Diane Weipert: creating compelling stories about women

University researchers studying Latina immigrants in Los Angeles estimated that 24 percent of housekeepers and 82 percent of live-in nannies have left kids behind.
– from “The Nanny’s Child,” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, May 6, 2014

When Diane Weipert first moved to San Francisco, she gravitated toward the Mission District because, at that time, she said, “It felt like Mexico.” The writer, director, and producer had spent a great deal of time in Mexico and Central and South America, and thus developed an affinity for Latino culture. “There were panaderías, peluquerías, joyerías, and lavanderías everywhere. I fell into a kind of bohemian scene of Latino locals, lots of artists and poets and musicians,” she recalled. “I was often the only gringa around, but I was happier in that world than anywhere else in the city.”

Diane’s son, Theo, at Mission Playground in San Francisco.

Diane continued traveling for long stretches of time. “By the time my son, Theo, was born, many years later, the city had changed,” she said. “Thousands of Latino families had been driven out of the Mission by the rich techies that wanted to live there. Almost everybody I knew from the old days was gone.” Gentrification had taken over with trendy restaurants, designer clothing boutiques, and gourmet coffee places occupying neighborhood storefronts. “I was pushing around a janky, secondhand stroller past high-end baby stores and flyers advertising expensive music classes for toddlers – I felt out of place,” she revealed. “But the playgrounds and rec centers were filled with Mexican and Central American nannies taking care of little blond kids, feeding them from BPA-free containers and stainless steel water bottles. And they never judged my obvious lack of money.”

Fluent in Spanish, she spent time with them talking about their kids. “I realized how lucky I was; I was watching my own little guy playing in the sand while we talked,” she said. While these women were taking care of other people’s children, their own children were being looked after by a patchwork of neighbors, friends, or family. Some of the nannies confessed to Diane that when they came home from their jobs, they were too exhausted to enjoy their own children. “They were the inspiration for ‘Niñera,'” she explained, of the short film’s backstory.

Diane directing on the set of “Niñera” (photo credit by Audrey Gloeckner-Kalousek).

LUNAFEST is the first film festival for “Niñera,” a story that “looks at the bitter irony many nannies face: raising the children of strangers for a living while their own children are virtually left to raise themselves.” The LUNAFEST premier in late September was the film’s coming-out party, so to speak. Its entry, however, comes at a time in our history where, as Diane describes it, “the world is primed to enter another dark age.”

“Those of us fighting for light are searching for the most effective ways to channel our energy and advance our struggle,” she said. “The best way I know how to do that, at the moment, is by telling stories that – hopefully – invoke empathy, even from those who have been swayed by a toxic ideology. Most people who are anti-immigrant have never had a meaningful relationship or encounter with an undocumented person. They exist only as an idea, and that ‘otherness’ makes them easy to demonize and dismiss.” But there’s hope, Diane insists, saying, “The only way I know how to push against it is by making stories about real people who everyone can empathize with – engaged in universal struggles – people that we’re all rooting for.”

Still from Niñera – Georgina feeding William.

The vagabond writer with ties to Latin America
A Spanish and Anthropology major at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Diane spent a year abroad, studying at the University of Seville in Spain. She saw Cuban troubadour Silvio Rodriguez perform live and became “obsessed” with his music. “His lyrics completely changed my sense of language, of what was possible with music as a means of expression,” she shared. “In fact, learning Spanish opened up a vast, beautiful world for me.” Diane was influenced by Cuban, Chilean, and Argentinian music of the 1960s and 1970s. Her favorite authors at the time were Garcia Marquez, Borges, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes. And the Latin American poets, filmmakers, visual artists, and muralists made a lasting impression on her.

Diane with friends in Baños, Ecuador.

When she returned to Boulder, she completed her thesis on the Tarahumara Indians of the northern Sierras in Chihuahua, Mexico, where she conducted fieldwork. Upon graduation, she edited and wrote for a bilingual weekly newspaper in Southern Colorado, but after a year, she hit the road for a year, starting out in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and traveling as far south as Puerto Montt, Chile. “I made my deepest and longest lasting friendships in the eastern provinces of Cuba, where I spent a month with artists and writers,” she said. “I was the only American most of them had ever met, and at the time it was like being a rock star.”

Diane at the Mexico City premiere of Sólo Dios Sabe.

Diane has been in the film industry for more than a decade. Before that, she described herself as a “consummate vagabond and writer” whose stints with temp jobs and freelance writing paid for her travels. When the freelance writing assignments dried up, she went on to get her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, where she discovered her passion for fiction writing. When she was living in San Francisco, she volunteered as a driver for local film festivals, gravitating to the Latino festivals, where being bilingual gave her an advantage. “I would pick up directors from the airport and we almost always hit it off. I’d show them around the city, we’d have dinner and drinks, and often discuss our creative projects,” she revealed. One such excursion landed her a screenwriting gig when a Mexican director asked her to write the script for his film, Sólo Dios Sabe, which stars Diego Luna.

