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Uprising: Leo Aguirre Talks Bicultural Beauty and True Representation in Filmmaking



The Stink director discusses the beauty of being bicultural, the privilege of filmmaking and the empowerment of underrepresented creatives within the industry, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

Uprising: Leo Aguirre Talks Bicultural Beauty and True Representation in Filmmaking

Spending a vast majority of his childhood with his grandparents in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Leo Aguirre grew up with a mix of inspirations that led him to his current career. As a child, he played baseball, was interested in sleight of hand tricks and - being ‘pretty geeky’ - loved to build things, even recreating his Red Sox-supporting father’s beloved Fenway Park out of cardboard.

Growing up, Leo time between his education in El Paso, Texas and his family life in Juarez - a duality in his upbringing that he didn’t appreciate until he was older. “I’ve really acknowledged the beauty of existing in this kind of liminal geographic space of being bicultural. I think it has impacted my outlook by forcing me to look at stories and themes in a more three-dimensional way. Nothing is ever black or white, there is a gradient to everything and everyone.”

Leo, at the behest of his practical-minded parents, studied film and communication studies at the University of Texas. “I was forced to have a backup degree in case film didn’t work out.” Despite fears that studying film would ‘make the process feel didactic’, his time wasn’t wasted and his passion for filmmaking remained. “I really enjoyed meeting new people and creating solid relationships... the process of learning from peers and being exposed to new forms of expression in film school was great.”

At an Austin production company, Leo interned before working his way up - as a grip, gaffer, AC and eventually, a cinematographer - all whilst developing his editing skills and cutting commercials at an agency. After trying ‘a bit of everything’ he decided to make the leap into directing full time. 

“During high school I knew I wanted to write and direct, so I worked on shorts with friends before film school, but didn’t really know what avenues one could really explore to make a living after college,” he says. “Things like joining the DGA and directing commercials in between film projects for a living seemed pretty out of reach, but luckily those things have manifested - a lot of hard work and some good fortune I suppose!”

For a time, Leo’s family relocated to the Caribbean - which is where he picked up a camera and began to hone his craft. This opportunity to develop his skills without the pressure of what others think is one he’s most grateful for now. “A big part is your willingness to try new techniques and approaches, while knowing it - most likely - won’t work the way you wanted it to. You’ll surprise yourself eventually.”

Describing filmmaking as ‘a privilege and luxury’, Leo acknowledges the difficulties of his occupation, such as finding time to be with his friends and family, and the inevitability of failure on the path to success. On his road to ‘shift perspectives and inspire empathy’ through his work, Leo has had the fortune to meet new people and visit new destinations.

One memorable destination on this journey is Portland, Oregon. This is where Leo developed his first professional project, a film for Converse with INDUSTRY, that gave him the rare opportunity to be ‘political and relentlessly bold’ with their message. Whilst he says that every project he’s involved in is part of this ‘still ongoing journey’, he highlights the film No Somos de Aquí, Ni Somos De Allá as a piece for which he received a lot of support and that opened many doors for him in the industry. 

Now that he’s living in The Big Apple, after a difficult lockdown spent in Texas and Oregon, Leo admits how fortunate he feels being able to look back over the pandemic and how far he’s come. “I feel really fortunate to have had time to reflect. I am sure a lot of people feel similarly about how it’s allowed them to reprioritise things in life,” he says. “I cherish my alone time, but love meeting up with friends when I’ve got the energy for it. It’s hard to balance the two in New York, especially when you’re trying to find community, but I am finding balance and a great group of friends here.”

Leo explains that his inspirations and ideas are in a constant state of change, which can make it difficult to decide where to allocate his time and energy. He admires the new work produced by his contemporaries but is conscious of being lost amongst the crowd. “I try to avoid a lot of the noise. Sometimes being too tuned in makes me feel like I am in an echo chamber.” Now, the projects that push creative boundaries and ‘flip ideas on their head’ are what gets Leo excited and inspired. “It’s clear that a lot of traditional advertising isn’t working anymore, so I love seeing more projects that really take a chance conceptually.”

Participating in the AICP and DGA’s Commercial Director Diversity Program and developing  a film camp for young immigrants and disadvantage people, Leo is an advocate for the empowerment of underrepresented creatives in the industry. “Truly allowing these folks to expand conceptually outside of their cultural lens is important if we want to really push inclusion. The way in which some brands and agencies have approached inclusivity is actually a bit limiting,” he says, claiming that ‘directors of colour, women directors and directors who pertain to the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalised groups’ often direct a narrow range of work that is solely relevant to their cultural background. “It is great to see more inclusivity, but I think we’ve got a lot to do when it comes to true representation.” 

Though, Leo says: “As important as these tools may be, it’s not just about statistics and trends.” He believes that the industry has to create projects that emotionally move the audience and that to achieve this, the crew must be ‘on the same page’ when it comes to the end goal. 

Away from his work, Leo stays in the creative spirit - never going a day without listening to an eclectic mix of music or playing drums and going for walks with his camera - often admiring the lighting of the sunrise, albeit due to staying up late to read or watch films. His attraction to innovative concepts and emotional masochism are satisfied by the ‘otherworldly’ works of Jonathan Glazer and Derek Cianfrance’s moving films. These passions also occasionally blend into work, as Leo anticipates his upcoming music videos with artist River Tiber. 

When it comes to his motivation for work, Leo sources a lot of energy from hope and a desire to affect improvements in the world. Despite some more pessimistic sensibilities, Leo’s creative positivity and passion for eliciting an emotional response is what drives him. “I’m learning that always leaving people with even a bit of hope can be something profound, given the times we are facing.”

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Stink, Wed, 06 Oct 2021 08:58:00 GMT