Periodical Podcast Vol. 10 with special guest Rommel Villa
Asha Dahya speaks with “Sweet Potatoes” director Rommel Villa about how he worked with Miramontes’ children to tell his improbable story of invention and resistance.
Asha Dahya speaks with “Sweet Potatoes” director Rommel Villa about how he worked with Miramontes’ children to tell his improbable story of invention and resistance.
“If you had asked me many years ago, ‘Do you know who invented the birth control pill?’ I would have (guessed) anywhere in the world except for a Latino country … so it was amazing to learn that someone humble, this Mexican scientist, was the one who revolutionized the world we live in now.
— Rommel Villa
Rommel Villa is an Emmy and Student-Academy-Award-winning filmmaker born and raised in Bolivia. He grew up writing and directing award-winning plays based on social issues within the Latinx and Queer communities. Rommel has a degree in Systems Engineering and an MFA in Film/TV Production. Winner of Directing stipends from Lionsgate-Televisa, USC School of Cinematic Arts, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Rommel’s work ranges from magical-realistic LGBTQ+ stories like his film “Teddy Mate”, to movies based on real-life events like “Sweet Potatoes”, a historical film about the Mexican scientist who synthesized the birth control pill, which granted Rommel a Student Academy Award.
After being a grantee in the 2021 Tomorrow Filmmaker’s Today program, Rommel made the necessary connections to develop a series based on “Sweet Potatoes” called “Revolutionary Lives” while doing Post-Production for his next film “Piedra Dura/Hard Stone”, which tackles the abuse of queer teenagers in small towns in Bolivia. Passionate about controversial, dark, and out-of-this-world topics that affect minorities, Rommel is looking to produce his first feature film “The Mechanical Box”, a psychological thriller that he hopes will show the world the vision and talent of a Bolivian filmmaker whose dreams go beyond flying llamas.
IG/FB: @rommelvb — RommelVillaFilms.com — Sweet Potatoes: FB/IG: @sweetpotatoesfilm
Asha Dahya (00:07):
Hello. Hello. Welcome to another episode of the rePROFilm Podcast. As always, I’m your host, Asha Dahya. Thrilled to be bringing you another interview with a super talented filmmaker. And as this episode is released on November 1st, I am in the final eight day stretch of a Kickstarter campaign where I’m raising money for post-production and animation on my short documentary called Someone You Know, it profiles the stories of three women who had abortions later in their pregnancies and the barriers they faced along the way. So, on a personal note, as a fellow filmmaker, these podcast interviews for me are as much about trying to get advice and hear the process of other filmmakers as they are about sharing important and impactful stories with our audience. So, now that I have that out the way, this month’s theme is male allyship, and our featured short film is Sweet Potatoes by Rommel Villa, a filmmaker originally from Bolivia, now based in Los Angeles.
I was so blown away watching this film and learning about the story of Luis Miramontes. This is a story that the world needs to know more about, especially when it comes to reproductive healthcare. Luis is a scientist in 1950s, Mexico, who works part-time in a lab, on a potentially world-changing project. He’s trying to synthesize the hormone that will prevent conception. He’s using material from Mexican sweet potatoes, the medicinal plant bar basco, a wild yam indigenous to the region to generate the hormone. But the experiment keeps failing. But Luis faces potential conflict and tension about his work. His best friend is an influential priest in a local church, and of course, is against the idea of birth control altogether. And his wife wants to have a large family, though Luis is apprehensive due to unresolved grief over a miscarriage, and the pressures of providing for such a large family.
Due to his fears, he tells no one about his scientific quest. He’s constantly sitting in the struggle with his wife, his family, his faith, and his community, which you’ll see in the film, written and directed by Ramel Vela. This short historical drama tells an expansive moving and unusually emotionally intimate story of a scientific hero and inventor. Luis also became the first Mexican to be included in the USA Inventor’s Hall of Fame. Everything Ramel shared with me about his journey as a filmmaker, what it means to present such a complex and dynamic story of an inspirational Latino figure, and his personal perspective on joining the fight for reproductive justice was nothing short of inspiring. I truly love this conversation, and at a point in our country’s history where not just abortion, but potentially birth control and other means of reproductive healthcare are in jeopardy. Films like this are more important than ever. So I hope you enjoy this conversation. Roel, thank you so much for joining me today, and I’m really thrilled to be talking with you about your filmmaking journey and sweet potatoes. Um, but I’d love to start off finding out when did you first learn about the story of Luis Miam Monte, and then decide to make a short film about his work and his story?
Rommel Villa (03:23):
First of all, thank you so much for having me. It’s, it’s an honor to be here and to get to talk to you, Asha. The first time I learned about Luis Miam Montes story was by Googling it, actually. And what I had, I remember that what I had Googled was like, um, Latinx figures that have revolutionized their work, the, the world with their work, basically, you know? Um, I just wanted to know, coming into the us, uh, six years ago from Bolivia was, um, a little bit of a cultural shock for me. Um, after going through, you know, eh, the stereotypes as a Bolivian as a Latino and South American coming to the us it was eye-opening to me because I was like, wow, many people just label me as, um, the the drug person, or like the wow, they’re uneducated person. My Uber driver asked me if I have coke in my backpack. Um,
Asha Dahya (04:24):
Your Uber driver asked you for drugs.
