Linda Garcia Merchant has been making films for the last six years and with her latest productions, Thresholds and The A Word, she covers two controversial topicsteen violence and abortion, respectively.
Her newest production company, Las Pilonaswhich she formed a year ago with sisters, Yovani Flores and Evon Flores Barrerawas behind Thresholds. Voces Primerasher first production company, which was formed in 2006backed The A Word.
Merchant, Barrera and Flores grew up in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago and while Flores now resides in Phoenix, Merchant and Barrera still call Chicago home.
Merchant and Flores are both lesbians while Barrera is an ally of the LGBT community.
A member of the Lesbian Leadership Council, Merchant has also written for scholarly journals. She will be attending DePaul University in the fall to work on her Master's of Science in Applied Technology.
Barrera is a writer, poet, actor, performer and artist as well as a member of the La Dulce Palabra spoken-word ensemble. She made her acting debut in Thresholds as Detective Gomez.
Flores won an award for a short story she wrote and Thresholds is also her acting debut where she played Benny's mom, Nancy.
With Las Pilonas, Merchant, Flores and Barrera work within the narrative framework to tell stories they would like to see. "There is this whole narrative that defines a large part of our [Latino/Latina] culture and doesn't get the recognition we feel it should within the industry," said Merchant.
"The film Thresholds is an urban tale about pushing barriers in the moments lived between each breath. Three peopleDetective Gomez, Nancy and her son, Bennyare touched by life-changing events that will shatter assumptions encompassing the edge of humanity," said Merchant.
"The story is based on the perception of the viewer. A lot of people get that Benny is a smart, good kid who may have gotten killed for being in the wrong crowd or for being black, gay or a straight ally," said Barrera of the film, adding, "We wrote the story without intention of who Benny was because we wanted to let the viewer to decide for themselves although Benny does represent all of the young people who are dying today." As for the title Merchant said, "it refers to what happens inside and outside the threshold of Benny's house."
The genesis of Thresholds came when Flores started writing the story and realized there could be a film component so she sent Merchant and email and they began working on the project. Over the next few weeks they came up with a script over the phone. Flores came back to Chicago when they were ready to shoot and principal photography was completed during that weekend. The entire process took six weeks to complete.
Evanston Township High School students acted as crew members alongside a few adults in key production roles, including cinematographer Steven Lemieux-Jordan. One student, Brent Brown, played the role of Benny and Jeff Rysiewicz played Detective O'Brien alongside Flores as Nancy and Barrera as Detective Gomez. Merchant, Flores and Barrera gave the students rave reviews for their work ethic and dedication. Merchant said "To have the students see Latina women doing this work was the goal, which we achieved."
As for future projects under the Las Pilonas banner, they are already in pre-production with some of their scripts. They have had to put much of that work on hold since they have been getting requests from organizations that are interested in using Thresholds to address the issue of bullying. They are also still showing the film at Latino/Latina and LGBT film festivals around the country including the Out in the Desert Tuscon LGBT International Film Festival where they won the award for Best Consciousness Raising Short Film.
As for Voces Primeras, Merchant is creating a catalog of documentaries on pioneering Latina women. "The story of women activists and especially Latina activists is absent," she said. "There is a significant community of women that have done incredible work within social justice movements so my goal is to make films about women who have been integral in those movements."
Since Voces Primeras' inception, Merchant has made six documentaries and one feature film. They include Las Mujeras de las Caucas Chicana (a story that included the work her mother did with the National Women's Political Caucus in the 1970s as one of the vice-chairs), Palabras Dulces, Palabras Amargas (which focuses on a group of latina mulit-cultural, multi-generational lesbian or straight-ally performing artists), Amigas! 15 Years of Amigas Latinas (about the organization) and most recently The A Word (marginalized women in the reproductive-justice movement through the Chicago Abortion Fund).
The A Wordalso shot by cinematographer Lemieux-Jordan, who been with Merchant throughout all of her filmsfocuses on the "My Voice My Choice Leadership Group" at the Chicago Abortion Fund. "The women agreed to do this project without hesitation. They are not public speakers by trade but they went on camera to share their stories," said Merchant. "The fight is ramping up and I wouldn't doubt that we will be doing a follow up documentary to reflect the current climate surrounding women's reproductive rights."
Merchant is currently working on a project called Chicana Por Mi Raza: Uncovering the Hidden History of Chiana Feminism (1965-1985) with Dr. Maria Cotera, associate professor of the department of women's studies and program in American culture at the University of Michigan. They are conducting interviews and gathering materials to create a virtual history museum about the work that Chicana's have done with many social-justice movements. The project has won the Scalable Research Challenge 2012 from the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Science (I-CHASS) at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, which Merchant said is a huge honor.
Merchant recently spoke at the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies conference here in Chicago, where she talked about the project and cultivating scholarship surrounding digital archiving. She participated in two panels; one was on reclaiming history and queer activism in the Midwest where she showed Thresholds, and she was a part of a Chicana plenary where she did a multimedia presentation about her filmmaking journey. (While working on this project, Merchant has thought of three documentary ideas that she plans to explore.)
Of their film and independent filmmaking, Barrera said "Go see our movie whenever it is in your town." Merchant added, "Support independent films because a lot of blood, sweat, tears and hard work goes into these productions without much compensation for the people involved. There are some really good independent films being made by people from a variety of cultures."
Flores added, "Everything we have done surrounding Thresholds has been done without a budget. We have used our own resources for the entire project including the film festivals we have entered over the last year."
See www.vocesprimeras.com and find it on Facebook. To view the trailer for Thresholds, visit www.vimeo.com/channels/305079, and to view trailers from Voces Primera, see www.vimeo.com/channels/305072.