Spanish filmmaker Laura Herrero Garvin first found her way to the Cabaret Barba Azul in Mexico City one night after hours when she wanted to go salsa dancing with friends.
Her visit there was to lead to her new documentary, La Mami (sold by Dogwoof and a world premiere at IDFA ). The film looks at life inside the club, but from a very unusual perspective.
On that first evening, Garvin had happened to overhear once of the dancers talking to an imposing looking older woman who appeared to be the cloakroom attendant.
“When I went to the bathroom, I started to listen to this girl saying (to her) ‘oh, Mami, he asked me to marry him. What should I do?’” The woman brusquely replied, “He asks you to marry him every week.”
Lonely and cash strapped women came to the club to earn money as dancers. For them, Garvin realised, the attendant La Mami (or Doña Olga to give her real name) was both minder, agony aunt and maternal figure. If they had problems with their clients or boyfriends they could confide in her.
La Mami was fiercely protective of the dancers – and generally very suspicious of outsiders. She could be outspoken and very rude. However, Garvin had an immediate connection with her. She told her she would love to make a documentary about her.
“I spent three years going there week by week by week by week,” the director explains of how she gained the confidence of both La Mami and the dancers. They accepted her as one of their own. Gradually, they stopped noticing the camera.
“At the beginning, it was more difficult because they (the dancers) were looking in the camera and saying ‘how am I looking?’”
Garvin’s route into the documentary world is unusual. She grew up in a small village outside Toledo in Spain. Her father is a farmer. Her mother works for the post office. She originally studied engineering but her dream was to become a director. After travelling in Europe, the US and Latin America, she went to live in Mexico. This was when she began to study filmmaking in earnest.
In Mexico, the young auteur became involved not just in filmmaking but in political activism. She co-founded a collective named Emergencia Mx, which protested against the violence caused by the government’s war against drugs and against the huge number of disappearances in the country. Through her political activism, Garvin met Laura Imperiale, a veteran and highly respected Mexico-based Argentinian producer known for her work with Arturo Ripstein. Imperiale eventually came on board to produce La Mami.
After several years living in Mexico, Garvin has returned to Spain and is now based in Barcelona.
The film has taken roughly five years to complete. “Three years of investigation, half a year shooting and one and a half years of post-production,” is how the director tallies up the time she has devoted to the documentary.
One lesson Garvin learned during all those years at the club is that you don’t argue with La Mami. No, the great lady herself hasn’t yet seen the film. She has refused to watch it unless Garvin is there with her. “We are still talking every week. I told her, Mami, I want you to see the movie before I premiere it but she said ‘no, I want you to be there.’”
Following its IDFA premiere, La Mami will show at festivals around the world. In Mexico, it will screen at the Ambulante Documentary Festival (the event founded by Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna and Pablo Cruz), most probably with Mami in the audience.