Producer Melina Tupa tells story of Argentinean Dirty War in acclaimed film ‘The Search’

Producer Melina Tupa, photo by Alex Menendez

When Melina Tupa was just sixteen years old, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare form of cancer. Overcoming this disease inspired her. She knew she had to find a job that had a purpose and helped others within her community. Eventually, she found her calling, and it was filmmaking. However, Tupa is not an ordinary film producer. She is more than a storyteller. She helps people with her work, making empowering documentaries that seek to change and improve the world around her.

As a sought-after film producer, Tupa has shown the world what she was capable of for years. Working with networks like Nonstop TV and Turner Broadcasting, Tupa’s producing talents were on full display, working on a wide variety of shows. However, when she helped produce the Frontline film Rape on the Night Shift, Tupa’s goal to truly help the community was realized, as a California bill to help protect janitorial staff from sexual assault was a direct result of the film. Now, Tupa’s own film The Search is looking to make a difference once again, educating its audience on the Argentinean “Dirty War.”

“When I started living in the United States, I realized people knew very little about Argentinean history. To me the story of grandmothers looking for their children thirty years after they disappeared and being able to find them was surreal. I couldn’t believe people haven’t heard about that story here and I knew I wanted to produce a documentary that would tell this story,” said Tupa.

The Search explores Estela de Carlotto’s search for her long-lost grandchild thirty-seven years after her daughter was kidnapped and murdered during the Dirty War. Tupa was not only the producer of the film, but the director as well. She was involved with the entire process from the beginning to end. She raised money for the production and supervised the entire documentary.

“This was a very personal project for me. I produced it from beginning to end and I felt a responsibility having been brought up in Argentina to tell this story for an American audience. I enjoyed every part of being a producer in this film. From the pre-production, studying and getting to know the Argentinean story better, to interviewing key historical characters in my home country, like Estela de Carlotto,” she said.

Tupa considers The Search the highlight of her esteemed career. It was a selected for several film festivals around the world. These included the DOCUTAH International Film Festival, Tulipanes Latino Art & Film Festival, 39th Denver Film Festival, MIRA — Latin American Independent Filmfestival, Bogotá Short Film Festival, San Diego Latino Film Festival, Fargo Film Festival, Sarasota Film Festival, and the 33rd Chicago Latino Film Festival. None of this success could not have been possible without Tupa. Without her work and effort, the film wouldn’t have happened. It was four months of pre-production getting everything ready to shoot and research in Argentina, one month of shooting interviews and scenes and then four months of post-production, editing, sound mixing and color correction. Her relentless work, the great dynamics with her crew and the passion she poured into this documentary was what made this documentary a success.

“I was Melina’s Executive Producer on her film The Search. Her film was a stunningly beautiful and accomplished and garnered a Student Academy Award nomination. Melina’s preparation and work were stellar. She always prepared her cuts on time for review and critiques. Melina never complained or faltered throughout the process of producing her documentary. Melina is creative, organized and industrious. Her solution focused thinking is what led her to produce a great documentary,” said Orlando Bagwell, Executive Producer on The Search.

As a producer, working on this film allowed Tupa to fully showcase all of her talent. She was able to manage a production team not only in the United States, but also abroad in Argentina. She had a very tight shooting schedule of fourteen days in three different cities and everything went very smoothly. She was able to pre-produce five high-profile character’s interviews in Argentina. She hired the key personnel to work on the film and selected the characters who were relevant to the story and needed to be interviewed. She was able to access archival videos and photos from the military dictatorship period from different archival libraries in Argentina. As a producer, she gained rare access to a clandestine detention center in Argentina. She also was able to get near-impossible access to film inside a concentration camp, and got rare and never before seen footage of the military dictatorship era from different archival libraries and photographers of that time who donated their pictures.

What was perhaps most impressive, however, was Tupa being able to get one of the most influential women in Argentina and the world, Estela de Carlotto, the president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, on board with the project after pursuing her for four months. She wrote her a handwritten letter talking about how her grandmothers had been really important in her life and how she would feel if that relationship was taken away abruptly. Estela de Carlotto connected with Tupa’s story, and to be interviewed in Argentina.

Such a commitment from a filmmaker is almost unprecedented. She did not do these things for the awards and accolades that the film would later receive. She did it based on that promise she made to herself at sixteen years old. She did it to help people.

“I believe it is important to tell a story like this because this didn’t happen a century ago, this happened 30 years ago. We need to be constantly reminded of the consequences of totalitarian governments and do everything within our reach to prevent these atrocious events to happen again,” Tupa concluded.

What’s next for this one-of-a-kind producer? She is going to co-produce a documentary about the California’s Napa Valley, delving into the lives of people who are intimately connected to the winemaking process — yet whose stories have largely gone untold. The upcoming film, Harvest Season, is expected to premiere in 2020.