Rommel Villa (04:26):
That was actually my welcome to America in a way. Like, I arrived to the airport, I got an, um, a taxi, let’s call it, and, um, and the guy and the driver watch just, we were just chatting, you know, and then he was like, where are you coming from? And I was like, oh, I’m from Bolivia. He was like, oh, I got Bolivia. So do you have drug in your backpack? Do you have some coke for me? Like, oh my gosh. He tried to make, I guess, jokes out of it, and I did laugh, and I was like, I guess he’s joking. But, um, that was just one of many examples of how, um, I realized I was being perceived, whether it is jokingly or not, you know? So I thought like, wow, are Latinos really seen this way, you know, by certain people? And it was eye-opening.
It was disappointing. It was probably the biggest adjustment that I had to go through, you know, that like coming here, I was no longer back in Bolivia. I’m just me, you know, I’m not the Bolivia, I’m not the Latino, I’m not the the one with the dark skin or, you know, um, but here, I I I, I started getting all these labels. I, I felt like, um, where I was being told like, you belong here, uh, to this box, and these are the stereotypes that fit you. You know, or like, oh, you’re doing your masters. Oh, that’s impressive for someone. Like, you just just, you know, like, you get all these things. So I don’t know, I got into like a little bit of a crisis identity crisis, just, just wondering like, am I supposed to fit in and act this way that people expect me to, or that they believe I should act, you know, based on the stereotypes.
Um, but there have to be like real examples of Latinos, Latinas, Latinx people in the world that have made a change that we are not aware of, you know, that are perfect examples of, um, us going beyond the stereotypes that are out there. So that’s, that’s when my whole open Google and look for it, like search and learning and self-educating began, you know? And, um, I read many stories from many, uh, important figures, um, in the, like Latinx culture. And when I read Luz Mi Monte’s story, um, and the work that he had done by helping develop the birth control pill, it was just fascinating to me. It was, it was fascinating to hear, um, his background. It was fascinating to hear that he was Latino. I, I will be the first person to admit that if you had asked me like many years ago, like, do you know who invented or, or, or who are the parents of, like, the birth control pill, like from, you know, all over the world except like a Latino country, probably because of my own self, like believes also in lack of education, you know? So it was like amazing to learn and hear that someone humble, someone like, um, this Mexican scientist was, um, was the one who would revolutionize the world that we live in now, basically. So I was fascinated by his work, his, his life story as like a person, as a family man, and like his family itself and, and just the unfairness that, that he had to go through because of his invention.
Asha Dahya (07:42):
I love that story of you using the way that you were perceived when you came to the United States, and, you know, these stereotypes. And first of all, I’m sorry that you ended up going through that. I know a lot of immigrants have to deal with those stereotypes, um, but as a filmmaker, it’s really powerful that you were able to use that as a driving force to make something, to educate even more people about dismantling stereotypes and, you know, preconceived notions about people. So that’s really wonderful. I I love that. And I mean, it’s, there’s some parallels with Luis’s story because there are so many aspects of his story that show what a complex person he was and how you really can’t ever stereotype anyone. Uh, can you talk about the fact that he was a scientist and a strong person, a person of strong faith, and what that juxtaposition might mean in Latino families especially.
Rommel Villa (08:35):
That’s actually another aspect that I strongly connected with because my undergrad, which I did back in Bolivia, is in systems engineering, you know, um, and I did an MFA in filmmaking, so, um,
Asha Dahya (08:50):
Engineering and filmmaking, it goes hand in hand.
Rommel Villa (08:52):
<laugh>. I know. I mean, <laugh>, it’s interesting because like, I, I love science, I love technology. I’m fascinated by it. And I feel like I also was raised under, like, in a, in a Catholic household and, and, and country, like mainly, you know, like mostly Catholic. Yeah. Um, and religious. So, uh, I must say that my experience growing up as Catholic Christian back in Bolivia is different from what a lot of people have experienced here in the us for example. You know, like, so, so, um, I went to like a Catholic school, but to me it felt very progressive to be there actually, because yes, there are a lot of rules and, and you know, like faith is very important. Going to church, it’s very important. But I also, like at that school, I learned about birth control a lot.
Asha Dahya (09:43):
Wow. I mean, that’s pretty, yeah, that’s pretty revolutionary for a Catholic school, and yes. That’s really
Rommel Villa (09:48):
Fascinating over here. Uh, I think over, yes, I think over there it was, to me it was normal, you know, it was, I mean, of course it’s, it’s like amazing, uncomfortable, a little bit like shocking to be like, okay, I’m 13, 14 and I’m learning about these things that I kind of want to learn, but also like, I feel uncomfortable, you know, like listening. So I’m, I’m making jokes about it, you know? So, um, I, I went to fairs where they gave away like condoms and things like that. There are still a lot of like, taboos for sure, you know, but like in terms of education and, and, and when, and I studied in a Catholic school, that was in a way, part of my experience, you know, it was not only the, um, the love and respect for, for God and the religion, but also like, um, the, the learning that came from it, you know, like, um, that, that felt, as I said, very progressive.
