On Wednesday February 22, a vortex took shape in Miami known as Borscht Diez, the 10th edition of Borscht Film Festival, which created ripples around the world. It started with the end. A funeral pyre where Borscht’s 13 years of past work (via hard drives) was eulogized and then promptly lit and burnt to ashes. The festival closed on Sunday, February 26 with a major phoenix rising boom for Borscht – whose mission is to put authentic Miami narratives on the map -when locals at the African Cultural Heritage Center watched in exhilaration as hometown set and filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight took home three Oscars; Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, Best Adapted Screenplay, and major key win: Best Picture.
photo by Miami New Times
photo by @borscht
photo by @borscht
For those who don’t know – Borscht Corp is a non profit and artist collective I talk about frequently on my blog because since 2011 their films have been selected at the top festivals around the world. The organism spawned around 2004 and has multiplied into a rising number of unique and unapologetic artists who collaborate across platforms in film, digital and art projects. Borscht’s Day One funder and to this day is The Knight foundation. Borscht represents a wild, pop and savvy storytelling community who sneak relevant cultural perspectives and social/geo/political/tech-driven commentary. When it comes to American Latino representation at festivals – something I talk about a lot on this blog, Borscht nearly always appears in my WTF is Latino at xyz festival and they found that last year at a major film festival, 50% of US fiction shorts by Latinos were Borscht commissions.
Two of the chief architects of this nuclear reactor, Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva, recently gained the support of Time Warner’s One Fifty which invests in creators, with the goal of creating a pipeline into the entertainment divisions who recognize the need for fresh content in order to stay relevant and reach younger socially connected audiences. Mayer and Leyva have collaborated on many projects as writers/directors/producers and with One Fifty are working on a few exciting things TBA. Their most recent short Kaiju Bunkaru premiered at Sundance, and they are actively developing their first feature set in Cuba as writers/directors. The partners in crime have also used Time Warner’s support to continue to spearhead their work of promoting and supporting other up and coming Miami artists. A few of these include the Meza brothers, Bernardo Britto, Alexa Haas, Monica Peña, Celia Rowlson-Hall, Amy Seimetz, Ahol Sniffs Glue, Jonathan David Kane, Julian Yuri Rodriguez, and Giancarlo Loffredo.
Mayer. by @Dilabar
Leyva. by Marilyn Loddii
A typical film festival is usually evaluated by the strength of its film selection, but this ain’t no typical film festival – its a whole experience, and one that is curated off the cuff yet quite tight. The 70 something odd number of features, shorts and videos comprising the program is driven by Borscht made films, Miami related stories, and natives. Its audacious vision is pretty organically glued with near future narratives and primal and cosmic evocations – always with a daring, and often underrepresented point of view.
Screenings were held at three main theater venues; The Miami Beach Cinematheque, New World Center, Olympia Theater – which when taken over by Borscht surely broadened those institutions’ reach and seemed to take on a new feel. Outside these established venues, screens were also popped up, intervening public spaces; on the water, in the streets, off a beaten path of an island, on walls inside and outside. Just like screens were
CLAP BITCHES. by Marilyn Loddi
Hyperbody by Marilyn Loddi
unleashed, so were stories unconfined to said screens by weaving thematic narratives around each screening event. Like being handed a cacti to accompany you to a film about a conquistador and being told that the questions will be taken strictly from the cacti. Or the animation bookends at the main film event where sea anemones from the future (fake/future news reel tells us that sea level rise has buried Miami underwater) presented the program while making fun of the blip that was humans and the rubble we left behind that we called “art”. And then there are the personal experiences in participating that creates yet another story – like the time I kayaked by myself at night a mile out to an undisclosed island location for a screening, thinking that if I flipped over into the lukewarm sea the temperature would be nice but rubbing up on something would give probably stop my heart.
Other big events included Coral Orgy, an immersive psychedelic projection by local marine biologists/artists Coral Morphologic with a live score performed by Animal Collective, a vogue ball by Catwalk Miami that was EVERYTHING, an amusing opera piece by Joseph Keckler, performances by Hyperbody, Poor Girrrl and Miami’s very own bad bitch no-nanna-hoe Trina – and that’s just what I witnessed firsthand. Of the VR stuff I flexed my empathy muscles being that I embodied Dubya’s body – naked in a tub, happily painting- thanks to an installation by Tenderclaws.
photo by Marilyn Loddi
I moderated a panel called Warn a Brother with Terence Nance about how independent artist like him can preserve their voice while transitioning from independent to working with studios. Like MayerLeyva, Terence is working with One Fifty who made it possible for him to shoot his pilot Random Acts of Flyness for HBO. ‘Mobilize don’t Satiriz’e was one of a few gems that I heard Terence say about his self-expression. Tamir Muhammad, the artist development engineer responsible for bringing them in is also working with creators like Young Guru, Lemon Anderson and Melonie Diaz. Tamir moderated another panel called Code Switching your way to the top which included my homegirl, Dilcia Barrera, LACMA Film Curator and Sundance shorts programmer, and Walter Newman from Adult Swim. The convo was about how these cats succeed in an industry dominated by wealthy straight white men.
