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Condensing anyone’s lifetime into a one-hour documentary is a daunting task, more so if it’s the life of an accomplished artist with a career that spans several decades.
That was the challenge faced by filmmakers Michael Vargas and Moni Vargas, who directed a new film about Chicano Rock pioneer Rubén “Funkahuatl” Guevara for the KCET arts and culture series “Artbound.”
“For me to see a life like Rubén’s, was really soul affirming,” said Moni, half of the husband and wife team that also produced the documentary. “Here we see a career that spans 60 years plus, and someone who has contributed so much to not only Chicano culture, but also to LA history.”
The filmmakers lived up to the task beautifully with “Con Safos,” a well-crafted narrative of Guevara’s career from his beginnings as a doo-wop singer to his present day stature as a Boyle Heights-based performance artist, author and activist. The film intercuts archival, rarely seen footage – such as Guevara’s 1965 performance in the TV variety show “Shindig”– with interviews with the artist and some of his closest friends and collaborators, like punk musician Alice Bag or actor and art collector Cheech Marin.
Premiering Wednesday at 9 pm on KCET, the film kicks off the 12th season of “Artbound.”
Watch a promotional video for new season of ‘Artbound’
“Con Safos” takes its name from the old-school protective tag used by Chicano graffiti artists, a tag that Guevara adopted not only as the name of one of his songs, but as a personal affirmation of his Chicano identity.
That identity is at the heart and center of the film, inspired by Guevara’s revealing 2018 autobiography “Confessions of a Radical Doo-Wop Singer” and based loosely on the one-man show by the same title that premiered at Casa 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights in 2016. The film offers insight into Guevara’s self-recognition as a Chicano in the early 70s and how that influenced his work on stage, film and other media.
Dan Kwong, who co-wrote and directed the stage play, served as executive producer for the documentary, along with Guevara’s son, Rubén Guevara III.
A writer and filmmaker himself, Guevara III decided to turn “Confessions of a Radical Doo-Wop Singer” into a film when he accompanied his father during his 2018 book tour. Compared to the book, he said, “Con Safos” is more rooted in his father’s personal struggles, and how they helped him become an inspiration for other artists of his generation.
“When we started writing the film, we decided we needed to root Ruben’s journey as the vessel for how Chicano culture developed.” Guevara III said at a press briefing last week. “He had many setbacks and many failures, which helped him transform into the artist he is today. He transformed Chicano culture with it.”
Guevara’s longevity and resilience resonated with co-director Mike Vargas.
“Sometimes you get to a point where Act Two in your life can get daunting, or Act Three,” he said. “Rubén reminds me that… ‘forget the acts, do the work.’ It’s about you pushing through all that. And the bravery. I’ll take some of that.”
The filmmakers said they felt a sense of urgency in getting Guevara’s story to the wide audience the TV documentary can provide.
“It is a way to combat the erasure of Chicano culture, of Latin culture, all of the contributions that we Latin Americans or Latinx have made as a whole to American culture,” Moni said. “As much as people try to erase and invisibilize us, we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”
The filmmakers – she’s Colombian and he’s Puerto Rican– said it was also important for them to show the diversity in that culture.
“When we get into the conversation about Latinx it turns into the monolith conversation,” Mike said. “We are all these different things. This show is not about that, it’s about the artistry, it’s about somebody like Rubén. It’s amazing this guy is here, he’s walking around with all the contributions. He’s real, this dude is real.”
For executive producer Dan Kwong, who has collaborated with Guevara for some 20 years, the artist’s appeal is his ability to connect with other cultures. Kwong and Guevara are currently collaborating on “The Bronze Nightingale,” a play set to open next year at Casa 0101.
“Rubén has always been this guy who is about building bridges and making connections,” Kwong said. “To get to work on this was really a pleasure, because I want more people to know the amazing journey this guy has been on. You only see a tiny piece of his journey, but it’s still impressive as hell.”
“Con Safos” also marks the first collaboration between the 34-year-old Guevara III and his 78-year-old father. Earlier this year, Guevara told Boyle Heights Beat he expected the documentary to be one of his biggest achievements.
“He is an incredible collaborator,” said Guevara III. “Honestly he should be credited as a producer. He has been supportive, never pushed back. And gave us some incredible ideas.”
“What father would not be blown out of his mind to have his son make a movie about his life?,” replied Guevara last week. “It’s incredible. I’m blown away and that will be part of my legacy as well, I’m certain about that.”
“Con Safos” airs Wed., Oct. 13 at 9 p.m. on KCET; Fri., Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. PT on PBS SoCal and Tues., Oct. 19 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Link TV.
For a limited time it is also streaming on PBS.org.