So I never saw like as faith and science or like science and religion being like opposite. Mm-hmm. Or like always like crashing. I mean, I understand, and I, you know, when you read history, when you read like the news or whatever, there is a little clashing between them too. But, but for me, because of my experience, I was like, well, I’m going to this school and I’m growing up in this household, you know, where, where, um, it’s where, where we have this big spirituality, but also like I’m, I’m learning a lot about math, physics, and chemistry that I love. And in this school I’m learning about science as well, you know? And like when I went to like the university and science systems engineering, I was also like, um, on weekends working at church, you know, as a, as a Catholic, like working with kids and teenagers, like teaching them a little bit about religion and going on mission trips.
So I was able to do both at the same time. And that’s in a way, kind of like, I guess similar to Lu Mira Montes, um, experience, you know, because he was born in a very traditional town in Mexico, very humble. Um, and they, you know, they didn’t have enough money to, to live to get food growing up, but what they always had was their spirituality and their religion, you know? And like the fact that it was so important to sit around the table and pray before eating, you know, and like, go to church every week. Um, I remember by talking to Lisa’s family, they told me that his wife was the number one advocate for like, going to church every Sunday, were in their be desk clothes, you know, just to thank God for all the blessings, you know, and always supporting and respecting Lisa’s work, you know, like, um, going on and working at church.
So I feel like for like Latin households, the experience is just different, you know, like the experience, like, um, merging like science and religion can be, um, not, it’s not always like contradicting, you know, they can be, it can be complimentary. Uh, so of course, I can only speak for my experience, but I know that that’s, that there were a lot of those aspects that, um, were similar in Louis Miramontes story. It was like after, um, he did his work that things became convoluted once, let’s say society or, or the system became involved in this, that, that he was, um, put labels on or like forced to pick, uh, sides, you know? Yeah.
Asha Dahya (13:10):
It’s such a powerful way of busting through those labels, like you said, that and stereotypes, um, you know, that people normally think of. And, and also, uh, an organization that, that I really love to follow Catholics for choice. They’re based here in the us, you know, they, the, a lot of the data that they share is that a majority of Catholic people, so not necessarily the, you know, the church leaders or the people who are putting out the rules, but Catholic people believe in birth control and use it. And so it’s almost like Luis’s story and the way you grew up is reflective of probably a lot of Catholic people, more so than we’re led to believe. So I think that’s really powerful that you are sharing this and, and showing this on film too. Um, the, like you mentioned earlier, the story for how Luis developed a scientific formula for birth control using sweet potatoes, an element from the sweet potato vegetable isn’t as widely known as it should be.
And I love learning about this story. I had no idea. Um, and I’m someone who I do a lot in the reproductive freedom and healthcare world, and a lot of advocacy, and this story needs to be shared far and wide. And so I’m so thankful that you made this film. And why do you, as a filmmaker feel more people should know about the work he did, especially now, you know, the time that we’re living in the green wave that’s happening across Latin America, Roe v Wade being overturned in the us. Um, yeah. Why, why do you feel it’s important that more people should know his story?
Rommel Villa (14:39):
Just to, just to clarify. I know that is a funny joke because some of my friends have, have like actually asked me. So if I make like sweet potatoes tea, does that mean that that becomes like <laugh>, you know, like birth control or something? And, and I, and I know they tell me jokingly, but I actually think, like, okay, that’s a good question to ask, you know, because I think it’s funny, you know, like there’s a lot of chemistry behind it. And actually the plant, um, that the Mexican plant is called Barco, that that’s the plant that they were testing with, and it’s called, or is also known as the Mexican sweet potato, you know, but you actually wouldn’t eat it. You would use it for medicine, like just for medical, um, purposes. You know, it’s just because the look and the properties are similar to the sweet potatoes that we know, um, that like worldwide, because of like all scientists, they will be like, oh, okay, so we need barbas.
But it’s, it’s easier to remember the Mexican sweet potato than the Barb Basco plant, you know? That can be like hard to, uh, remember, but, but you know, it comes from earth. It’s also root. So it’s, it is like, there are a lot of similarities, um, eh, with, with sweet potatoes, of course. And like, I just love, um, I loved reading about like, the name and like, it’s just a fun, um, name to hear, like sweet potatoes. I never heard like a film being called like that. But also see that he had a farm, you know, he grew sweet potatoes too, and like the sweet potatoes, just like, just like, uh, representing, um, the, the family where he was raised, but also the science, you know, like, um, yeah, he was, he was a, a fun play of words, I thought. And, um, and when it comes to the importance of the story, oof, I don’t know where to even begin.
