Shades of Brown – Black, Latino and US Latino Cinema panels at LA Film Fest

I took in a few panels over the weekend down here at LA Film Fest that I really appreciated for sparking some provocative dialogue I am eager to continue throughout the Festival. I found it especially interesting how different the US Latino and Black film communities are responding to their storytelling plight in talking about their respective representation in media. Meanwhile the lively Latino panel, which was perhaps the broadest in scope, was eloquent and skillfully led by LA Times’ Reed Johnson who brought a high level of articulation in his profesh moderating.  As panel junkies know, a good moderator is key to an engaging panel and essential to keep it on point.  Here are my takeaways on the three panels:

Elvis Mitchell, Shari Frilot, Ava DuVernay, Roya Rastegar and Bradford Young

Moderated by Film Independent’s LACMA film curator and go-to festival moderator, Elvis Mitchell, I was particularly impressed at the messaging clarity and solidarity of the black film community’s efforts and goals for equal representation.  The panelists were very tuned-in with monitoring their talent behind and in front of the camera, and in this case stressing the importance of  festival curators, which was identified as one of three instrumental factors to enable their films getting out there.

Shari Frilot, Senior Programmer, Sundance Film Festival:  There was much (due) love and props given to Frilot for her ardent and tireless championing of films of color at Sundance.  She pointed out how after Lee Daniel’s breakout hit, Precious which premiered at 2009 Sundance and went on to win a couple Academy Awards, the next couple years it was the black films that were the first to be sold off the mountain including the dazzling lesbian coming of age film, Pariah.  She questioned why this achievement was not picked up or lauded in the mainstream media.  Its indeed curious and perhaps a telling point on the cultural gatekeeper front – (shortage of black critics and journalists?)  Having witnessed Shari’s highly charged and articulate arguing for gloriously imperfect, fresh and raw films I respect how she truly changes the way the film programming conversation takes place by discussing films’ drive, potential and power. I aspire to “bring it” like she does in my own programming career.  Acknowledging the personal efforts she puts in to make the festival seem accessible to filmmakers of color who may not bother putting Sundance on their radar, the idea of doing a black college tour came up.

Ava DuVernay, filmmaker (Middle of Nowhere) and founder of AFFRM:  DuVernay’s emotion for the topic at hand along with her experience from her publicist days and current roles as filmmaker and distributor made her a stirring contributor to the conversation.   Ava thanked LA Film Festival Director Stephanie Allain for programming Middle of Nowhere as a gala screening which elevates her film with a high profile slot within the festival.  A packed house at Wednesday’s gala screening will be quite significant to the black filmmaking community given the massive 800 seat theater and checking the LA Film Fest website it’s at Rush which will make for an exciting milestone!  The winner of the Best Director Award at Sundance Film Festival shared her personal observations like being stunned to see empty seats at the black film screenings at Sundance which is unheard of in the notoriously hard-to-get tickets Festival.  She mentioned that while she is frequently featured on Shadow and Act, the African Diaspora blog on the Indiewire network, she has never been on Indiewire’s main page.  DuVernay expressed her desire to see more films that move and operate beyond ‘black bodies’.

There was mention of films touted as successful black films when they happen to be by non-black filmmakers.  I can’t help but think the room was thinking about Gimme the Loot written and directed by Adam Leon and Beasts of the Southern Wild written and directed by Benh Zeitlin.  Both films have been praised and celebrated for their poignant storytelling and vivid portrayal of their black protagonists’ lifestyles – and the filmmakers happen to be white Jewish New Yorkers.  And both films were quickly picked up for distribution at their respective festival premieres. I have to admit that if we are talking about presenting positive representation in films my belief is that individually, these two films offer a lot as far as image conversion for eschewing mis-representation by avoiding stereotypes about black folks.  There’s nobody smoking crack or perpetuating violent crime in Gimme the Loot, and in Beasts the poetic punch of self-sufficient little Hushpuppy in the die-hard persevering displaced fictional community  that alludes to the forgotten 9th Ward post-Katrina, shows a triumph of spirit against the government and society’s response efforts following the devastating natural catastrophe in the dominantly affected marginalized population.