Me in awe of Terence. by Marilyn Loddi
L-R Dilcia Barrera, Tamir Muhammad and Walter Newman
FILMS: A few highlights. For the full list of cool crazy films that played go here
Miami native David Fenster’s Opuntia is an experimental film inspired by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación. And is narrated by a cactus. The film explores spiritual transformation by way of the fascinating and little known Spanish conquistador turned
shaman during his 8 year expedition on which he lost hundreds of men, was stripped of everything he had, wandered around naked and miraculously survived – in part by eating the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. Fenster visits the spots Cabeza de Vaca supposedly journeyed from St. Petersburg, Florida to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and weaves in a psychic medium’s point of view as well as his own personal narrative by including his father and his battle with his health. A profound and existential adventure this was a work in progress screening. Watch out for it.
Manila Death Squad by Dean C. Marcial
A young tenacious reporter insists on a sit-down and plays Kings with the temperamental leader of a brutal assassin group in this kitschy Filipino action film. Dean is currently working on a digital series called Midnight Service with his Calavera co-horts regular Borscht producer Brett Potter. They previously made a short film called Sea Devil – a total masterpiece. Watch here.
[Cries in Spanish] By Giancarlo Loffredo
A young girl sings a song in a Latin cafe. The vibes and jaw dropping twist on this one. From the dude that brought us Stripper Wars.
Body Heals by Annelise Ogaard
A dispatch from a plastic surgery vacation, reflecting on beauty in the moment of metamorphosis after the knife goes in, but before the bandages come off. Remarkably transparent and unusual in that usually people hide themselves during their cocoon cosmetic post surgery phase. Brooklyn based creator and Vice contributor Annelise’s pov is about flaunting one’s regeneration.
Great Choice by Robin Comisar
A Borscht commissioned short film about a woman who gets stuck in a red lobster commerial. The wacky premise anchored by an insanely real problem comes from Ghost Robot director Comisar who has fun doing stuff with Waverly Films.
One Doggone Summer by Julian Yuri Rodriguez
Niño bueno and MTV no seasons star Julian, channels his dog lover and sentimental side with this sweet, imaginative story about a boy wants to make sure his doggy goes to heaven.
Agua Viva by Alexa Haas
Alexa co-directed the short film, The Glove with Bernardo Britto that debuted last year and is still making the rounds. Her solo effort is about a manicurist in Miami expressing her inner desires, feelings, and daydreams through a language she cannot speak.
New World Center
Audience (and me)
Miami artist Ahol Sniffs Glue
Slumpies by Jillian Mayer
My experience with #BorschtDiez was seriously a portal of senses and provocation. It sparked dialogue around sex and gender, and somehow made time, space and matter truly feel relative. If you missed it, well you missed out – this time around. It always comes back around. Til then tune in and follow Borscht’s unique transmission from the 305; Follow @borschtcorp on the socials and head to their website. Shout out to Marilyn Loddi for the on-the-scene photos.
Last night was the Opening Night Screening and Gala of the 2013 Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. Invoking it’s “Sweet Sixteen”, the tradition of celebrating an American Girl’s coming of age is appropriate even if technically, this would have been its 17th year, had it not taken last year’s hiatus. It’s appropriate all the same because this year’s program represents American (Latino) films AND a substantial amount of Latinas driving and depicting these stories. Newly instated Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti was on hand to give his blessing. The grandson of Chihuahua, Mexicans, his poetic remarks referring to Los Pobladores (the original mestizo settlers who founded LA in 1781) confirmed the passionate consciousness and respect he has for LA’s history. Edward James Olmos presented the Gabi Lifetime Achievement award to Pablo Ferro, a bohemian whose signature skinny long letters and influential film titles sequences on such films like Dr. Strangelove, Bullet, Russians Are Coming, BeetleJuice, Men In Black among countless others, established an art within the art of cinema’s first impression and tone.
The documentary, Pablo handled by Shoreline Entertainment and directed by Richard Goldgewicht is an animated, whimsical treatment of the life and times of this consummate artist and original hipster. Folks like Angelica Huston, Andy Garcia, Leonard Maltin praise his genius, and narrated by The Dude, Jeff Bridges gives it an added air of deadpan wit, whose “This is Pablo” narrative conceit, strikes the tone of the bohemian Cuban born artist. Wearing his trademark red scarf, Pablo accepted his award without so many words but no matter, as the audience generously paid enthusiastic homage to one or our own being rightly commemorated. Also at long last given the deserving (posthumous) commemoration was La Madrina of the festival, the late great Lupe Ontiveros. Olmos made a point that even in her passing she changed the course of our community when her painful absence of the In Memoriam at the Oscars galvanized the Latino Academy members to rally and re-examine their presence within the organization. Olmos’s handsome rugged face, much like Robert Redford, transmits such grit & soul, add to it that wicked Zapata mustache and his Escalante personality that he never got rid of, when he closed by saying It’s time for the community to take charge” his onda was fully registered.