I think like, um, it feels like we live in a, in a progressive world in a way. Like at least comparing it to like how things were 70 years ago, let’s say, you know, it kind of feels that way. But at the same time, when you look at the news, um, when you learn about these new turns or overturns or decisions, you know, it’s, there is a lot of sense of disappointment I feel with like, how difficult up until now it is to respect life as, as this, as a man. I can say that, like, I, I don’t know what it feels like to be told, like, you don’t have the right to do this with your body, even though it is your body, you know, and it should be your decision. I was actually reading that, um, because of the turns now they overturned that the more vasectomies are like being encouraged as like free and like welcoming for men, you know?
And I’m like, I mean, I, I guess it’s good to have that option, but it’s also like, it’s interesting how easy it is to provide services, free services for, for men and to even encourage them to take care of their, their sexual health, uh, and stuff. But when it comes to rights for women, there is always this sense of like, we have to make the decision for you, you know? And I’m like, why? You know, why? And I’m not saying that the reasoning is, is completely out of this world, you know? But at the end of the day, it comes down to, um, my, my body, my decision. I feel like, you know, and, and, but there, there should be, of course, there should be education coming with that. There should be respect coming with that. There should be, uh, I feel like psychological support, uh, coming with that, you know, like with, with freedom, there comes responsibility, we grow to learn, you know?
So I feel like it’s, it’s important, you know, to, to, to have rights, but also to have education and, and a responsibility to take care and protect our bodies for sure. You know? But it’s all about like respect for our own lives. And I feel like sweet potatoes is a story that, uh, embodied that in a way, it was a story about these scientists developing this very controversial, um, chemical, um, which led to the birth control pill that revolutionized the world, but in good and bad ways, you know, because I mean, church was only like one of the many institutions that were fully against it, you know? Um, and there is a scene in the film that I remember where, um, Lil and Louis are having a little bit of a disagreement, and I’m, I’m spoiling a little bit of the story, but, uh, she’s spoiler a lot, but she tells him something like, you know, like, you’ve been working all of this and you know, like, uh, you haven’t told me about it.
Like, don’t you care about what my opinion is into all of this? I’m the one taking the pill. You know, like, it, it’s just a little part of the, of the overall story, you know? Um, but I, I personally thought that that was such a powerful and interesting line, you know, because it, it just speaks to how so many decisions are made without asking the, the people that will be affected by this decision, you know, without taking into consideration Yes, people’s, the right people’s feelings, the target audience, you know? So, um, it’s, so I feel like the film gives out that message of like, um, you know, it is, it is important to, despite the controversy of things, to, to do what, what what is right to do, what is proper, to do what is best to improve the quality of life, you know? Um, Luz Meir Montes did this because, um, there was a big fear of him, of, of course, for personal reasons, but there was also a big fear of like overpopulation, for example.
Like he, uh, his, his children told me that he will have nightmares about like, you know, like the world keeps like multiply and multiply and multiply and overpopulation, which leads to global warming and to many more issues, you know, and poverty, et cetera, et cetera. Um, so what can be done, you know, in order to like, help, um, contain that, that is not like telling people you do not get to have sex. You know, like, yeah, what, what, what are the solutions that can be applied? You know? So, uh, I think, uh, just it’s such a topical story that even it, it was, it, it happened like in the fifties, um, it applies to now 100%. So I think like people, for people, it wouldn’t, it wouldn’t, it would only be like a chance to educate themselves on like, you know, like a little part, like fictional, you know, representation of what story was back then, but also like to, to remember and realize that, um, the fight continues, you know, that, that the learning and the growing continues, you know, and that it happened back then and in a different way, but similar in a, in a kind of ironic way, it, it continues happen happening, and that people like, like him, like his family are a clear example of like, um, things get difficult, but, but, but a change can be made.
Asha Dahya (21:32):
Yeah. I love what you said about all of that was just really beautifully said about, you know, who has the right to have a say over their body? And there isn’t the same focus on, you know, men’s bodies as there are women’s and, and even that juxtaposition of Luis trying to revolutionize decisions for women all across the world, but yet he didn’t ask his own wife. Okay. Yeah. That’s really, that’s a really poignant moment in the film, and I hope, um, and I’m excited for everyone to watch that. When they watched the film, uh, this month, um, speaking of the Mira Monte’s family, how closely did you work with them? Uh, what was the process of getting to know them and gaining their trust to share this very personal story?
Rommel Villa (22:15):
I think like one, when I read a story, uh, that really hits deep and that I really want to make it happen, I, I do whatever, like, whatever I can within my power to like reach out to the people that will help me bring the story to life. When I read the story of Miramontes, I was like, first of all, if you Google it, there is only so much you can find, like paragraphs. You can find like two, three paragraphs of, of, of what he did. But then we will talk to you about the company that he worked on, and the people that actually got the, the, the money, you know, and the, and, and, um, I guess all the popularity and fame. But when it comes to him, he’s like, oh, yeah, he, he only synthesized this little thing and like, and got $10 out of it, you know, like, so it’s, I didn’t have enough information, so I, I thought like, I need to reach out to his family.