Bradford Young, cinematographer (Middle of Nowhere, Pariah, Restless City): A Howard University alumus, the in-demand cinematographer more gently echoed Ava’s sentiment about the limited accessibility and representation of black filmmakers but I feel he gave a bit more benefit of the doubt to black films by non-black filmmakers by his eloquent word of choice to weigh the debate; “Intention”.  The way he talks about his own cinematic approach is greatly influenced by the intention of the story and point of view.  A NY Times article recently featured the cinematographer and made note of his full frame and close up shots in Middle of Nowhere.  Indeed the luscious and texture he brings to shooting skincolor sticks out in my mind having seen it at Sundance.  Bradford is one cool cat with lots of soul.  All panelists agreed and were especially thankful for his eyes.

Roya Rastegar, Ph.D, Festival Programmer:  Inventive cinematography, curation by more females and people of color and innovative distribution were three ways Rastegar outlined to help minority filmmakers distinguish their work and get seen by the public.    I would love to get my hands on her dissertation, History of Concsiousness (here’s a taste) in which she investigates the role of festivals in shaping marginalized culture.  Armed with such interesting facts on the history of film festivals, (did you know Stalin created the first film festival?) Rastegar added a lot of context to the origins and current state of film festivals.  She also shared the behind the scenes conversations of film programmers when talking about films of color and the rueful tendency to dismiss these films because they aren’t so called ‘good enough’.   She made no hesitation in pointing out that Tribeca Film Festival did not have one single black film in competition this year.

US Latino Cinema: Welcome to the Bi-Literate Future –  Presented by San Antonio Film Commission and AFCI (Association of Film Commissions International)

Luis Reyes, Moi, Doug Spain, Gabriela Tagliavini, Ralph Lopez

I had the privilege of participating on this panel which was prefaced by a Univision spot highlighting their new campaign efforts of reaching a bi-lingual audience.  In it, an old woman recalls being prevented from speaking her language as a child in school and then we cut to today’s young US Latino man who flips from Spanish to English talking about his liking alternative band, The Strokes as much as Spanish-language pop rock band, Juanes.

What it was about:  Our Latino population in the US is now more than ever embracing a bi-lingual, or more importantly, a bi-literate culture.  Will films reflect the changing demographic of the US as a bi-literate (a Spanish and English language culture) be commercially successful and be able to find an audience?  And perhaps more importantly, will the studio system be able to adapt to the successful strategies many in the independent world are using to create commercially viable content?

Douglas Spain (Star Maps, Walkout, Band of Brothers) is used to wearing multiple hats and so acted as both panelist and moderator.  Spain offered up his experience as an actor/producer/director as a gay latino filmmaker who has successfully worked in independent film and studio and television mediums.  His quest for staying true to himself with the roles and films he is making rang resonant to all.

Ralph Lopez, San Antonio filmmaker: The producer of Wolf which premiered at this year’s SXSW talked about his  aim is to create and tell stories that transcend color.  Like his provocative film about the complexities faced by the victim of a bishop’s inappropriate behavior, his collaborations with director black filmmaker Ya Ke Smith comes first and foremost from a place of telling moving stories.

Gabriela Tagliavini, filmmaker (Ladies Night, Without Men, The Mule: Having had big success with Spanish language film Ladies Night in 2006, Gabriela switched languages and directed Eva Longoria in the English language film, Without Men which sold to many international territories given Longoria’s international brand name.  With her upcoming film, The Mule she is looking to take advantage of the crime action genre and star Sharon Stone to offer real commentary on immigration and the dangerous toll of the US Mexico border.

Luis Reyes, historian and author of  the comprehensive book, Hispanics in Hollywood: The old school gent on our panel made some slightly more conventional suggestions on how to make a successful bi-literate film like “know your audience” and attaching a well known actor to your film so you can market it.

