Documentary Filmmaker Roberto Guerra Dies

Documentary filmmaker Roberto Guerra died on Friday, January 10 after a six-month valiant fight against pancreatic cancer. 

Guerra, an international documentary film director, producer, and cinematographer, was born in Lima, Peru.  He graduated from the Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria, Lima with a degree in engineering, and subsequently turned his attention to film, initially producing and directing in Peru.

On his first trip to NYC to purchase film equipment, Guerra met Albert Maysles and through him and his brother, David, he met the other cinema verité pioneers -- Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Robert Drew. He initially worked with the Maysles, filming on some of their projects.  Soon thereafter, he met Eila Hershon, who became his collaborator and life partner for the next 25 years.  They made many films, including portraits of artists and international personalities in the worlds of fashion and design: Frida Kahlo, which won the first prize at the Montreal Festival of Films on Art; Langlois,* (a portrait of Henri Langlois, founder of the French Cinematheque); Oskar Kokoschka; Hans Haacke; Chanel, Chanel (a portrait of the fashion designer); The Story of Fashion (a three-hour series on 20th Century fashion); The Beauty Queens (a three-hour series profiling Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder); By Design (a six-part series profiling Lella and Massimo Vignelli, Milton Glaser, Benjamin and Jane Thompson, Karl Lagerfeld, Richard Sapper, and Elliott Erwitt); followed by Design, a six-hour series including short profiles of over 25 designers.The films were broadcast by major networks in over 35  countries, including  PBS, A&E, BRAVO, The Learning Channel, USA; Channel Four, UK; ZDF, Germany; RAI TV 2, Italy; ABC, Australia; TV Ontario, Canada; Antenne 2, France. The films were also featured in international film festivals in New York, Edinburgh, London, Cannes, Montreal, and Los Angeles, as well as at major museums and other venues. They also successfully penetrated the home video market, and have been critically acclaimed in both the Arts and TV pages of major international magazines and newspapers. Guerra and Hershon married in 1991; Eila Hershon died of cancer in 1993. 

Guerra did his own camerawork and editing for all his films.  His intuitive, sensitive eye and unique style and spontaneous grace imbues each film with a sense of involvement and intimacy with the subjects.  

In 1996, Guerra met Kathy Brew and claimed that she "corrupted him to digital video."  Previously all his films had been made on 16 millimeter film. Their life/work collaboration soon began, and has included a range of different independent projects.    In 1999, they went to Peru to work on a documentary, Cusco 1999,  about people going to Machu Picchu for the millennium.  This was Guerra's first return to Peru since he left the country in the late 1960s. This initial trip back triggered an annual return to Peru, and a strong interest to develop projects there, as Guerra found a renewed love for his home country and recognized how many amazing and important stories from Peru should be told to a larger, global audience. 
Some projects in production, still to be completed, include: Beauty Behind Bars, about a Peruvian women's prison where a beauty contest takes place each year amidst the backdrop of the international war on drugs; Dutch/Peruvian, about two Dutch artists who've made Peru their home, and how that unique place has influenced their work; and a project about indigenous weaving communities in the highlands of the Andes.

Their most recent film is the feature documentary Design is One:  Lella & Massimo Vignelli, which began its US theatrical release at the IFC Film Center in New York City in October 2013 with a favorable NY Times review.  The film is being distributed in the US by First Run Features and in Canada by KinoSmith. 

Former collaborations include four short films on Chinese contemporary artists, part of the Observer Observed series for The Joy of Giving Something Foundation; ID/entity: Portraits in the 21st Century, commissioned by the MIT Media Lab (screened at the International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal and broadcast on WNET/Thirteen's Metro Arts); a collaboration with artist Mierle Ukeles, creating a multiple-channel installation about the Fresh Kills landfill that was presented at Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island and Harvard University; Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution (broadcast on WNET/Thirteen's Metro Arts and presented at the International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal).  Guerra and Brew also produced segments for Public Television WNET's City Arts and Egg, for which they received two Emmy awards for Outstanding Fine Arts Programming.

Besides the projects with a Peruvian theme, other projects in production include:: Double Take: The Art of Seward Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, who was fired years ago from the family business and took up art; and Going Gray, a look at going/not going gray and how this reflects on current attitudes about aging.

Guerra taught video classes for three semesters at Rutgers University and the students loved him. 

Guerra and Brew married after 17 years together on August 14, 2013.  Guerra died on January 10, 2014 after a six-month valiant fight for life against a lethal pancreatic cancer diagnosis at Haven Hospice at Bellevue Hospital in NYC with his wife, Kathy Brew by his side, who was with him throughout the entire ordeal. Guerra is survived by his loving wife and collaborator, Kathy Brew, and his family in Lima, Peru – his mother, Mercedes Allison de Guerra, 97; and his brother, Humberto Guerra, 73; as well as many cousins, nephews and nieces.   His spirit and equanimity in the face of his sudden cancer diagnosis was inspirational. His joy for life and people and his creativity will live on through all the work he created and in all the lives he touched.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Roberto Guerra's name are requested to go to one of the following: The Lustgarten Foundation (involved in pancreatic cancer research) or Haven Hospice.
A memorial will be held sometime in the first half of 2014 in NYC at the Maysles Film Institute in Harlem with plans for another one at an unknown date in Lima, Peru. 

* 2014 is the centenary of the birth of Henri Langlois and discussions are underway to re-release this film, which includes an amazing cast of film luminaries:  Ingrid Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Catherine Deneuve, Lillian Gish, Jeanne Moreau, Simone Signoret, Francois Truffaut, Jean Renoir, Viva, Kenneth Anger.