Journalism instructor’s documentary lands at Milwaukee Film Festival

In her coastal Chilean town, Julieta is the only woman on the boat crews that venture out on the ocean each day trawling for fish. Gloria faithfully tends her brother’s empty grave in the symbolic cemetery that overlooks the sea. Both remarkable women’s stories are told in a short documentary titled, “The Women and the Sea.”

But there’s a third remarkable woman: The one holding the camera.

Her name is Camila Guarda Velasco, and her documentary was just screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival in May.

“Nobody is more shocked than me of where this little film has gone to, and now here, in the Milwaukee Film Festival? I’m so, so happy,” she said.

In addition to being a documentarian, Guarda Velasco is a former television reporter and a current instructor in UWM’s Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies program, where she teaches documentary filmmaking, broadcast journalism, and visual storytelling. “The Women and the Sea” is her first film, and it’s already garnered several awards and has been shown at domestic and international screenings.

And it all started as a thesis project.

From filming to festival

Guarda Velasco is from Chile. She spent seven years as a broadcast journalist covering breaking news all around Latin America, but the constraints of journalism – like the fact that she rarely had time to take deep dives into any one story – inspired her to look for a change of pace. She found it in Northwestern University’s MFA program for Documentary Filmmaking.

“The Women and the Sea” is Guarda Velasco’s final project for her MFA, earned in 2019. In the final year of the program, students are tasked with creating their own short documentaries.

During her time as a reporter, Guarda Velasco had heard of “symbolic cemeteries,” which honor those who died at sea, their bodies unrecovered.

“I thought, wow, that’s so evocative, to have these empty tombs for these fishermen overlooking the ocean. In our MFA, when they told us to start thinking about what story we wanted to tell, I immediately started thinking of that one,” she said.

So, back to Chile she went – this time, to tiny coastal village of about 5,000 people. Guarda Velasco visited several times in 2018, getting to know the town’s residents and striking up easy friendships with two women in particular – Gloria, who has tended her brother’s grave in the symbolic cemetery for 30 years, and Julieta, the town’s only fisherwoman.

After shooting her footage over the course of her trips, Guarda Velasco edited her footage together, workshopped the cuts in her classes at Northwestern, and finally arrived at a finished project. The documentary program gave students small grants to help them enter their works in festivals, and Guarda Velasco’s documentary has been screened in Chile, France, Canada, and in various festivals throughout the United States, including in Milwaukee.

“The first thing I did when I got (to Milwaukee) in 2019 was go to the Milwaukee Film Festival. I just loved it. It was so fun,” Guarda Velasco said. “When submissions opened up, I thought, it would be so good to get into this festival! I swear, I never thought I would get in. But I did!”

From filming to friends

The documentary opens on Julieta’s boat, rocking on whitecap waves as the crew hauls in net after net of crabs and fish to fill large buckets that will later be sold to the town’s restaurants and food stalls. Julieta, who began working when she was 11 years old to support her family, and the other men in her crew trade jibes as they handle the boat and equipment.

Meeting Julieta was a pleasure, Guarda Velasco said, but filming her was a challenge. Julieta invited Guarda Velasco and her co-producer out on the fishing boat to record her and the crew. The filmmaker was determined that she would not get seasick.

“I lasted about 10 minutes,” she said ruefully. “I had to put my camera away and I only had my little Go-Pro to film with. It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had in my life. I thought I was going to die, at one point – either from falling off because of the waves, or because I was just so sick.”

Interspersed with Julieta’s day are shots of Gloria, an older woman who, every Sunday, traverses a rocky beach and climbs a flight of crumbling stairs to reach the symbolic cemetery on a cliff overlooking the ocean. There, she places flowers at her brother’s tombstone and tidies up around any other markers that are showing signs of neglect.

“The ocean gives, but takes away,” Gloria muses as she sits and stares over the achingly blue water, white grave markers behind her. “It takes more than it gives.”

That’s the heart of the film, Guarda Velasco says: Two women whose lives are touched by the ocean, taking and giving.

“I have this woman in her 60s who is the only fisherwoman in these all-male crews, and I have this other woman who tends this symbolic cemetery,” Guarda Velasco recalled. “It was something that immediately made sense to me, to have both of these women representing life and death at sea.”

Guarda Velasco is still friends with both Julieta and Gloria. They keep in touch via messaging apps and Guarda Velasco hopes to return to Chile to visit when it is safe to travel. She’s taken the lessons she’s learned from both women back to her classroom at UWM.

“This semester I taught a seminar class about ethics and representation in documentary filmmaking. We talk about who has the right to tell a story,” she said. “I learned that it’s so important to get to know your subjects first, to get to know the community first, to make sure you are not invading them in any way. That is something that I’ve been repeating so much this semester.”

The Milwaukee Film Festival ran from May 6-20. You can view a trailer for “The Women and the Sea.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science