Berlinale Blog – Hiding In Plain Site: Chavela

     |    Friday, der 10. February 2017

By Andrew Horn

Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s documentary, “Chavela” begins and ends with the words, “My name is Chavela Vargas and don’t forget it.”

Known in her day as “The Rough Voice of Tenderness”, she was born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica and as told by the filmmakers, she “ran away to Mexico City in her early teens and began singing in the streets. By the 1950s, she had become a darling of the city’s thriving night club scene – challenging mainstream Mexican morals by dressing in pants, drinking tequila and smoking cigars, while singing love songs intended for men to woo women and refusing to change the pronouns.”

“When I dressed like a woman,” Chavela joked, “it didn’t work – people thought I looked like a transvestite.” So instead she just said “no” to earrings, frilly dresses, and the flirtatious hands-on-hips stance. She may have been the first to dress like a man, but she never made it a sexual preference on stage. She only came out publicly at 81. “I didn’t expose myself. People who work like I do have to be careful.”

Nonetheless she claimed a love affair with Frida Kahlo, a one night stand with Ava Gardener and while enjoying the applause of the rich and powerful men in her audience, behind their backs she was seducing their wives.

The filmmakers also say, “Like all good legends, Chavela left a trail of broken (yet fiercely loyal) hearts in her wake, but she is no longer here to tell us why she never seemed to find happiness in love. What we know is that after too many nights in Bohemia she got lost in her love affair with tequila and wound up living on the streets and depending on the kindness of strangers. We know that she stopped singing so long that people thought she was dead. We know that she suffered deeply. You can hear it in her voice.”

“All my life I’ve been a woman of strong character,” Chavela tells us, “Even as a child. I created myself by myself. No one taught me to be the way I am. I learned by myself through tears, suffering, happiness, truth and lies.”

The filmmakers suggest that some of the stories told by and about Chavela in this movie may be just that, stories. But what we know for sure is that Chavela recorded 80 albums, received a Latin Grammy for Lifetime Achievement, and made startling comeback at the age of 72. Chavela tells us she wanted to go down in history as the woman who died singing. And she did.

The story is told by Chavela herself, as well as people who knew her, saw her, admired her and loved her, and the filmmakers present it all with in a direct and non-obtrusive way. The result is the proverbial “good story, well told” – touching, without being cloying, with most of the emotional power delivered by Chavela’s own performances. And maybe that’s where the real story lies.