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Do We Need Another Frida Kahlo Documentary?

A new documentary uses Frida Kahlo's letters and diary entries to tell the artist's story.
A new documentary uses Frida Kahlo's letters and diary entries to tell the artist's story. Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images; Amazon Prime

FridaKahlois arguably the most culturally significant figure out of Mexico. There are plenty of contenders, but really, who else from the country has had their face emblazoned onto every object imaginable, been the subject of countless exhibitions, books, art, and films, and inspired me to dress up as sexy Frida Kahlo for Halloween one year?

Like Selena Quintanilla, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis, Frida Kahlo is an enigmatic cultural icon whose artistry and image left a seismic imprint on the world — and whose tragic personal stories deepened their lore, leading to constant retellings of their story.

This week, we get yetanother with “Frida,” a documentary (out March 14 on Amazon Prime) by filmmaker Carla Gutierrez that recounts the life of the influential 20th century surrealist painter who has become a feminist symbol for rebellion, courage, resilience, and passion in her native Mexico and far, far beyond. 

While other documentaries on the artist have stuck to a standard narrative style, with scholarly interviews adding perspective to various aspects of her life, Gutierrez relies on letters and diary entries, effectively allowing Kahlo to tell her story in her own words as animated images of her artwork move fluidly on screen alongside photos and archival footage. Other important figures in her life also add context to her lore via letters, including her husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera and her lover, the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

As it often goes with ubiquitous cultural figures, Kahlo’s story is understood by a series of bullet-point events: the horrifying bus accident that destroyed her body, her tumultuous relationship with Rivera, his affair with her sister Christina, the way she channeled herself into her art, her many lovers both male and female, and the strength of her convictions through it all.

So much so, that you have to ask: What more can be mined from her history? How do you tell a story that’s already been told so many times? What more can we learn?

“I was one of those people [that asked this],” says Gutierrez. “Her life has been examined a lot. I know that there are people that have gone to see the movie that they were like, ′But do I really need to watch another film?’”

Figures like Kahlo have a tendency to become paper dolls, flattened over time into one-dimensional figures that people can spiritually project themselves onto. As we make copy after copy of these figures, their souls can be lost; their humanity, faults, and heart overpowered by their image. They become T-shirts at Target sold during Women’s History Month, a throw pillow that says “feminist” in sequins, or a spokes-figure for girl power that’s been watered down to the most palatable, serviceable product in the age of girlbossery. 

“How do you treat this iconic symbol that is a flattened version of somebody that is really full and human and complex and not perfect?” asked
“How do you treat this iconic symbol that is a flattened version of somebody that is really full and human and complex and not perfect?” asked "Frida" filmmaker Carla Gutierrez. Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images; Amazon Prime

Despite comprising a fifth of the U.S. population, Latinx people struggle for opportunities to tell their stories in publishing, Hollywood and other media. Figures who hold a meaningful place within a culture and people’s identity are an easier sell to when you wash away their prickly parts. Kahlo, especially, has been commodified to the point of near erasure of her actual self, and that opens herself and others up to exploitation when bad people are in control of her story.

In a 2017 New York Times essay, Salma Hayek recounted the sexual harassment she suffered at the hands of Harvey Weinstein while shooting the 2002 film ”Frida.” Weinstein, Hayek revealed, threatened to shut down production if the actress didn’t perform a fully nude sex scene with her co-star Ashley Judd. 

Hayek wrote: “Since those around me had no knowledge of my history of Harvey, they were very surprised by my struggle that morning [of the shoot.] It was not because I would be naked with another woman. It was because I would be naked with her for Harvey Weinstein. But I could not tell them then.”

The scene was seemingly only meant to satisfy Weinstein’s own perversions. Though he denied those allegations, Kahlo’s bisexuality was exploited to force Hayek into performing a nude sex scene. It’s an extreme case, but an example still of how parts of Kahlo’s identity are manipulated to benefit others in a way the artist herself would most likely be against.

Frida Kahlo was queer woman and staunch communist who despised America, gringos, consumerism and the elitist, faux intellectualism that plagued the art scene. She talked shit, loudly and openly. That doesn’t align with the way she has been packaged and sold since her death. Sadly, the plainest version of such a complicated, fiery personality is the one that sells most. 

To tackle that, Gutierrez decided to show “the world through her perspective,” noting that she “hadn’t seen a film that had really focused on her voice completely.”

“How do you treat this iconic symbol that is a flattened version of somebody that is really full and human and complex and not perfect?” she adds. “She is a symbol of female empowerment. She’s a symbol of queer openness and passion for life. We only see kind of limited, very heroic aspects of them. And to present a fuller picture, that was our intention from the very beginning.

Gutierrez says Kahlo’s letters and diary offer an insight into her inner life that is rarely understood or explored, and it filled her as a filmmaker with a sense of responsibility to give Kahlo back that life, especially when those written words offer such a deep window into the person. No recordings of Kahlo’s voice exist, Gutierrez tells me, but she shared often and openly.

Through this format, Gutierrez allows audiences to know not just the what to her story, but Kahlo’s distinct perspective and the ways in which she was deeply affected by the happenings of her life.

“She was talking to people that she felt really close to so she was really honest with her emotions in those letters and then in her diary as well,” says Gutierrez. “So it was a possibility of getting really intimate with her. There’s a closeness that you feel when you can really hear her personality through the way that she’s expressing herself ... That’s how we approached putting together the visual narrative; always seeing what happened to her through her eyes.”

In “Frida,” Gutierrez doesn’t shy away from the full version of the artist, but rather embraces her and allows her to reclaim her story by removing herself as much as possible. If we are to tell her story again, and those of other prominent Latinx figures, that’s the least they deserve as human beings who lived and breathed and left their mark on the world.