The Athena Film Festival 2014, which ran from February 6th to February 9th, offered an amazing array of documentary films. Women are known to direct and helm more documentaries than narrative features. It is clear that their patience, meticulous research skills, and creative brilliance shine in this complex niche, which lends itself to revelation. Documentaries best dive into the underbelly of historical events and enlighten us about men and women whose life stories have hithertofore been obscured, “wiped out,” or discredited because their content was deemed dangerous or a fiction.
Rebel, directed by Maria Agui Carter, exemplifies such a documentary; the story of real-life heroine Loreta Velazquez was discounted and nearly eradicated from our history. Was the primary reason because Velazquez was a remarkable woman who transcended the limitations and mores placed upon her sex during the Civil War and afterward? Carter is to be lauded for painstakingly portraying Velazquez’ life on film despite the obstacles she faced to mount the project. Overcoming these issues took time, but Carter engaged her skills, and with her phenomenal effort crafted a jewel. The intensity of the result was well worth it, as evidenced by the audience’s enthusiastic response and their rapt, probing questions during the Q & A. With Rebel, Carter achieves her goal to beautifully relate the story of this courageous and clever woman who is an inspiration for us today..
Velazquez’s story begins in Cuba where she was educated and raised to be the woman of the house in time when paternalism and patriarchy ruled the lifestyles and actions of the promulgators of culture. Testing the limits of her father’s love and seeing the gross inequities in the treatment of women, Velazquez attempts to equalize her status with males, eschewing the easy “role” of a demure woman. Finding this behavior worrisome, her father sends her to relatives in New Orleans where she eventually continues to throw off her father’s choices of husbands and “women’s duties.” Clandestinely, she marries an American soldier who is sent to the frontier, comes back, and then returns to prepare to fight for the Confederacy.
By this point husband and wife have buried three children and Loreta considers her place to be by his side. He leaves and word comes that he’s been killed. She decides she has nothing to lose and will follow him to fight where he would have fought and kill who he would have killed. She cuts her hair and puts on a confederate uniform. She is alone, but finds comfort having taken his place. And in his place, she learns war, soldiering, and living in hardship with the rough men as well as having her eyes opened to many other things.
The film elucidates more including the risks that Velazquez takes in passing as a Confederate soldier. Carter follows Velazquez with details about her learning curves and discoveries about the rotten elements of war profiteers and currency calculators. From the soldier’s vantage point like never before, Velazquez is able to understand what they are fighting for and the nature of slavery. All of these events, Carter encapsulates with compelling detail and interest. However, this is only the beginning of Velazquez’s adventures. How she ends up fighting for the North and how she ends up as a spy is a fascinating experience. Carter shows that hers is an outer and inner journey. Certainly the nature of the war in the South and all of its ramifications helped to win Velazquez to the other side.
Carter’s film is compelling and engaging. This credible storytelling is at its best in relating Velazquez’s experiences by also highlighting extremely important historical details that shine a probing light on women’s involvement in soldiering during the Civil War. This is an aspect that is not well known. Nevertheless, Velazquez was not alone in picking up the cause and hiding her sex in trousers. The men simply would never have thought it possible; the folkways of feminine identity and behavior simply beggared their imagination to even think it. The women easily were able to dupe the men.
The truth Carter brings to bear in Velazquez’s story enhances our understanding of a time that perhaps is still too uncomfortably close for some to view with perspicacity, wisdom, and integrity. These elements and traits Carter admirably demonstrates in showing us another type of soldier who fought during the bloodletting time to preserve an economic lifestyle perpetuated by the extremist cruelty and degradation. Because her story is so amazing, one hopes that Carter will be able to shepherd the adventures of this courageous, enlightened, and forward thinking woman into a narrative feature film.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.