Rare Doc ‘The Devil Never Sleeps’ Gets Its Due with Library of Congress Induction

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Still from 'The Devil Never Sleeps,' a genre-defining 1994 documentary that was recently inducted into the Library of Congress.  (Lourdes Portillo)

Last month, San Francisco cinephiles celebrated when Wayne Wang’s 1993 film The Joy Luck Club was inducted into National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Less noticed was another groundbreaking Bay Area treasure that also made the annual selection of 25 of the nation’s most influential motion pictures.

Hailed upon its release as a form-melting masterpiece, Lourdes Portillo’s 1994 documentary The Devil Never Sleeps / El diablo nunca duerme is getting another bout of recognition. A few weeks before its National Film Registry induction was revealed, The New Yorker highlighted The Devil Never Sleeps in the story “Sixty-Two Films That Shaped the Art of Documentary Filmmaking.” Describing Portillo’s first-person investigation into the mysterious death of her uncle Oscar, critic Richard Brody wrote that the filmmaker “discovers her family's story to be a lurid melodrama of conflicting interests and political corruption, and she films it—and her childhood memories—with a labyrinthine style to match.”


A postmodern detective story, The Devil Never Sleeps is a film that rewards repeated viewings. Working closely with cinematographer Kyle Kibbe, Portillo designed a visual feast with a series of reoccurring motifs (mirrors, screens and water) and a deliciously tangled narrative told from her wry point of view. What starts as a portrait of a larger than life figure—“At 5am he woke me up with a greeting: ‘Time to get up and fight!’ For Oscar, each day was a conquest”—soon turns into a tangled exploration of attitudes about gender roles, class and family loyalties in upper-middle-class Mexico.

Rather than trafficking in shallow irony, Portillo keeps calling attention to the story’s uncertain framing, toggling between the increasingly destabilized portrait of her uncle and her attempts to ferret out the truth as a filmmaker. “I was living a life where I was really very interested in postmodernism at that time,” Portillo said. “I’d been to New York and seen some of the art work in the streets and museums that inspired me. I liked this idea of baroque and postmodern approach to a telenovela kind of story that Latin Americans tell about our families.”

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Born in Mexico and raised in Los Angeles, Portillo made her mark as a filmmaker in the Bay Area with 1985’s Academy Award-nominated Las Madres: Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Co-directed with Argentine-born Susana Muñoz, the hour-long documentary helped bring international attention to the protest movement led by mothers seeking information about family members “disappeared” by Argentina’s military junta in the Dirty War of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Still from 'The Devil Never Sleeps.' (Lourdes Portillo)

While Las Madres unfolds in standard documentary style, Portillo and Muñoz displayed growing confidence as visual artists with 1989’s La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead, a dazzling, impressionistic exploration of the Mexican celebration. But nothing Portillo had done previously hinted at her ability to unspool narrative conventions and visual tropes like The Devil Never Sleeps. (Full disclosure: my wife, KQED Deep Look producer Gabriela Quirós, did the subtitles for a later print of The Devil Never Sleeps and worked on Portillo’s 2001 film Señorita Extraviada.)

One of Portillo’s influences, Errol Morris, had shaken up the documentary world with The Thin Blue Line in 1988. His investigation into the murder conviction of Randall Dale Adams employed dramatized scenes to reveal a story from multiple points of view. Portillo took Morris’s creative license and crafted a very different kind of detective story. Instead of unreliable witnesses, Portillo presents herself as a narrator uncertain of her methods and agenda. In key moments, such as trying to wheedle an interview from her uncle’s widow, Portillo films herself surrounded by her film crew, rolling her eyes as she’s eluded again.

“Errol Morris inspired me to be much more experimental and much more who I was,” Portillo said. “I thought it was good to expand the idea of the investigator, not to be this perfect person who knows all. I like the fact that we were having so much fun making this film. The crew enticed me to be funny, and I wanted to use it, to be a klutzy kind of detective. That’s how I felt. It was very true to what I was experiencing.”

One reason The Devil Never Sleeps isn’t more widely known is that it was hard to find. While the documentary has been available for purchase via Women Make Movies for years, Portillo recently revamped her website, greatly expanding access to the film via streaming. Previously, people were most likely to encounter it in papers by film scholars or in film studies and journalism courses. (There’s a chance to see some of Portillo’s other work when her alma mater, the San Francisco Art Institute, projects her films State of Grace and Sometimes My Feet Go Numb onto the school's tower as part of their Three Turns event Jan. 22-23.)

I first watched The Devil Never Sleeps a few years after its release in a history of documentary film course taught by Jon Else at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and was struck by a film that left me with more questions than answers. In an interview several years ago, Else explained that was the reason he felt it was so important for aspiring documentarians to know Portillo’s work.

“Lourdes has this kind of self-questioning and wonderfully healthy self-doubt that more filmmakers could use,” he said. “There’s a respect for ambiguity. Most documentary filmmakers are convinced that they know the truth. She revels in the mystery of the world.”