Filmmaker and actor Dominique Nieves released her latest short film, Our Lady Lupe, as part of PBS’ Our Latino Experience collection, a series of short films co-produced by the network to celebrate the diversity and uniqueness of Latin-American culture. Our Lady Lupe depicts a modern take on the Our Lady of Guadalupe icon in which young Chico (Derrick Delgado) is taught a lesson by his abuela (Francisca Muñoz) about the importance of family and tradition, leading him to cross paths with a friendly mechanic (Dominique Nieves) who may or may not be the legendary Our Lady of Guadalupe. Made in partnership with PBS, the film was produced by Iron Glove Productions, a company founded by Nieves herself, while also written, directed, and starring Nieves – all while she attends medical school. Dominique took the time out of her busy schedule to discuss her work with Screen Queens’ Bethany Gemmell.
Bethany Gemmell: What was it about Our Lady of Guadalupe that inspired you to centre a film around it?
Dominique Nieves: It’s interesting, because we grew up with these figures, and I don’t know if we really know the backstory. My grandmother was fairly religious, but I didn’t necessarily know hers. I did some research before this image you see all over the place, like in grocery stores and your house. And so really, when I was I was trying to make something that gave latinx representation in this world of genre, right? We have just so much inherent to our culture, when it comes to myths and superstitions. So I was like, wow, we were just a breeding ground for genre, but we don’t have a lot of representation in genre.
And so I came to this idea of this millennial, lady mechanic. My mom was a construction worker, that was the kind of thing that I was used to seeing. And so I wanted you to see a woman doing this not-traditionally feminine job, but I also wanted her to have maybe this more magical background. I wanted to bring that kind of magic into the real world for this child.
BG: What do you think she represents about Latin-American culture that is worth celebrating in film?
DN: I think some people say she’s like, this legend next Virgin Mary, but she is her own figure, and has this interesting story of her own. This image of her still stands today, hundreds of years later, and people do pilgrimages. There was a church that burned down, and historians cannot understand why it was the only thing that survived unscathed. And I think it’s interesting, she is this mother figure, but she is also a piece of history. The actual image, is of resilience. It’s still standing after all this time, and I feel like we’re very resilient people.
BG: How did you balance medical school with writing, producing, and directing a film? Did it influence your approach to filmmaking?
DN: You know, you just figure it out. For my first film ever — you get like, one summer in med school, so I did that then. Another one — I did, over a weekend, we had a test on Thursday, and it was like “ok, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, we’re gonna shoot”, you kind of just make it work. Life is fun that way [laughs].
It surprises people, but I think I was in medicine to have the experience with my patients — that’s the experience that I really loved. The thing that I learned about film is that with a medical school schedule, I didn’t necessarily have the time to do all the community service or the auditions that I used to do. And then when I made a film, and it lived on without me, I went across the country for a screening. I had this film that had a message and that message went on without me and it made an impact on people. And I was like, “oh, wow, I can do something I really love. And I can get the fulfilment of the kind of things I want to do in the community.”
The beautiful thing about film, is that you don’t have to necessarily be there on the day, especially in the American merit medical system, you can only get 15 minutes with a patient sometimes. You have to get this person to tell you these intimate details that you have the knowledge that you need to treat them, and so I really think that takes [the ability to] build rapport very quickly. It takes putting yourself in that person’s shoes and knowing the right questions to ask. If you come in and you ask them, genuinely wanting to know the answer of how they’re feeling today, patients respond differently. They really do. I think that really informs everything I do as an artist as well.
BG: How has running your own production company aided the process of making a film?
DN: I know it’s a lot of extra work and administrative work. It’s not always the creative stuff that we sign up for, but it does give you autonomy, right? It gives you the ability to make your stories. PBS greenlit this project, but it was up to me to produce it, and so I was in a position where someone actually wanted to hear your life stories, which is just great, because that’s what I’ve been trying to push for so long. We’re not always in that position, and even when I was in that position myself, it was still in the condition that you kind of have to go make it yourself. So that’s kind of where the impetus for making stuff yourself comes from. As I said, some of it isn’t always the creative side — it’s the hard work, the bootstrap work. But it’s what makes it possible to tell the stories that you want to tell.
BG: Was it difficult balancing being on screen as an actor while working behind the scenes, or did it prove to be helpful having one less person to direct?
DN: I don’t think it makes it easier, I think it’s quite challenging. As a director. I can be very specific about my composition and my framing, and it’s a lot harder to do that when you’re in the frame. But I had already acted with our child actor before, so that was great. We didn’t have any in-person rehearsals, so it was really great that him and I already had a really strong relationship. Right before the lockdown we had worked together in-person for three days, because for this film, we couldn’t do any in-person rehearsals. For lots of COVID Productions, and you know, with two masks on — I think for a nine-year-old to have met me with two masks on it wouldn’t have been the same.
