“What a woman may do if only she dares, and dares to do greatly.” – Loreta Velazquez
Shrouded in mystery and long the subject of debate, the amazing story of Loreta Velazquez, confederate Soldier turned Union Spy, is one of the Civil War’s most gripping forgotten narratives. While the U.S. military may have recently lifted the ban on women in combat, Loreta Janeta Velazquez, a Cuban immigrant from New Orleans, was fighting in battle 150 years ago – one of an estimated 1000 women who secretly served as soldiers during the American Civil War. Who was she? Why did she fight? And what made her so dangerous she has been virtually erased from history? Premiering Friday, May 24th at 10 pm EST (check local listings here) through VOCES on PBS, REBEL is the story of a woman, a myth, and the politics of national memory.
In a must-read Q&A with Producer/Director/Writer MarÍa Agui Carter, Carter talks to LPB about making her captivating film REBEL, what it took to get the film off the ground and her advice for aspiring filmmakers.
María Agui Carter immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador. She produces films for PBS and cable and is an advocate for Latino and social issue filmmakers, serving as Chair of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, and past Chair of the Filmmaker’s Collaborative. She has been the winner of a George Peabody Gardner, a Warren, a CPB/PBS, and a Rockefeller Fellowship, among others, and has served as a visiting scholar/artist at Harvard, Tulane and Brandeis.
What inspired you to tell Loreta Janeta Velazquez’s story to the public media audience?
PBS for me is the gold standard for documentary, with stories that not only entertain, but illuminate. Loreta’s story is complex and nuanced and I felt that PBS audiences would appreciate a story that asked them to think critically not just about the amazing tale they were hearing, but about the politics of historical storytelling. Latino Public Broadcasting panels gave me seed funding to make trailers that later turned into production funding. Indeed, LPB funding has been a critical component in the explosion of Latino media on the PBS system. Unfortunately, the number of dollars available for our community is neither commensurate with our population growth nor with the explosion of talented and trained Latino producers who should be able to access PBS funding for their projects, and I hope this will soon change.
When first meeting with archivist Diane Blanton, what the most shocking thing you discovered?
I knew Loreta had fought for the Confederacy and that her story had been erased, but not about the extensive documentation that existed about her. I was most amazed to find a letter of pay for her work as a union spy in the National Archives.
The reputation and credibility of Loreta Velazquez was easily tainted by Jubal Early, a Confederate general in the American Civil War, when he publicly attacked Loreta’s memoir. From your perspective, what role, if any, did Loreta’s gender and ethnicity play in his ability to do so?
Loreta was attacked not so much for fighting as a soldier and serving as a spy, but for being a Latina woman who then dared to criticize the corruption of wartime society and the confederacy. Jubal Early was correct in pointing out errors in Loreta’s details of some of her experiences. She did write her memoirs a decade after the war, and it is very likely she exaggerated her experiences to sell more books. Readers of 19th century memoirs expected writers to take some licence and accepted this for its entertainment value. But Jubal went beyond attacking the details of her story to attack Loreta’s character – he was able to erase her by calling her a prostitute. He declared, after meeting with her and detecting no accent, that she was no Spanish woman and most likely a Northerner. Of course, having grown up in the States she would not have retained any accent.
Jubal understood that historic narratives of the American Civil War are at the heart of some of the most important debates concerning American identity and nationhood. The Civil War has always captured the American imagination. In Civil War fairs, festivals, roundtables, and recreations around the country, Americans embrace a living history and understanding of the actors and events of that war – but they are mostly white Americans. Although diverse Americans of many different cultures played an integral part in the Civil War, the popular image of this War is far from inclusive. As we look at the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, it is time to look at the participation of minorities and women. I made REBEL to explore not just one Latina woman soldier’s story, but the politics of national memory.
What do you hope the film will communicate about history and the way that it is shaped?
History is not marginal – it is the story our nation tells about who we are. And American history has left out women and minorities for the most part. The stories we tell about ourselves endow power. If subsequent generations had never heard about Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King, how would our lives as minorities in America be impacted? Now let’s think about the hundreds of incredible Latinos missing from 500 years of history in this nation –how would all Americans shift their presumptions if they heard those untold stories about Latino contributions? Loreta’s is just one.
Can you tell us what it took to get the film off the ground and into production?
Getting this film made took blood sweat and tears – and a lot of stopping and starting. I’m a working mom so I made REBEL while taking on commissioned films, and raising two kids. While writing grant applications and waiting for them to come through, I wrote, produced and directed ‘Tango Duel’ and ‘Dance’ (30 min), ‘Rumble Over West Side Story’ (30 min), made a pilot for the ‘College Track’ series (60 min.), and served as consulting producer for Unnatural Causes, all for PBS. In addition, I wrote for the Netflix funded indie ‘Chevolution’ (86 min.) that premiered at Tribeca, I wrote and directed a short drama for cable called CLEATS (10 min.), and I produced an NEH funded feature documentary called ‘No Job For a Woman’ (61 min.) that aired this year on PBS World. In addition, I served as chair of the Filmmaker’s Collaborative, a group of New England social issue filmmakers, for three years, started the Boston Chapter of NALIP, then joined the National board of NALIP and three years ago became Chair of the National board. I just sent my two kids off to college this fall – I always say REBEL is my third baby and now she’s off too.
‘Rebel’ features interviews, archival footage and dramatic recreations. Was it always your intention to include dramatic recreations? Did you face any challenges in doing so?
