Sitting in the director's chair is a hard-fought battle for any female filmmaker. But it’s even tougher for Latina filmmakers such as Patricia Cardoso. The Colombian director has carved out a film career despite the industry’s lack of women and people of color.
She took a risk to tell the stories she wants to tell — and she inspires others to do the same.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Cardoso is in a meeting with one of her film students at the Cinematic School of Arts at the University of Southern California. As Cardoso signs a shoot release, she talks about the details of the script and the sequence of a scene.
“You can change it — this is what happens when you are developing a story,” she tells the student. “But first instincts are always good.”
She knows what she's talking about. It’s been more than 25 years since Cardoso left her hometown of Bogotá, Colombia, to attend UCLA. She was the first Colombian woman awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study film in Los Angeles. She became known for her 2002 HBO film Real Women Have Curves, which won the Sundance Film Festival's Dramatic Audience Award and Special Acting Awards for stars America Ferrera and Lupe Ontiveros.
But Cardoso has struggled to secure work on subsequent features. While she’s been attached to Universal Pictures’ Nappily Ever After and Disney’s The Jane Plan, neither film came to fruition.
Cardoso is currently in production on The Persian Pickle Club, set in 1930s Kansas during the Great Depression. The thriller has some big-name backing in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio’s production shingle, Appian Way.
“We’ve been working on it for a few years, and we have part of the financing but not all,” Cardoso says. “We have amazing actors attached like Jane Levy, Abigail Breslin and Joan Cusack.” She says Appian Way has been a dream to work with, collaborative and supportive — specifically executive producer Phillip Watson and producer Christine Fiore.
Cardoso recalls that, prior to The Persian Pickle Club, she was almost hired to direct a feature film seven different times. In each of those instances she was turned down — after interviewing with the producer, studio executives and the studio president — in favor of a white male director.
“I invested all my life pursuing these projects,” she says.
The dismal diversity numbers in Hollywood reflect Cardoso’s and her peers’ struggles. Last week, 50 female directors received a letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as part of an investigation into the hiring practices of Hollywood studios. (Cardoso was not among the women who received the letter.) According to filmmaker-activist Maria Giese, the rate of “Latino women and ethic minority women in television is 2 percent and in feature films there is 0 percent. There is basically Patricia Cardoso and nobody else.”
Cardoso says she keeps in her office a copy of the issue of Directors Guild of America magazine that lists the percentages of certain groups of people who get hired in Hollywood — “and minority women is less than 1 percent.”
“I put it there not to depress me,” she says, “but to remind why it is so hard — and it is not just me.”
Cardoso didn’t intend to pursue a film career. At Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes, she majored in anthropology and archeology and spent summers submerged in archeological sites. She worked as a research assistant in the “lost city” of the Sierra Nevada region of northern Colombia and published her findings in numerous academic journals.
“I found [that] all these stories will be in academic papers but nobody will read them,” she recalls. “They will be covered by dust.” So, at age 25, Cardoso shifted from academia to cinema, where she felt she could tell stories that people actually would see.
As a second-year film student, Cardoso stood out with her short film The Air Globes (1990), which won a Best Student Film Award at Sundance. “I made it for $4,000 U.S., and it made $40,000 U.S.,” she says. “That was very unusual at the time.”
She tried six different times to get an internship at Sundance and was rejected five of them. After her hard-won Sundance internship, she eventually landed a gig as an intern assistant for Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Terry Sanders and Freida Lee Mock, and ended up working as director of the Latin American Screenwriters Lab and organizing workshops in Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Cuba. The list of people she invited to attend those workshops as creative advisers in the early 1990s includes The Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles, producer-director-writer Guillermo del Toro and Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
“After looking for months in all Latin American countries and reading hundreds of scripts, I found Walter Salles and his script for Central Station,” Cardoso recalls. “I remember talking to him over the phone and pressing him to finish the screenplay ASAP. I needed to translate it to English.”
Cardoso nominated the script for a cash award — and it won $30,000 toward making the movie. The 1999 film went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film and received two Academy Award nominations, for Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Actress.
Following a short film, The Water Carrier of Cucumba (1994), which Cardoso completed as her thesis and for which she won a Student Academy Award as well as two Directors Guild of America awards, she went on to write four feature-length screenplays. None made it to the big screen.
And her directing career was slow going. Eight years after the release of Real Woman Have Curves, she directed the 2010 TV movie Lies in Plain Sight for Lifetime and then Meddling Mom, another TV movie, for Hallmark. More recently, she helmed the web series Ro.
“After I made The Water Carrier, I couldn’t make a living out of making a film,” she says. “And then I was nominated for an award that was [worth] $30,000 U.S., and I didn’t get it. I was crying like for two days, but after two days I got up and moved on.”
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Advocating on behalf of other Latina filmmakers has now become Cardoso’s mission. She has mentored directors including Aurora Guerrero, her former assistant on Real Woman Have Curves.
“Most of the film crews are male,” Cardoso says. “If I have the chance to hire, I always hire women.”
Almost 20 years after her start in the business, Cardoso now is an adjunct professor at USC’s film school. And her own struggles in the film industry have become classroom fodder and lessons for her students.
“You have to know your strengths and your stretches,” she says. "It is hard. But if you have persistence and you have patience, you are going to be able to tell your stories.”