I added my two cents and in retrospect I think my thoughts coincided with Rastegar’s in the proactive vein of here’s what we can-do positive approach of encouraging budding filmmakers to utilize genre (horror and gay US Latino films stand out from the stack and are sought after by festival programs).  I also asked my fellow panelists if they found the US Latino filmmaking community as fragmented as I see it.  Unlike Black or LGBT film organizations I feel the US Latino community has much more work in becoming inclusive within our distinct bi-lingual backgrounds in order to successfully empower and advocate for our films. Organizations like NALIP and LALIFF were mentioned in answer.  But in my opinion and with all respect, I find NALIP a bit cliquesh and lacking a younger pulse and generation of organizers, and LALIFF is too inconsistent to make fundamental cultural change.  Although we touched on the question of the challenges our community faces working in Spanish versus English I’m not sure we fully stayed on point in attempting to answer the ambitious subject and interesting talking points raised.  But the audience seemed more the type of wanting basic advice on how to break into filmmaking so most questions and conversations was directed to the filmmakers on the panels and in that regard it was a successful exchange.

Café Latino presented by HBO and supported by University of Guadalajara Foundation

credit: Juan Tallo

Made evident by the participating film clips that were shown before the panel there is much genre and story diversity in the Latino films at LA Film Fest this year.  I’m especially happy the Festival recognizes the growing influence of the Mexican documentary by having selected Reportero by Bernardo Ruiz, Canicula by Jose Alvarez and Drought by Everardo Gonzalez.  The panel was ostensibly about the Festival’s Latin American filmmakers and how they explore their roles as storytellers in an increasingly global world.  With such a high number of panelists and so many interesting topics broached however, it left one wanting more time to engage with the personable talents onstage.

Alejandro Brugues, director of Juan of the Dead (credit: Juan Tallo)

Reed Johnson encouraged the panelists to chime in at will which Alejandro Brugues, director of Cuban Zombie film, Juan of the Dead took full advantage of to defend big hollywood films like The Avengers, which Gonzalez  initially brought up if only to point out the David and Goliath challenge filmmakers in Mexico face having to compete for screens against these big money backed blockbusters.  Brugues set himself apart from the group by defending his love for the blockbuster which inspired him to direct films. Unlike his peers’ ‘artful’ films he considers his film strictly for public entertainment (he joked that his film is actually a documentary).  Yet at the same time he admits he took advantage of the Zombie genre a la Romero to infuse it with his personal observations of contemporary Cuban society – which he would not have been able to shoot in Cuba otherwise.

Reed Johnson, Everardo Gonzalez, Dominga Sotomayor, Arturo Pons, Alejandro Brugues, Jose Alvarez, Bernardo Ruiz
(credit: Juan Tallo)

Meanwhile Arturo Pons who was born in Mexico but has lived and worked in Spain for the past ten years described his conception for his surreal satire, The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man not necessarily about immigration but a visual canvas with which to paint the total disorientation that confronts Mexico. Ruiz talked about seeing himself as a ‘translator’ or vessel to tell stories.  Alvarez talked about how he does not think of his audience as he makes his films however he does aspire to showcase Mexico Profundo in showing the vast and vibrant indigenous artistry and folklore and deliberately resisting the the media’s monopolized perpetuation of the drug violence and corruption.  Lastly, Dominga Sotomayor, the 27 year old director of Thursday till Sunday whose next film Tarde Para Morir was selected to the first ever Sundance Mahindra Screenwriters Lab, added that like Mexico, in Chile there is a growing number of filmmakers but no real venues to find their audience.

LA Film Festival is going on through Sunday and a bunch of added screenings have been slotted.  Check out film guide and buy tickets here.

Meet Bernardo Ruiz – intrepid director of hot-off-the-presses documentary, REPORTERO

Bernardo Ruiz

During the height of media repression in 1980, Jesus Blancornelas, a defiant journalist who was fired from a number of media outlets for refusing to be stifled, independently founded the Tijuana based newsweekly, Zeta – which to this day boldly stands by its mission of exposing Mexico’s wrongdoings and reporting what they see no matter the cost.  Sadly, such fastening to ideals has meant the loss of members in their tight-knit family of reporters who have been killed in retaliation by criminal gangs.   The paper, whose tagline is “Libre Como El Viento (free like the wind), is at the center of a brand new documentary, Reportero, which begs serious attention to the persecution of journalists in conflict ridden zones, like Mexico, where investigative reporting is critical.  As director Bernardo Ruiz, who previously made the PBS Roberto Clemente story, follows true blue, ace journalist, Sergio Haro tackling and breaking risky news stories, we witness the personal drive and psychological toll that such a high stakes pursuit begets.  The film sheds light on the fascinating history of the paper and elicits a powerful respect for the courageous reporters committed to carrying on Blancornelas’s hard investigative legacy.