At the party across the street at the Wax Museum where the uncanny real life sized figures freak you out every time you feel you should turn around to introduce yourself (guests remarked where are my brown wax at!) I got a chance to see many of the US Latino filmmakers with films in the festival. From Jesse Salmeron and Jeremy Ray Valdez of Dreamer, Richard Montoya of Water & Power. I got a chance to catch up briefly with one of my esteemed mentors and friends who is also a LALIFF Advisor Sydney Levine of Sydneys Buzz on Indiewire. She is a treasure trove of insight and knowledge in the international film circuit and I cannot wait for her upcoming comprehensive book focusing on Latin American Cinema. Maria Agui Carter, NALIP member and filmmaker whose documentary on civil rights soldier Loreta Velazquez, Rebel screens in its full running time on Saturday at 3:10pm (The 52 minute version has been broadcasted on POV). Maria and I started to get into a passionate chat on women authored and women depicted stories. I’m pleased to find out there is a panel, Women and girls in Media Panel at 5:30pm today. We agreed that a candid and collaborative discussion needs to be had regarding these so called female empowered yet still sexually objectified characters (see Sofia Vergara’s ak47 tits in Machete Kills), and on how as women we need to deconstruct our stories in a different way, not so much replace roles men have traditionally had. Stories doing just that at the festival along with Rebel, are Maestra about Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign, a profile of the women who taught a nation to read and write, by Catherine Murphy. Colombian non-violent revolutionaries, in We Women Warriors by Nicole Karsin. On the dramatic front there is Nicole Gomez Fisher’s delightful comedy Sleeping with the Fishes and the DIY Venezuelan inspiring guapa/activist/filmmaker/vlogger/mother, Fanny Veliz who has written directed, produced and has been distributing her film Homebound.
While LALIFF has had and continues to have many organization struggles and challenges, I’ve become so aware that one thing you can never take away from it, is the powerful sense and network of community. So many talent pursuing their craft have made connections, collaborated and grown in their careers as a result of hanging out at LALIFF. Someone should archive these fruitful connections as much as the films that have been shown. Further proof is the filmmaker who told me last night how he met someone he wants to cast in the film he is working on.
My dance card is full this weekend before I head to Mexico on Monday. I’m in screening crunch mode for Sundance, but I’ll try to run down to the festival at the TLC Chinese 6 theaters when I can to write up another dispatch of films and filmmakers to watch. If you are in LA please do buy a ticket to support the Latino Film Institute and the next wave of Mas American talent. As with any festival your best bet for discovering emerging voices is the short film program. Go watch shorts The Shooting Star Salesman by Kiko Velarde, Llegar a Ti by Alejandro Torres, The Price we Pay by Jesse Garcia and El Cocodrilo by Steve Acevedo. Go to http://latinofilm.org/festival/ for full program and check them out on Twitter & Face
If you are wondering where to meet and connect with the hip, new Latino generation of film and television right now, the answer is LA’s very own Outfest Film Festival. So get your booty over here. It runs until this Sunday, July 21. If you are not in LA, don’t sweat it, I’m on the beat, finding out about all the crazy Latino talent coming up. On the screen, and in the DGA Atrium where most after-screening receptions are being held, I got the chance this weekend to discover and meet some really fierce brown talent. I was pleased as punch to look around me and see faces and bodies epitomizing the spectrum of LA diversity on so many levels, not just “Hollywood”. Old, young, singles, couples. Sure you got your beefcake WeHo boys with jaw dropping sculpted bodies, fine ass butch and girly lesbians who look like they walked off the set of The L Word (and who I secretly wish would hit on me), and fabulous transgender artists, but what’s more exciting to behold is the plenty of ‘regular’ folks whose unquestionable magnetic air of confidence, smile and style compete for my undivided attention among this colorful crowd.
I’ll be down there all week to meet more folks and hopefully get some video and more intimate conversation regarding the stories being told. For now, lets put these three on the spotlight:
Outfest’s Opening Night film last Thursday was C.O.G which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is directed by Cuban-American Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Easier With Practice). Its the coming out and of age story about a college boy, David (based on David Sedaris’ short story) who goes on a sabbatical like journey to spend a summer picking apples. Naturally the people he encounters on the fields are Latino. Instead of being relegated to background characters, however, Eloy Mendez plays Pedro who embodies him vividly, affecting David’s inner work in progress. I met Eloy and learned that this role has opened new doors from him, after years of working in television and film. BIG SCOOP: He will next be seen in Mike Ott’s upcoming film, Lake Los Angeles, which apparently is mostly told in Espanol! Mike is the visceral director of such festival faves as Little Rock and Pearblossom Highway. I applaud Ott’s efforts in making this film in another language, and for really exploring and mining these stories of unanchored souls caught in the greater desert mountain landscape of Los Angeles. Make sure to check out Lake Los Angeles Facebook page to find out where it will be premiering in early 2014.
