Fighters, Divas, and Rebels: How Female Antiheroes Are Breaking the Rules in Latin American Cinema

'Neurotic Quest for Serenity' film still courtesy of SXSW

Growing up, Latinas hear plenty from the grown-ups in our lives about how we’re supposed to behave. “Don’t complain or be too loud or people will think you’re a malcriada. Don’t dress immodestly or people will think you’re a puta.” We can’t wear makeup too young, only certain kinds of heels are okay, and hopefully, your parents will approve of the nice Latino you bring home when it’s time for him to meet your family.

Well, not all Latinas follow the rules. In the handful of movies at SXSW Film Festival that featured Latinas, very few of them would be considered friends your old school abuela would have approved of. These women were fighters, divas, and rebels. They each had a story to tell, whether it was of bravery or neuroticism. Perhaps it’s because the best-behaved Latinas must not have very many stories to tell.

Jenny Murray’s Las Sandinistas! is a lively documentary about the rise of the Nicaraguan women who fought to liberate their country from the U.S.-installed president. They left their husbands, some left behind their children, and went underground to learn how to fight and beat the military that far outnumbered them. Many of these former soldiers later served in the Sandinista government that was later disrupted by the Americans once again. Their fight was a rough, brutal conflict, and many of the women who survived the ‘70s-’80s struggle became emotional recounting their stories. Others, like Dora María Téllez, remain resolute in their cause for a liberated and sustainable Nicaragua just as much as they did when they trained in the mountains for guerilla warfare. The documentary recounts much of their history through old footage and newsreels, brining the women’s visceral memories back to life. Still photos of their former lives as mothers feel like that was another lifetime ago.

‘Las Sandinistas’ still courtesy of SXSW
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TOC: Transtornada Obsessiva Compulsiva (The Neurotic Quest for Serenity), however, is the story of a very different kind of malcriada. Kika (Tatá Werneck) is a famous actress in Brazil up for a role in a post-apocalyptic movie that more than resembles a low-budget Mad Max. She’d be perfect if she weren’t so insecure and neurotic, but her quirks lead her through an epic series of unfortunate events. The only way to stop the chaos is to finally believe in herself and in her ability to turn off the stove before leaving the house, so that she doesn’t freak out everywhere she goes. What’s refreshing about Kika’s mistakes is that she doesn’t need a guy to get her out of them. Eventually, she learns more about herself over the course of the movie and learns to conquer her many neuroses and obsessions. Despite Kika’s plight, her world is so colorful and ridiculous, it adds to the absurdity of her fears. This is especially apparent in scenes like when she’s a guest on a Brazilian talk show. Kika answers every question from a very peppy host wrong, yet the show bounces along. Her discomfort is apparent to everyone watching.

The young women of Santiago Caicedo’s delightfully lo-fi animated film, Virus Tropical, would be enough to drive any mother mad. In Power Paola’s loosely autobiographical story, she’s the youngest daughter in a dysfunctional family. Her older sister has a reckless streak that drives their mother mad, and the middle daughter is cruel to poor Paola until a religious experience forces her to reconsider how she treats her baby sister. Mom is trying to make ends meet by reading the future out of dominos, and their estranged dad has decided to return to his true love of the church. And that’s before the movie jumps back and forth between Ecuador and Colombia, a culture shock that further alienates Paola from making any long term friends. Even the movie’s hand-drawn style feels and looks rebellious. The film is drawn entirely in black-and-white, which makes the family drama feel isolated from the colorful life outside.

‘Virus Tropical’ still courtesy of Animation is Film Festival
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There are many movies playing over the course of several days and what seems like a dozen venues during South by Southwest. Yet, days later, these are the stories that are still stuck with me. That of the misfit teen struggling to find her place in family and the world. The constantly worried and frazzled young woman who can’t seem to keep her life together. And the fearless women willing to sacrifice everything for their country’s future. Maybe there’s a part of me that sees myself in these stories that I don’t see in the other movies that played at SXSW. Or, a part of me that wishes I could be as badass as some of these women. After all, there’s probably a little bit of a malcriada in every Latina – even the well-behaved ones.