Diane never stopped traveling to visit friends, “migrating back” to Mexico City and Cuba, where she realized she was happiest and felt at home in the Spanish-speaking world. With her light hair and fair skin, however, throughout her travels she was called gringa, gavacha, gidi, colorada, cruda, chabochi, yanki, yuma. “The gist of all of these words was ‘outsider,'” she explained, which made her realize that while she felt at home in Latin America, she didn’t really belong – it was not truly her culture. And yet, she pointed out, “I didn’t feel quite at home or entirely myself in my own culture either. That feeling of being unmoored between worlds caused an identity crisis that lasted for years, and is why so much of my work deals with issues of identity.” And because she has been so immersed in the culture, the world that she has written about so intimately is from the Spanish-speaking, Latin American perspective.

With friends in Las Tunas, Cuba.

Boyle Heights: self-identity versus cultural identity
Diane’s latest project, Boyle Heights, is set in 1973 and based on the illegal tubal ligations performed on Mexican women by USC County Hospital after the women delivered their babies. “That part is all true,” she pointed out, of the sterilizations that the women unknowingly gave consent or that were forced upon them. “It happened to many, many women [regardless of their ages] and it destroyed their lives,” she said. In 1975, a group of Latina women brought a class-action lawsuit, Madrigal v. Quilligan. While the judge ruled in favor of the county hospital, the case paved the way for improving the education and process around patient consent, especially for non-English speakers. Renee Tajima-Peña’s documentary about these women, No Más Bebés, premiered February 2016.

Still from Boyle Heights.

In the fictionalized Boyle Heights – a neighborhood in East Los Angeles – Valentina, a 20-year-old immigrant woman, is sterilized after delivering a stillborn baby. Her husband leaves her when he discovers they will never be able to have a family. Undeterred, Valentina recruits her opinionated Chicana activist neighbor Maya to help her find her husband. “At its core, Boyle Heights is a coming-of-age story about how Valentina’s experiences with Maya open her eyes to a world she never knew existed, and the many different ways that a woman can live her life,” Diane explained. “It’s about self-discovery.”

When she first heard about the sterilization of Mexican women in East Los Angeles in the 1970s, the horror she felt and her obsession led her to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Chicano Studies Department, where she sifted through all the depositions and interviews. “What was striking was how the women, almost to a person, said they no longer felt like women,” Diane noted. “According to the anthropologist who interviewed them, their main cultural identity was being a mother. As someone who is obsessed with the idea of identity, I thought a lot about what would happen if everything you expected to be in your life was suddenly taken away.” The questions are heartbreaking and painful: Who would you be then? What would you do? “The important thing here is that this is not a fictional question. There were many women forced to face it, which is horrific,” Diane said. “The freedom comes from finding my way into this world through fictional characters and guiding their stories. The women who were affected in real life weren’t granted this luxury.”

Theo and Diane on the ferry.

Complex female protagonists
In a Filmmaker Magazine profile, Diane related an anecdote about a Hollywood manager who treated her dismissively after learning of her pregnancy. That incident happened years ago when she was a “hip-pocketed indie writer in a pond of big fish clients.” Diane pointed out that the industry has changed considerably, notably in the last couple of years. Early in her career, in order to get a reading, she was advised to use her initials instead of her first name when she submitted an action thriller script she had penned. “Now they’re actually looking for women who can write action and who come up with strong female characters,” she marveled. “I was actually told to take off my initials and put my name on the title page.” Studio programs are paving the way for up-and-coming female directors to have the opportunity to direct network television episodes. “And brilliant women directors like Ava Duvernay and Jill Solloway are reaching out to female writers and directors to help bring them up as well,” Diane said.

Diane Weipert.

She credits social media activism and the “wonderful, relentless criticism” of Hollywood and the filmmaking industry for its long-time discrimination against women and people of color. While slightly trending upward, the number of and percentage of women in various positions in the industry is “abysmal,” according to Diane. “But the pressure is on,” she declared. “And hopefully it’s a current that continues to flow in one direction until we see nothing less than parity.”

“My greatest goal is to create compelling stories about women,” Diane said. “I’m interested in working in many different genres, but the common denominator will always be the complex female protagonists.” With the majority of writers and directors being men, “a plague of cultural misconceptions about what a girl or a woman is supposed to be” has existed since the advent of the film industry, according to Diane. “In the eyes of the vast majority of male writers,” she noted, “a woman’s singular purpose in any story is sex appeal.”

Diane on the set of Niñera (photo credit by Audrey Gloeckner-Kalousek).

“Women are half the population and we’re tired of it,” she said, of the portrayal of women in film. “We want to see ourselves represented on screen kicking ass and saving the world, too, not to mention having complex interior lives, interesting jobs, and multi-dimensional personalities.” Luckily for us, Diane has a mission: “As a writer-director, I want to bring these stories and characters into existence while retaining control of that vision and maintaining its integrity.”

Note: You can see Diane’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. You can also meet her at our VIP event and following the screening. For more information, click here.