Augie Robles graduated from AFI Film school, made a few short films then landed a gig on CSI which ended up being 14 years during which he sharpened his cutting skills as an editor, and became restless and eager to tell his own stories again. He recently did his editing magic on Aurora Guerero’s film, Mosquita y Mari which y’all know how I feel about. (love). He edited the film, BIG GAY LOVE which just premiered at Outfest, directed by Ringo Le and starring Jonathan Lisecki in a super sweet and tender love story about a hopeless romantic in LA who struggles to fit into LA’s lofty pressure and idealized gay man archetype. Back writing and directing his own work, Robles recently screened his short film, The Rookie and the Runner, set in Elysian Park at a number of film festivals. He also has plenty of other projects in the works, including something a la Twilight Zone ! He has a lot of technical and narrative genre skills to unleash in his own voice, and I find it really sweet that he is sharing his wealth of experience as a mentor for Outfest’s program, Outset, created to empower and educate LGBT youth(16-24) to tell their stories through film.
In a show stealing/stopping cameo in Big Gay Love, Harvey plays a kid who represents the essence of gay youth who try with all their might and ferocity every damn day to battle and defy mainstream society’s twisted dictation of what normal, perfection and beauty should look like. Encapsulating perfectly how important it is to see people like you in order to not feel alone is a bigger theme of the importance of Outfest and for that matter, a diverse representation. Harvey can next be seen in Pantelion’s luchador comedy, Aztec Warrior directed by Scott Sanders (Black Dynamite) starring Luis Guzman and gorgeous Nadine Velasquez. You might know have seen him in The Internship and on 2010 ABC Family television show, Huge. He is absolutely charming, playful and a bon vivant with a deliciously fierce streak.
REFLECTIONS OF: Outfest is truly LA’s most inclusive and community driven festival. Not just for the LGBT community but the organization picks up the slack of other festivals by embracing many underrepresented multi-ethnic voices. The AFI Festival is a wonderful showcase of international film but as an extension of the film school, it has positioned itself as a program driven for cinephile-centric and auteur platform. Meanwhile LA Film Festival certainly offers big broad fare for everyone, but also tries to inch in on AFI’s international showcase turf. Don’t get it twisted, I was really happy to see LA Film Fest screen three U.S. Latino films this year. But just think how much more impactful it would be to tap into the U.S Latino film representing the rich and underplayed walks of life AQUI in Los Angeles. Films like Water & Power, Vincent & Luzy and Pardon are really original and telling narratives with a distinct aesthetic, and all three have yet to have their official premiere even though they’ve been submitted to the festival circuit. While I don’t think its reasonable to rely on the big distributors to be the platforms of discovery for these films, I do believe that festivals on this scale have that cultural responsibility, or at least it should behoove them to do so. An often heard comment that I take issue with is that a film has to be ‘good enough’ to show at these festivals. Every film is imperfect so this does not hold agua with me when we are talking about the discovery and expanding of marginalized voices. I previously reported that The Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival has announced it is currently taking submissions after its sudden shutter last year. There is no doubt there is a sizable hungry audience and community for these films, and filmmakers who want their films to be seen by them, so even though its bewildering to me that LALIFF does’t have their festival dates set yet, I’ve a feeling they will still be looked to as the last beacon and chance for the array of Latino filmmakers and stories in LA trying to emerge through the bottleneck.
My header above; “People Like Us” comes to mind and becomes a play on words at the same time. At a couple LA Film Festival panels I heard both actor Gina Rodriguez (Filly Brown) and filmmaker Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale), hit on the personal impact of seeing stories embodied by and created by ‘people like us’ as being their driving creative force. Ryan did not personally know Oscar Grant, the Black 22 year old who was ‘accidentally’ killed by an incompetent Oakland police officer on the Eve of 2009, but says that he was ‘like him’. The frightening thought that this incident could have happened to him is what compelled him to make his first film about this tragic and unnecessary death.
