The Director of ‘Bellas de Noche’ On Creating a Cinematic Tribute to Mexico’s Showgirls of the Past

'Bellas de noche' still courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

What does it mean to be a star? As Olga Breeskin, one of the vedettes profiled in Bellas de noche, puts it, “It means you shine when the sun goes down.” Maria José Cuevas’ documentary on aging Mexican showgirls may focus on these former nightlife superstars, but it’s more interested in seeing them in the light of day. Intercutting archival footage of the racy shows and television appearances that made the likes of Lyn May, Wanda Seux, and Princess Yamal, household names in Mexico during 1970s and 1980s with scenes of their current daily life, Bellas de noche is transfixing.

Looking to offer a portrait of their lives as they’ve gotten older, Cuevas finds the humanity in these larger-than-life figures who still enjoy putting on a show. While the film — made over ten years! — lets us see cancer battles, spa treatments, and deeply personal confessionals about the darker side of fame, it is most fascinating when it lets these vedettes perform for the camera. They break into song in the middle of interviews. They let themselves dance around in their former showgirl outfits at the drop of a hat. It’s clear they enjoy having a camera following them, which no doubt made Cuevas’s job a lot easier. Capturing both the glitz and glamour of the ’80s and the resilient spirit of these women in this new century, Bellas de noche is as much a film about the passing of time as it is about the artistry of these showgirls.

Following the film’s screening at the Los Cabos International Film Festival (where it won the Audience Award), moviegoers were greeted with a Q&A with Cuevas and with Lyn May, who was all too eager to praise her director and enjoyed seeing her adoring fans in the audience. Check out highlights from their chat below.

Read the rest of our coverage of Las Cabos International Film Festival here.

On Why She Was Drawn to These Showgirls

Maria José Cuevas: What drove me to create this film was indeed the admiration and respect I feel for these wonderful women. That was there from the beginning and by the end what I really wanted to do was create a tribute to them, one that would celebrate their humanity and one that would go beyond this image we may have of them. The five stars that we have on screen were my top picks. I did have other characters that I wanted to show, such as Princesa Lea and Sasha Montenegro. But once I was editing the film I realized I wanted to really be able to dive deep into these women’s lives, and so I had to put quality over quantity. But I did at one point reach out to Sasha and Lea.

Obviously, I had the vedettes in my mind since I was a little girl. I began reaching out slowly to them. I pitched them the documentary concept even though I didn’t have a clear idea of what that would look like other than to create a tribute to them. Getting them to talk was a bit of a struggle. Lyn would say, “Oh sure, next week, next week!” but then we began getting more comfortable with one another, building a kind of friendship. This film took 10 years to produce so that by the end it was a rather organic process. And you can see this in the film where at the start is all a bit more formal, with talking heads, and as the film progresses, you see how I got more and more involved in their lives.

On Looking Beyond Performance

Lyn May: This is my second time watching the film. And I think I loved it even more this time around. I think what Maria José managed is wonderful, to really get at our humanity. I have spent 40 years doing what I do — I never really did retire, I’ve always kept singing, dancing — but this is the first time that I’ve seen someone really be able to portray what’s real about us. The natural beauty that we carry with us as human beings. We are always performing but here, what Maria José was able to do was to get us to open up. This is our real life. And for that I’m thankful to her, because she achieved what no other director, no other producer, no other actor had been able to do. To see us for who we really are.

On Seeing Lyn May Perform

Lyn May: I don’t know if we’re allowed to talk about this but, before everything else, I knew Maria José as the daughter of a friend of mine, a great Mexican artist [José Luis Cuevas]. More than anything else it was this friendship we had with her. Her father is a beloved painter and the friendship we had with her made it easier agree to be part of this project. I’m a little wary because I fear he’s gonna tell us off! [Laughter]

Maria José: Well, you know, that actually made it harder for her to pick up the phone and answer my requests! But it’s true, I’ve known her a long time. When I was a little girl, Lyn May, invited my parents to a performance at Teatro Blanquita and I don’t know if they really didn’t have a babysitter or anyone to take care of their 10-year-old daughter, but that’s how I saw her at such a young age. And we went back to see her in her dressing room. I keep thinking back to what that felt like, to see Lyn May on stage when I was that age. And my father was a really great champion of popular culture so I grew up thinking of these vedettes as very familiar figures in my life who had to do with my childhood.

On the Film’s Hopeful Message

Maria José: I think we’re not very used to seeing the passing of time. Take Lyn, for example. She’s still very active, doing her shows and finding new ways of showing off her talent. But there’s also that more melancholy aspect of the film, evoked by the old video footage and those early clips from her career. They really put the passing of time in perspective. This is, after all, a normal process that we all go through. And that’s what the film does, get us to reflect on how we age. To meet us now is to see how they’ve aged and how they see themselves now. What’s key about Bellas de noche — well, actually, about them not just the movie — is above all, the resilience these women have had to reinvent themselves and to keep going. The film is really more about celebrating life than it is about celebrating the past.

The Q&A took place in Spanish and has been translated by the author for Remezcla.