By Jesus Figueroa
East Los Angeles College alum Efrain Gutierrez used his real-life experiences to inspire his nationally recognized film “Please, Don’t Bury Me Alive” (1976).
The film was inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry as the first Latino-directed feature film. The film will be shown at the Vincent Price Art Museum, S1-room 112 on Thursday at noon.
Gutierrez will be helping out his son to produce a new film, written by Gutierrez about 20 years ago, by touring the west coast screening his films.
“This is a film I want to see made, even if it’s not me directing it,” Gutierrez said.
Latinos filmmakers in Hollywood have gained recognition in recent years.
For the past two years the Academy Awards’ movie-of-the-year recipients have been movies directed by Latinos.
“I don’t see anything different,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez said that even now the same actors are always representative of the Latino culture and the same stories get told over and over.
UCLA professor Chon Noriega searched for the Gutierrez film for many years to be able to archive “Please, Don’t Bury Me Alive” in the UCLA Film and Television archives. Noriega finally found the film in 1996.
“Please, Don’t Bury Me Alive,” once thought to be lost, was found in 16mm format by luck and just in time.
“The film was in a garage at a friend’s house,” Gutierrez said. He said the film was recovered and archived about a month before the friend’s garage burned down.
If Gutierrez had not been contacted by Noriega, the film might have been lost in the fire.
In 1970, Gutierrez needed a change of scenery and he was thrilled when his aunt in California offered to help him move from Texas to get an education in Los Angeles.
Gutierrez said that while at ELAC, he wanted to be an actor, but quickly learned it was difficult to become one. Hollywood wasn’t looking for real Chicano actors, they were looking for replicas of Chicano stars.
There were opportunities that opened up for Gutierrez as he was able to get auditions in major studios. When auditioning for a western film at Twentieth Century Fox, he realized what Hollywood wanted from their Latin actors.
He auditioned for an Americanized western cowboy role, but was told they wanted him to be more Mexican.
“At the time ‘Yo soy Joaquin,’ I am Joaquin, was very popular. So I read ‘Yo soy Joaquin’ by Rodolfo González,” Gutierrez said. “It’s a very strong piece, so I liked it. That’s the one I’m going to present.”
Gutierrez said the casting director wanted him to tone it down and do another version of Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez.That was not who Gutierrez was.
After figuring out that acting wasn’t for him, Gutierrez looked for support from other prominent Latinos in Hollywood to help tell real latino stories, but nobody showed interest.
In 1971, Gutierrez, was inspired by the Chicano movement and Luis Valdez, who had a Chicano theater in LA. He went back to San Antonio and started the Chicano theater there.
“Luis Valdez invited us to join Theatro Nacional de Aztlan, which was a loosely organized organization of all the Chicano theaters in the United States,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez began to ask prominent Chicanos in theater and Hollywood, such as Ricardo Montalban, Luis Valdez and Anthony Quinn, about making a Chicano film.They all thought it would be too hard.
“I told Sabino (Garza), ‘let’s just film it, Sabino.’ I want to film something about the Chicano movement,” Gutierrez said.
“Please, Don’t Bury Me Alive” is based on the injustice Gutierrez saw when his best friend Alex was arrested for drug possession.
When Alex went to court, the discrimination was apparent in the way he was treated.
“I started seeing white people with references getting probation and I thought, ‘wow that’s their first time and it’s Alex’s (too),'” Gutierrez said. “Then when he came down, there was three of them (were sentenced), they all got 10 years.”
Although it was difficult to get Chicano films seen, in the Texas theaters the film outsold the award-winning “All the Kings Men.”