The other way I might mean “People like us” is using ‘like’ as the verb. As humans we have the remarkable ability of feeling compassion and human connection to someone’s narrative regardless of whether we share a common culture. There should not be any fear that if you are too specific i.e. too Chicana, too Puerto Rican, other people (audience) won’t like us or our stories. As Ryan points out in the clip, just because a film is about all about a Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx, referring to The House that Jack Built, it doesn’t mean that a non-Latino would not enjoy it, or identify with the pains of a dysfunctional family and a nostalgia for one’s childhood. The clip is from The Blackhouse Foundation series of ” Diversity Speaks panel that took place last Saturday. Joining Ryan Coogler on this “New American” Independent panel were filmmakers Grace Lee, director of American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (who was quick to point out that the Black community has it so good compared to Asian-Americans in media representation), Henry Barrial (The House that Jack Built), Ava Duvernay (Middle of Nowhere) and the gracious moderator and producer Effie Brown. I’m always trying to take note and learn from the LGBT and Black community with regards to how they address their representation in the media. I find that both communities share a stronger solidarity. Perhaps that’s because for some time now, they’ve moved past dwelling over lack of their lot and instead, collaborating with each other, which in turn, better improves their lot.
The signature LA Film Fest panels, Coffee Talks are general conversations about the craft and opportunity to hear from successful artists in their respective fields. I stepped into the Actors one which consisted of Garcelle Beauvais (White House Down, Flight), Joe Manganiello (True Blood,Magic Mike), Gina Rodriguez (Filly Brown, Snap) and Andre Royo (The Spectacular Now, The Wire). Even without the “diversity’ header, hearing their different trials of pursuing their art, highlighted the disparity for people of color. As members of a ‘minority’, artists must chip away every damn day at the resistance of a media in which white men continue to dominate opportunity. When asked how they choose their roles, Joe Manganiello, the insanely rugged handsome man’s man, said that for him the most important decision factor is the director. Now of course, that sounds like a valid answer for many reasons. It’s in some way a privilege to be afforded that choice. But for the other brown and black folk on the panel they commented it was far less a choice for them because for one, they do not get offered roles as much. And two, when they do, they must grapple with the trying decision of whether to keep accepting the few roles that come their way which perpetuate the same degrading stereotypes. All actors probably struggle with finding work that does not sacrifice their individual integrity, but this is such an added pressure and obstacle. As Andre Royo said, most roles he’s been in are either where he’s in jail, coming out of jail, or going into jail. If his character is not high, he’s happy. Listen to what Gina says:
The theme of this year’s NALIP 2013 conference was “Spotlight on the Trillion $ Latino Market”, but it seems the only tangible currency the Latino community shares is the ‘trillion’ perspectives on the subject. Pushed to pierce through the brown and loud cacophony overheard this weekend, I’ve come up with; On one side there is a tedious concern of defining our hybrid identity and segmented Latin descent/US geography, which plays into the subsequent frustration over tackling our representation within the commercial mainstream marketplace. On the other side, there exists a newer generation of transcultural artists asserting a very specific identity that informs their work, and their greater concern is building awareness and access to an audience within and outside the specialized outlets and innovative digital distribution platforms available. Of course there were a lot more thoughts vocalized and an opposing range of game plans and visions for the future put forth, but the following is what I absorbed and takeaway from this weekend. Before I launch into it though, it is necessary to acknowledge and appreciate the herculean efforts of NALIP, the non-profit organization of volunteers, staff, operations, board members, partners and participants who produced this year’s conference. If nothing else, the community is unified by the love and passion of the arts.
OPENING AND CLOSING PLENARY
The Opening and Closing plenaries offered proof the conversation is at least moving forward in spite of the generalized and misleading titles of the sessions. The reason being is the caliber of forward-thinking speakers and artists who question the implications and who tended to offer a different perception and context to the subject.
At the “Overview of Media Trends and the Trillion $ Latino Market”, the panelists were David Chitel, New Generation Latino Consortium; Steven Benanav, Flama; Alex Fumero, ABC / Univision’s Fusion and Margie Moreno, Mun2. The very first thing they all said was that this was an extremely complicated market. Their job is to figure out how to break down what part of this trillion-dollar market can realistically build an audience. “We are using a misconception to our advantage. Especially when it comes to content”, Alex Fumero said. Even though its kind of corny how these targeted outlets wrestle with coining a demo moniker (YLA, BCA, NGL, Urbano, Hispanic Millenial), it is indicative of how desperate they are to reach out to the young Latino (18-34) audience in a fresh way. They are adopting a doors-wide-open, you-dictate-us approach with their programming. Most importantly, they do not pander nor underestimate their audience. Fumero invited anyone with programming pitches to email him for the network that will launch late this year (____). On one condition: He insisted that they must send a trailer, or some kind of video clip that demonstrates the type of content they aim to make. “There’s no reason you can’t go out and shoot something on your phone”, he said. Margie Moreno from Mun2, Telemundo’s younger sister which started 8 years ago, said, “We don’t let language dictate our content”, a sign of how much more embracing they are of a fluid bi-cultural identity than any other traditional outlet. Flama, is a new digital platform from Univision launching this fall. They have an open submissions call for all kinds of content. Submit your web series and projects at FindYourFlama.com Already in the works is a scripted show called Salseras about two childhood best friends who become fierce rivals in their college campus salsa dancing competition. And then there is NGL, which instead of taking up one kind of channel space, is positioning itself as an aggregator and source of all the “New Generation Latino” content out there on the net. You can submit your web series to get featured on their site and gain some of the ad share they generate by integrating and offering categorical content to brands and advertising companies.
