Why Director Carla Gutierrez Wanted Frida Kahlo to Tell Her Own Story in the Sundance Doc ‘Frida’

Carla Gutierrez is known in the documentary community for her work as a film editor. She was behind Oscar nominated docs “RBG” and “La Corona” as well as Emmy winner “Julia.” But in 2022, after two decades of editing, Gutierrez decided to direct “Frida,” a docu about iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, which has its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival this week.

“A few months before we started working on ‘Frida,’ I would say, ‘I’m really content with editing.’ I had no thoughts of directing, but her story really pulled me in and I realized I have to direct this (film). Of course I edited it as well because I couldn’t help myself.”

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Told through Kahlo’s own words drawn from her diary, revealing letters, essays and print interviews, “Frida” is an intimate glimpse into the artist’s deepest thoughts, artistic sensibilities and passionate romances.

The film is also an immersive journey through Kahlo’s art and includes innovative animation of 48 of her original paintings and 13 illustrations from her diary. Gutierrez teamed with Imagine Documentaries and Time Studios to make the Amazon docu.

Variety spoke to Gutierrez about her film.

Frida Kahlo has been the subject of other documentaires. What made you want to make this film about her now?

I’ve been living with her art for many decades. Like a lot of people, I have a very personal connection to her in different ways.

For me, it was one painting of her (“Self Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States”) that I saw as a pretty young immigrant that I felt really close to. I felt that it really reflected my own experience at the time.

So I’ve been carrying her art with me, and I’ve been coming back to her art all the time. But when I started looking at what material was available about her life, I realized that she could tell a lot of her own story. We could use her own words to get into her internal world.

I also realized that there hasn’t been a film that truly focused on her own voice in this way. So it was a combination of my experience as a documentary editor, having built other films out of archival and my personal connection to the art. It was an opportunity for me to present something different and something new.

“Frida” is an all-archival documentary that includes first person testimonies from those who knew her intimately. What was behind the decision to not use any contemporary footage or interviews?

We knew from the beginning that we wanted to hear from Frida as much as we could. I liked the idea of having a different take on her story and not having it seen from the distance of time and history and also not having people explain the way she thought or the way that she developed her art.

Did you find it difficult to wear both the director and editor hats on this project?

Yes. It was very noticeable at the beginning of the edit because there’s a lot of information and a lot of knowledge that I had as a director. Sometimes it was hard for me to let go of some of the details about her life to be able to build a story (in the edit). I was very conscious of that so I brought in some really amazing people to have a back and forth that would challenge me. Nudge me.

My producer, Katia Maguire, was a creative producer from the start and then we brought in David Teague  as a supervising editor. We would have these intense conversations about the story so that I could have that perspective.

What do you think audiences will be most surprised about after watching “Frida”?

I think different people will discover different things. What I found with a few people who have watched it is that they are surprised about her sense of humor because they know her as somebody who went through a lot of pain in her life, both physical pain and emotional pain.

One thing that was really important for us was to be able to show why she was so attracted to (her husband) Diego Rivera and why she loved him so much. When a historian talks about the relationship, it’s really hard to feel their central friction and attraction. So that was one thing that we really wanted to be able to share with people. There was one person who saw the film and said, “This is the first time I found Diego sexy.”

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