Documenting the final years of Walter Mercado’s remarkable life | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

Documenting the final years of Walter Mercado’s remarkable life 

How the filmmakers behind Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado brought a Latino story to the masses

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During this time of unrest, with fierce political polarization, division, and uncertainty, a voice of unity, love, and peace is needed. Someone to dazzle and captivate us with a message of hope. Someone to tell us everything will be alright. Now more than ever, the world needs Walter Mercado.

And who better to bring us the story of the beloved, flamboyant, gender nonconforming astrologer and psychic, who was seen daily by millions in the Latino world, than award-winning directors Kareem Tabsch and Cristina Costantini? Tabsch is known for his documentaries with wonderfully quirky, oddball characters, such as the two shorts Cherry Pop: The Story of the World's Fanciest Cat and Dolphin Lover, as well as the feature The Last Resort (codirected by Dennis Scholl), celebrating the Jewish retirees of Miami Beach in the 1970s. Costantini's Science Fair, which follows high schoolers in an academic competition, is a National Geographic documentary that won Sundance Film Festival's first Festival Favorite Award in 2018.

Under the snow-capped mountains of Park City, Utah, in January of 2020, following the Sundance Film Festival's world premiere of their Netflix-produced film Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado, the pair of filmmakers reflected on their journey to document the final years of Walter's remarkable life.

"Walter is the hardest person I've ever shot with, and I've shot with pimps, drug lords, and warlords," Costantini says. Producer Alex Fumero, a mutual friend, introduced the two directors and the result was nothing short of miraculous, with each one complementing the other's strengths. Tabsch brought extensive experience with archival footage, which makes up about a third of the film. "Cristina is a brilliant investigative journalist with deep-rooted intuition," Tabsch says, adding that he learned from her the need to keep pushing the subject, whose rehearsed banter required extra nudges.

As a queer man growing up in Miami, Tabsch found camradery seeing Walter on TV because it assured him he was not alone in being different. He recalls teasingly asking if Walter was a minimalist. "No," Walter responded, "I am a maximalist!" Very proud, with his own sense of beauty, Walter was always extra. "He radiated confidence—how he felt, and how he made other people feel," Tabsch says, "this was his way of showing admiration and respect for his audience."

Costantini, whose father is Latino, grew up in Wisconsin watching Walter. "One of the things he taught me most was that at every moment just be exactly who you want to be, live how you want to live, and look how you want to look." In an era of conformity, Walter was a radical for simply doing his own thing.

Sundance 2020 was their first experience seeing the film screened in front of a live audience in anticipation of the Netflix release on July 8. The Latino community came out in full force to support the film. But even people who had never heard of Walter were saying, "I fell in love with Walter, thank you for bringing him into my life," which Costantini admits was the greatest honor.

"We were confident," Tabsch says, "we know how cute and amazing Walter was, but we didn't know how that would translate to a non-Latino audience." The partnership with Netflix was a perfect match, the pair said. Other studios passed on the project, discounting the film because of the Latino subject. "Latinos just don't see movies," the pair was told, "there's no audience for this."

Luckily, Netflix did not agree. Partnering with Netflix will enable the film to reach 200 countries in more than 20 languages. "The reason we made the film," Tabsch says, "is to amplify Walter's life work, to promote love, peace, and inclusion in times like these when our leaders are preaching division and hatred." As it turns out, Walter was a huge film buff and loved Netflix, even getting upset when the pair accidentally disconnected his feed during one shoot.

Tabsch and Costantini feel fortunate that Netflix helps amplify Latino voices. When asked what he would say to a Chicago audience, Tabsch replies, "If you want to continue seeing stories that represent you on screen, support them, watch them—this film was made by a Midwesterner, a Latino, a queer man—those are three big populations. That's Chicago right there!"

Costantini summarizes their efforts perfectly: "Our producer Alex said, 'The movie is about honoring our immigrant parents and grandparents who came here and gave up everything so that we could do the bougie shit we do.'"   v

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