Lourdes Portillo, Oscar-Nominated Documentary Filmmaker, Dies at 80

Lourdes Portillo, an Oscar-nominated Mexican-born documentary filmmaker whose work explored Latin American social issues, died on Saturday at her home in San Francisco. She was 80.

Her death was confirmed by her friend Soco Aguilar. No cause was given.

One of Ms. Portillo’s best-known works is her 1994 documentary “The Devil Never Sleeps,” a murder-mystery in which she investigates the strange death of her multimillionaire uncle, whose widow claimed he had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In 2020, the Library of Congress selected the film for the National Film Registry.

“Using vintage snapshots, old home movies and interviews, the film builds a biographical portrait of Oscar Ruiz Almeida, a Mexican rancher who amassed a fortune exporting vegetables to the United States and went on to become a powerful politician and businessman,” Stephen Holden, a Times movie critic, wrote in a 1995 review of the film.

The documentary had the tenor of a telenovela and presented open questions about Mr. Ruiz Almeida’s mysterious life and death and the people who could have had a motive for the murder.

“The more Oscar is discussed, the more enigmatic he seems,” Mr. Holden wrote.

Ms. Portillo crafted the film’s story line from the information her mother relayed over the phone while Ms. Portillo was living in New York, she said in a talk at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles last year.

The museum screened the movie last year as part of a series honoring Ms. Portillo and other filmmakers who have made significant contributions to cinema.

Her breakthrough work was the 1985 Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary “The Mothers of The Plaza of Mayo,” which followed a group of mothers in Argentina who had sought answers to the disappearance of their sons, who were taken by a repressive regime.

Lourdes Portillo was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, on Nov. 11, 1943. She lived in Mexico until she was 13, when she emigrated to Los Angeles with her family, Ms. Aguilar said.

She racked up dozens of awards and nominations across 18 films produced over four decades, starting in 1979, according to IMDb.

She was known for her authentic boundary-pushing style.

“Portillo’s works defy categorization, slipping easily between docufiction, experimental video and the melodrama of telenovelas,” the Academy Museum said last year.

Before her death, Ms. Portillo was working on a film called “Looking At Ourselves,” which won a grant from the Sundance Institute last year.

Ms. Portillo is survived by her three sons, Carlos, Karim and Antonio Scarlata; four siblings and five grandchildren, according to her son, Carlos Scarlata.

Ms. Portillo’s last work, “State of Grace,” was released in 2020, a personal animated short film about a dream in which Ms. Portillo confronts her desperation after having been diagnosed with an illness.

“The only thing that enabled me to gather my strength was a vivid dream,” Ms. Portillo said on her website. “In the dream I saw my family and ancestors around me in a circle, chanting for my healing, it filled me with tenderness for all who had loved me.”

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