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“I Believe That Filmmaking Is a Dream Capturing Machine”: Jorge G. Camarena on His Student Short Film Showcase Winner Spaceship

Fusing harsh realities with otherworldly wonders, Jorge G. Camarena’s short film Spaceship is an adept blend of melancholy and magical realism. An MFA graduate of the AFI Conservatory’s directing program, Camarena had a robust career in music video and commercial work before pursuing his postgraduate studies. The visual slickness of his commissioned work coupled with a desire to tell stories of people living on the margins (or as he describes, “hidden in plain sight”) makes for a final product that is both sharply focused and totally vulnerable. This description also feels apt for Spaceship’s protagonist, a trans woman and single mother named Maria (a wonderfully naturalistic Carlie Guevara).

Unable to pay the rent for her dilapidated East LA apartment with the wages she earns as a dishwasher at a swanky downtown restaurant, Maria begins to fear that her elementary-aged daughter Alex will be taken away from her. Struggling to find a better paying gig while trying not to shatter Alex’s childhood optimism, Maria resorts to indulging in unfettered fantasy in order to preserve the protective bond between mother and daughter. Spaceship, which Camarena co-wrote with Victor Gabriel, is one of five winners of the 2022 Student Short Film Showcase, a collaborative program from The Gotham, Focus Features and JetBlue that is available to stream via Focus Features’s YouTube channel and offered in the air as part of JetBlue’s in-flight entertainment selection.

I spoke with Camarena over email, a conversation that touches upon the filmmaker’s childhood romps in “George Land,” the process behind casting Guevara and growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Filmmaker: First, what intrigued you about attending AFI as an MFA directing fellow? Now that you’ve graduated, how has your film school experience continued to inform your work? 

Camarena: I started directing ads and music videos for the biggest record labels in the world that went on to win and/or be nominated for Best Video at the Latin Grammys, Best Video IMAS and 4 MTV Video Awards. A drive to move into narrative cinema prompted me to get an MFA at the AFI Conservatory directing program. The comfort zone is appealing and seductive, so shifting my career and leaving everything was a scary decision, but directing narrative cinema is what I’ve always dreamed of.

From day one at AFI, I understood that this was going to be an intense journey into myself. I learned that my voice is in my fears and vulnerability. Only by daring to be truthful I can access it and use it to portray the complexity of us humans, taking the audience on a journey that connects with insight and empathy. My experience at AFI, the tools I learned and the people that I met, are now an essential part of my work and have been informing the projects that I am currently working on.

Filmmaker: When did you first develop the idea for this film, and how did you go about fleshing out the narrative? 

Camarena: “I want to be free, not brave.” This is what a sign I saw during a protest in my hometown said, and it encompasses how Maria, the protagonist of Spaceship, feels. It is also how my mother felt when she had to raise me while having a professional job and demanding career at a time where it wasn’t socially approved for women to work, especially in Guadalajara, Mexico where I was born and raised. She took me to her job because there wasn’t anyone available to take care of me. Her passion and dedication to her career and family had a huge impact on me, especially her strength to pull everything together to raise me. I could see that she struggled, although she did a very good job of hiding it. The bond I have with my mother is what fuels this story.

When I moved to LA, I found the Latino communities struggling with the same social structures that prevent people back home from being who they really are. Here I met Fabiola, a Latina trans woman who has a son. Her experience and struggle connected universally to the story I wanted to tell about my mother and me, so she became a source of inspiration and a consultant for our project. The team and I went through exhaustive research with the trans POC community. We talked to the women of The TransLatin@ Coalition and The Trans Wellness center (TWC) in LA. They introduced us to the community of resilient women who kindly shared their experience with us. The TWC program manager, Mariana Marroquin, served as a consultant for the film and has helped us all along the way. I met Kase Peña, a Latina trans filmmaker, who became our story editor, consultant and mentor or as she would say, our “madrina” (godmother). I also teach film to kids at high-risk communities in East LA, which gave me an insight into the Latino communities in the US.

