Among the ranks of Indigenous creatives providing some much-needed representation in the film industry is Roberto Fatal, whose genre stories often touch on heartfelt themes and struggles with identity. Fatal’s filmography includes a series of short films and documentaries they’ve worked on as a director, writer, and producer, including Peshawn Bread’s The Daily Life of Mistress Red which they worked on as the editor. Their latest venture has been the short film Do Digital Curanderas Use Eggs In Their Limpias (which they wrote, produced, directed, and edited), set to debut in 2023. We sat down with Fatal to talk about the development and inspirations behind their film, as well as their views on Indigenous inclusion in the media.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Kwira ba, hola, hello. I’m a mestize Chicano filmmaker from Rarámuri, Tewa Pueblo, and of Spanish descent. I was born and raised in Sacramento, California. My grandparents and great-grandparents come from Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico, and Nambe, and Pojaque in New Mexico. I’ve loved storytelling since I was a kid and use my role as a filmmaker to carry on storytelling practices from my Chicano, Mexican and Indigenous families. My stories are about people who are mixed or in between cultures, times, places, and genders. I really like making genre films, particularly science fiction and action. Earlier in my career, my films were more in the experimental and p*rn/erotica genres.
When did you first discover your passion for filmmaking? What were some of your early inspirations?
I fell in love with cinema in middle school. I was lucky enough to live next to a video store that carried a lot of genre and cult films. I would ask my dad to rent these films for me [most were R rated], and I fell in love with the worlds that they contained. Aliens, Predator, The Evil Dead, anything by John Waters. One movie that stood out to me was La Bamba. It was the first film I saw that showed my culture, my people, our struggles, our melodrama, and our aesthetic. I was obsessed with how authentically us it was. Later I realized it was because it was directed by one of our gente, Luis Valdez. I realized then how important it was for our people to tell our own stories. To this day, it may be my favorite movie. Not because it’s the best movie ever made, but it’s the movie that lives the deepest in my heart. In college, I started watching more experimental films from artists like Ana Mendieta, Wong Kar-Wai, David Lynch, and Tina Takemoto and decided to pursue more experimental works. When I moved to Oakland in 2010, I began connecting with artists like Xandra Ibarra, Yolanda Lopez, Cheryl Dunye, Shine Houston, and Jiz Lee, who really mentored me and inspired me to make more confrontational, experimental, and personal films. These films, which were often erotic, examined my and other people’s bodies and the histories and stories we hold in us.
In your own words, can you tell us what your film is about?
My new film, Do Digital Curanderas Use Eggs In Their Limpias?, is my first narrative film I have done as I take a step back from experimental cinema and erotica for a bit. The film centers on a distraught, Latinx Indigenous curandera named Ria, who decides to leave their body and join 1000s of comunidad in their barrio who have uploaded their consciousness into a digital utopia called, Digisphere. They need a next of kin to sign off on their upload, so they are forced to call one of their last living relatives, their estranged best friend and anti-Digisphere activist, Taa. Ria and Taa battle it out over the philosophy of uploading, bodily autonomy, healing ancestral trauma, survival, and life as a Latinx Indigenous queer, non-binary person and what that all means if you don’t have a body.
Can you tell us about the process so far of making your short film?
This film came from a short script I wrote before the pandemic. I submitted to Sundance Indigenous, and I was selected to be part of their 2020 cohort smack dab at the beginning of the pandemic. The Sundance Indigenous cohort and mentors were honestly one of the few things that kept me sane during the pandemic. That first year was hella rough. I questioned my life choices as a filmmaker and watched homies move out of the Bay. I felt lonely and scared, not knowing how long this pinche pandemic would last. It was terrifying. My Sundance Indigenous familia kept me grounded, cared for, nurtured, and dedicated to my craft as a storyteller all over Zoom. It was the stability and focus I needed during the pandemic.
Pretty early when I got the residency at Sundance, I had to start putting together a production team for the film. I knew I wanted people I could depend on and trust, so I called 2 people immediately: Jenny Koreny and Zora Kovac. I asked Jenny to be my producer, and she said yes instantly. I could not have made this film without her industry knowledge, patience, and experience. She literally was teaching me how to be a narrative filmmaker as she was producing this thing. I am so grateful to her. I’ve known her since I was 19 and have a deep trust and admiration for her. Zora is an amazing filmmaker/animator/visual artist I met during my MFA program in the Bay. I’ve always loved her art and her way of collaborating and communicating. She was a jack of all trades on this film: executive producer, animation director, storyboard artist, set decorator, VFX artist an amazing friend and director to confer with when I felt lost or broken in the process of trying to make a micro-budget short in the middle of a pandemic. I am indebted to these two for life.
