By Megan Smith
For 30 years, internationally acclaimed Venezuelan director Fina Torres (Oriana, Woman On Top) has brought the stories of strong women to life on the big screen. Giving voices to characters who—more often than not—are silenced in Hollywood, Torres’ honest and impactful films have given audiences a reason to rejoice time and time again.
Her latest film, Liz in September (Liz en Septiembre), stars openly gay actress Patricia Velasquez and is based on Jane Chambers’ stage play, Last Summer at Blue Fish Cove—a work that Torres deems “the first mainstream, quality literary play in lesbian theater history.”
In late October, I had the honor of speaking with Torres about Liz in September’s time on the film-festival circuit, working with Velasquez, and an upcoming project (Spoiler alert: the main characters are women!).
Megan Smith: I first saw Liz in September during Houston’s QFest Film Festival, where you were given tribute and received the festival’s inaugural lifetime achievement award earlier this year. What was that experience like for you?
Fina Torres: It was my first lifetime achievement award! It was an amazing experience. I can look back and say, “Oh look, I’ve accomplished something.” [laughs] But really, [as a filmmaker] you don’t always think about that. You’re always trying to move forward—to secure funding, to make movies. So [this award] made me stop and take a look back. I was really very moved.
You’ve created numerous award-winning films on powerful women and their stories, yet Liz in September feels like the most intimate to date. Do you feel that way about the project?
I do feel that Liz in September is a very intimate movie. It’s the first time I’ve put more emphasis and thought into the characters than into the aesthetics. If you’ve seen my other films, you know that the construction of the image is very important to me. With this film, I tried to go more into the essence of the characters. It was a very interesting experience.
Patricia Velasquez, who is also the world’s first openly lesbian Latina supermodel and author of the new book Straight Walk: A Supermodel’s Journey to Finding Her Truth, brings an unmatched authenticity to the role of Liz. Have you worked with her before?
No, this is the first time I’ve worked with her. And I really wanted her to be outstanding in this role, and to give a performance that [audiences] would always remember. I wanted Liz to become an iconic character. Patricia really worked hard—we really worked hard together. And I hope it worked! [laughs] You know, you work very hard, but you never know what the result is going to be.
Do you feel that since Patricia is openly gay, she understood Liz’s role more than most?
Oh yes, of course. I think the fact that she’s gay really helped her better understand the character. Not only that, but there are many characteristics that Liz and Patricia share. Liz is a model, she’s seductive to women, and she knows the power of beauty—that’s Patricia’s biography. [laughs] And I thought [having someone like Patricia play the role] would bring more strength to the character. There’s really a fusion between Patricia and Liz.
The film has been featured in numerous other film festivals. What has the audience reaction been to the film thus far in other cities?
The film has won seven or eight audience awards, so audiences have had a really good response to the movie. The audience awards are not the easiest ones to get—audiences are tough! [laughs]
Funding can be so hard to come by—especially for female writers and directors—and that often prevents amazing movies from being made. Some of your biggest credits—Oriana, Celestial Clockwork, Woman On Top, and now Liz in September—were made years apart. How much did funding play a part in that sequence?
In my case, I think it was more of a personal issue. I made my first movie, Oriana, in 1985, and my second, Celestial Clockwork, ten years later. And when you win a prestigious award—like the Golden Camera Award—for your first movie, you have this pressure that the next movie has to be better, and better, and better. And you really block yourself because your expectations are so high. It’s very difficult to break away [from that mentality]. Five years later, I made Woman On Top, and then five years after that, I made another movie called Habana Eva. In between the time I made Woman On Top and Habana Eva, I had several projects in development in the United States, but it was very hard to put them together. So, I went back to Venezuela and made Habana Eva. I love that movie—it was very interesting to do. I shot it in Cuba and it won a lot of awards. And now, four years later, I’ve made Liz in September. So the more time goes along, the less time there is between movies.
In Liz in September, Liz struggles with the idea of what kind of legacy she will leave behind once she’s gone. Do you have a personal legacy that you want to leave behind?
I think my legacy will be my films. You know, when people are dying, they always think, “What am I leaving behind?” And I thought that was a very interesting idea to take and put in the movie.
Can you give us a sneak peek at any upcoming projects that you’ve been working on?
I have a project that I’m working on now that I’m going to shoot in April. It’s a comedy that’s going to be shot in Venezuela. And, of course, the main characters are two women. The film centers on violence in Venezuela. . . but that’s all I can say!