When it came time to take questions from the audience – (which inevitably usually come in the form of comments rather than questions), I can’t help feel that Dennis Leoni, NALIP Founding Trustee and television writer (Resurrection Blvd) invalidated these innovative and exciting ventures when he said that while it is great that these specialized outlets exist, “I want to play in the big leagues”. Where is NBC, ABC, CBS, he asked? The panelists addressed his frustration by reminding all of us about the nature of the beast; studios and networks do everything in their power to hit the biggest number possible. Even if they find a voice as exciting as John Leguizamo who most definitely has an established fan-base, (and who apparently had three pilots none of which were picked up this season), if they don’t see it play broad (safe), they see it as a risk.
The Closing Plenary’s generic topic “Latinos and Media Stereotypes” was likewise immediately called into question by the panelists themselves, starting with Natalia Almada, this year’s NALIP conference Co-Chair and filmmaker. She mentioned that this concern with a type of representation is problematic and baffling to her since as an artist she is drawn to the complexity and difficult… and wants to look at the things that aren’t clear. Richard Montoya echoed the sentiment by saying he is not concerned and is actually unapologetic with whether his characters offer a positive portrayal of Latinos. “I don’t want to have that conversation.. I just want to drag you into the world and to tell stories best I can…Because it has an authenticity to it, a cultural specificity that rings true to the world but seldom gets underneath”. Meanwhile, Yancey Arias, an actor and producer, demonstrated how, by expanding the genre in which you are working with, where it doesn’t matter where a character comes from but the story and world, it is yet another way to subvert and challenge representation. The short film he stars in and produced, The Shooting Star Salesman, is a whimsical tale about a door to door salesman wearing a top hat and three piece suit who sells shooting stars. It will become available on iTunes in August. The filmmaker Kico Velarde is currently adapting it into a feature.
Reading from his laptop on stage, Richard Peña delivered a serious and illuminating context on the history of world cinema, festivals, and shared his personal connection to his Spanish/Puerto Rican identity as it informed his programming career. He’s always been attracted to films outside the purview, the margins. He struck the parallel that US Latinos are the new Jews of the United States, enjoying an insider/outsiders status which vantage and unique perspective could make for astonishing and novel discoveries about our world. The dilemma facing you he said, “Will you erase that sense of difference to an absolute minimum to cross over in to an even bigger market?”
While Richard’s discourse was introspective and left the room in thought , the second keynote on Saturday by Glenn Llopis played like a corporate motivational speech designed to pump up the audience full of Hispanic pride. Yes, he used that 70’s term, “Hispanic”. The author of a best-seller book titled, Earning Serendipity, he is the founder of Center for Hispanic Leadership. He’s basically carved himself out the role of the guy who corporations bring in to figure out how to reach the largest unidentifiable profit center. Overly enthusiastic, bright eyed and bouncy on stage, he showed us a flashy reel touting our numbers and potential power. It literally felt like he was holding up a mirror to us and saying,’Look how awesome and American, we Hispanics are!” Repeating phrases as if mantra’s like “Value your brand”, “Embrace your cultural promise”, “End of the niche,” I found the delivery patronizing, lip-service schtick and inappropriate. Now, in no way do I mean to diminish this man’s considerable accomplishments. He was the youngest business executive at Sunkist, he is a best selling author and a successful entrepreneur with a positive message. We can all relate to his Cuban father’s story because all of our parents’ experiences are character-building for the battles they waged as first generation, back in the day. His positive reinforcement of the immigrant mentality is noble, but so what. He speaks in general, self help, 12 step like morale boosting phrases, instead of offering practical strategy. He threw so much out there that something finally did in fact stick with me; “To change the conversation, you must lead the conversation and be consistent.” I can totally get behind that – but isn’t that like totally obvio?
THE PEN IS MIGHTER THAN THE SWORD
Wordsmith warrior, Richard Montoya is our de-facto leader charged with rescuing Latinos’ non-existent record in El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (and across this great nation). Last Friday night’s private screening of his film debut, Water & Power was jam-packed inside the 400 seat theater at the AMC Citywalk. Howard Rodman, the screenwriter and one of Montoya’s Sundance lab advisors gifted the audience with a referential prologue of how classic LA noir has traditionally resisted filling in non-white characters, completely disregarding the makeup of this city – until now. Water & Power has a groundbreaking breadth of modern mestizo and mystical essence enhanced by Gingger Shankhar’s score and a soundtrack that includes Zack de la Rocha and Chicano Batman. The film’s transmission is undeniably enriched if one has an understanding of context/consciousness of LA and Chicano history. But even if you are unfamiliar with named identifiers like Pelican Bay, Lords of Dogtown, La Onda, Sureños, Frogtown muscle, there is some classic symbolism and brilliant metaphors to appreciate in this tale about two brothers locked in each other’s foreshadowed cataclysmic fate, all which takes place over the course of one night. In film, what is not shown onscreen is just as important as what is onscreen. Referring to the comments made to him about the lack of female characters in his film, Montoya responds, ‘This is what men behave like when there is not a strong female presence.”
