I watched "The Garden Left Behind" in bed with a cup of peppermint tea at my Airbnb in Austin and had a hard time sleeping after it ended. The first half of the film lulled me into a false sense of security, then gutted me like a fish. I'm happy I watched this movie but kind of wish I had done my due diligence and at least read the logline beforehand.
To prevent you from becoming surprisingly depressed by the darkness, here's a quick primer on the film:
Spoiler alert: life is tough for trans people and undocumented immigrants. This is not to say that "The Garden Left Behind" is a bleak pit of despair, just that it doesn't shy away from the difficulties that people who are outside of the status quo might face. It's interested in exploring relationships and determining why prejudice and hatred might percolate and eventually manifest in unsavory ways, like harsh neglect and violent outbursts. It doesn't simplify complicated issues, nor does it dwell too hard on them. It makes empathizing with Tina (Guevara) easy because it provides a multi-faceted look at her life - her passions, desires, hardships, and triumphs.
Best time to watch:
Watch when you're in the mood for a drama and not opposed to crying.
Worst time to watch:
Do not watch when you're having a great day, feeling like the entire world is butterflies and sunshine. This film will remind you that bad, close-minded people exist and have the power to destroy lives.
Where to watch:
Sign up for the film's mailing list to receive updates on screenings near you. It doesn't have a distributor yet but 🤞🏻
Tina is a young Mexican trans-woman who lives with her grandmother, Eliana (Miriam Cruz), in Queens. Although they have a solid relationship, Eliana hasn't quite accepted Tina's desire to transition and struggles to understand her lifestyle.* When Tina becomes more involved with the trans community/activism, her grandmother begins to make a real effort to learn about and empathize with her journey.
Other Interesting Facts:
This film made history with the largest cast and crew of trans actors (50 total). The director, Flavio Alves, raised over $100k by selling donated items on eBay (details below -- although my interview was with Guevara, I had to find out more).
In a room at the Intercontinental with harsh overhead lighting, I talked to Guevara about her role as Tina and her passion for the intersection between art and technology. Flavio Alves was also in the room, so I asked him a few questions, as well.
Interview with Carlie Guevara:
WiR: I was looking over the press notes before this interview and saw that you have a background in computer science. My day job is in tech, so please ... tell me more!
CG: I just graduated from an associate's program and am now applying to bachelor's programs - Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, a few of the CUNY schools. Are you from New York?
I'm actually from Pittsburgh, so very familiar with Carnegie Mellon. It's a great school for comp sci.
The programs I've applied to are interdisciplinary. My interest is in the fusion between visual arts and computer science ... making robots that create their own artwork, basically. It raises this question, in terms of the artist. In a future where there's universal income, how do artists and the arts play a role in this future society? Can everything be automated? That's really what I'm interested in.
How did you get into this crossover discipline? It's very specific.
I had done fine arts at FIT, then switched to menswear design. I kept trying to find a medium that made sense to me and eventually, decided that I should try computer science. I have no clue why, it just popped into my head and seemed like a good thing to know. Menswear was very process-oriented and routine, so I figured the next step to that would be coding. You could create a bunch of different loops and functions to accomplish your tasks.
You have such a cool background. What led you to acting and how did you become involved with this project?
I've always seen myself as a performer, I just haven't been certain in terms of what stage. A friend of mine sent me the script and when I read it, I really felt akin to Tina and her life. I identified with her and felt like I would say the things she says ... that I would emote in the same way. This made me really comfortable during the audition process and I guess they liked it - they bought it!
I watched the film last night and honestly, it really shocked me. I was not mentally prepared for the ending.
Where did you watch it? I haven't even seen the completed film yet.
I have a screener that I watched at my Airbnb.
Did it look cool?
Yeah! It's really beautiful. I'm sure you're going to get asked this question many times, but let's talk about the violence in the film. I don't think I've ever seen a film about trans people that doesn't include violence in some form. Do you think this is just a a stark reality that needs to be portrayed?
I think it's very complicated when you try to portray lives that are real and authentic, particularly for marginalized groups. There's a lot of struggle, hardship, and adversity that is part of daily life. We discussed this a lot during the filmmaking process – there were many different voices involved. Ultimately, the decision was made to show that life can be difficult and tragic when there is a lack of support, both from family and society as a whole. Although Tina's family eventually comes around, there are a lack of societal measures in place to prop her up and keep her level.
There were also a lot of moments in the film where I felt like violence was looming, even if it didn't actually manifest ... like one moment when a dude in a hoodie is interested in buying her car. Do you think this was intentional or that it's just instinctual to fear for the safety of marginalized people out in the world?
I would imagine that it can be both. I know that living in New York, I've been followed a couple of times. I think there's some intentional foreshadowing to build up anxiety, but also ... Tina lives in an urban city and society at large is constantly engaged in this question of whether or not trans people deserve a seat at the table.
This might be a shitty comparison, but what you said kind of reminds me of the new Pixar short, "Purl." Have you seen it?
No, what is it?
It's about a pink ball of yarn named Purl. She starts working at a corporate office full of men and no one takes her seriously or treats her with respect. My friend sent it to me and was like, "This what it's like to be a marginalized person in the workplace.
What happens to the ball?!
You need to watch it - I can't tell you. It's a very adult Pixar short, though.
So was the one that won the Osar - "Bao." I was watching "Incredibles 2" and was surprised to see it.
One great thing about "The Garden Left Behind" is the large cast of trans actors (50 total). The film presented a real sense of community and I think a lot of that has to do with the authenticity in casting. Not to downplay anyone's acting chops, but did you make friends with other people in the cast? Everyone seems very close.
