A photo of Vanessa Guillen from I Am Vanessa Guillen.
Netflix appears to be betting on horrific murders in Texas this November.
Coming November 29th is the latest installment in the true crime series Crime Scene, subtitled Texas Killing Field, which focuses on a series of murders that terrorized League City in the ’80s and ’90s.
But this week, on November 17th, comes “I Am Vanessa Guillén,” Christy Wegener’s documentary about the murder of 20-year-old Guillén, the young Mexican-American woman from Houston and first-class private believed to have killed her was murdered by fellow officer Aaron David Robinson while stationed at Fort Hood in 2020. Her killing sparked outrage and called for a change in the US Army’s handling of sexual molestation and murder charges among its own. (Robinson killed himself when he was about to be arrested, and his girlfriend Cecily Aguilar is facing federal charges for helping.)
But Wegener, whose producing resume includes stints on reality shows like Taylor Sheridan’s The Last Cowboy and RuPaul’s Drag Race, is less concerned with the lurid details of the murder than with its impact on Vanessa’s family and the movement that sprang up of their sadness, anger and determination. The resulting film is then not just a revisit of the details of her death, but a celebration of what ignited her life.
Duration: 95 minutes
Where: Begins streaming November 17 on Netflix
**** (of 5)
The film’s two stars are Guillén’s sisters Mayra and Lupe Guillén, who are more, reluctant activists in the face of the army’s seeming indifference, incompetence and blockade that began from the day Vanessa disappeared on that fateful April day until the discovery of her remains were than two months later. “Everything was really shady,” Mayra recalls succinctly of the army’s lack of transparency.
Talk about an understatement.
Sure, the portrait of Fort Hood that Wegener paints is scathing and directly contradicts the words emblazoned on the sign at the base’s entrance: “The Great Place.”
“Fort Hood has one of the highest sexual assault rates of any American military base,” said Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, a human rights organization focused on US military culture. “They had two mass shootings… Lots of missing soldiers, lots of dead soldiers.”
Lucy Del Gaudio, an Army veteran and survivor advocate, shares his sentiments, saying the base is “the worst of the worst when it comes to the culture of command.”
But the army found its opponent in the Guillén family, including mother Gloria Guillén and Vanessa’s fiancé Juan Cruz, as well as Guillén’s friends, none of whom were intimidated. “If nobody talks to us, we talk to them,” says Lupe defiantly.
Taking to social media, Mayra and Lupe organized increasingly large protests in front of Fort Hood’s entrance. That drew media attention and ensured the base took the spotlight, as did Mayra’s hiring of attorney Natalie Khawam.
All of the coverage struck a chord with those who had survived military sexual abuse and the broader Latino community, for whom Guillén’s death became a reason. The excitement over the case grew so loud that Washington took notice when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, DN.Y., and Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D.-Calif are handling cases like Guillén’s.
All of this is told by Wegener in a no-nonsense, factual style that doesn’t get in the way of the story she’s trying to tell. And this story is about surviving grief and using it to start a movement.
At the beginning of the film, Mayra says in voiceover about Vanessa, “The advice she always gave me was, ‘If you want something, do it.'”
She and Lupe are doing just that, and Vanessa would no doubt be proud of it.