FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT: Margo Guernsey, Director of COUNCILWOMAN
March 27, 2019
Friday, March 29 – 7:00 p.m.
Carmen Castillo, a Dominican immigrant who has cleaned hotel rooms in Providence for 24 years, turns local politics on its head when she wins a third term as City Councilwoman by fighting for low-income workers. She navigates her working-class life and the political world with courage and stamina as she faces two tough contenders, skeptics who question her qualifications and anti-union corporate interests.
April Alario spoke with Director Margo Guernsey ahead of the film’s Massachusetts Premiere at CinemaSalem on Friday, March 29, at 7 p.m.
April Alario: You met Carmen and became friends more than a decade ago during your work as an organizer for her union.
Margo Guernsey: Yup.
AA: Carmen’s story, one of a hotel cleaning worker and immigrant who became a City Councilwoman, is compelling in so many ways. But what was it about her story in particular that pushed you to make the choice to follow her and spend so much of your life, for years, recording her journey? How did that collaboration come to be?
MG: Really, it was pretty simple. When I found out that she was running, really when I knew she had won, because we didn’t start filming until after she won – and that was on purpose – but when I knew she had won, I knew that she would keep her job at the hotel, because local political office pays very little. Most people don’t know that, because it feels like politics is elite in our country, but the truth is that local political office pays very little. So, in Providence, that’s $18,000 a year. I knew that from having done a lot of social justice work in Providence. So I knew she’d keep her job at the hotel. I also knew her as a person and knew that she was sort of an inspiring person. I just thought we could learn so much, because we had so few politicians who are working people and then let alone a working woman of color.
AA: So much of this film centers around the question of what democracy reflective of the people is meant to look like. And just as the film explores what a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” might be, even the making of the film leveraged crowdfunding through Kickstarter to help fund the project. On your Kickstarter website, I was struck by the parallel between the project itself and the way the project was made possible in the description of this film as “a grassroots story that needs grassroots support.”
Can you speak about this idea of the shift in our society towards these types of grassroots movements artistically and politically, and how this approach informed both your filmmaking style choices and also the work of Carmen Castillo herself as she served her community?
MG: That’s a good question. The film to me definitely is about democracy and what would democracy look like if the people making the decisions were really of the community. That looks different in different communities across America, but it definitely looks like regular people at the table making public policy decisions. That’s what the film is meant to explore, which is actually why we didn’t start filming until she had won that first election, because it’s meant to sort of be a “politics after the victory.” What is governing? What’s it like? And what does it look like from the perspective of somebody who’s from a community who is generally marginalized in that process?
I think– it kind of goes with that–we’re in an age where the internet has given a lot more grassroots possibilities. I think as a society we’re still figuring out how to use them, and what does that mean, and what are the tools that govern it that would make things fair. But it is definitely what allows for sort of a grassroots approach to fundraising for films.
And I think, in Carmen’s case, it’s honestly not what made her campaign possible. What made her campaign possible was a very traditional–you know, all three of her campaigns had two or three months of knocking on doors every single day in her neighborhood, including her most recent victory which isn’t in the film, but she won again in 2018. And that’s literally she gets off work, and then 3 or 4 or 5 hours of knocking on doors in her neighborhood. That’s a very grassroots campaign in a very traditional way.
But from the film perspective, I think that the internet made it more possible to figure out fundraising for films on a grassroots level.
AA: You chose to make Carmen the narrator of her own story. She shared her perspective in intimate settings in chats with the cameras, and she simply lived her work day from cleaning hotels to organizing and campaigning, spending time with her family and voting at City Council meetings, all strung together in the realistic narrative style of Cinéma vérité.
What informed these narrative style choices for you in terms of how they related to the themes of the film itself?
MG: The film evolved over time, but it always felt like, from when we started filming, it always felt like the footage when we were with Carmen is what really mattered the most. I’ve always felt like this is Carmen’s story. So, it felt like what matters about my making this film, is about her experiencing government. It’s not so much about being on CNN and having three people from three different perspectives having a debate. It’s about what is it like for her as a working class woman to be actually making political decisions… and cleaning hotel rooms the next day. So it just felt like, in order to have that perspective, it needed to be a story that was very much grounded in her point of view and is her, day to day.
AA: Carmen went through so many powerful ups and downs in the course of this film. What were the most emotional moments for you behind the camera, as her friend, in relation to you observing her journey, both positive or negative, or happy or sad?
