Karen Vazquez Guadarrama Talks Finding Inspiration in the Bolivian Mountains for Her Sundance Short Film

Flower of a Thousand Colors (Flor de mil colores), a documentary short that  recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival, is set in the beautiful Bolivian mountains. Shots of clouds enveloping the surrounding landscape though, are contrasted with shots of drunken men leering and ambling about. And in the middle of its all is Emiliana, a single mother who works at a nearby mine to feed her children while fearing the people around her. It’s a touching portrait of a community at the edge of the world trying to survive as best it can.

The short was shot by filmmaker Karen Vazquez Guadarrama. Born in Mexico City, Vazquez has lived in Europe the past few years, and that desire to travel the world and discover new cultures is what took her to Bolivia where her research led her to Emiliana. The result of a five-month shoot in a remote mining community, Flower of a Thousand Colors is most striking for the intimacy it creates with its central figure. As Emiliana’s voice tells her own story, the camera roams around the small moments that make up her day: the oppressive darkness of the mine, the breathtaking vistas of her surroundings, and the cramped living space she shares with her children.

Ahead of the film’s Park City premiere, we chatted with the Mexican director about the long process of working on this documentary and what she hopes audiences take away from Emiliana’s plight.

Karen Vazquez Guadarrama
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On How Her Thrill Of Adventure Took Her To Bolivia

I love change. I love to discover new stories, new cultures and new experiences. I lived in France for a year, afterwards I studied Film at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium. After six years of living in Belgium I needed again the urge to discover a new culture and country and why not, to make a film! Together with Bart Goossens (my boyfriend), we spent eight months in Bolivia looking for a story connected to the mines. After two months of targeted research in several mining cities in Bolivia it was a coincidental encounter that pointed us to the extremely remote Mina Argentina. After a 24-hour journey, out of breath because of the lack of oxygen, we entered the mining camp for the first time. We were instantly overwhelmed by the magical mountain landscapes.

We aimed for a relationship in which we wouldn’t be intruders but rather participants in daily life on the mountain.

We decided to stay at the remote mining camp for five months to be able to shoot the portrait of Emiliana. We’re convinced it takes time to shoot an intimate portrait, to really become close with your character. We decided not to limit ourselves exclusively to the role of observer. We hoped that an extended proximity to a group of people would immerse us in their existence in such a way that it would allow for the most sincere possible approach to their story. We aimed for a relationship in which we wouldn’t be intruders but rather participants in the daily life on the mountain.

On The Film’s Title

The girls sing a song to their mom in the film “Mamita linda, hoy es tu día, te traigo flores de mil colores.” While I was in the editing room, I was listening to the song over and over again and I realized that Emiliana is the “flower of a thousand colors.” She is a beautiful strong and inspiring woman that has to change constantly facades, she has different roles, she has a lot of [faces] that turn her into something beautiful as a flower. That was one of the reasons why I choose to film in that mining camp, I loved the contrast of being in heaven and being in hell at the same time. The mine camp is above the clouds, you see them sleeping from your window and when you go inside the mine you go to the underworld that is ruled by the “tio” (the mine’s devil). The miners say: “You enter the mine with the devil and you go outside with Jesus.”

And indeed, this roughness with this heaven landscapes showed also the contrasts of the community, of the mine’s hard work and of the danger. I wanted to bring this contrast together in the image and in the narrative, that’s why I gave the nature also a strong part in the film. The nature evolves with the narrative, when Emiliana tells the story about her dead son, the clouds invade the town, it becomes mysterious. Like Emiliana says: “A lot of things happen over there.” Like the sun can shine, the fog can also take over the place.

On What She Hopes Audiences Take Away

I hope the audience gets touched by the strength of Emiliana. Even though life has been hard on her, she endures it all to give her children the best possible future, providing them with education and raising them to be free and independent. As she says at the end of the film “I can’t complain, it is pretty when the sun shines,” that’s how we have to see life, I guess, it doesn’t matter that bad things happen to us, we have to keep on going with our head up and enjoy when the sun shines. She inspires me in an amazing way and I hope that she does the same to the viewer, not just women but also men.

Flower of a Thousand Colors screened as part of the Documentary Shorts Program at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.