“The ghosts of our colonial past haunt this continent”, Richard likes to say – and this is the prevailing night-time, tribal mood of this piece. He modernizes and personifies the noir genre’s shadows, dreams, underbelly fixes, secrets and implied provisos which precariously keep harmony during the day. The aerial views of the city are seen as if from our native American Eagle keeping watch over LA’s circulatory system; freeway arteries on which carbon-dioxide powered vehicles flow, and the unseen pipelines underground through which gravity powered water flows, barely keeping this land soluble. I have to say I was looking forward to Richard Peña as Q&A moderator to dive into the rich thematic context but curiously he only asked about the panoramic shots and once he gave the microphone over to the two young child actors to talk about their first acting experience, Montoya took over the Q&A.
AMERICAN LATINO WRITING PANEL
Carlos Gutierrez of Cinema Tropical, Bel Hernandez/Latin Heat, Juan Caceres/LatinoBuzz and I enjoyed an engaging panel about the relative lack of people and literature covering US Latino cinema. Bel refered us to the book and 2002 documentary 100 years of The Bronze Screen. A more contemporary look is Mary Beltran’s 2009 book called Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes: The Making and Meanings of Film and TV Stardom. Still, I maintain that more recent films such as the groundbreaking epic, genre-defying film Sleepdealer written and directed Alex Rivera have not gotten its due in wider entertainment outlets (although it has become a major reference in the educational circuit). It’s interesting to note that back when LatinHeat was founded, they were among the first to feature La J-Lo circa Selena which broker her out and made her the international superstar status and entertainment empire she holds today. From her perspective many of the emerging performers and artists she covered back then are now mainstream, it’s only natural that her publication has gotten more Hollywood. LatinHeat continues to feature emerging and independent American Latinos like the Chamacas web series and the independent feature Mission Park and its wildly talented cast including Joseph Julian Soriana, Jeremy Ray Valdez and Walter Perez. Both Juan Caceres and I come from the film festival programming world and we talked about our desire to get these films out there regardless of whether they end up at our festivals. But there is a lack of volume and quality missing, and Juan made no apology about covering the exceptional films out there and not just because they are Latino. Although it has not been officially announced, it was hinted that the New York International Latino Film Festival is not happening this year. Rumor has it that the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival which took a hiatus last summer, is trying to happen in the fall.
THE ACTING TRAILBLAZERS
“If you don’t produce and write your own stories you are going to sit there and wait for the phone to ring”, Jeremy Ray Valdez said that Edward James Olmos once told him. Jeremy took this advice to heart and has recently produced and starred in his own film, Dreamer, written and directed by Jesse Salmeron. Nicolas Gonzalez who is a tour de force as “Power” in Montoya’s film mentioned he sold his house to keep his integrity – implying he did not take a lucrative job because he didn’t believe in the representation. Nicolas is in the upcoming one hour fantasy drama, Resurrection, which ABC picked up to series order this season. Justina Machado, who gained notable success on 6 ft Under also had a picked up pilot this season called Welcome to the Family on NBC. She talked about how she has carefully chosen her roles and has been able to do so because she is not the typical bombshell looking Latina (she looked bombshell gorgeous to me!). Gina Rodriguez was very outspoken about them coming together as actors and saying NO to any roles which were reductive and perpetuated stereotypes. Jesse Garcia who actively works in shorts, indies, blockbusters and theater, mobilizes a network of working film professionals on Facebook so they can support one another. This was one of the more livelier panels both on and off the stage. Old school folks in the audience talked about la envidia (jealousy), and cried out these young actors should be even bigger Hollywood stars. I think this mentality is kind of a throwback to the chicano civil rights activist days where we demanded acceptance and respect from the ‘establishment and powers that be’. But times have changed. Everything is more decentralized. Also, why give them that power? What is so productive about talking about the crabs in a bucket syndrome of how we don’t support each other’s projects? You can’t make anyone do something they don’t want to do and that includes begging traditional distribution models that there is an audience out there, and likewise begging audiences to support Latino film – especially when you frame it that way. So there are not any major Latino leading movie stars, so what? Is that the only barometer of success? To me success looks like what these fine actors are doing; focused on improving their craft, working their asses off, and choosing, effecting and sometimes producing their roles.
