I am proud to say that we live in a day and age where women are offered a much more balanced representation than traditionally has been the case. Whilst there is undoubtedly a long way to go, significant female characters from both the past and present are increasingly becoming a mainstay in the world of film. Movement artist, choreographer and performer Camila Arroyo’s latest work Soldaderas, created in collaboration with fashion designer Sabrina Olivera, is a glorious case in point – an enticing dance/fashion film which pays homage to the female fighters of the Mexican Revolution. It’s a visually arresting piece of work that combines ambient audio, engaging choreography and the sights and sounds of a city beloved by both collaborators. The multi-hyphenate Arroyo also features onscreen and is adorned in Olivera’s most recent fashion line, inspired by the powerful soldaderas of Mexico’s past. DN invited Arroyo to join us to talk about diving into the world of film direction with Soldaderas and her bifurcated self-portrait debut OME, having to consciously navigate the spaces of Mexico as a woman and the nexus of her roles behind and in front of the camera.
How did you and Sabrina come together to make Soldaderas?
Sabrina and I met soon after she had seen my first short dance film OME. I had seen some pieces of her collection and there sparked our desire to collaborate. Soon afterwards the pandemic hit which only consolidated the fact that film could be the perfect medium, as fashion runways and live shows had to be re-conceptualized. Once we decided to go ahead with the idea, I mapped a story based on a route that I take every day to work in a studio in Mexico City. We live in a country with high rates of femicide, so as a woman when you walk on the street your corporeality is always alert. It was important to me to show a different way of portraying this strength, by way of choreography. I wanted to highlight how the changes in choreography and space could be activated by the clothes and by the act of self-fashioning. Dressing and styling yourself as a way to relate to your environment was a big theme, so each space was thought out in relation to the clothes, and the action of dressing oneself.
I didn’t want to make a fashion film where the outfits magically came together, I wanted to show the process of transformation, center it as an important everyday action. At first you see a more sturdy everyday garment and more contained movements, later on, getting ready turns into a space for collective joy and celebration. Sabrina had drawn very clear inspiration not only from the strength, resilience, and power of the soldaderas, but from their garments and hair styling which was mostly in traditional Mexican braids which can be seen in the clothes she made. This was a big cue for me to conceive the choreography which is very much inspired by the idea of braiding, but also based in a literal understanding of the Spanish word: soldar, which translates as “to weld.” So in the movement I really thought of braiding, welding, melting, forging, as actions. It was important to de-militarize the figure, to take away the idea of soldadera as a soldier, and think of her by way of her actions. The film unites the city, the idea of welding and melting, the choreography, and the clothes as a form of imagining a contemporary soldadera.
How did the more technical aspects of the film-making process come together?
We prepared for about three months, mostly amongst Sabrina, our Producer Gongy G., our Director of Photography Flavia Martínez and myself. We are proud that our crew has a strong female presence, especially in roles that are generally male-dominated. We shot on 16mm and had a one day shoot. Since the script was based on a route I actually walked daily, all of the locations were very close to each other. It took us about 10 months of post-production, and 12 months to fully release the film online.
We are proud that our crew has a strong female presence, especially in roles that are generally male-dominated.
Sabrina and I self-funded the film with our life-long savings, so it was a slow process. I am really grateful to Sabrina for trusting me to direct, choreograph and perform in this project. Co-producing and co-conceiving this piece was truly a beautiful experience, especially because directing can be quite solitary, but my experience with Sabrina as a partner really made this project about creative accompaniment. We are also both incredibly grateful to have surrounded ourselves with a team of incredibly talented friends and family as collaborators.
What gave you the idea to map the story on your route to work?
The figure of the soldadera is always accompanied by an epic and heroic narrative, but the legacy I’m interested in is not in their fighting a war, but in their sense of resilience, power, and rebelliousness and how these can be carried over onto a contemporary quotidian body. Sabrina and I were both born and raised in Mexico, a country where women are not always safe, so I believe any woman embodies these values when just going about their daily lives. The body is at risk, and many women transform their corporeality as they navigate their quotidian. The film is definitely not a specific commentary on this, but we live through it daily so I think it was present when conceiving the film, as well as for Sabrina when creating the clothing collection.
The most intuitive way for me to translate this was to go back to the spaces I know.
