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Busi Cortés and Lourdes Portillo: two filmmakers, two losses

Lourdes and her Missing Young Women

This June, the death of filmmaker Lourdes Portillo (1943-2024), a native of Chihuahua, was announced. She died on April 20 in San Francisco California. As a child, her family moved to Los Angeles, California, where she primarily focused her work on Latino migrants, their experiences in the United States, the significance and activism of the Chicano community, border conflicts, repression, racism, social justice, and more. She produced, wrote, and directed a series of documentaries on these topics.

Her first short film was Después del terremoto, about a Nicaraguan refugee in San Francisco. Then she followed with titles like The Mothers of the Plaza of Mayo co-directed with Argentine Susana Blaustein, The Days of the Death, The Devil Never Sleeps, Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena or Estado de gracia, among others. But nothing like the crude portrait she made about the murders of young girls in Ciudad Juárez that began to spread in 1993 and turned the state of Chihuahua into a corner of hell.

Lourdes Portillo

Missing Young Woman (2001) is a courageous documentary by Portillo. It is being showcased at  Cineteca Xoco as a tribute to the filmmaker, organized by the Association of Women in Film and Television, Cineteca Nacional, and the Facultad de Cine. Portillo's film, unintentionally, aligned with other atypical stories of that period by personalities such as David Lynch or screenwriter Barry Gifford, who at the time focused on the insanity of the border region between Mexico and the United States through intense road movies where the desert stood as a witness to horror.

Missing Young Woman is a 75-minute documentary that received the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival. The film closely examines the fear in Ciudad Juarez, the anguish of the victims' families, their sense of helplessness, and most importantly, the lack of trust in a government that fabricated suspects and perpetrators, failing to halt the femicide crisis. The government was complicit through both action and inaction, entangled in a chaotic situation involving lost files, information concealment, bureaucracy, corruption, disregard for human suffering, and decaying bodies. Lourdes Portillo effectively exposed these issues by amplifying the voices of another group of victims: the families of the deceased.

Busi's Lessons

It was towards the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s that films created by women gained significant importance. In this period, Luz Eugenia Cortés Rocha (1950-2024), known as Busi Cortés, who recently passed away, made her debut in feature films with El secreto de Romelia in 1988. This film was inspired by Rosario Castellanos' short novel El viudo Román and earned Busi the Ariel for Best Picture, as well as the Ariels for Best Supporting Actress and Best Score, and the Diosa de Plata (Silver Goddess) award. Additionally, the film marked the beginning of the Opera Prima Project at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC), the institution from which Busi graduated after studying Communications at the Universidad Iberoamericana.

El secreto de Romelia tells the story of Dolores, a divorced and independent woman who travels to Tlaxcala accompanied by her mother, Doña Romelia, and her daughters, to receive the inheritance that her father has just left her. Dolores tries to unravel the mysteries of her origin, while Doña Romelia recalls her tragic and strange love story. Her film followed the tone of her first short films, intimate and nostalgic, about childhood and feminine feelings: Las Buenromero, Un frágil retorno, Hotel Villa Goerne, El lugar del corazón.

Busi Cortés

In addition to her work in teaching, Busi contributed knowledge of will and determination to open spaces for women filmmakers in a decade in which becoming a feature film director was almost suicidal (no more than 10 women would debut in the industry). Her persistence led her to create Serpientes y escaleras (1991) and A Good Death Beats a Dull Life (2005), produce educational television series like (Cultura en movimiento, El aula sin muros, Santitos y santones, and more) and fight for spaces for inclusion and gender equality from trenches such as the Association of Women in Film and Television.

At the start of 1987, I had the opportunity to meet Busi Cortés. Just over a year earlier, I had completed my Communication degree at UAM and was 26 years old, meeting the requirements to join the CCC. Back then, the institution not only required applicants to meet age and educational criteria, but also emphasized the importance of maturity and dedication. Nowadays, graduating from high school is sufficient to gain admission to any film school. My interest lay in writing and the film industry as a whole, rather than aspiring to be a director. I sought to comprehend what captivated my father and had been a significant concern for me since childhood.

At that time, I worked in the Programming Department of Cineteca Nacional, where I wrote short notes for its brochure. It was only a few years before I could start screenwriting, criticism, and film research. Busi conducted my interview and was clear: I had to leave my job, if I wanted to join full-time. This was impossible for me as I had recently gotten married and relied on my job. Despite explaining that I couldn't quit my job and was unaware of the financial requirements for studying film in Mexico, Busi continued our conversation for hours. I sensed her empathy as she spoke about the filmmaker's significant dedication. She emphasized that her role there, along with nearing graduation and preparing for her first film, was to shape the next generation of filmmakers. Her dedication was genuine.