MG: For me, making a film about somebody who’s a close friend, there were definitely moments when I felt like, “Um, should we be filming?” You know? And I talked to her openly about that. The downers in the film were really the hardest parts personally, also. So, when her marriage was falling apart, that was really hard for her and felt hard for me only in the way it’s hard for you when a friend is having a hard time.
AA: The film also really feels like a piece of historical work. Specifically, the issues of representation in democracy and also corporate interests affecting policy in our political process feel core to many of our current political debates today and going forward in the elections of the next few years.
Where do you see this film fitting in the context of the current social and political movements of our time, and how do you hope the film will be seen in the future as a piece of history?
MG: I believe film is always a collaboration. This is something that a couple of the other folks who worked a lot on the film with me talked about: which is, really, it’s an evergreen story. It’s actually one reason we didn’t put dates in the film until the end, because really what we want people to do is think about representation in democracy when they watch Carmen’s story. If you try to ground yourself in 2011 you’d lose that, because 2011 was when she won her first election. It is very much, I think, an evergreen story in that it really does open questions rather than answer them about what representation is. And so I do hope that it’s useful for future historians.
I do think of it as sort of part of a body of work, of my work, that is often historical in terms of going back in the past as opposed to reporting the present. Um, and I think you had another piece of that question, something about the current political context?
MG: When we first started making this film, I always said to people, “You know what would really be an impact goal, like what I would want the film to do, is to get people to start talking about what it would look like to have working people in politics, you know, just sort of what is proportional representation.”
And now, as a country, we’re really far beyond that. It’s not about talking, it’s about having people who are elected. And while we hear more about women and people of color, we do hear about, in fact, their work as waitresses, and we hear about, sort of, what people’s backgrounds are in the national discourse. And so it’s the best time for the film to come out. I think it can be part of those conversations, add something to those conversations, help those conversations be more meaningful and keep them not just for the, you know, memes for social media. But yeah, I think it’s a good time for the film to be out.
AA: As you’ve been touring the country for various film festivals and premieres for COUNCILWOMAN, I can’t help but wonder what reactions you’ve been getting, especially in light of today’s political climate, which in many ways is different from the period of the film, yet in many ways is surprisingly similar. Like you said, it has this evergreen quality. Do you have some stories of interesting or striking reactions that you’ve gotten from people experiencing the film for the first time?
MG: The most surprising thing has been that one audience that really tends to gravitate towards the film is elected officials. And I always thought, what would elected officials want from this film, they’re already in office?! This is about inspiring more people to run! And actually it’s happened time and time again that elected officials really want to see it, with other elected officials. Or an organization that’s training people to run for office is really interested in the support group they have for other elected officials seeing it. So that’s been really interesting for me. And I think, I hope, and I want to believe–and we’ve sort of done enough of those screenings for me to know if this is true–but that it has to do with the fact that it’s a deeper film that raises questions that are actually challenging, that need to be assessed.
AA: As a woman who loves the world of film myself, It’s been such an awesome privilege to chat with a female director, and to see your work highlight the story of a councilwoman, emphasis on the WOMAN part! I also was excited to read about your future upcoming projects…which are also about women and the impact of their work and their voices on public life.
How would you describe your own journey as a woman with an artistic voice to share, in relation to your choice to highlight the voices of other women?
MG: You know, I didn’t set out thinking, “I’m gonna highlight the voices of other women.” I think that it really came up as a union organizer. I’m definitely drawn to stories of people who stand up for themselves being full and living their vocation and also standing up for what’s right, sort of despite what society thinks of what’s right, the odds, despite what’s going on around them – those protagonists who sort of fulfill what they feel they’re here to do despite all of that. Each of the films have come to being in a very different way, yet they all have that sort of underriding theme, and they all are women, surprise, surprise. I mean, it wasn’t by design necessarily, but maybe it makes sense!
AA: After completing this project, and in seeking to represent Carmen’s own voice as she represents the people of her city, what would you say is your biggest takeaway that you learned from COUNCILWOMAN Carmen Castillo after spending so much time with her and seeking to see the world through her eyes?
MG: “Dance and sing when things get hard.” That’s really what I’ve learned from her…The amount of challenges that come her way are far above and beyond your average person. All the way to most of the people who run for local office, they run maybe twice and then people stop running against them, but Carmen always has a really big fight. She’s always up against a lot of challenges. “Sing and dance and play through the challenges,” is kind of what I’ve learned from her.
Tickets are on sale now for COUNCILWOMAN and can be purchased online at https://salemfilmfest.com/2019/movies/councilwoman/
Margo Guernsey will be present for a Q&A after the film screening.