I was very fortunate to develop the story with a very talented team: producer Roxanne Griffith, cinematographer Kadri Koop, production designer Esme Jackson, co-writer Victor Gabriel and editor Mengyao Mia Zhang. I think that merging our different experiences and views of the world made our story more powerful, and it also taught each of us something about each other. For me, filmmaking is an exploration not only with the world that you’re submerging yourself into, but also the collaborative experience that enhances the story—and ultimately ourselves.

Filmmaker: How did you come to cast your lead actress Carlie Guevara? Her performance is spectacular. 

Camarena: After a very extensive search in Los Angeles, which wasn’t working out, I stumbled upon the trailer for The Garden Left Behind, which was premiering at SXSW, and I fell in love with Carlie. There was something in her eyes that I think is hard to find, a certain sweetness hidden in a strong gaze that is already telling us a story. I sent her our script and then we talked on the phone (Carlie is based in NY). I explained what my vision of the character was, she had a couple notes that we discussed, and then she agreed to be a part of the project. Once she was officially our lead, we had many conversations about the character and our own experiences, sharing our vulnerabilities and talking about life. Spaceship was the second time that Carlie had ever acted, and I was looking for that—a non-actor with life experience that could bring a raw perspective without limits. I think she not only nailed it, but also injected a huge set of layers into the character. I worked very closely with her to ensure we were portraying Maria’s inner and outer worlds along with the specific nuances in the best way possible. I am very grateful that she accepted to go into this adventure with us.

Filmmaker: Your protagonist’s struggle is hinged on so many injustices—her economic status, her transness, her gender—yet the film’s ending feels far more hopeful than bleak. How did you navigate these harsh realities without falling into pessimism? 

Camarena: Being born in a country with such a vast array of magic and folklore has shaped me and the stories I tell. A place where light dances with darkness. The colors mix to create beautiful landscapes and people, but also a harsh reality with corruption, poverty and violence. People trying to find light in life amidst this terrible reality is where I come from. Growing up in this context and being an introverted person who has deeply struggled to find a sense of belonging, I’m drawn into narratives that are hidden in plain sight or that are constantly ignored; the beauty of broken things and how they compose and connect us. Cinema is the vessel that I found to explore the center of my soul in collision with the external world, and I use it to express my view—counterpointing my voice and stories with that of others to create narratives that portray the struggle between hope and despair. 

Social stigmas regarding gender transition and skin color coupled with the East LA Latino community’s religious conservatism place Maria and her daughter at odds, pushing them to a social purgatory/no man’s land and leaving them completely alone. The idea is to submerge into one moment of Maria’s life where we experience the complexity of the human condition through the eyes of a mother. It’s about how each of us fights and deals with our own battles in a unique way and discovering ourselves within the mess of our own chaos. I wanted Spaceship to explore the intimate bond of a mother-child relationship in combination with a society that invalidates Maria’s capacity for being a mother. Maria is on a quest to find a place that acknowledges her existence. A place to call home.

Filmmaker: Finally, what inspired you to incorporate a theme of childhood whimsy and fantasy into this short’s premise? 

Camarena: “George Land” was the official term some of my middle school teachers attributed to the fact that I wasn’t paying attention in class because I was daydreaming. Imagining stories became a problem for me. I was a shy kid, so my daydreaming provided me with a safe place. My English literature teacher noticed the core of my problem and told me that I should manage my imagination and put it to good use. He began handing me books and poems he thought would appeal to me, which they did, profoundly. He encouraged me to start writing my own stories and told me to find the rational within the irrational and vice versa, to channel it and find a means of expression. I realized that the answer was in the collision of my two worlds, my external world—or my logical, rational side—with my irrational inner dream world, which resulted in my own personal big bang. That experience has informed the way that I still approach storytelling.

I think that fantasy and dreams are part of how we cope with reality and how we constantly navigate our sense of self and belonging on a subconscious level. Incorporating these elements into the film allows me to portray the flaws and controversies that make a character human, in conjunction with external conflicts, in a visual way. I believe that filmmaking is a dream capturing machine that can not only travel through time and space, but also into the most obscure corners of the human psyche, providing us with a glimpse of our own existence.

Spaceship dances between the environment and character and how they affect each other. It contrasts between the micro cosmos of the inner universe of our character, and the macro cosmos of the universe through the analogy of space travel.

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