See How One Director is Visualizing the Past

Maya Cueva uses memory to create a whole new world.

Photo by Maya Cueva & Leah Nichols.
See How One Director is Visualizing the Past
Adobe Products Featured

Sundance Ignite Fellow, Maya Cueva, creates verite style documentary films that truly immerse the audience in her characters’ lives. Her background in radio and communications give her a unique perspective on visual storytelling. ONLY THE MOON/ SOLAMENTE LA LUNA is an honest and emotionally personal journey as told through the lens of Maya’s father, with Maya bringing to life a documentary that challenges how we think about communities without a voice. We caught up with Maya this week to chat about her inspiration, advice for other creators, and what she’s looking forward to most about the 2019 Sundance Ignite Fellowship.

What inspires you the most to make films?

What inspires me through the process of filmmaking is the responsibility I feel for the stories of the people I meet and my dedication to share their complex truth. As a young mixed Latina and emerging filmmaker, I am tired of seeing the narratives of black and brown communities reduced and fed to white audiences as “poverty or trauma porn”. During my time at Ithaca College, I produced and co-directed a short documentary about an abortion doctor that travels to parts of Texas with restricted access in order to provide women with these services. The Provider went on to win several awards including an Emmy through the College Television Awards, was featured at SXSW 2016, Palm Springs International ShortFest and, most recently, in The Atlantic. I use documentary filmmaking as an outlet to share the stories of communities that aren’t invisible — they just haven’t been seen in a three-dimensional way.

Photo by Maya Cueva & Leah Nichols.

“I often imagined his journey like a story book.”

Your film has a pretty powerful backstory about your father’s immigration from Peru to the United States. Can you tell us a little about how you brought this story to life?

I grew up listening to my father’s stories of growing up in Peru and immigrating to the U.S. in the 1960s.  I often imagined his journey like a story book, visualizing the vivid stories he would tell me of poverty, opportunity, and transformation as if they were illustrated images on a page. I always wanted to create a narrated and animated documentary of his life story that blurs the line between reality and fantasy, often in the same way he tells his own narrative. Luckily, through the mentorship and support I got as a Creative Culture fellow at the Jacob Burns Film Center from director Sean Weiner and my amazing animator Leah Nichols — I was able to make ONLY THE MOON/ SOLAMENTE LA LUNA a reality. To me, in this current political climate, telling an immigration story like my father’s is more imperative than ever. It is a perspective we often don’t hear: a South American immigrant who came to this country during the height of the Civil Rights/Anti-Vietnam War era, who was able to challenge the political mindset of others while still formulating his own.

What was the most enjoyable part of making the film?

The most enjoyable part of making this film was definitely interviewing my dad and learning new stories from his past, as well as being able to reimagine his stories through illustrated storyboards. It was so much fun to be able to create a new world based on my father’s memories, and to be able to present my storyboards for scenes to Leah Nichols who would then illustrate and animate the scenes. I learned so much from her and was so thankful I was able to bring her on as a collaborator on this project. I really enjoyed reimagining my father’s memories through my own perspective in this film. While it was difficult at times to synthesize my father’s life story into a short documentary, it was definitely a fun process throughout.

Photo by Maya Cueva & Leah Nichols.
What is it that draws you to making films that are so impactful to your audience?

I strive to make documentaries that challenge the way we think about certain issues and communities. As a mixed Latina, I am also drawn to make films that derive from my own experience as a queer person, as a mixed woman, or from the experiences of people in the community I grew up with in the Bay Area. In every film I make, I set out to examine what is being left out of the narrative, and ask my subjects what stories are not being shared of their own lived experiences. From topics ranging from abortion to immigration, the films I produce vary in their subjects but all have one thing in common — each sets out to challenge the reductive depictions in mainstream news.

“I strive to make documentaries that challenge the way we think about certain issues and communities.”

Is there any advice you would give other young filmmakers who are just starting out?

My advice to other young filmmakers is to keep fighting to make the films you want to make, and not to give up even after rejections. I firmly believe that if we wait for someone to give us the green light to make our films, we may never make them and if we don’t tell our own narratives, someone else will. So my advice is to create, create and create some more. Even if it’s just ideas you write down in your journal. I would also encourage young filmmakers to seek out fellowships to apply to that can help shape their career as a filmmaker, like the Sundance Ignite Fellowship or Creative Culture at the Jacob Burns Film Center. I would encourage other emerging artists to look into opportunities such as this one and to not give up even after several “no’s”. I would also advise young artists to work on sets of their peers — it’s a great way to gain more skills and to create a collaborative network of filmmakers.

Photo by Maya Cueva & Leah Nichols.
What does being a Sundance Ignite Fellow mean to you?

I am so excited to be granted the opportunity to join the community of Sundance Ignite Fellows! Becoming a Sundance Ignite fellow means so much to me, but mainly, it is truly rewarding to be seen and given the chance as a young Latina director in an industry that is dominated by white men. I am thrilled to be a joining a collaborative group of fellows and to be able to attend the Sundance Film Festival which will be an incredible experience to be able to watch amazing films and network with industry professionals. Being a Sundance Ignite Fellow means I get the chance to perfect my skills as an artist and gain further insight around the documentary film industry from the mentorship of an experienced filmmaker. I am so excited to start this journey as a 2019 fellow!

“So my advice is to create, create and create some more.”

Is there something you are most looking forward to getting out of the experience?

I am really looking forward to attending Sundance and to working with Sundance Ignite mentors who can advise me on the business of filmmaking, introduce me to industry creatives, support me through creative feedback and guide me on how to navigate festival and outreach strategy. I am also looking forward to meeting the other Sundance Ignite fellows and collaborating with one another.

See more work by Maya and the other Sundance Ignite Fellows.  

Recommended Articles