INTERVIEW: New doc introduces audiences to Councilwoman Castillo

Photo: Councilwoman is a new documentary examining the political career of Councilwoman Carmen Castillo. Photo courtesy of Cinema Tropical / Provided with permission.

Councilwoman Carmen Castillo represents her neighborhood on the City Council of Providence, Rhode Island. Her journey to this political position was a tough one, and she continues to face many obstacles. However, her triumphs are quite noteworthy and now the subject of a new documentary by first-time filmmaker Margo Guernsey.

Councilwoman, which plays the Havana Film Festival New York this coming week, explores Castillo’s time in office and how she is a new chapter in the story of American grassroots politics.

While she’s working in city hall, there are other concerns for the councilwoman. For one, she also works a full-time job as a hotel housekeeper. For another, she needs to provide for her family. In other words, Castillo, who was born in the Dominican Republic, is that rare politician in the United States: someone representing the people and also simultaneously participating in the workforce. This is what attracted Guernsey to telling this story, and it didn’t hurt that the two women have been friends and fellow union members for a number of years.

“I knew Carmen because I was a union organizer, and I worked for her union,” the director said in a recent phone interview. “She was always one of the strongest leaders, and I had no intention of making a film about her. But then she ran for office, and I ran into her at a baby shower when she told me she was running for office. This was about 10 years after I was no longer working for her union, and that was the moment. I thought, wait a minute. I knew she would keep her job at the hotel because most people don’t know this, but local political positions pay very little. … I knew that she can’t live on that, none of us can. She’d keep cleaning hotel rooms, and so that’s when I said, this is an opportunity because it’s so uncommon in the country for working people to be making public policy.”

Castillo apparently said yes to the project because Guernsey was on board. The two were quite close and had been through many tribulations before. Still, the director wanted complete access, and Castillo needed to understand that included everything about her life.

“Truth be told, I think there were different moments of access because it’s one thing to say, yes, you can film me,” Guernsey said. “It’s another thing to realize that what I mean is filming everything, including your family life, but, yeah, it was a very collegial thing.”

The film’s narrative begins after Castillo is already in office, and that’s because Guernsey didn’t want to create a campaign film. Instead, her one hour of documentary work focuses on Castillo as a policymaker already.

“When we started filming in 2011, I used to say to people — and I really thought this — if we could make this film and just get people to talk about the lack of working people, the lack of women of color, but particularly in the case of Carmen, I think, the added element here is somebody who is working a regular, manual-labor job,” Guernsey said. “If we could just get the country to start talking about it, that would be an impact. And then we end up releasing the film in a moment when there’s much more happening than just talk, so it’s very exciting. It’s very well timed.”

Certainly the timing is impeccable. Around the nation there are more stories of women gaining political power and representation, all the way up to the halls of Congress. There’s still so much work to be done, but Castillo and her contemporaries are paving a new way.

That journey is not easy. Castillo faced backlash for her candidacy and hurtful messages about her hotel job.

“The story she tells about the lady calling her a maid and a servant, that happened right before we started filming,” the director said. “[But] I think the fact that she got 75 percent of the vote in November is testament on the ground in her neighborhood. … If you take on a big challenge, you learn a lot, and you grow. And that’s been the case, absolutely.”

By John Soltes / Publisher /

Councilwoman, directed by Margo Guernsey and featuring Councilwoman Carmen Castillo, will play the Havana Film Festival New York April 11 and 13. Click here for more information and tickets.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

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