Maria Agui Carter Director Statement
It is said, history is collective memory. Whose story counts? How does a nation choose what to remember? And how does a nation choose what to forget?
REBEL is a film about the politics of historical memory, exploring why Loreta Velazquez’ story of fighting for the Confederacy, then spying for the Union, has been erased from history. More than a decade after the war, Loreta reveals her secret history, signing her maiden name and claiming her Cuban heritage when she publishes her book in 1876. She has evolved as a critical observer, and her memoir has become a searing critique of the Confederacy, the horrors of war, and the corruption of wartime society. Her book causes a sensation, and the South turns against Loreta. For over a century, she has been dismissed as a hoax.
As a Latina woman filmmaker, an immigrant to the US myself, and a scholar of history, I felt I was uniquely qualified to tell the story of Loreta Velazquez, the Cuban woman soldier and spy of the American Civil War. Rebel has taken me twelve years to make, in between commissioned projects for PBS and cable, and with the collaboration of leading scholars in their fields. Loreta presents a Latina’s and a woman’s perspective on a time period and a war we usually think of as exclusively black and white. But this is less a story about the Civil War and more the story of a complex woman who reinvented herself to survive the impossible circumstances in which she found herself. And that reinvention of self is a quintessentially American experience that resonates with so many Americans- that idea that we are not what we are born, but what we make of ourselves.
I identify with Loreta and sympathize with her painful struggle to find acceptance within her community. My African American co-producer for REBEL, Calvin Lindsay, Jr. and I have tackled films on race and class before, and are deeply challenged and haunted by the internal racism faced by people like Loreta who chose to pass and deny their true identities, and the intra-group racism that divides our communities. REBEL is not meant as a celebration of an uncomplicated heroine, rather, it is showing Loreta with all her flaws as well as her strengths that makes her story worth sharing. REBEL follows Loreta’s journey not just as a soldier, but as a woman whose character and conscience grows over time.
In the film I interweave dramatic feature scenes and recreated archival stills with historical archival stills and documents to foreground the act of historical interpretation and authorship. I am not trying to trick anyone – the film begins with an explanation that there is only one photo of Loreta and that it is not authenticated. But I am trying to make people think about the act of historical interpretation. I play with these conventions to ask audiences to think critically about what they thought the evidence told them, even visual evidence such as archival stills, about their history.
This film is about the world of the nineteenth century, but many of the themes in this film resonate with contemporary issues. War is a potent organizing principle in nation-building, and the involvement of women in combat, the presence of Latino soldiers in American wars, and the question of how governments and official historians construct histories that suit them and negate those that don’t are all implicit in the film without our making obvious references. Few people know about the 19th century Cuban and Spanish community of New Orleans, and much contemporary political debate over Latinos often centers on the erroneous assumption that Latinos are new immigrants without acknowledging the fact that Hispanics have a long presence in the South and West.
With the triple digit explosion of Latino immigrants throughout the South, along with a dizzying increase in hate crimes against Latinos, and the increase in numbers of Latino and women service personnel in the nation’s military, I believe this story about a southern woman Civil War soldier who struggled with difficult decisions about nationhood and patriotism in a country racked with the scourge and legacy of slavery will resonate with contemporary audiences. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War in the 21st century, it behooves us to broaden our understandings of the meaning of this pivotal struggle forged in blood, that sought to establish citizenship for all Americans.