Oh, for sure. I see Amanda Rodriquez (Lily) pretty often ... we see movies together. I've gone out with Nayeli (Brianna). I think community is so important as you're trying to find your own way, your own self, and how you fit into the world. If your immediate family and support system that should be there isn't, you seek others who are like-minded to fill those roles. As people, we need that nourishment and human compassion. Tina is trying to heal herself and find ways to make her feel whole. She wants to please her grandmother, but most importantly, to please herself and live her best life.
I'm glad that you brought up Tina's grandmother, Eliana. It took me a while to figure out their relationship because she doesn't seem completely unsupportive, but she does continue to call Tina by her birth name (Antonio) and seems kind of judgemental about her sex life.
Miriam is a great actress - just fantastic. You're right, there's a lot of confusion on her end when it comes to Tina. A lot of times, I think the concern and worry comes from their perspective of how the world is going to treat their child. She's worried about Tina's safety, that she's going to face a hard life. I think her resistance and noncompliance to acknowledge Tina is an attempt to save her. It's like she's saying, "You would have such an easier life if you would just do this." It all stems from love ... it's just a fear that the person you love most is going to face hardship that you are helpless to absolve.
I recently cut my hair short and my mom was devastated. It made me think ... if you can't deal with this, how the fuck would you deal with something major like a change of identity? Have your own parents been supportive of you?
My family supports and loves me very much.
You're first generation college, right? Are they super proud of that?
I think so. My mom has pushed education all my life. She wasn't a fan of fine arts, but now she's a fan of computer science!
Do you think you'll pursue more acting roles in the future?
Yes. You know those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books? I feel like I'm in one of them. I try to lay out how things are going since I'm currently applying to colleges and to figure out how all of this comes together to make a synchronous plan. I'm totally open to it and love acting. I did a music video in Portland for an artist named Anna Tivel and it's just fantastic. I would love to be in a sci-fi film or action ... to kick ass like Charlize Theron in "Atomic Blonde."
I love sci-fi. I was watching "Logan's Run" on Netflix and thinking about how cool it would be to get involved with a project like that. Any project, whether related to film or fine art. I just like experiences and never want to stop seeking them out.
If you pursue the things you love, it will all come together. That's what I tell myself, at least! And I think you're in a good place with experience on both the art and tech side.
The intersection between those two disciplines is so beautiful. You should check out John Rafman. He's an artist in Montreal who does videos based on his dreams. There's also a young developer at Stanford, Robbie Barrat, who made an AI that created a fashion show. It looked through different Balenciaga archives and created a fashion show using AI based on that historical knowledge. I'm excited to provide my voice and perspective to that ongoing conversation.
Well you have the fashion background, too, so it sounds like you're on the exact right track!
The weird thing about these press junket interviews is that a bunch of other interesting people are also in the room, but you kind of have to ignore them if your goal is to talk to one person in particular. I was typically only allotted 20 minutes for each interview and I felt like that wasn't enough time to talk to multiple people and give them equal consideration. In this instance, Alves was also in the room and since I had extra time, I couldn't resist asking him a few questions.
Mini Interview with Flavio Alves:
I've never heard of anyone financing a film using eBay before. How did this happen?
FA: After I did my last film, I had a bunch of equipment that I needed to sell, so I put it on eBay and it was gone within like ... 5 minutes. I then started to think about the potential that eBay had to help us finish the film. Even $10k would have been a big help. Two weeks later, we raised $10k, then $25k, $50k, $100k, and we ended at $104k. At one point, we had to stop with eBay because we had to make the film ... that was the primary goal.
I got to a point where traditional crowdfunding wasn't working for me; I was constantly reaching the same people and they were starting to get irritated. With eBay, you're reaching out to people you don't know. You're selling donated items to totally random people, and in the process, educating them about your film. New York is a great city with so many people and we got a ton of donations for items that we could sell. We had some PAs dedicated to eBay ... one would take photos, manage listings, package up items. Everyone became very good at their jobs and we kind of mastered the process.
The donations started pouring in after we were featured on, I think ABC. Then we teamed up with the New York Foundation for the Arts and were able to make every donation tax deductible. It was wonderful. And think about it ... even people who visit our item listings and don't buy are still exposed to the film. Many of them saw what we were doing and donated directly. It was all an accident and I'm glad it happened!
Talk to me about authenticity in casting and how you approached the process with this film.
In order to make a film that's authentic, it's important that everyone has a seat at the table - not only in front of the camera, but also behind it. There's only one thing that's preventing the trans community from telling their own stories: access to money/resources. So, I started thinking about how to fight this problem. I was also directly challenged by the trans community. Many people I talked to said things like, "Don't just come to me and take whatever you want. Why don't you help us so that we can eventually get to the director's chair?" So not only am I working on teaching skills, I'm assisting with things like the grant application process.
At the end of the day, we're all brothers and sisters and everyone deserves a voice. I'm in a privileged position and I want to do everything I can.
In regard to casting specifically, it was tough. I knew I wanted all trans actors in trans roles, but my casting director was at a loss. We reached out to trans organizations and asked for help. We wanted a pool of at least 200 people ... I figured that out of that group, I would find my Tina. When Carlie stepped in and read her first lines, I knew she was right for the part. Other good actresses who read for the Tina part were given other roles. It was great because they all got along well and were excited about being there.
It's such a huge deal for us to be here at SXSW; I'm very proud.
Many thanks to Flavio and Carlie for taking the time to talk to me. Promoting a film has to be exhausting and I give them both major props for bringing the energy and making it seem effortless. Here are some places where you can keep up with "The Garden Left Behind":
Someone recently informed me that the word "lifestyle" is problematic in this context, which I understand now. It wasn't my intention to be an asshole, I just didn't think about the word choice carefully enough.