“Let me tell you something,” director Patricia Riggen says in a West Hollywood bakery, a few days after her trip to the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT. “No one else is realizing we exist. We are realizing we exist. We are the ones who are waking up as Latinos, as a community saying, What is wrong? Why is the situation like this?”
The director — who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico — is reflecting on her time at a “super inspiring” Sundance where Latinx voices felt more powerful than ever. The 2020 festival officially launched the Latinx House, a space with the express purpose of giving artists, thought leaders, and activists the chance to interact and move their community forward. Netflix sponsored multiple events with the House, which brought in Latinx luminaries like actor/producer/director Eva Longoria, actor/producer/director America Ferrera, jack-of-all-trades Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Riggen herself.
As Longoria pointed out during Sundance, Riggen holds a special place in Hollywood’s Latinx community. As the director of 2016’s Jennifer Garner-led religious drama Miracles from Heaven, Riggen is the only Latinx woman director of the last 12 years to have a movie appear in the top 100 annual box office films. That means out of 1,200 top-grossing films, just one was directed by a Latina.
“Being a woman is by far the hardest thing there is,” Riggen, who also directed 2012’s Cierra Ramirez-starrer Girl In Progress and 2011’s cult favourite YA flick Lemonade Mouth, explains of the movie-making business. “If you add to that colour, then that’s another layer of complication. But it truly comes down to the fact that all the power jobs in our world, in our society, and in my industry are held by men.
“Yes, [women] are getting directing jobs, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy … we have to still prove ourselves at every given moment.”
Riggen’s proof comes down to a supposed turning point in the entertainment industry. After years of the Directors Guild of America publishing reports about the lack of women directors in television, networks finally felt the pressure to hire some women helmers towards the end of the last decade.
“Suddenly there’s a door that opens for me, and I am so happy and so excited to be there,” Riggen — who burst onto the scene due to a Sundance bidding war with her Spanish-language film La Misma Luna in 2007 — says of one of her first TV directing jobs. “The first thing I hear is, ‘Do you know why you’re here?,’” Riggen recalls of a conversation with a producer. “Then he says, ‘Do you know that the industry is already resenting the fact that we have to hire female directors?’
“I say, ‘No?” And then he says, ‘And you know why?’ And I’m like, ‘No?’ ‘Because they’re not good.’”
These experiences left Riggen feeling isolated in the large machine of Hollywood. “That’s something that I have felt: very, very much alone all these years,” she admits, particularly since she was the only Latinx woman making films with her box office reach.
Being a woman is by far the hardest thing there is. If you add to that colour, then that’s another layer of complication.
Then Sundance 2020 happened. “This weekend, with all the Latinx events and women’s movements,” Riggen begins, “I feel that I shouldn’t feel alone. If we all come together and unite our forces, our strength, we will be able to get our voice out and get a little more respect. That’s what I’m learning [after] this weekend … I kind of want to find my tribe.”
After the festival, Riggen has a leg up on that goal. She credits Eva Longoria as a major supporter and is visibly in awe of the Latinx power she saw over Sundance weekend. “I thought this year was like a parteaguas,” she says, which translates in English to “watershed,” giving much credit to the galvanizing effect of the 2019 Annenberg Study. The study found that over the 12 years between 2007 and 2018, just 4.5% of movie characters were Latinx, 3% of films had Latinx leads, and 4% of directors were Latinx. A quarter of all Latinx speaking characters were depicted as criminals; over a quarter of all top-billed Latinx characters received the same negative treatment.
Yet at Sundance,“For the first time, there were so many Latinx people, and most importantly, there was the idea of all coming together as one community,” Rigen says. “The first thing is for all of us to always root for each other, that’s been the most important part of the conversation we had this week at Sundance. We all need to support each other the whole time, all the time.”
The director admits that Latinx creators have previously been accused of lagging in that aspect. “That’s because there’s been so few opportunities for Latinos that there was always a fight,” she continues. “We don’t believe in that anymore. We believe there’s a space for all of us and that only all of us supporting each other, that’s the key.”
As women and Latinx creatives continue to demand change through solidarity, Riggen predicts we’re about to see a boom in the kinds of stories possible on-screen. Take for example Riggen’s own grace note in based-on-a-true-story Miracles From Heaven: ensuring the real-life world-class Mexican doctor in the medical tale was played by a Mexican actor and described as such out loud in the film. “I said, No, no, no, this is the opportunity for all the people in the middle of the country who are watching this movie to see that we are also phenomenal doctors,” Riggen says. “Doctors who help little girls! Little American beautiful girls.”
“I’m just really excited to see what’s going to happen now with all the new spaces and all the women who are full of creativity and talent ready to explode and take over the world,” the female director announces with a hopeful smile.
Maybe one day we won’t need those names. But right now, I’m proud to say, I’m a female director.
And, yes, Riggen does embrace the phrase “female director.” “I like to highlight the fact that I am a very special and unique human being who does something despite all the obstacles,” she explains of the moniker. “So I’m not offended by it. I’m actually really proud, maybe one day we won’t need those names. But right now, I’m proud to say I’m a female director.”