While I do think that made it easier, acting in something you’re in is quite challenging. You are right, though — I knew the character better than anyone else. I didn’t plan on playing me — the pandemic definitely played a role. It was one less person. Because we actually have restrictions on how many people you can have on set. So that helps. I didn’t have to necessarily do extra rehearsals with myself because I knew the character well.
BG: In the film, Chico, the main character, talks about listening to women more after his experience learning about Our Lady of Guadalupe. Do you think maybe the figure symbolises women, more specifically Latin-American women, in some way?
DN: Historically, she is this kind of mother figure and she has the child. We were very particular with how we chose our art — you’ll notice there’s like a certain colour pattern that you usually see on the traditional image. But we chose for our boy to have a little yellow shirt on the card, we had our artists draw the card, because I knew I would costume the child in the yellow shirt. You know, we did these things very particularly.
It’s funny, because I grew up in a very matriarchal home, and I wanted to put that on screen — I wanted to have this little boy learn from these women in his life. It was really great working with Derrick. He’s a fantastic little actor. There’s also a line where he says something like, “I never knew girls could fix cars.” In rehearsal, he didn’t want to say that line, because he said that’s sexist [laughs]. He’s nine years old. And we were explaining like, “oh, we know, we’re trying to teach other people that!” — it was really adorable.
I think it was really great to be able to use that, that image that people already recognise, that has this historical context. That helps inform the character that people get to see on screen, and to kind of get that quickly, especially when you’re in a short film, you have to use that symbolism, to give those ideas quickly.
BG: Many people who watch your film will know very little about Latin-American culture, and this will be an educational experience for them. What would you like them to take away from your film, perhaps about the significance of the figure in its culture?
DN: Sure. I think when people have these figures — when I was little they were like shrines in my grandmother’s house — you know, why do we have this? I think it’s about how I brought up the [sense of] resilience earlier, right? Even if it’s not necessarily historically a symbol of hope these things are a symbol of hope for us. No matter who you’re praying to, why do you pray? It’s to centre people, it’s to give them something above themselves to believe in, give them inspiration to keep going. I think when people make a trip, like this pilgrimage to go see a figure, it’s almost like a test, right? It’s this moment to kind of stop and reflect, so I hope that people see the film and they see the joy in the film. They see the resilience in the film — we do have Chico go through some very real world obstacles. You know, not everything isn’t always perfect and shiny. But I do want them to see what makes people feel a positive way, I want them to see that all the laughter and all the love that we can have in our stories.
BG: Do you think there’s like a lack of that particular joy in current representation, especially for the American audiences?
DN: 100%. I started as an actor, and when you play these roles, there is a truth to them. But if you only show one side of the coin, that’s all people will know. I do think there are certain obstacles that lots of people have to face, and I’m not trying to sugarcoat that. I just think that we also get to be people, I think of a little kid with his imagination running wild and meeting this woman. Is she magical? Or was it just something that he made up? But at the end of the day, there’s still that optimism, there’s still that sense of resilience that I think is really inherent to who we are as a people, and that that resilience comes from struggle. But it’s not the only thing that we have to show. And I think I was trying to show the other side of the coin that we don’t usually get to see.
BG: Have you had any feedback about the film from others? Have your relationships with people, perhaps with your patients, changed in any way?
DN: I’ve gotten a lot of that, which is great. I think it’s hard because the term Latinx encompasses a lot of issues, where we kind of just share a bit here and there. But as I said, we’re big on superstition. I think a lot of us have this, and I think even someone outside of the Latinx culture, right? Like if you’re Catholic and not Latinx, you could watch this and laugh along with it.
I never meant for it to be a religious film. I kind of wanted it to be more about how we’re just spiritual and superstitious. But I don’t see why if you’re religious, why you wouldn’t relate to this. We definitely had people telling me, like, “Oh, my God, that’s hilarious. My mom does the same thing.” The big one is, especially with the art on set, people recognise these things that we’ll have in our households, and some of them are really tiny. In the kitchen [of the film], there’s these rooster towels, and I had to buy them because they’re really common. It doesn’t really matter where you’re from — that little thing that helps you see yourself on screen is really validating.
I think teaching and medicine informed my experience as a director and prepared me, because it’s just this huge undertaking. I teach creative writing to middle school students. And so I was able to show them the film, and they got a kick out of seeing me in the film. And then of course, I turned on my inner teacher, and I was like, “okay, let’s talk about the story structure.” But yeah, it’s a nice experience to be able to bring teaching into directing with me, but then bring the film every year to my class, and be able to enhance my own experience with the film that I made.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Our Lady Lupe is available to stream worldwide on PBS’ Our Latino Experience collection online
by Bethany Gemmell
Bethany graduated from The University of Edinburgh. She has a highly embarrassing talent of being able to tell which episode of Friends she’s watching in about 15 seconds of screen-time. Bethany’s favourite scene in all of cinema is in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time.