Macha Colón is Gisela Rosario Ramos, an undisciplined artist currently based in Puerto Rico. Her award-winning short documentary “El Hijo de Ruby” has been shown in international festivals. Recently, Colón won an international documentary competition to film “Love Letters to an Iconess,” a documentary about Lucecita Benítez, a Puerto Rican queer diva who’s now in her seventies. In 2020, received the inaugural William Greaves Fund for mid-career filmmakers from Firelight Media for the development of her next feature.
“Perfume de Gardenias” is screening at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 9-20.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
MC: Somebody told me recently that “Perfume de Gardenias” is like a tale. I never thought about it before, but it makes sense. I love the way tales work because their message is simple.
“Perfume de Gardenias” is a simple story with lots of shades, thematic and aesthetic. It walks a line between drama and dark comedy using a familiar visual language to talk about an uncomfortable subject. It’s full of worn out bright colors that create an intimate space around the main character and that reflect her loneliness.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
MC: First, the thought of it made me laugh. Second, it was a chance to shed light on a group of people that are essential in society but are often invisible. And lastly, my own fear of death.
Influenced by my work in documentaries, I pause within my daily routine to observe the absurdity of many moments we live through. One day, while visiting my mom, she was happily chit-chatting with some neighbors. They told me that a neighbor had died, electrocuted when cleaning the garage with the water hose. They were making plans to go to the funeral home with lots of excitement.
My mom was a very active person in her church, but when my father became bedridden she took care of him and didn’t leave his side. On this day, with her eyes glistening, she asked me if I could stay with him so she could go to the funeral home. I said yes. These women seemed to be intoxicated about the idea of having something to do. And I wondered, would they be willing to kill to have more funerals to go to? That was the original spark for the idea.
Around the same time, a young man visited a local funeral home and asked them to place him standing up in a corner of his apartment. He wasn’t sick; he worked in the drug cartel and knew his days were counted. He was killed a couple of weeks later and the funeral home complied. Local news media outlets went crazy with “The Standing Dead Man.” A new trend was born.
I decided to give the film’s main character this space to express creativity at a time when it seems her death is near. Death as a new beginning.
The obsession with staying young makes us fear death. Preparing for our death should be part of our upbringing. It is my intention to inspire this idea into our own customs, to become more balanced individuals, capable of enjoying fuller lives with less regret.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
MC: I would feel accomplished if people thought about how their relationship with death might change their outlook on life.
I believe in the constant reflection of one’s happiness and personal growth. I’m not a religious person — although I was growing up — but I’m a very spiritual person and believe that our healthy connection to everyone else depends on our personal happiness.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
MC: Finding the money, of course. Especially with a subject that people were afraid to talk about from a dark comedy point of view. Also, being my first feature fiction narrative, it created a lot of doubt about how I could handle the storytelling and the balance of the dramatic parts without falling into the melodrama.
In the process, it was hard to find time to rewrite. Continuing to have paying jobs — and even a full time job at one point — made it difficult to have an appropriate writing process.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
MC: Most of the money came from the Puerto Rico Film Program. We were part of the last projects funded because the fund got eliminated. We also received funds from Ibermedia and the now defunct Tribeca Film Institute. This film is a co-production with Colombia and we won a very competitive grant from their film government office.
We had lots of in-kind work, some investors, and plenty of donations that included food from many local restaurants.
We also wanted to do a crowdfunding event that reflected the film’s spirit, so we did a raffle for two complete funeral arrangements, one traditional and the other ecological. That wasn’t very successful financially because it coincided with a big political moment in Puerto Rico, but it helped us promote the film and create alliances.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
MC: I didn’t feel like I belonged. Films allowed me to travel into another world and into spaces where I could dream of another me or a place where I was accepted. I wanted to give this same experience to others.
Also, I loved photography, music, and stories. At some point it was pretty obvious that film is where those elements could live and interact harmoniously.
My growing political side understood the importance of representation, and I knew that the stories that I wanted to tell were not being told. The people and bodies I wanted to see were not there, and I couldn’t just expect for someone else to do it.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
MC: Best advice: There’s been lots. One of the best pieces of advice that I apply to everything I do is to enjoy the moment. Especially when you are in production. When you are already filming it’s like cooking. You have the elements you gathered and once you apply the heat, things transform and there’s no way back.
Worst advice: It’s not really advice, but in the process of post-production I heard various times not to expect that I would like my first film. They said it was common that no one liked their first film. I didn’t want to accept that. It just doesn’t make sense. Oh, and I met with a script consultant that advised me to change the end completely to a mainstream Hollywood-esque ending. I can only say that it involved a baby shower.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
MC: Surround yourself with people who believe in your work and make sure your artistic sensibilities are aligned. Have a support network of friends and family that have nothing to do with filmmaking.
Also, don’t be afraid to redefine the traditional film/work model. Find something that works for you. Make it your own.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
MC: It’s difficult to choose, but I’m going to name a film that really changed me and inspired me. I choose “Sweetie” by Jane Campion. To see quirky, fat, troubled, and complex women characters felt exhilaratingly fresh. The visuals felt so bold and daring. It’s a film that evokes all the senses. Also, it brings us into a very intimate, raw, emotional world.
Campion’s work was very meaningful in my desire to become a filmmaker.
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
MC: We finished shooting this film three days before lockdown in Puerto Rico. It took us close to three months to do the wrap. At the same time, we started editing, so it was very difficult.
All my creative energy went into that. Also, I didn’t feel like creating much during the pandemic. The only thing I did was share publicly my love for clouds. For years, my cell phones have been filled with cloud photos that I don’t share with anyone. Cloud watching is my meditative activity. It’s quick and free! During the pandemic I thought that our newsfeeds needed something lighter, so I created an Instagram account called “La acosadora de nubes” where I began sharing my clouds like a numbered catalog out of order.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?
MC: There needs to be more money available for productions by BIPOC. As simple as that. Even though quantity doesn’t equate with quality, it does bring up the percentage of quality.
Also, as artists you want to be able to explore and play with form without the pressure of making commercial work. That’s key to growing as an artist and BIPOC people haven’t had much opportunity in that regard.