So, um, thank, thank, thankfully social media is there. Um, and like I, I, I was, I was able to reach out to a few of his children. Um, the first one, his name, he’s called Octavia OTA Monte. Um, and he’s also a scientist, actually. Um, he teaches at the unam at the University of Mexico. I, I, he was definitely inspired by his dad’s work, like that kinda like inspire him to pursue a similar career in science, you know, and, and he respects his legacy, and he wanted to make sure that, that his parent, his father’s work continued, you know, and that people will learn more and more about like who he was. So I was lucky enough to reach out to him, uh, and to like get a response from him, mainly. And he was the first person that I talked to Octavia. Um, and he, uh, we, we had like countless, um, video calls, um, where he just, we would just talk about how his life was as a child, how his father’s life was.
I wanted to know more about the humanity behind, you know, his, his dad. Like, yeah, I want to know what kind of person he was. So I learned that he was, you know, very introverted, very soft spoken that he would keep his thoughts to himself or that he would write them down, you know, that, that he was very into nature. Uh, also that he loved fishing, just, just like, uh, a very like, um, countryside oriented person, even though he was working in the city. So I, I love that contrast, you know, like somebody gets to work in the city, but they, they prefer going like to the outskirts, to to live in their small humble house. And I learned that his wife Lilia, or Octavia’s mom, Lilia, that she was, um, uh, a very, that she had a very strong character, you know, that she was in a way, like she was the woman of the house, you know, like in charge of like matriarch, pretty much, you know, like, uh, like she, she would make the, the, the big decisions, you know, like she would, um, organize, um, the, the, the money, you know, in like good ways because they had to send money to, to, uh, Luis’s family, to his mother, to his grandmother, you know, like, because there, there was a lot of like, uh, responsibilities to be taken care of.
So she was the one, like, you know, that would, uh, put order in the house basically, you know. And, um, they described me that Lilia was very progressive for her own time also, which got her into trouble many times, you know, that they will consider her as like a feminist, you know? Um, because she was not like the typical woman who would just like focus back then on only like, let’s say cooking and cleaning and, and not having a voice that she was like, um, that she raised her kids to being equal in a way, you know? And they had 10 kids, is that right? Because they wanted to, you know? Yeah. Because they wanted to, and like Lilia wanted, and she was like very open with Luis about, like, she wanted to have many kids, you know, she wanted to, to have that big family and follow the tradition from her, uh, from her mom and her grandmother, you know, like, and it became like it was a mutual decision, of course, you know, but, but, um, they, they, you, I think you can be progressive and also decide to have as many kids as you want, also, as, as well as deciding not to have any, you know, so it all, it all comes down to who the decision is coming from.
So, so they, they wanted that, and they were able to, to get it. So, and I was able to learn about it, um, through his kids. After I met Octavia, I met his other, like two kids who I think, like, once you get a trust from one of them, you know, and they realized that you are not crazy, <laugh> <laugh>, um, and that you actually had good intentions, which I, you know, I wanted nothing to, you know, make this, uh, eh, like an honor honorable thing for, for the family, you know, to, to pay like an homash to, to these, um, you know, eh, scientists. And then I was able to talk to more people in the family who told me even more, um, interesting, um, stories about them, you know? So the story would be nothing without all their, all their help, you know? So the Mira Montes family, they deserve, um, a lot of recognition because of, um, this film.
Asha Dahya (27:33):
And are Luis and Lilia still alive?
Rommel Villa (27:35):
Uh, unfortunately, no. Uh, they both have passed, uh, Luis Mira Monte, he passed in 2004, I believe. Um, and, uh, Lilia a few years after. Um, but, but the kids, the, the children are still around.
Asha Dahya (27:52):
And what has been the reaction from the, from the family to the film? Have they seen it? What kind of feedback did they give you?
Rommel Villa (27:57):
It’s funny because like the first time that they, that they saw it, um, honestly, that was the biggest nerves that I had, like showing it to them, you know? I mean, screening your film for the first time can be nerve-wracking. It can be like, oh my gosh, I don’t wanna watch it because they remember all the mistakes or what I wish I, we had shot, or the performance is not that good here. I don’t know, you know, there, there’s a lot of like, imposter syndrome going on in those first screenings, but I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I was when I sent the, to the family, you know? But I will say, I only got one note from them, and the note was that their father was not as short as the man that we see in the movie, you know, <laugh>, they were like, my dad is, was like six feet tall, or even like taller, you know? And, you know, and the Louis that was seeing sweet potatoes is not as tall, you know? But, uh, that was the only comment that I got, you know, like, because in terms of notes, you know, like, and it wasn’t even like a critique. He was just like, oh, we realize this, you know,
Asha Dahya (29:03):
Rommel Villa (29:04):
Yeah, yeah. Tool <laugh>. So if you make the feature, you know, just, just know that this, this, this, this, uh, so, but, but they, they, they liked it. I mean, they really enjoyed it. They were, they were happy with it. Their reactions were nothing but, but positive. Like, they understand that this is, you know, like, that this is not a, like a documentary or a biography, you know, that this is like, uh, fictional representation, like based in real life events, but it’s not like, you know, to the t following what, what had happened. It’s just dramatized. So, um, they, they, they realize that, and they know that. So they, they feel very grateful that, that we were able to make it happen. Um, they, they’re, they’re happy with it because I’ve seen them like sharing it on social media and stuff that, that meant a lot to me, you know, just to, just to see that, um, they, they feel good about it.
