Words in English appear on the black screen as a woman's voice whispers in Spanish. "What do you want me to do?" she asks, cowed. "I want my son," he declares. There is the familiar melodramatic sound of a violin rising as their scene fades into view, clearly a soap opera. We see as the conversation continues that the man looms over the woman, this housemaid who has ruined everything by becoming pregnant. He gives her stern orders. After the birth, she is to forget the child and leave forever. But partway through their conversation, there's a switch in scenery. We don't see the soap opera anymore, rather a lip-synched performance of the voiced-over soap opera by a woman who looks the part more than the glamorous soap star. She's young, but tired around the eyes. She's acting, costumed in a crisp black-and-white maid's uniform, but she is a real-life housemaid, one of 15 recruited by the artist Rodrigo Valenzuela for his latest project, Maria TV.
Valenzuela found the women, all Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States like him, on Facebook. He interviewed them individually, then brought them together in his studio with an acting coach, for a day of exercises in both confessional sharing and constructed theater. Some aspire to act, others are glad just for the hourly pay and the chance to tell their stories. In the final film, the women appear in ensembles, in monologues, sometimes speaking and sometimes lip-synching. The stories are either from TV or theirs. You often can't tell whether they're acting. Those scenes are intercut with that same self-consciously artificial soap opera scene. It functions as a churning reminder that representations of working-class women are distorted and rare ("There are no roles for working-class women in movies, unless they're hot," as Valenzuela puts it). Specifics are excised, as if protecting identities. One woman says she is still angry at her dead father, but we don't learn what he did. Her rage seems to be coming from someplace very much actually inside her, even if the details are from another woman's story or made up. The row of women in uniforms fans behind each monologuist like a Greek chorus.
Our first view of a real maid, the one who is young but looks tired, pictures her sitting in front of a green screen. The green screen is a blank, so that filmmakers can knit together a world and an individual without them ever having to actually meet. Valenzuela offers the green screen as a manifestation of the broader blank that wants filling in, a desire to know this woman's real background. What is her story, and how would she tell it?
The background to Maria TV is Diamond Box, a black-and-white video Valenzuela made featuring a similar but all-male crew of immigrant workers. When Valenzuela posted it to Vimeo in 2012, the first person to comment on it saw it as a piece of advocacy worth forwarding to the White House and California's attorney general. Despite Valenzuela's Vimeo caption that Diamond Box "mixes oral history with elements of fictional narrative," the commenter wrote, "I applaud you Mr. Valenzuela on this truthful documentary." The presumed truth is the larger one that any art purports to tell.
Still, Valenzuela didn't make a documentary. He inserted plenty of narrative doubt into Diamond Box by multiplying the voices and dividing them from the faces. The audio is strung-together testimony by several different men, about crossing the border, the horrors of thirst, the imprisonment on the first try, the girl who was left behind because her toenails "popped off" and nobody could help her then. But none of the men's lips move on-screen as their faces appear in close-up black and white—they're all silent. No man is tied to his own potentially incriminating story, and dislocating the voice from the face has the same effect as inserting the blank of a green screen.
Can we assume that these stories are similar enough that they are the same basic story? Why bother showing individual faces? The answer is in the undeniable individuality in their expressions as they sit in the artist's studio and fidget, doing nothing and probably thinking this is the weirdest job they've ever gotten standing out in front of Home Depot (where Valenzuela himself once picked up work). Valenzuela filmed them speaking, but only used the footage of their silences. We can't know what each man is thinking. But watch the expressions alone, without reading the words, and a second movie emerges, one with many diverse characters rather than one immigrant.
Diamond Box is an experiment in how to make biographical art that struggles for specificity in the context of a dominant shared experience—about how to tell true stories that skirt perilously close to stereotype because some stereotypes can be perilously close to real. To repeatedly watch Diamond Box and Maria TV is to see the artist's tight formal structures emerge, and his carefully choreographed cues about how fact and fiction, and character and environment, are established for viewers. Valenzuela was a child of dubbed TV shows and dictatorial broadcast interventions in Chile, so he forever begins in doubt. But these videos still go looking for the real just past the glare of the screen. Maybe finding something out about people is as fundamental to artmaking as, say, offering beauty or novelty or cleverness, which Valenzuela brings, too.
Before releasing Maria TV publicly on Vimeo, where you can watch it for free, Valenzuela (who won the Stranger Genius Award in art last year) premiered it last weekend at Northwest Film Forum in front of a sold-out audience including several women from the film. The stories they tell are sad, about setting themselves aside for others and wishing for more. Meanwhile, even the shy ones stand proudly in the camera's eye, and others are like dams released, more than ready for their close-ups. None have ever been considered filmworthy before.
At times, I had too many questions to think clearly about what I was seeing. What were the instructions given to the women, and who gave them? You wouldn't know just by watching that there was an acting coach creating a highly controlled art/therapy environment. Some methodical adaptation of the director's notes that often accompany "based on a true story" movies might be in order. A text by Valenzuela, authored as part of the whole artwork, would be preferable to relying on the "objective" explanatory supertext imposed by a contemporary art museum or gallery.
Valenzuela wants to make more chapters, with more women. Both audience and participants will benefit if he can. Maria TV is more complex than Diamond Box. Unlike Diamond Box's droning soundtrack, Maria TV is animated by bells and plinky percussive music. The women made the music themselves, and Valenzuela edited it into its own agenda, underscoring or contrasting the action like the surprise-mood-shifting music on This American Life. The people want the truth. Just preferably in the form of good stories.