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The Human Rights Watch Film Festival Opens in New York: The Filmmaker of "Missing Young Woman" Discusses the Terrible Secret of a Small Mexican Town

June 14, 2002

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival gets underway in New York this week. The festival opened Wednesday night with the US premier of "Amen," a film made by Costa Gravas about the complicity of the Vatican during the Holocaust. The films come from all over the world, and include a range of styles.

Today we are going to talk to some of the filmmakers in town for the festival.

Across the border from El Paso, a Mexican town called Ciudad Juarez has a dirty secret: since 1994 almost 300 young women have disappeared from its streets. Most of them are discovered weeks or months later, abused and murdered, their bodies dumped in the desert.

In "Missing Young Woman," filmmaker Lourdes Portillo reveals a legacy of disinformation, incompetence, and corruption. Everyone, and everything, is suspect—including a gang called "the rebels," bus drivers, narco-traffickers, the police, the military, U.S. nationals, and the multinational factories where the women worked.

And while rumors swirl and officials dally, the women continue to disappear. During the 18 months that Portillo spent filming, over 50 women were killed.

Today we are joined by writer, director and filmmaker Lourdes Portillo. She describes herself as "Mexico-born and Chicana identified," and many of her films focus on the search for Latino identity. Portillo’s film "The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo," a collaboration with writer Susan Munoz, won twenty awards and was nominated for the Academy’s Best Documentary in 1985. In 1993, Portillo commemorated the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus "discovery" of America with the film, "Columbus on Trial." In 1994 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for her contributions to filmmaking.


  • "Missing Young Woman," clip


  • Lourdes Portillo, director and filmmaker, "Missing Young Woman," and winner of the 2002 Nestor Almendros Prize for courage in filmmaking. The film appeared in Sundance this year.


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