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Frida Kahlo, in her own words: A new documentary draws from diaries, letters

A new documentary about Frida Kahlo's life, now streaming on Amazon Prime, tells her story using her own words and art.<strong></strong>
Leo Matiz
/
Fundación Leo Matiz
A new documentary about Frida Kahlo's life, now streaming on Amazon Prime, tells her story using her own words and art.

Updated March 20, 2024 at 9:34 AM ET

"I paint myself because that's who I know the best," the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo once wrote in her illustrated diary. So it's fitting that a new documentary about Kahlo's life, now streaming on Amazon Prime, tells her story using her own words and art.

In the 70 years since Kahlo's death there have been countless efforts to revisit her complicated life, politics and artwork. Most famous is probably the 2002 fictional film starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor that depicted Kahlo's tempestuous relationship with painter Diego Rivera. Many of these treatments have relied on actors, interviews with academics, art historians and contemporary artists. Filmmaker Carla Gutiérrez wanted a fresh take.

"Instead of having that historical distance of other people explaining [to] us what she meant with her art," Gutiérrez says, "I really wanted to give that gift to viewers of just hearing from her own words. We wanted to have the most intimate entry way into her heart and into her mind."

In Gutiérrez's documentary Frida, Kahlo's words are taken from handwritten letters and illustrated diaries, and voiced by Mexican actor Fernanda Echevarría del Rivero. The film is in Spanish, with English subtitles.

Gutiérrez says she wanted to get inside Kahlo's head. "What was she thinking? what was she feeling? I felt that as a Latina, somebody that grew up in Latin America, there was this connection I have with the world that created Frida."

Gutiérrez was born in Peru and saw her first Frida Kahlo painting, as a college student in Massachusetts. It was an image of Kahlo standing with one foot in Mexico, another in the U.S. "Her impressions of the United States and yearning [for] home for Mexico, that painting really reflected my own experience," says Gutiérrez. "And then I became obsessed, like millions of people around the world."

As an editor, Gutiérrez has worked on documentaries on other what she calls "badass women", including thelate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, singer Chavela Vargas and chef Julia Child. But Frida is her first film as director.

She enlisted the help of Hayden Herrera, who wrote the definitive Frida Kahlo biography in 1983. Gutiérrez' team combed through Herrera's closets and attic, looking through her archives.

"We had a good time," Herrera says. "I basically gave them all my research material."

That included transcripts of interviews with people who knew Kahlo. One of the film's archivists, Gabriel Rivera, also scoured university libraries, museums and private collections finding photos and handwritten messages.

"These letters often have little doodles on them," Rivera says. "She would, like, do kind of lipstick kisses on these letters."

The film includes the words written by or about Kahlo's contemporaries, including Diego Rivera, who she married twice, her friends such as surrealist André Breton and her lovers such as Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky.

Some of Kahlo's paintings are slightly animated in the new film.
/ Archivo Manuel Álvarez Bravo, S.C.
/
Archivo Manuel Álvarez Bravo, S.C.
Some of Kahlo's paintings are slightly animated in the new film.

Gabriel Rivera says they tried to follow any lead, including a tip about some footage of Kahlo dancing in the streets of New York City with a rose stem gripped in her mouth. He discovered through writings that the film canister had been left on an airplane in the late 1960s, which Rivera said is "just devastating." They tried to find lost luggage and are still hoping it shows up one day.

But there is plenty of material they did find.

In Mexico, another archivist, Adrián Gutiérrez, was able to collect some rarely seen photos and footage of Kahlo and Rivera together, and of Rivera kissing another woman. There's footage of the Mexican revolutionary Emilio Zapata and of Red Cross workers in Mexico City bandaging trolley accident victims like Kahlo, who was famously injured as a teen. She painted about that and other pain she suffered.

For the documentary, composer Víctor Hernández Stumpfhauser created a soundtrack of electronic music with folkloric guitar and the ethereal voice of his wife, Alexa Ramírez.

Hear Mandalit del Barco's 1991 radio documentary about Frida Kahlo

"The idea was that Frida herself was so ahead of her time, with her thoughts, her ideas. She was a very modern person," says Stumpfhauser. "So we thought, well, let's let's do something modern, but of course, with a with a Mexican flair."

Gutiérrez also made the decision to slightly animate some of Kahlo's paintings. Frida's open heart beats and bleeds, tears roll down her face, and when she cuts her hair in desperation over her divorce, her scissors move and pieces of her hair fall to the floor.

The Salma Hayek film also animated some of Kahlo's work. But Herrera says doing so in a documentary was gutsy.

"When I saw the first animation, I thought, Oh my God," says Herrera. "But then I found it really seductive and really added so much to the understanding of her paintings. I found them very astute and actually quite witty. And they brought you closer to Frida."

Herrera says its remarkable that Frida mania is still very much alive.

"I think she would have been pleased that we're still talking about her, and I think she would have liked this film," she says. "Although seeing your own paintings animated might not be easy, but she might have given one of her big guffaws and laughed and thought it was amusing."

Herrera says this latest documentary is her favorite telling of Frida Kahlo, and is itself a work of art.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.