I love documentary and never tire of its many forms. But every story has to have the right language and I felt this epic story needed large-scale full-on dramatic scenes. We seldom see films about 19th Century Latinos – as if Latinos just swam over a few years ago and did not exist in North American history. I wanted to bring that world alive, not by moving on empty spaces or having actors read lines, but by populating the entire world of the 19th century with Latinos front and center. But dramatic period work has special obstacles, one of the big ones caused by exponential increases in budget– for example, women’s hair today simply not long enough to fashion into 19th c styles. That meant wigs for all the women, and one good wig costs thousands. We couldn’t pull clothing out of closets or thrift stores – they had to be appropriate to the time – some were made especially for the film, some were rented. The world around us is so transformed that finding locations always meant additional extensive set design. One of the most enormous challenges I faced was that REBEL is a period War film and I needed battle. How would I, with no dramatic directing experience raise the money to do this, much less figure out how to take this on? I had to be inventive.
I knew no one would fund me until they saw I could pull this off but I couldn’t pay the costs of filming massive battle scenes at first. I needed a trailer and had very little money. I convinced one group of battle reenactment event organizers to give me permission to shoot during their reenactment weekend when thousands gathered to recreate battles. Then I blocked my actors to look as if they were in the foreground interacting with the much larger scenes and voila – large panoramic scenes with hundreds of “extras.” I learned as I went and shot dramatic footage using some improvisational verite approaches, which allowed me to work with what evolved in front of me. For the final war scenes, I did have to work with my own teams because there were explosions and very carefully orchestrated battle charges and camera movements.
In 2011 you presented a preview to the film at the American Latino Heritage Forum being hosted by the White House and the U.S. Department of the Interior. After spending a decade creating this film, what was this experience like for you?
The White House event was an incredible validation that what I was doing made a difference and that people –political and cultural and civic leaders were hungry for the kind of historical storytelling I was making. It was such an honor. With the positive response to that event, the National Parks cemented our relationship as an outreach partner and commissioned an educational film about Loreta. I will be showing the film around the country in battlefield parks, visitor centers and historic houses and to schoolchildren. They, along with PBS, will help this story become part of public history. The White House event was a turning point for me.
A lesson plan accompanied by excerpts from ‘Rebel’ will be offered through PBS Learning Media. What do you hope students will take away from the story of Loreta Velasquez?
I loved working with educator Alison Milewski to create a lesson plan and cut video teaching modules. She invented creative ways to help students ponder our contemporary assumptions about who soldiers and our expectations of women in the armies with clips from my film about a Latina woman soldier from 150 years ago. The study exercises will draw kids into the story, then make them question their own presumptions. I am thrilled that my film can help teachers bring the story of Loreta and the women and Latino soldiers into the school curriculum. PBS Learning Media will host that, and my website rebeldocumentary.com will also have an additional trove of bonus scenes and shorts, archival documents and essays and free learning tools, plus the National Park Service film on Loreta.
Not only do you have vast experience as an award-winning filmmaker, you also serve as Chair on the National Association of Latino Independent Producers’ Board of Directors. What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
One of the most important things to happen to me as a filmmaker was NALIP (The National Association of Latino Independent Producers). Films are never made by one person. Making a film takes a community, and brilliant collaborators who one trusts to make one’s film better. At NALIP I found kindred spirits who not only struggled with questions of art and filmmaking, but also with the politics of the Latino experience in the industry. I became part of a movement of filmmakers gathering strength from one another and kicking down barriers to access in a media world that practices systemic exclusion of filmmakers of color. There were so many times when I was discouraged along the way- filmmaking is exhilarating but it is also full of pitfalls and pain. I don’t know a filmmaker without war stories of making their film. At one point, after Hurricane Katrina, I lost all my funding from Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities – after I had spent a major chunk of it already and was about to put in for reimbursement. How could I complain when the people of New Orleans had lost homes and lives? It took me a year to get myself started again and to go find that money from scratch. What got me up again? I was at a NALIP conference where my fellow “documamas” from my first NALIP Producer’s Academy, gathered around and told me how much they believed in me. At NALIP there are so many people I look to for inspiration – from POV Exec. VP Cynthia Lopez who is a driving force behind diversity at PBS, to NALIP ED Beni Matias who has worked in the trenches of public media and social justice, to my fellow NALIP board members and trustees working in public media, in networks and Hollywood and new media, to my fellow NALIP directors and writers and producers and actors whose work every day gives me hope because I know our stories are transforming America’s vision of Latinos.
Can you tell us about the next project you are working on?
I’m writing a script loosely based on my own experience attending one of the most elite boarding schools in the country on scholarship while secretly undocumented. I am also developing a story about the Latino roots of Jazz, and on an experimental film about immigration and citizenship told through philosophy, literature, history and art.
Like Loreta, I immigrated as a child to the US from Latin America, and I sympathize with her painful struggle to find acceptance within her community. My African American co-producer Calvin Lindsay, Jr. and I have tackled films on race and class before, and are deeply challenged and haunted by the internal racism faced by people like Loreta who chose to pass and deny their true identities, and the intra-group racism that divides our communities. REBEL is not meant as a celebration of an uncomplicated heroine – rather, it is showing Loreta with all her flaws as well as her strengths that makes her story worth sharing. I am thankful that along the way, so many have believed in me so I could believe in myself. I am someone who never had a television before I was seven, who grew up undocumented in the US and dared not dream I could be an artist growing up, but who now gets to write and direct stories seen by hundreds of thousands. And I am humbled by my privilege.