What was the process of casting like for the movie?
Casting was one of the most important parts of this film; all of my Sundance mentors drilled this into me. I worked with an amazing casting director, Heather María Ács, from Femme Power Productions. She shared my vision of making sure the main actor was a Latinx Indigenous Non-binary person. She had the idea of getting River Gallo to audition for the lead role, and when we met River, we knew this person was special and had the strength, energy, and skill to carry the film as a lead. They are truly a force to see performing. They have amazing humor, empathy, and kindness. They made the set a wonderful place to be and mentored me in directing on set [they are a brilliant director and writer as well]. Finding a match for River was a tough process, but in the end, the person who had the chemistry and skills as an actor to keep up with River is an amazing debut Latinx non-binary actor, Angel Zeas, from New York. During auditions, when the two were reading against each other, you could just feel those sparks and chemistry that filmmakers talk about. These two are geniuses in their craft, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
How are you feeling when it comes to releasing the movie for audiences to view?
I’m excited and nervous to release this film to audiences, especially older Latinos. I felt for a long time, while my video art and erotica were connecting with younger, college-educated audiences [Latinx, Indigenous, and other], I felt these films were alienating older audiences in my Latinx Indigenous family. My tias and parents were always like, “Oh mija, we’re happy for you,” pero, it’s not like they’d go see these kinds of movies if I wasn’t directing them. You know? I learned from Yolanda Lopez about the importance of muralism as a people’s art and the importance of having confrontational and artistic conversations with everyone in your community. Her work used imagery and mediums that were close to our Chicano communities [Virgin de Guadalupe, muralism] so that a lot of different Chicanos could relate to it, not just initiated artists. That ruffled a lot of feathers in our community, but her work created dialogue and social change for women in the Chicano community.
Similarly, I want to make a narrative film that the OGs in my family can understand if not connect with. I’ve been test-screening these films with older generations in my community, and it’s hitting them in a way that’s powerful. It’s powerful for them to see Latinx Indigenous folks who are non-binary on screen. It’s powerful for them to empathize with us through film. I hope, more than anything, this film creates intergenerational conversations about family, shame, violence, generational trauma, love, and healing.
What’s the significance behind the film’s title?
So, 26 drafts ago, this film was a buddy comedy. For reals. Back then, the title was kind of a parody of the Philip K. Dick story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [which was adapted into Blade Runner]. Now, as a sci-fi drama, I don’t know exactly what it means to the story, but it feels right. Essentially our main character is committing suicide by uploading to the Digisphere, so I thought of all the things I’ve asked myself when I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts: who will I be, where will I go, what will happen to my body, will people miss me, will I be hurting my loved ones more by leaving? I thought the main character, being a curandera, would ask similar questions: will people still need my healing services in the Digisphere, can you be sick when you have no body, can I be a curandera without my tools and medicine, do digital curanderas use eggs in their limpias?
What’s the significance of seeing Indigenous people in a sci-fi setting?
I cannot stress how important it is to make sure Indigenous people author sci-fi stories. As a kid, I remember watching sci-fi movies and feeling so unseen. These movies are supposed to tell stories about “our” futures, but these stories were overwhelmingly about white, straight men. The only exceptions were Edward James Olmos in Blade Runner and Vasquez [my queer Chicana icon] in Aliens. Or, like, Billy or Pancho in Predator. But of course, we are often totally underdeveloped or dead or non-existent in these movies.
The message to Indigenous people and all people of color and queer and trans people is that we don’t survive into the next version of our world. And that is fully bullsh*t to me. Because if anyone has the tools and experience to survive our changing world, it’s Indigenous peoples. I watched Mad Max: Road Warrior a few years ago, and I’m like, “Where the hell are all the Indigenous Aboriginal Peoples?” They, like many Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island, New Zealand, and Australia, have actually survived apocalypses caused by European colonizers. So why are we not being hailed as the premier experts on how to survive an apocalypse?
I’m done hearing about White, western European colonial peoples wax intellectual about the future, science-fiction, and apocalypses, especially after their ancestors [mine own Spanish ones included] laid the groundwork for the new apocalypse that is in front of all of us. Right now, we need Indigenous stories that imagine futures where we survive and thrive. Where we are centered as the resilient, strong, profoundly complex knowledge keepers, we are. I feel like these stories, along with Indigenous peoples leading the way in STEM, tech, politics, climate justice, and social services, are how we are going to make it through the next 75 years as a human race.
Where can our readers learn more about you and your film?
If readers want to learn more about Digital Curanderas and stay current with its screening schedules when we get going on the film fest circuit, they can check out:
DigitalCuranderasFilm.com and our Instagram @digitalcuranderas.