It was important to me to show this navigation from a place where our corporeality is more in communication with the city that we grew up in, rather than against it, showing a dance with the space. The most intuitive way for me to translate this was to go back to the spaces I know: we shot at a close friend’s house, in the streets I walk regularly, a market where I often shop and get my nails done, at a local restaurant, and at the house where El Entresuelo, the performance space where I work, is located at. Those are spaces I’m in communication with, and in practical terms, they were also spaces I had access to due to my familiarity with them and they are walking distance from one another, which facilitated our moves from space to space during the shoot.
As this was your first foray into fashion film, what did you draw from your previous experiences as a dancer and the production of OME that served you here?
As a choreographer and performer, I’ve always been interested in the choreographic aspects of film. I think about film as a medium for choreographic composition. Both choreography and film deal with time, space, and rhythm, however film allows you to direct the viewer’s attention in a completely different way. I’ve worked as a performer and movement director in videos and commercials, so I had some familiarity with making movements for the camera. However, OME was my first time truly conceiving the entirety of a choreographic film project, so it was a nice challenge to be able to think about certain details such as small gestures, or smaller dances that can be captured in film, but perhaps would be lost in live performance. I believe this focus on smaller gestures is also present in Soldaderas.
What difficulties did you face as someone fairly new to the filmmaking world?
Both OME and Soldaderas have been schools for me. I never studied filmmaking, so I’m learning as I go and that has been the biggest challenge but also a large blessing. In both projects there were several small hiccups that perhaps I could have avoided, but I learned a lot from problem solving, and taking each step at a time. Early on in both processes I had to learn, and I’m still learning, to truly trust my gut and intuition. Every time I doubted it was due to my lack of some technical knowledge, but every time I wanted to go back and go down the path my first instinct was leading me towards.
Were you always going to feature in the film?
Yes. I was first attracted to film as a medium to practice choreography greatly thanks to Maya Deren’s work. Maya was a dancer, she was an assistant to Katherine Dunham, and regularly trained with her company and I believe a lot of her editing decisions were informed by her choreographic knowledge. She is the first of many women choreographers/directors I admire who work with both movement and film and perform in their own works, like Yvonne Rainer or Kianí Del Valle. It was also a practical decision, we had very little money to produce so choreographing, rehearsing, and directing myself was also practical. However, recently I have been thinking a lot about my relationship to observing and being observed, how do these inform each other and how do they inform my work both as a choreographer/director (that observes) and as a dancer/performer (that is observed).
You mentioned pride in having a female-centric team, how did you select your team?
Sabrina and I sat down and made a list of talented friends, and also of people we had not met nor worked with but whose work we admired. We reached out to everyone with the proposal, and thankfully our ideal team came together. Some friends had worked with me on other film projects, such as Axel de Chaunac, aka losmose, who edited OME, and Flavia Martínez our DP whom I’ve had the pleasure to work with several times now. Everyone was incredibly generous and hard-working, and I’m very grateful for their input on the film.
Tell us a bit more about OME and the start of your voyage into film direction.
OME was my first time directing and it was shot in 2018 and released in 2019. Film had captured my attention for a while and I was really interested in exploring film and choreography and how their specificities as mediums create and explore motion. For a long time I had been inspired by women who direct and choreograph, or direct and dance or perform in some sort of way in their own films. OME is a short choreographic self-portrait of myself at a time when I was leaving New York due to visa issues after almost 7 years of living there. I believe it was a way to close a cycle and open another one. OME means two in Nahuatl, which is the Mexica/Aztec native language. I was coming back to Mexico after a very long time living abroad, so I just wanted to reflect on this transitional period, on how my identity at that point was really divided between two places I understood as home.
I have been thinking a lot about my relationship to observing and being observed, how do these inform each other and how do they inform my work.
The film starts with a montage of film photos from both places, and it was important to me to show them mixed up as they lived within my film rolls. The speed at which the montage came together was a way to give motion to the memories. While also reflecting on how these memories lived in my body and portraying that through dance: how do memories move? How do we embody memory? The film was shot on 8mm in a day. It was only the camera operator and me, moving around areas that were important to me, my rooftop, a playground close to my apartment, the beach. Once it was released the film moved very organically within dance film festivals, and it ended up showing in the film program at the contemporary dance festival La Biennale di Venezia.
What are you working on next?
I’m lucky that I’m constantly collaborating with friends and people I admire on projects for different mediums. Personally, I’m starting to plan another short which would be the first time I would translate something created specifically for the stage to film. I’m also editing a small much more DIY project, which will hopefully come out soon. Choreographically, I’m at the research stage for a performance piece I would like to perform next year, and I’m also a PhD candidate in performance studies at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, so I’ll be working on my thesis project.