Roberto Guerra (1942–2014)

Roberto Guerra. Photo: Kathy Brew.

I MET ROBERTO back in the fall of 1996 when I was working at City Arts, the award-winning art series on WNET/Channel 13, New York’s PBS station. A mutual acquaintance, a film editor, introduced us; she thought we might have a lot in common and that perhaps Roberto might need help with a film he was working on about artistic influence. And then she turned to me and said, “And who knows? Maybe you’ll fall in love.”

I called Roberto and soon after we met for a Saturday morning coffee in Chelsea. I thought we’d meet for about an hour and then I’d be on with my day. We ended up spending five hours together—something Roberto referred to as “Peruvian compression time.” I was instantly struck by his intelligence, his achievements, his worldliness, his humor, his sensitivity, his good looks. He told me how he had come to New York as a young filmmaker from Peru to meet the cinema verité pioneers—Albert and David Maysles, Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker—and worked with some of them early on. Then he told me about the many films he had made over the years with Eila Hershon, his first “accomplice” and life partner, who initially had a painting career. (Hershon died of cancer in 1993, three years before I met Roberto.) Their very first film was on Oskar Kokoschka, who Hershon had studied with. They went on to make many other documentaries about artists, working in Europe, where the production / distribution model was more conducive to actually making films, rather than raising money for them. They also made many films on the worlds of design and fashion, including portraits of Karl Lagerfeld and Coco Chanel. These films, all made on 16 mm, were broadcast by major networks in over thirty-five countries, featured in international film festivals and museums, and were critically acclaimed in major international magazines and newspapers.

I immediately liked Roberto—a lot—and envisioned, that very first day, that we would work together. And then, who knew what else might happen? Flash forward seventeen years later. We called that woman who connected us our bruja. For the next two decades we worked on many projects as we shared our lives together. We won two Emmy awards for Outstanding Fine Arts programming for pieces we did for City Arts: on MoMA PS1’s reopening in 1997 with an amazing cast of art-world figures (James Turrell, Alanna Heiss, Julian Schnabel, Jack Smith, among others) and on Artists Space’s twenty-fifth anniversary (featuring Vito Acconci, Chuck Close, Nan Goldin, Laurie Anderson, Jeff Koons, Elizabeth Murray, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Robert Longo, and others). And we did another piece for City Arts on emerging artists having their first solo shows.

In 1999, we went to Peru to work on a documentary, Cusco 1999, about people going to Machu Picchu for the millennium. This was Roberto’s first return since he left the country in the late 1960s, and my very first visit to any country in South America. That trip broke the ice, triggering an annual return to Peru, and a strong interest to develop projects there, as Roberto found a renewed love for his home country, and I fell in love with this amazing place. We were actually in Peru in July of 2013, working on editing our next project—the almost completed Double Take: The Art of Seward Johnson—when it became clear that we had to return to New York for Roberto’s health.

From the onset, Roberto’s spirit and equanimity in the face of his sudden pancreatic cancer diagnosis was inspirational. For him, the glass was always half-full, filled with gratitude and love and a kind of rare wisdom in facing one’s own impermanence. During this time, our most recent film, and our biggest achievement, Design is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli, had its theatrical premiere at the IFC Center in New York. Here all the efforts of our creative work together were finally having a major tipping point, and my accomplice and soulmate was dying. We had hoped that a break in treatment would allow Roberto to gain strength so that he could attend the opening screening, but that was not to be the case.

Roberto’s intuitive eye, unique style, and spontaneous grace imbued everything he did with a sense of involvement and intimacy. This was how he lived his life. 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. And for the way he touched my life, I am so honored and forever grateful.

Kathy Brew is a filmmaker, writer, and educator based in New York.