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Sept. 30, 2018

Alexandra Hidalgo: The kinship of storytelling

Alexandra Hidalgo is assistant professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures. She is the co-director of The Documentary Film Lab.

In essays and interviews, famous writers often reveal that they have known since they were children that they wanted to write. Words were trapped inside them and desperately needed to be let out.

All the way up to my mid 30s, I felt a kinship to those writers, a sense of validation. I, too, had wanted to be a writer since before I knew how to actually fashion letters with a pencil. My grandmother, Olga Briceño, had a long history of publishing historical novels in Spain, the United States and in our homeland, Venezuela.

My father, Miguel Hidalgo, had published "Twilights and Dawn," a philosophical treatise, in the U.S. The thick book sat on our bookshelf, waiting for my English to be good enough to read it. Even then, I felt the call of words — the sense that someday I’d have my own books to place next to theirs on our bookshelves, a generational story told through book spines.

I got my MFA in creative writing at Naropa University, a magical school in Boulder, Colorado, founded by Buddhist monk Chögyam Trungpa and Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. I read and wrote a lot during that time, like any self-respecting MFA student would.

And yet, my husband Nate and I fell in love with The Video Station, a now-closed video store that seemingly held and rented every film ever made. I had always loved film, but through our almost daily trips to The Video Station our lives became suffused with images — black and white, silent, futuristic, animated.

The words that had always demanded to pour out of me transformed themselves into images with soundtracks, into voices spoken to the camera. I began to see my novel in terms of scenes — not chapters — but I kept writing, dreaming of the books with which I’d continue the family legacy.

It was while getting my Ph.D. in rhetoric and writing at Purdue that I finally picked up a camera to make a film of my own. I couldn’t figure out how to bring fiction into my scholarly trajectory, but I also didn’t know how to exist without telling stories.

Documentary filmmaking seemed like a way to blend both my scholarly interests and my artistic nature. As soon as I started editing my first film, I knew I’d found my creative home. It wasn’t that the footage was spectacular — it was as amateur as it gets — or that I enjoyed learning the ins and outs of editing software — the technicalities of software can be tiresome. It was, instead, the blend of storytelling and voice: the faces, the gestures, the way documentary, even with rather embarrassingly shot footage, can capture emotion and personality.

Although my first few films were about others, I eventually turned the camera toward our family. When my first son, William, was born, I began to film his ever-evolving face. For the first time, I was creating artistic, evocative images.

I wanted the camera to capture that all-encompassing, absolute love I felt for him. By the time he was done nursing, I realized that I should have filmed our nursing experience.

Luckily, I had a second son, Santiago, and made a film that told the story of nursing him for 22 months as a working mother. "Teta: a nursing mother tells her story" is a 25-minute documentary shot by my husband and directed by me with a negligible budget. It has been an official selection in 21 film festivals in 11 countries and won numerous awards over the last two years. It doesn’t fit in a bookshelf, but it does continue our family legacy of storytelling.

This is a legacy I have felt compelled to carry on since childhood. Not necessarily because I wanted to see my name on a book cover — though I did like that idea — but because my father, whose book I’ve now read many times, disappeared in the Venezuelan Amazon when I was six years old.

During my professional reinventions — from writer to scholar to filmmaker — I’ve tried to tell this story, to honor his life and his vanishing and to explain the aftermath of a family loss of that magnitude.

For the last three years, I’ve been hard at work on this new project. Getting grants; filming in Venezuela, the U.S., Spain and Portugal; editing, writing (narration is full of words, as it turns out); collaborating with brilliant Venezuelan filmmakers; and working with Nate, my constant artistic companion, as I bring this story to the screen.

As we apply for yet more grants, I know that I will find a way to complete "The Weeping Season" because I come from a long line of storytellers, and the stories we carry inside us — no matter what genre we share them in — must be told.