Asha Dahya (29:53):
Oh, that’s lovely. That’s really beautiful. I love that, that they, uh, getting to see their family story share far and wide with the world through your work. And I’m gonna ask you about the fe potential feature in a minute, but this month at Repro film, our theme is all about allyship and, and male allyship, specifically in, in the conversation around reproductive freedom and justice and, and rights. Um, and you know, like I mentioned before, Roe v. Wade has been overturned. And in that decision, in the Dobbs case earlier this year, one of the justices had hinted at, you know, there may be, there, may potentially look at overturning the case that legalized birth control, the pri the right to privacy for taking birth control. And so that, you know, is really, has a lot of people shook. And so, I, I wanna ask you, as a filmmaker, as a man, and as an ally to this issue now, because of making this film and learning about, you know, what it means to have access to birth control, um, what, what does it mean to be a man and a filmmaker creating conversations like this on film? And how important is it to you?
Rommel Villa (31:02):
Well, first of all, it’s, it’s so disappointing to, to hear these considerations or, or like, um, decisions or like even conversations, you know, like that, that, that are happening. It’s, um, if there’s anything that I learned, uh, as a, as a filmmaker, it is that, um, all, all the disappointment, um, that, that we get all the, all the struggles that we get, all the unfairness that we see in the world. It’s, I, I, somebody told me, I think like, uh, a faculty, a mentor of mine, he said, like, you have to learn to channel that, um, you know, negative energy and just like, make it into feel to like, make even more, um, poignant stories. And like, um, it’s important to speak up, you know, when, when, when you see something unfair because you, we, we get angry, you know, you get disappointed. Um, you can complain about it, you can cry about it, you can scream about it, you know, but, or you can take action, you know?
And my way of, of, um, dealing with it is just by, by supporting stories like sweet potatoes, you know, by, by, by encouraging and helping fellow filmmakers and, and, and others to just continuing telling stories that show and prove why it is important to keep these, um, services available. You know, why it is important to respect life. So, um, if anything, it just adds, um, more fuel to the fire of, I, I feel like, um, the kind of filmmaking that I want to do, you know, that that is the one that respects life and that supports life, and that, uh, calls out unfairness, you know, like in order to, to, um, take action. So I think there’s a lot of responsibility that comes from, from it. Um, I, I feel like it’s also very important to stay educated, very well educated. Um, you’ll be surprised by like, the amount of people that I met myself, you know, like, uh, talking my family and friends back home in Bolivia, you know, like, um, there are issues that I feel like, um, yeah, a lot of it takes place here in the us, you know, but I feel like it’s important to, uh, continue on the conversations with, um, with your network, you know?
And in, in my case, my network is my, I have a lot of friends and family back home who I would love to talk about these issues, you know, because, um, it’s, I mean, abortion, it’s illegal in Bolivia, you know? Uh, but I feel like I’m educating oneself in like, um, the things that are happening in the world. This is just, uh, an important way to, uh, lead to progress and, and eventually to take action, you know? So that’s another thing that I, um, do, is just to talk to my family and friends back home about the issues here and, you know, how they affect, uh, people, how they affect me, how they, they affect like those, uh, people around me, you know? And, uh, um, yeah, I, I just feel like being educated and taking action after being educated is, it’s just like the, the number one thing I feel.
Asha Dahya (34:16):
Yeah, absolutely. And you mentioned when you first moved to the us you know, this interaction with this taxi driver made you think about your identity and, you know, these stereotypes of Latino people. How do you feel about your identity now after making this film and seeing this inspiring story and the reaction to it from people all over the world?
Rommel Villa (34:36):
Well, I feel more, it’s an adjustment, and I still, I, I think that it’s still happens, you know? Um, I’ll give you a clear example with sea potatoes. Um, when I finished it, um, and I showed it to one of my dear friends, uh, who I wanted, I wanted him to color the film, you know, he’s a colorist and, uh, um, and like some, some, uh, people from, from his work, they watched the film, um, before our meeting. And when we met, they told me like, um, wow, we watched like your film, and we are so surprised that you were able to pull it off, you know?
