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Aracely “Arcie“ Chapa is a documentary filmmaker and manager of multimedia services with UNM’s Center for Regional Studies. Her latest documentary premiered at the National Hispanic Cultural Center on Saturday, Jan. 28. Photo courtesy of Chapa.

Filmmaker irrigates a flow of change through documentary

 When asked about the one thing she wants people to take away from her films, tears formed in the eyes of Aracely “Arcie” Chapa, a documentary filmmaker and manager of multimedia services with the University of New Mexico’s Center for Regional Studies. She recounted a memory of attending a Rocky Mountain Collegiate Press Association competition. Her mother was a month away from dying.

“She was so happy when I got back, and when I told her, (she) couldn’t believe I had won the big award. And she said, ‘Always use your talent to give a voice to the people who don’t have a voice and to make a difference.’ That’s always been my mission and my goal. That’s what drives me,” Chapa said.

Born in Chicago, Chapa’s father immigrated to the United States from Chihuahua, Mexico.  She started out in broadcast journalism and commercial television after finishing her undergraduate degree at Texas Tech University. She eventually found herself in Louisiana, working toward getting her masters degree in visual anthropology. There, she found an opportunity to move from a field she had grown tired of to what had become her ultimate career: documentary filmmaking.

“Then, after like a year … there was a doctor who had been wanting that PBS station to produce a documentary on the rural healthcare crisis in the country … (A producer) called me one day and said, ‘This (doctor’s) been hounding me for like two years, and I’ve never been able to respond to him because I’ve not had anybody on staff that I thought could handle this story. So … are you available?’ And I was like, wow,” Chapa said.

Jeff Duhe, former news editor for Louisiana Public Television and former coworker of Chapa’s, remembered Chapa’s documentary on the rural healthcare crisis and how it highlighted Chapa’s unique but important approach to the work.

“I remember specifically she did a documentary about … the need for more doctors to operate in rural areas. But the focus was really, ‘Why aren’t there more doctors in rural areas?’ … Well, I don’t think that any advertiser was gonna be thrilled to put their car commercial on a documentary about the need for more doctors in rural areas,” Duhe said. “But … if I was a mother with a child who has asthma and I live 40 miles from the nearest medical clinic, I sure care. That’s why we need more people like Arcie Chapa in media.”

She went on to work for the station full time, taking on a grueling schedule of shooting, conducting and transcribing interviews with Duhe on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and editing through Thursday — almost every Thursday night was an all-nighter, according to Chapa and Duhe. The documentary would air Friday morning and the cycle would begin again.

Of course, times change: in 1997, Chapa would eventually find herself in New Mexico as host and executive producer of a show on New Mexico PBS titled “In Focus.” She also hosted KUNM’s “Call-In Show.” Perhaps the most notable change, though, came in 2000 when Chapa gave birth to a set of twins, forcing her to rethink how she did her work: she described making a documentary about Albuquerque and Chihuahua’s relationship as sister cities while her daughters were one years old as the hardest thing she’d ever done.

Still, she managed to find time, even if the circumstances under which she worked were somewhat unusual.

“What I tried to do was find blocks of time whenever I could, and when I had those blocks of time, I used them wisely and without getting distracted … So, when I got jury duty, I had two weeks of not being able to take my cell phone there, not getting distracted … I took all my work and would just write. I wrote a whole hour-long documentary in those two weeks,” Chapa said.

It was at the time of the birth of her daughters that Chapa would acquire a job at the Center for Regional Studies, describing the position as a “miracle,” as it allowed her to work on documentaries centered on the Southwest along with affording her funding to make the films. With the center, Chapa would produce a slew of documentaries including three focused on the anniversaries of Zimmerman Library, Popejoy Hall and the University as a whole, as well as her newest effort: “Acequias —The Legacy Lives On.”

But it wouldn’t truly be a film if there wasn’t a story about how it almost wasn’t made: Chapa recounted a point in the writing process that nearly brought the film to its end.

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“I got almost halfway through the script, or maybe a third in, and I couldn’t go any further … I could not figure out how to continue the story,” Chapa said.  “So, I just quit writing and I decided to go back into my archival research just as a distraction … (And) I came across these amazing pictures from the 1930s, these black-and-whites and … I actually got emotional thinking, ‘Oh my god: this is the story. The people are the story. Acequias had created this culture that I’m seeing all these pictures of.”

The approach worked: following a screening at the National Hispanic Cultural Center this past weekend, attendees approached Chapa in tears. One shared that her grandmother was pictured in some of the photographs featured in the film, according to Chapa.

Duhe also cited this people-focused approach as something that is a priority for Chapa while also elaborating on her spirit and work ethic.

“She always delivered an excellent product on time … No one had to assist, other than the photographer and an editor. No one had to ever assist Arcie Chapa in understanding exactly what the priority was or what the philosophy was in what we were doing,” Duhe said. “The number one priority for Arcie Chapa is letting the story and the people and the facts tell themselves.”

While her latest documentary is only just entering its release cycle, Chapa said she already has plans for two future documentaries through the Center for Regional Studies: one on Southwest Indigenous art and activism and the other on Southwest Indigenous history. Chapa hopes that she might one day be able to teach classes at UNM in the film and digital media arts department.

With this latest film, though, Chapa emphasized the point of utilizing her films to make a difference — channeling the advice her mother had given her at nineteen years old.

“The challenge was (that) acequias to most people are just hand-dug, gravity-fed irrigation ditches that were dug centuries ago and still exist today; that’s what they are. But what is the story? What kind of story am I going to create from the facts … But then meeting the people who are so passionate about this and who feel like nobody cares, nobody wants to know more about them ... I hope that they can help, they can inspire policy makers … I don’t spend time on a film unless I hope to make a difference,” Chapa said.

John Scott is the editor-in-chief at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @JohnSnott 

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