Chavela Vargas was an iconic ranchera singer in Mexico, known for how much feeling she could imbue in her performances. She was often described as a volcano rising from the earth. This analogy feels right to me, not simply because of the rumbling and immutable sound of her voice, but also because of the immutable quiet that defined certain parts of her life. I’ve chosen to write about Chavela, the 2017 documentary by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, because it captures how Chavela’s life was defined by music and by silence.
Growing up in a semi-conservative Mexican household, I always knew of Chavela’s songs, but we never really discussed her life outside of them—mainly, the fact that she was a lesbian. It was liberating to see her great love affairs be discussed so openly and without artifice. The film is proud to show how much she loved. This does not mean it isn’t honest, for it also shows how Chavela was sometimes difficult to love. She was brash, daring, and volatile. My favorite scene is when Chavela stops mid-interview to say, “I’m going to dive into the water because I feel like it,” and then immediately jumps into a nearby river.
In these ways, the film is loud, but it unfolds like one of Chavela’s songs, rising and waning with each verse.
At one point in the film, Chavela states that she leaves pauses in her performances so that the next phase can be all the more impactful; a moment left bare, perhaps, to remember the pain that the song is pulling from. The film constructs moments like this too, whether it pauses from the interviewees themselves, or periods where we linger on an image for a second too long. It also documents the period in her life when she was forced into literal silence, having been run out of the mainstream music industry because of her lesbianism. These pauses in her songs, and in the film itself, are brilliant because they show how from so much silence and suffering, we can come to find such passionate and extraordinary music.
Chavela is available to stream on Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube, and on DVD from Aubin Pictures. Follow Chavela on the film’s website and the filmmakers on Aubin Pictures.
Bini is a Mexican-Lebanese student currently on her gap year between high school and college. She is interested in the practice of oral history.