Rising documentary filmmaker Barbara Bustillo-Cogswell rides high on the hog

Forty-seven-year-old Phoenix resident Barbara Bustillo-Cogswell is well-aware of the myth that manfully dictates the codes and conventions of a biker -- a myth that says a biker is a tattooed, titty-bar-hopping rogue crisped on crank and braggadocio.

Bustillo-Cogswell is mindful of such biker clichés after spending the past four years traveling with motorcyclists, scrutinizing, investigating and interviewing them for an untitled documentary film that she hopes to have completed by May.

Two years ago, she married a biker, City of Tempe sanitation supervisor Dale Cogswell. The couple has used personal funds to document bikers throughout the Southwest. Until recently, Bustillo-Cogswell worked as a nanny for an IBM executive.

Cruising Central: Ready to mount, state Capitol bound.
Paolo Vescia
Cruising Central: Ready to mount, state Capitol bound.
Helmets are a drag: A biker demonstrates his disdain of helmet laws.
Paolo Vescia
Helmets are a drag: A biker demonstrates his disdain of helmet laws.

Bustillo-Cogswell's work-in-progress has created a mouthy buzz among biker communities, and her phone is starting to ring. One came from New York City.

Amy Elliot, a New York-based producer from Split Screen, a national weekly TV program airing on the Independent Film Channel, came to Phoenix during the Arizona Freedom Rally to shoot Bustillo-Cogswell in action for a segment. Hosted by indie-film maestro Jim Pierson, Split Screen profiles indie filmmakers. The segment featuring Bustillo-Cogswell will air in April.

Sitting at the kitchen table in the modest bilevel home she shares with her husband, Bustillo-Cogswell comes off as calm and cool. She's showered and relaxed after having completed her regular workout at a nearby gym. Between often humorous biker road tales, the effusive Bustillo-Cogswell sips from a glass of white wine. Her liquid voice could lull a person to sleep. Her tinted crimson hair is pulled back from a face that is sharp, expressive and attractive.

Bustillo-Cogswell was born in northern Mexico, and her mother is an Arizona-raised Pima Indian. Her Mexican father, a steel worker, was part of the Bracero program in the 1930s and 1940s that saw the Mexican government make commitments to lend its citizens out for manual labor. In return, the laborers had the option of becoming American citizens. Bustillo-Cogswell grew up mainly in Pueblo, Colorado, with one other sister and four brothers.

She attended college in Boulder but quit just before earning a degree after two Chicano student friends died in Cesar Ch#aacute;vez-inspired civil unrest. They died in a mysterious explosion on campus.

"When that happened, I lost faith in the educational system," she says. "After that I just went to work. And those issues never left me."

She married, moved to Denver and raised two children, a son and a daughter, both of whom are now in their 20s and living in Colorado. She is also a grandmother; her daughter has two children of her own.

After splitting with her first husband, she pursued with conviction her interests in storytelling through film.

Spurred by the inspiration of Gabriel Figueroa, the brilliant Mexican cinematographer who refused to adopt Hollywood's vision of Latino heroes, Bustillo-Cogswell set about creating a cliché-quelling documentary on bikers and biker gangs.

"His [Gabriel Figueroa] films didn't feed me any stereotypes," Bustillo-Cogswell says of the films she adored while growing up. "They didn't make Mexicans look like idiots. They gave us pride. He wanted to also teach that Latinos should be very protective of their image. You know, like, 'You all don't have to play a gangbanger. You all don't have to play a prostitute. You do have an art form that comes from history.'"

Figueroa died in 1997. His was a career that stretched from the 1930s to the 1980s. Some of his best work can be seen in films such as Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados, John Ford's The Fugitive, John Huston's Night of the Iguana and Emilio Fernandez's La Perla. A Figueroa trademark was the use of momentary still shots as part of a film's visual arc. A Figueroa shot is easily identified as haunting and spare.

Figueroa is also noted for offering his home in Mexico as a sanctuary for various blacklisted members of the film community during the McCarthy era.

While working as an interpreter, Bustillo-Cogswell met Figueroa in 1985 at a film festival in Denver. They got along well and he took her on as a kind of apprentice. She would often travel on weekends from Denver to his home in Mexico City.

"This man was the most dynamic, incredible gentleman I had ever met," she says. "He was just the greatest storyteller I have ever met. He just took me in.

"He kind of felt sorry for me in a way because he said, 'Well, you have two strikes against you. First, you are a Latina and Hollywood is built on stereotypes. And second of all, being a female in the industry is not easy unless you are an actress or you are married to a famous man.'"

She eventually did a documentary on Figueroa's life; the piece screened at the second annual Edward James Olmos Latino Film Festival last year.

In her sharply crafted documentary shorts, Bustillo-Cogswell displays a flair for grasping the unusual story of the all-too-usual exploitation of the powerless. Some involve people overcoming odds, but never in cloying, sentimental ways.

Bustillo-Cogswell cut her teeth working as an independent producer and writer in Colorado at KCNC-TV for more than eight years. She produced more than 200 segments, and received a number of regional Emmy nominations. She produced and directed documentaries on Colorado ranchers, domestic violence and problems facing the local Latino community. Her intent was always to give voice to the voiceless.

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