Back in 2010, Via Bia studied a copy of Screenwriting for Dummies to draft her first screenplay. Eight years and three feature-length screenplays later, the Arlington writer is celebrating as These Colors Don't Run, the short film she wrote and directed, joins HBO Latino's lineup.
“It was shocking,” says Bia of the phone call with HBO in which she got the news.
The English- and Spanish-language film, which first premiered at the 2017 DC Shorts Film Festival, can be viewed this summer on HBO platforms. It was produced on a $20,000 budget, some of which came from grants and from an in-kind donation from Kodak, and most of which Bia, which is the screenwriter’s professional name, says she fronted herself. It was a risky investment for someone who hadn't attended film school, and who instead found a nonconventional entrypoint into the industry.
These Colors Don’t Run follows a tough, guarded woman named Yola as she recalls the story of her first "tattoo," which she drew on herself with Sharpies on the day of her First Communion. Bia's own grandmother, who moved to the mainland from Puerto Rico, was the muse for Yola's mother, a woman who's deeply concerned with society's expectations for her daughter's big day.
“This happens a lot with immigrants,” Bia says. “You just have to follow the rules or the outcomes could be really bad for you.” For her part, the writer says she relates more to the daughter in the film, who struggles to find a feeling of freedom in a confining environment.
When she decided to produce Colors, Bia says she knew she wanted to represent the characters as authentically as possible, traveling to Austin, Texas, to film on location in a Mexican-American neighborhood with Mexican-American actors, some of whom she says drove for hours to make the casting call.
Though Bia says she is proud to be a Latina filmmaker, she has mixed feelings about the term itself.
“On one hand, I want to raise the profile of us as legitimate people in the industry, and so it’s possible giving a descriptor can raise that profile,” Bia says. “What I question is, if it’s a white man [as] the filmmaker, what are the descriptors we use for them? There’s a problem if we’re not using any descriptors for them because then they’re considered normal and more the gold standard or something and everybody else is what?”
Latinx characters and stories are the focus of much of Bia’s work, including The Radish Baby. In the feature-length screenplay, a childless garnish chef who emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico as a child plays father to a vegetable as he explores the legacy of his abusive dad. The piece landed Bia a spot at the Sundance Latino Screenwriting Project in 2015 and scored Bia top honors at the 2015 Virginia Screenwriting Competition. She later adapted the character of the tattoo artist sister into the adult Yola in Colors.
But just five years before Bia was earning plaudits from her new career as a screenwriter, she hadn’t written much more than journal entries.
In 2010, Bia, who grew up in Prince George’s County and Long Island, NY, had recently moved back to the D.C. area with her husband after a few years of teaching in Mexico City. While caring for her toddler, Bia was in search of an intellectual and emotional outlet, and decided to pick up her old pastime of writing personal essays, something she could do while her daughter napped.
Within a few months, Bia had an idea better suited to a script. With the decennial census underway and a husband who worked for the Census Bureau, she says she started thinking about some people of color who choose not to remit their forms due to a lack of trust in the federal government. Armed with a copy of Screenwriting for Dummies from the library, she drew up a screenplay about a community that decides to lie on their census forms to protect a secret but ends up in the national spotlight, called Census Day.
“Different communities can be nervous about government intervention,” Bia says. “And I think that that’s fair seeing the congenital creation of this country being on the backs of a lot of people who had places they lived taken away or [were] forced off their land, [or] people who were brought in from other countries as slaves. I think America has yet to live up to this thing that they say that they’re all about, which is equality.”
This summer, Bia plans to draft Colors as a feature-length screenplay and continue collaborating with a friend on a “bawdy” Christmas movie that’s a riff on the “classic idea of a Hallmark rom-com.” On a recent morning in Arlington, the writer is earnest and thoughtful, but from time to time, her playful humor peeks through. She has put it to use in several projects over the years, including comedic content commissioned by the social media marketing company Being Latino and a collaboration with comedian Eddie G. about a multifaceted flip-flop.
Bia also has her eyes set on television, with a script under her belt for a pilot about an agnostic teenager who has to move from a public school to a religious charter school. She says she hopes to eventually find herself in the writers room of a boundary-pushing program, along the lines of Atlanta.
Now and then, Bia says she still hears an internal voice questioning her success. She imitates it with a thick New York accent and a smile, saying, “Who do you think you are?”
Yet she absolutely knows the answer.
These Colors Don’t Run is airing on HBO Latino and available to stream through August 1.