'La Mami': The refuge of sisterhood in the cabaret
The Spanish-Mexican production, considered Best Film by Cinema Tropical in 2020, will be released this month in U.S. theaters.
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During a night in 2015, on no date in particular, the doors open, and the decibels of merengue rumble. Soon after, the attendees let themselves go to the rhythm of salsa and cumbia. All the Latin rhythms melt between the dazzling neon lights and the disco balls of this legendary cabaret located in a working-class area of Mexico City. It is called Barba Azul and is the setting chosen by the Spanish filmmaker Laura Herrero Garvín for her second documentary, La Mami.
Herrero went to this iconic nightclub for the first time — currently closed — with some friends, just after shooting her first feature film. Immersed in Mexican culture for many years, the country never ceased to surprise the filmmaker, and that moment was no exception. Stuck inside the cabaret, a detail caught her attention: the rigorous work of a woman who was guarding the bathroom used by the cabaret dancers. Her name was Olga, ‘La Mami.’
A feminist community at the cabaret
Escort lady and waitress for more than 40 years, La Mami has played different roles that allowed her to know every nook and cranny of this world. That is why today, she is not only in charge of access to toilets and cloakrooms, but also acts as a protector of the dancers, a kind of moral support, counselor and confidant. In an ecosystem where machismo reigns, advice, encouragement and warm consolations are necessary. One of La Mami's most famous quips is: “Men are only good for two things: for nothing and for money.”
“I remember that when I saw this women’s bathroom I clearly identified that, somehow, this space symbolized the feminist community, the alliance between women, and I was interested in exploring its history through a documentary. Thus, I began to visit it, to research, to get to know the ladies a little bit more. For me, the cabaret symbolizes a lot of elements of the patriarchal system. Somehow, the dance floor has to do with the street, a dangerous and vulnerable space for women in a country like Mexico, and how that women’s bathroom not only is necessary, when the street is dangerous, but also is a space for alliance, for listening and looking after each other, for chatting with respect,” said Herrero in an interview with AL DÍA from Barcelona, the city where she currently lives and works as a filmmaker of the well-known television program Lo de Évole.
From the moment she met Doña Olga, the Spanish director approached her because her character would be fundamental for building a stronger relationship with other working women of the cabaret.
“It was a complex process. You must think that these women suffer stigma, and a judgment from society that is quite strong. It took me time to gain their trust, and it happened little by little. In fact, I spent three years researching before shooting the film,” she said.
The shooting of La Mami left an impact on Herrero, both personally and professionally.
“Each film has a story and something to discover in it. I have learned from these women, from their way of taking a stand in the world and resisting. On the other hand, there was a challenge as a filmmaker: making a film, for the first time, in such a small space, so I have explored many aspects of cinematography that I have not in my previous films,” she said.
La Mami in the U.S.
The film was released in 2019, and in 2020, Cinema Tropical, a nonprofit arts organization and the main presenter of Latin American cinema in the United States, gave it the award for Best Film. Since then, La Mami has also been presented at the MOMA Documentary Fortnight, the Morelia International Film Festival; SXSW, the Zurich Film Festival; in Doclisboa, and the San Sebastián Film Festival, among others.
In 2022, La Mami premiered in U.S. theaters, and Herrero was at the first screening in New York. The U.S. audience has appreciated and connected with the 82-minute film.
“This is because there is a large Latin American audience, and Mexico is very close. Besides, idiosyncrasy and humor are present and very well understood, I think,” she said.
La Mami's tour will continue this season at theaters in San Diego and San Francisco, and U.S. cities will be added throughout the year.