The awards show gala on Saturday was entertaining (although why they don’t offer complimentary drinks irks me, and probably reveals the lush in me) thanks to the energy of the host, Joe Hernandez-Kolski who came out like Gangnam Style PSY lifted on a pedestal held up by some sexy brown boys, making it rain fake bills on the audience.
I was so thrilled for Aurora Guerrero being awarded the Estela Award (McDonalds $7,500 cash money) for Mosquita Y Mari. Bird Runningwater, director of the Native program at Sundance Institute broke ground by including this chicana’s screenplay inside the Native Lab, which reflects the out of the box thinking of Sundance’s development programs. Ben DeJesus a well liked, long time Nalipster was the other Estela Awardee for his behind the scenes documentary of John Leguizamo’s one man show Ghetto Klown. Tales of a Ghetto Klown, which premieres on PBS June 29, follows the workaholic performer upping the stakes by taking his one man show to his motherland of Colombia. It’s an admirable and impressive feat watching him immerse himself in the Spanish language, translating and re-writing his comedy.
Gina Rodriguez was absolutely humbled and gave a very emotional speech when she received La Lupe award in post-humous tribute to Latino community godmother and all around wise-cracking fierce spirit Lupe Ontiveros. Holding back tears, Gina said she doesn’t think she deserves the award now but that she would dedicate her whole career towards deserving such an honor. Watching the reel before she came up, where she auditions for Filly Brown by spitting out a rhyme, her magnetism was so clear and evident that she was born that way. As most artists, they have a natural talent that stirs within and an unmistakable calling to fulfill. Finally Ray Liotta was there to give Danny Trejo the lifetime achievement award. Right before, Michelle Rodriguez ran up onstage to add how much she loves her some Danny Trejo.
THE FUTURE OF NALIP AND TAKEAWAYS,
A true artists takes risks and challenges the status quo. What are the new heights we can achieve without sacrificing integrity and voice? What is wrong with working along the margins if the margins are getting bigger and they offer a unique purview? How do we give the public at large access to the exciting work out there? These are the questions I find to be most relevant. Because I don’t see the value or longevity offered in chasing after the big studio films/networks. They are traditional models that are imploding and on the way out. Rather, a more important question that relates to all artists is how can we make the films we want to make without being dictated on what sells? Why can’t we rid ourselves of an Us vs. Them scenario? As artists should we be so concerned why Latinos don’t go to Latino films? We have to remember the scale of our art and work in this decentralized world. Why must we dwell on the question of our cultural identity in such a dated way?
I think there is a slow but seismic progressive shift, and its exciting. It was only my second year so I don’t have comparison but as one of the panelists pointed out, he was surprised there were not more attendees in the room. What does that say? “The conference has shrunk” said Erin Ploss Campoamor, producer of Cristina Ibarra’s amazing documentary, Las Marthas, who has been coming for years. Although I missed his panel, “How to get your film Beyond the Latino market”, Gabriel Reyes, a PR and marketing vet, referred me to one of the more current- thinking marketing firms called Latinworks a company who has literally invented words to describe the current climate of culture. They’ve trademarked words like “Foreculture”, meaning a new generation with a transcultural mindset, and have identified “Transculturation” as the new game in town, in which people deconstruct their initial cultural identity and start forming new connections between elements of cultures. Their identity is multifaceted fluid and situational.
While it’s part of marketing ploy, I have to say I dig it. I especially like the idea that “Ni de Aqui ni de Alla” (not from here nor there), is turning into “De Aqui y Alla” (from here and there). Embracing otherness is the best route towards oneness (Latinworks)
For me the most productive way to keep moving forward is first and foremost the ongoing development of our content creators, and encouraging our peers and next generation to pursue careers as film critics, programmers, media entrepreneurs any kind of cultural gatekeeper. What matters most is that we work tirelessly towards improving our craft, that we empower ourselves by trusting our distinct voices and collaborate with each other. The biggest challenge for NALIP is how to stay relevant and young. Even though they had a social media maven, Lizza Monet Morales reminding us to utilize our social media to get the word out, when I filter out the hashtag #Nalip2013, there is not nearly as much activity as a conference in this day and age should produce. Where are the millenials at this conference??
I met a few new filmmakers and discovered a number of exciting second features coming through the pipeline, as well as one very exciting narrative film project from a master documentary filmmaker – all of which I’m excited to cover right here on my blog. I come away more compelled than ever to bring awareness to the most original and culturally specific talented writer/directors out there by screening their work for film festivals and writing about their projects on this blog. I know I need to arm myself with further academic studies, specifically of the humanities/political kind, in order to draw parallels, articulate, and change the way we are talking about these films as necessary stories that are flipping and re-creating the cultural zeitgeist. Now more than ever I feel like a genuine part of the ecosystem.
Again, these are only my observations. I’d love to hear from you if you went to NALIP, and if you didn’t, por que no? por que si?