Our millennial mindset has led us to believe that everything, in terms of audiovisual content, is available online somehow. Yet, there is a vast amount of movies out there that have been forgotten in the digital transition, giving archives, festivals, and even physical releases an even more significant role in their preservation. Outfest Los Angeles, the country’s prime film festival exclusively focused on LGBT cinema, recently hosted a screening of a rare 1951 Mexican film, Muchachas de uniforme (Girls in Uniform), which is believed to be the first time the film has ever been shown in the United States.
Presented thanks to the Outfest-UCLA Legacy Project, the only program in the world dedicated to preserving LGBT moving images, the film was introduced by Jenni Olson, a filmmaker and one of the leading experts in Queer Cinema, and followed by a Q&A with Olson and Alejandra Espasande, a film archivist at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the organization behind the Oscars).
The hilarious and pioneering melodrama, by prolific German-born, Mexican filmmaker Alfredo Crevenna, stars Brazilian-born actress Irasema Dillán and Marga Lopez, one of Mexican cinema’s biggest stars, as a student and a teacher in a Catholic school run by strict nuns. Dillán plays Manuela, a young orphan girl who has never known tenderness and quickly becomes infatuated with Miss Lucila (Lopez), the only person who truly cares for her. Muchachas is a remake of the 1931 German film Mädchen in Uniform, which was in turn based on the novel by Christa Winsloe, a trailblazing novelist who was one of the first authors to write lesbian-themed stories in Weimar Germany. In 1958, this romantic tale was produced for the screen a third time, in Germany again, but this time in color.
What makes the Mexican version distinct is the explicitness with which the subject of gay love and the unlawful desire between a young girl and her superior are depicted. Blatant love declarations, revealing gazes, and other taboo subjects like premarital sex – at a time when conservative thought centered on religion ruled the day – are boldly explored with a hefty dose of humor. Olson noted that the German iteration takes place in a secular setting with totalitarianism at its core, the fact that Crevenna’s take is set in a Catholic institution adds an extra layer of intrigue to the mix.
Since there was never an American release, finding a print with English subtitles was impossible; the festival had to create their own in order to project the 35mm copy. Back in 2008, Muchachas de uniforme screened at the Morelia Film Festival in what was also an uncommon occurrence. Because of its subject matter it is rarely broadcast on Mexican television and it was never released on DVD. Espasande explained the outrage was such during the movie’s original release that the Catholic Church would buy ads in major newspaper urging people to boycott it.
Here’s hoping the interest in the Outfest presentation gives this hidden treasure a new lease on life so more audiences can appreciate it.