Frida Kahlo never explained her homosexuality so neither did we: Carla Gutierrez - Hindustan Times

Frida Kahlo never explained her homosexuality so neither did we, says documentary director Carla Gutierrez

ByDevansh Sharma
Mar 14, 2024 07:47 PM IST

In an exclusive interview, Frida director Carla Gutierrez opens up on retaining the Mexican painter's voice in the documentary and playing up her art.

For everyone asking how many documentaries on Frida Kahlo do we need, we certainly need the latest one. Directed and edited by Carla Gutierrez, Frida (2024) is told from the perspective of the legendary Mexican painter, through not only her pictures and self-portraits, but also her voice. All the words one hears across the documentary are from her letters, diaries, essays, and print interviews – taking her pioneering device of self-portrait to a whole new level.

A new documentary on Frida Kahlo is made of her self-portraits and words
A new documentary on Frida Kahlo is made of her self-portraits and words

(Also Read – Frida movie review: A visceral exploration of the Mexican painter's life and art)

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Choosing the voice

One can imagine that for Carla, the primary challenge of making Frida went beyond the Herculean task of assembling every word that belonged to her. It also entailed hunting for a voice that felt like it was coming from beyond the grave. “We had a lot of interviews inviting people who knew Frida. There were some who described her voice as a bit raspy, but not very low. As you can see in the film, she smoked a lot. So that explains the raspy voice," said Carla in an exclusive interview.

But when it came to Frida Kahlo, not any raspy female voice would do. It demanded gravitas, a depth of emotion, and most crucially, a character. “We knew we wanted to find a voice actor who had the maturity, who went through a lot of pain in her life, but also never lost the freshness, passion, and curiosity of a young girl who interacted the world in such an intense way,” said Carla, insisting that the voice needed to capture what made Frida Kahlo the painter we know today: duality, contrast, range.

New documentary gives life to Frida Kahlo's words
New documentary gives life to Frida Kahlo's words

With the help of casting director Luis Rosales in Mexico, a search across film, television, and theatre actors, landed them Fernanda Echevarría. “The feeling she put in her audition really felt like it came from Frida. Then we took her voice against the edit of an image of Frida, and it felt like Frida came alive for us,” said Carla, who then worked with her closely during the recordings and guided her through the voice acting. “I asked her to think like she was talking about the end of her life to a friend or telling me all her secrets,” added Carla.

Playing up her art

While Carla and her team went down the authentic route by securing Frida's voice through her words, they've been criticised by some quarters for meddling with her art. Like the path-breaking 2017 experimental biopic Loving Vincent, a lot of Frida's paintings have been animated for cinematic effect. Carla agrees it was a bold, controversial decision, but is glad that they went ahead with it in order to “immerse viewers in her mind and heart.”

“The paintings were her inner world, what she was feeling, and we wanted to guide the viewers through those emotions. Those paintings carry so much meaning and there are so many details,” she said. Carla claimed that the paintings didn't have the same depth of field or interactive appeal when she relocated them from a museum or a book to the screen.

Frida animates many of the Mexican painter's artwork
Frida animates many of the Mexican painter's artwork

“It didn't capture the magic of the paintings. So we thought let's show what she wanted to show, be incredibly respectful of it, never add outside elements to her paintings, but let's take it to this cinematic space, give it a little movement, and highlight the things in the paintings we wanted to underline,” said Carla, elaborating how technology can be utilised to aid art, as long as it serves a higher purpose while retaining the integrity of the original artwork.

She added that a lot of admirers like her feel a sense of ownership over Frida's work. Carla recalls connecting to her as a young woman a few decades ago. “She gets really intimate and personal with her emotions. So much so that when I see her paintings, I get intimate and personal with my own feelings. That painting of hers, cutting her hair after a heartbreak, I've been there. So this sense of hate, anger, desperation or losing a loved one to somebody else, it's very universal. By being able to tap into her own emotions, she managed to tap into these emotions that we all share, especially us women,” said Carla.

Frida, the woman

Like many of Frida Kahlo's paintings, the documentary on her never lets us forget how tough it was for women to break out in the early 20th century. Frida confesses at one point that she took up art so she could remain independent of the many men who cheated her. But Carla feels Frida was a painter much before that. “I actually think she started painting for herself first. She was always painting the stuff she was feeling, and not trying to sell those paintings," she said.

Three life-altering events, however, pushed Frida to become the painter we know her as today. First, a road accident that crippled her for life. She found a creative outlet in painting, one of the few activities she could do in that physical state. Second, the miscarriage. Carla feels that her first miscarriage, due to the lack of strength in her body, gave her “the raw, violent beauty” that she's synonymous with today. But, she adds, her most productive phase began after her divorce, when she needed to make a living. “In those years, there was not only a calmness, but she had a motivation,” said Carla.

Frida explores the Mexican painter's wry sense of humour
Frida explores the Mexican painter's wry sense of humour

Everything from her financial independence to the light hair above her lips suggested how Frida viewed womanhood and sexuality. She never saw her homosexuality as a big deal, even though it was a sin for Mexican society back then. “I also think that she was free to do it because she was in a bohemian community of artists that was much more open than society in general,” said Carla. It was still extremely courageous and inspirational for young Mexican girls even today, although it didn't feel like that to Frida, personally.

“From early on, she allowed herself pleasure and sought it out in a way that it never seemed shameful. The way she talked about sex and homosexuality, anything that gave her pleasure, was a good thing. The sensuality in her colours and gaze, it felt like she's luring us in, even when she presented grief,” said Carla, adding that Frida's no-fuss gaze on sexuality and desire informed theirs too. “The truth is, in her writings, she doesn't talk about it that much. She just is (homosexual). She's sending love letters to both men and women. She expressed her desire to everyone she was attracted to, irrespective of gender. So in the film, we also decided to be very natural about it, instead of explaining it in a defensive, protective way," she added.

Frida doesn't overexplain the painter's sexuality
Frida doesn't overexplain the painter's sexuality

One trait that does come across in her writings is her humour. Frida Kahlo has been associated with grief and pain for so many decades that her sense of humour got buried under her legacy and image. How she mocks the New York bourgeoisies and calls them stupid, made her a rebel, not only through her art, but also via her stance on the snobbery associated with the profession of art, even today.

Carla pointed out how Frida faced her fears with a pinch of salt. Her paintings of death as a puppet on fire reflected the mischievous daredevilry rooted in Mexican culture.. She said, “I find it really sarcastic that she was painting a lot about loneliness and physical pain, but it was incredibly colourful. That's how she faced pain: she just looked at it directly and said, ‘Well, I’m here. What are you going to do about it?'”

Frida is now streaming on Prime Video.

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