LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Friendship is one of the great gifts a parent can give their child. A new student film called "Spaceship" shows how powerful it can be.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPACESHIP")
CARLIE GUEVARA: (As Maria) You know what I was thinking? We could make this car into a spaceship and sleep under the stars.
CHLOE JO ROUNTREE: (As Alex) Like real astronauts.
GUEVARA: (As Maria) Yeah. What do you think?
ROUNTREE: (As Alex) We need a signal so that the people living in space can see us.
GUEVARA: (As Maria) We do. How about - we're here.
ROUNTREE: (As Alex) We're here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria is a Latina trans woman. Her daughter Alex is 8 years old. They live in East Los Angeles. And as the film unfolds, they confront discrimination, poverty and the possibility of separation. The American Film Institute Conservatory's Jorge Camarena is the director and co-writer. He joins us now as part of NPR's showcase for excellent student films. Welcome to the program.
JORGE CAMARENA: Thank you so much for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to start by asking you about the inspiration for this film. Where did it come from?
CAMARENA: I was walking through a protest in Guadalajara, Mexico, where I'm from. A woman was holding this sign that said, I want to be free, not brave. And it represented a lot of how my mom felt while I was growing up. And she had to work at a time where it wasn't very well seen that women worked. So I always admired my mom working, trying to support me and my brothers and the family.
When I moved here to LA, I met a trans woman who is a mother. And we started sharing our experiences. And I saw a lot of similarities in her struggle from what I believe was my mother's struggle. And I just thought it was a very universal way of portraying this kind of story.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, the mother in the film, Maria, is a trans woman. How did you research her character, given that you're not trans? I mean, was it just in these conversations, or did you do any other additional work?
CAMARENA: This was one of the biggest concerns while we were building the story because I think that there's a responsibility from us as filmmakers when we're representing a certain community. So we reached out to the TransLatina Coalition and the Trans Wellness Center here in LA who deal with trans women and deal with a lot of Latina trans women as well. Through these organizations, I met our story editor. And we crafted the story so that it represented a community in the best way possible and the specificity was there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, the film doesn't show Maria transitioning in any way - you know, taking hormones, undergoing surgeries. I gather this choice was important to you.
CAMARENA: We wanted to make a film about life much later after the transition. A lot of the films that I've seen regarding trans women focus on the transition phase. And for me, it was important that we drop the audience in the middle of life after that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria faces a lot of challenges in the film. She's evicted from her apartment. She has difficulty finding work. She's at risk of losing the custody of her daughter. Alex, of course, is just a kid. How where do you think she is, though, of Maria's problems?
CAMARENA: Alex is completely aware of Maria's problems. But she hides it. She doesn't want to burden her mom with more problems, which is a lot of the way that I felt growing up with my mom. I think that one of Maria's problems is that she's not aware that Alex is having a lot of trouble in school. She's being bullied. Yeah, she's going through a lot, too.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to listen to a scene. The manager of the restaurant where Maria works becomes an unexpected ally and gives her a waitress job. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPACESHIP")
ROGELIO RAMOS: (As Carlos) You were late today again.
GUEVARA: (As Maria) I know. That was my fault. I'm so sorry. It's not going to happen again. I promise.
RAMOS: (As Carlos) Listen; I run a tight ship here. And I can't have behavior that slows the workflow. It's already hard for us as it is, OK? Listen; I understand harsh times. I've been through some myself. (Speaking Spanish). You're right. You're a hard worker, so I'm going to give you a shot. You start tomorrow.
GUEVARA: (As Maria) Really?
RAMOS: (As Carlos) Yeah.
GUEVARA: (As Maria) Thank you.
RAMOS: (As Carlos) Just one more thing. Whatever it is that you've got going on, get it together. That's it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you want to include that scene?
CAMARENA: I've been a waiter, a bartender. I've worked in the kitchen. I've been a dishwasher. And Carlos, who is a manager, was drawn from a lot of the managers that I've had. Where I come from, there's a lot of problems with people having double standards due to living in a very conservative city that is very connected with religion. But it was also very important that we had a moment where Maria gets a little ray of hope. What we wanted to do with Carlos was that he is willing to help Maria. He just lost a waitress, and he has to fix this problem as soon as possible. And it's like, well, she just asked. I'll give it to her, and I'll solve this problem.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Space is a prominent theme throughout your film. And it ties directly to Alex's dreams to become an astronaut. But it also relates to Maria, who struggles with isolation. At the end of your film, Child Protective Services is taking Alex away from Maria because Maria lied and said she had stable housing. And after being separated, the two have this touching exchange using walkie-talkies. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPACESHIP")
GUEVARA: (As Maria) Discovery, this is Houston. I repeat, do you copy?
ROUNTREE: (As Alex) Yes, I can hear you.
GUEVARA: (As Maria) Where are you?
ROUNTREE: (As Alex) I'm still here in the classroom.
GUEVARA: (As Maria) Is anybody watching you?
ROUNTREE: (As Alex) No.
GUEVARA: (As Maria) Alex, I need to pay really close attention. This is going to be a real mission. I'm going to be right outside waiting for you. OK?
ROUNTREE: (As Alex) Roger that.
GUEVARA: (As Maria) Is the door open?
ROUNTREE: (As Alex) Yes.
GUEVARA: (As Maria) On this mission, Alex, when I count down to blastoff, you're going to run as fast as you can like a rocket ship going to space. I'm going to be right outside. OK?
CAMARENA: (As Alex) Roger that, Houston.
GUEVARA: (As Maria) Three, two, one.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, without revealing too much, what did you want people to take away from this exchange?
CAMARENA: Space is a place that they share where they can be themselves. So at the end, what we wanted is to come back to this connection. But also, Maria just went through a crisis, beginning to believe what the world wants her to believe now, which is she's not allowed to be her mother. Throughout the film, she has this self-doubt. But at the end, she overcomes this. And it's like, no, I am her mother. This scene is specifically about Maria finding that just in the moment when she's losing it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think it's important to make films about people and the lives of people that we might sometimes overlook?
CAMARENA: I'm always drawn to stories about people that are not usually portrayed or seen. I just connect with that. That's the way that I feel, too. There's this world's just right next to ours with their own micro-cosmos and their own particles. I always like to do stories about trying to find, like, the light within their own cracks.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Jorge Camarena talking about his film, "Spaceship." There's more information about it, including a trailer, at npr.org. Thank you very much.
CAMARENA: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.