Schyfter Brings Ocampo To Harvard

Harvard today may be less exciting than the National University of Mexico during the sixties, when student protests against the government raged on campus, but filmmaker and producer Guita Schyfter appreciates the peaceful university experience. “I feel absolutely happy, delighted,” she says. “Probably, it has rejuvenated me…This is the first time in many years that I can dedicate myself completely to my new project.”

Schyfter is the current Fundación México/Antonio Madero Visiting Fellow at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS). Born to Ukrainian and Lithuanian parents in Costa Rica, Schyfter studied psychology at the National University of Mexico before taking a course in television production and directing at London’s British Broadcasting Center.

“I was [in London] in the 70s, which was a great time, not only for cinema but also for the BBC and its programs,” Schyfter says. After directing a string of documentaries, Schyfter transitioned cautiously to feature-length films in the 90s.

“I was very scared, very nervous, but then I realized that I loved working with actors,” Schyfter recalled.

Schyfter’s films often focus on female protagonists and deal principally with questions of national identity. She enjoys exploring the feminine perspective. “I like women’s film,” she said. “It’s a different point of view.”

Her characters’ cultural confusion stems from her own experiences as a Jewish woman in predominantly Catholic Latin America. Experiences at university during the tumultuous 60s grounded her interest in the female situation. “I’m a feminist, but not in the way that I belong to a group,” Schyfter says. “I never belonged to any group, but the only revolution that really had success in the 20th century was the women’s revolution.”

Since 2007, however, she has returned to filming documentaries, partly due to lack of funding. “I was tired of knocking on every door and every possible institution and every possible producer,” she says. At Harvard, Schyfter is creating another documentary, though she is eschewing her typically female-driven narratives in favor of portraying a significant Mexican historical figure that illuminates relations between the US and Mexico.

Schyfter is currently researching nineteenth-century intellectual Melchor Ocampo, a Mexican liberal who wrote separation of Church and State into Mexican law and attempted to establish a free-trade treaty between Mexico and the United States. Having participated in government protests with her classmates at the National University of Mexico, Schyfter certainly relates to his progressive ideals. Still, she remains true to her usual theme of exploring internal conflict in the face of culture clashes. Once hostile towards the United States, Ocampo reconsidered his views after living in the southern U.S.

“What I’m researching here is how Ocampo’s point of view toward the United States changed when he went into exile and lived for two years in New Orleans and Brownsville,” she says. Despite her experience with producing documentaries on Mexican history, Schyfter welcomes assistance from Harvard’s vast network of resources.

“It’s coming along well,” she says. “Who can have trouble at Harvard with all the experts, and the libraries, and the resources?” According to Schyfter, Harvard’s experts in 19th century and American history have been particularly helpful.

While she works on her next project, Schyfter has had an opportunity to share her past work with the Harvard community. Yesterday, DRCLAS sponsored an event called Miradas, which featured a screening of Schyfter’s 2007 film “Laberintos de la Memoria” (“Labyrinths of Memory”) followed by a conversation with Schyfter and screenwriter Hugo Hiriart. Schyfter has been pleased with the outcome of the film series so far. “The people who were there had good questions and they seemed to enjoy the film,” she says.

Schyfter has naturally drawn several distinctions between this college campus and her own. “We did not take the studies so seriously as it has been taken here,” she notes. “We had other interests and other preoccupations at that time. You know, who could study if we were going to change the world?”