, if we are truthful. And that is this film’s truth.

Paulina Suarez traveled with the film extensively, although at first she did not understand why audiences in North America would be interested in the life of a Mexican domestic worker:  she laughed at “las gringas locas.”  But the making visible of this “ordinary” person, of course, makes her extraordinary, perhaps even to herself.  Audiences who have seen the film are moved, but perhaps we are guilty, as well, for we know how easily invisibility attaches to those who serve our meals, clean our homes, even care for our children. No amount of old clothes, or cheek-kissing, or even money can make the invisible materialize before us.  That can be done only with resolution, and the love that is direct, equalizing, unpatronizing, and clear-headed.  That love, of course, is called respect.  Paulina’s manner at these screenings was not “winning”; it was instead intelligent and true, and audiences responded with gratitude.

When the film’s initial run had been completed (it won honors at several film festivals, including the San Francisco International Film Festival), and after traveling internationally to appear at screenings and talk about her life and what it might be able to mean to the people in the audiences, she returned to her work as a maid.  It was who she was. But now, she told Funari, the same big houses that used to enfold her with a feeling of security felt like prisons.

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