Asha Dahya (35:17):
Rommel Villa (35:18):
And, uh, this has been people that I knew before I had worked on before in like, previous short films that I had made, you know, nice. Uh, and wow. I was like, I guess this is a compliment, but, but also they’re telling me that they are surprised that I was able to,
Asha Dahya (35:35):
Rommel Villa (35:35):
You pull this off. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, but, and, and you know, sometimes you, you, you think, I wonder, you know, if if I didn’t have an accent, would I have gotten a different response if I, if I had been born here or if my skin color was different, or if, if there were just the what ifs, you know, like, because it, it’s, it’s, a comment is made for a reason. I feel like, you know, like, um, in many cases there can be a lot of ignorance happening. There can be a lot of, there can be like legitimate reasons, you know, like for it, um, or, or just stereotypes or a combination of all, you know, but, but there is a reason for, for, for things, I feel like, and, and I, I, I thought about like, why would they say something like that? I so passive aggressive, I guess, you know?
Um, and this was not very recent, you know, like a couple of years ago. Um, and, uh, so my point is like, it still happens, you know? I feel like it still happens getting this, um, comment or treatment where, where, um, people are just surprised that someone like me just, just, just to say that, that someone like me can do certain things, you know? Or maybe I don’t fit into what some people would think I, I would fit. I still, I still don’t know. I still wonder, you know, like, what, what is that that make people, yeah, make those kind of comments or, or, or treat me. And, and I’m, I’m many friends of mine the way they do, you know? So it is still an adjustment, but, um, with the, the more work I do and the more, um, screenings I, I’ve, I’ve had with my projects, and especially with sweet potatoes, the more confident I, I have felted about my skills as, as a, as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, you know?
And, and like, um, I would say that I, I care a little less about what people will have to say about me in, in terms of negative comments, mainly, you know? Um, and, and, and I focus more on, on the work that I want to do, you know? So I, I feel more comfortable with, with who I am, where I’m at. And, and I’m just aware, you know, I think it’s important to be self-aware that not everything in life is gonna be like beautiful and perfect, you know? And that, that there, there’s always like, um, malicious, um, people or, or, or, you know, like, or naive, um, people that, that just lack knowledge and education of where somebody comes from. You know, that when I get comments, like, also, you do have internet in Bolivia, you know, it, I, I, which I have gotten that, oh my God, <laugh>, uh, and oh my God, oh, I remember one friend of mine told me, like, uh, when we went on a hike, they were like, I’m gonna follow Rome’s lead because, um, he must be an expert in hiking.
He said, so, you know, it’s comments. I realize people just don’t, I don’t think they mean it maliciously, you know, like, I don’t, so it would be unfair of me to like, hate them because of it, you know? But, but, but, but those comments are just not appropriate. And that’s why I keep like, um, bringing up the word education, because I feel like it is so important to be educated in like, in, I don’t know if, so if my friend is coming from this other country, maybe I can learn a little more about the culture, the different cultures there, and it’s also Los Angeles, and there are people from all over the world here, you know? So, I don’t know, I feel like we assume, or we stereotype so much without knowing, you know, and that, that we can make hurtful comments to people that we care for, you know?
And it’s just important to be educated and respect people’s background before trying to make any sort of comments that can be, um, taken in, in the wrong way, you know? So, and I had many of those with my own friends, you know, and I didn’t know how to react, but, but I feel like, um, calling things out when they are wrong, letting people know when they’re mistaken, but in a respectful way, you know, and, and then like, making decisions based on how people react is it’s important, you know, like, um, I’ve learned that I don’t need like people’s validation or love constantly to like, um, do what I do, you know? So to those that make negative comments about me, because now it’s become more than, uh, only my background as a South American filmmaker. Um, I’m queer, so they’re definitely, there can be a lot of, um, comments or stereotypes or mistreatment because of that, you know? So it, it, I, I don’t know. I feel like the, the older you get, the, the, the more you appreciate things and realize, like that it’s okay to choose who you want to be surrounded by, you know? Um, so, so I, I’m, I, I feel better, but, but, but you know, the, the, the, the stereotypes and the comments and things that they just keep happening. Um, and I, I, I, I, I think it’s important to learn to live with it, but also to take action, um, whenever it’s necessary.
Asha Dahya (40:51):
And your work clearly speaks for itself, and you are very gracious in the way you’ve responded to those situations. So, <laugh>, thank you for sharing that. I’ve gotta, maybe I should take some of that on board for myself and, and channel Roel when I think of these situations. So,
Rommel Villa (41:06):
Well, I mean, ju just to be fair, I, I think like, it’s, obviously I’m saying this like, but, but looking back at situations that happened like years ago, you know, so in the moment I’m sure that I can be very expressive, you know, like I, I, I’ve actually been told that I can be a very stoic person when, when talking, but, but also that, that when it comes to, um, uh, big reactions that it’s easy to tell in my face. So you will be able to see when I’m, when I’m upset or disappointed or something, you know? So I’m sure that my friends were able to see that. I was looking at like, what did you just say? Kind of like, you know, like, and then we would, we would talk about it. That’s why I think like it is important to let people know when they have been mistaken, but also just, I think it’s just easy for me to remember that like, um, there is not always maliciousness going on, you know?
But instead of lack of knowledge or lack of education because of where I come from, because when I came here, I was highly uneducated and I still am when it comes to like, um, American lifestyle, culture, politics, et cetera, et cetera. I, there’s so much that I have to learn. And there have been people that have been nothing but, um, respectful and supportive of the fact that I wasn’t born here. I wasn’t raised here, but, but I have to, you know, respect and stick to, um, how things are here, you know, um, in terms of law and, and, and stuff, and then learn to speak up, you know? So there’s a lot of learning that I’ve had to do. So that’s why I see people that can be malicious to me, especially if they’re friends. If they are not, then, you know, who cares? They can yeah. Go, yeah. Uh, go their own, their own thing. But I don’t know, I, I think it’s good to give people the benefit of the doubt, but to learn to call out things that are not Yes, fair, you know?
Asha Dahya (42:51):
Yeah, absolutely. Well, the big question of the day, I guess, or the interview is, is there a feature in the works for sweet potatoes? And what can you tell us about that potential opportunity?
Rommel Villa (43:04):
So there are, there are, there are two, uh, routes that, that I, I’ve taken with, with sweet potatoes. They are both still kind of like in development, nothing in production yet. Um, so Sweet Potatoes is a 30 minute short feel <laugh>. Um, it’s in between, right? Like, it’s not short short, but it’s not long long. So yeah, after I finished it, um, and I, I knew, and I know that there is so much more story to tell, you know, like there is the, what happens after there is the what happens before, you know? So I was like, can there be a feature? 100% I have a treatment for it, you know? But, um, um, just to be fair and completely honest, you know, it all comes down to the budget because like, uh, um, in the funding, because funding, uh, historical film that plays in the fifties in, um, Mexico City is, is not a low budget.
And I, and I don’t think it should be, you know, like, it, it deserves to be, um, like the imitation game, like, like Hidden Figures, like those big movies that, that, that, that have had these big budgets to, to showcase these historical fears that are so important. So that excites me, you know, that, that there could be a chance of making, um, a feature out of this huge important story. And it will be, um, probably one of the first like Latino focused stories, you know, on like, based on real life events and on, on this like huge invention, you know, and, and the family. So I would love to make it happen. It’s, it’s more, it’s been difficult to find, um, funding of, or people interested in, in, in funding the, the feature. So the talks, the meetings, they, they continue, you know, about, as of now there is, I have a treatment and I would love to make it happen, but the other side of it is that with, with making sweet potatoes, um, me and my producer Andrea, uh, POAs, we realize that this is just like one chapter of so many like, uh, Latinx figures that, that have made significant change in the world with the work that they have done.
You know, not only scientists, but you know, like poets, mathematicians, et cetera, et cetera, you know? Um, and uh, so we have a list of, um, like figures, like minorities and the work that they have done that revolutionize the world. And, um, we have been developing like a, like a series, like an episodic of like, um, this historical important historical figures that have made like a difference in the world, you know? So we thought like, it’ll be amazing to, in each episode to be able to see what, um, different people have done, um, in, in Latin America with, with their work, you know? So, um, there, I dunno, there are ramifications to sweet potatoes. It’s just nothing is said in stone yet because nothing is in production yet, but, but we hope that it will happen.
Asha Dahya (46:05):
Yeah. Well, as a fellow filmmaker and a producer who’s currently doing a Kickstarter for my own short film Yeah. And trying to raise money, I completely empathize with that. But it’s exciting to hear that there are potential opportunities and you know, I wish you the best of luck and please keep us updated on what the next iteration, I hope both the feature film and the web, uh, the series, uh, both come about and that you get in more than enough funding for both, cuz I think those would be really, really wonderful to share. Um, how can listeners stay in touch with you, learn more about your work and, and follow what you do next
Rommel Villa (46:38):
On Facebook? On Instagram? I’m with like Roel, R O M M E L V B for both Facebook and Instagram. And I also have a website that is roel villa films.com. So you can, you can find news about me there or, or Facebook or Instagram. I, it’s also, my, my name is not very common, so if you Google it, you can find, you know, like my, my website on social media. I’m, I’m under Roel Villa, so I’m always happy to connect with more people.
Asha Dahya (47:09):
Well, we will put all those links in the show notes and, and I’m excited for people to watch Sweet Potatoes this month and learn more about your work and Luis Mira Monte and, and the work that he did to change the world, revolutionize the world and people’s lives and bodies. So, Ramel, thank you so much for chatting with me today. It’s been a pleasure.
Rommel Villa (47:27):
Thank you, Asha.
Asha Dahya (47:32):
Please do yourself a favor and run. Don’t walk to watch Sweet Potatoes during the month of November by heading to reprofilm.org. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our monthly newsletter where you will get each episode of the pod straight to your inbox. Be sure to follow Ramel on Instagram and Twitter and see more of his work at his website, ramel villa films.com. The Repro Film podcast is executive produced by Mama Film, hosted and produced by me, Asher Dyer, edited by Kylie Brown, with original music by ParisJane and Marrice Anthony The periodical is programmed by Neha Aziz and written by Emily Christensen. Alex Sgambati is our social media manager and Rebecca Sosa is our distribution and impact strategist.