Last week Reportero had its world bow at Ambulante in Mexico City where it was followed by lively discussions about the safety of journalists.  Five years in the making, Bernardo Ruiz deserves big props for undertaking this urgent, issue -oriented documentary, and for connecting us with the real heroes and their day to day quest for journalistic integrity.  All of which underlines the sore need of protecting the freedom of the press in Mexico for papers like Zeta who actually and fiercely practice their right, at their own risk.

Below Bernardo talks to me about how he found the story and more:

CD:  Briefly what motivated you to make this project, and what made you decide to focus on Zeta magazine ( as opposed to other print media in the country like say, El Diario de Juarez which in 2010 after suffering the loss of two journalists made an audacious move by publishing a public appeal to the ‘de facto’ authorities (read: narcos) regarding what they should and not cover in order to prevent any more colleagues’ deaths).

BR: I actually didn’t set out to make a film about Mexican journalists. I was researching stories in the Mexicali-Calexico border region. Starting in 2007, I began thinking about creating a multi-character portrait of the region — to look at how interconnected lives are across this slice of the border which generally doesn’t get a lot of attention. During one of my research trips, I met the director of a youth shelter who suggested I talk to a local journalist from Mexicali. About 6 months later I met Sergio Haro at a Starbucks on the Mexican side of the border. What was supposed to be a short meeting turned into a 3-hour discussion. I left the meeting thinking that Sergio’s story was much more urgent than the regional portrait I had originally envisioned. In that meeting, Sergio told me that he worked for Semanario Zeta, the Tijuana-based muckraking weekly, and I dove right in. At a certain point, telling Sergio’s story, telling Zeta’s story felt almost inevitable.

CD: How did Sundance Institute help your project?
The Sundance Documentary  Feature Program supported me with a research and development grant very early in the process, when the film was still a portrait of the Mexicali-Calexico border region. R&D support is always the hardest support to get (at least in my experience) and the support allowed me to push forward with the research at a time when the story was evolving. Much later, when I had an assembly of the film, I participated in the Composer’s and Story Lab. My editor, the ultra-talented Carla Gutierrez, and I had reached a plateau with the story. The lab was a chance for me to step back from the film and evaluate it with fresh eyes. The timing worked out perfectly — we took a break from editing and I had a week of thinking about score and story with the Sundance advisors. 

CD: Sergio Haro is such a great character, intelligent, tenacious and all around straight shooter.  But I’m also really happy your documentary features the woman behind the operation,  Adela Navarro, who was recently awarded with International Women’s Media Foundation’s, Journalism in Courage Award.  What was it like working with her on the documentary?  

BR: The film is as much Adela Navarro’s as it is Sergio’s.  She came to the paper straight out of college. She and two other female editors came up under Jesus Blancornelas, the paper’s founder, in a very tough, sink-or-swim atmosphere. After the murder of a Zeta editor, Francisco Ortiz in June of 2004, who was gunned down on a Tijuana street in front of his children, two male editors left Zeta. “They left a day after the assassination,” Adela explained to me recently. The women are the ones who stayed to run the paper. As Sergio’s boss (one of a small number of female editors in Mexico) Adela has strengthened the newspaper’s brand of aggressive investigative journalism since 2006, when Blancornelas died. For me, she is an undeniably compelling and dynamic presence in the film. She was understandably protective of her staff and her paper at first. Over time, she opened up. I think her strength, intelligence and absolute commitment to her work come through in the film. 

Adela Navarro - recipient of Medal of Courage Journalism

CD: The magazine’s complicated relationship with the local government of Tijuana is heavy.  The film talks about the controversial, high profile politician and sports betting magnate, Jorge Hank Rhon, the town’s mayor from 2004-2007, whose influence runs deep, and more and more wide. Did you try getting an interview with him for this film? Did you ever feel you had to also take certain safety precautions in the making of the film, simply by aligning yourself with the magazine’s open policy?

BR: Every week, since 1988, Zeta has been publishing a “black page” with Hector Felix Miranda “El Gato’s” image pointing at the reader. The memorial page asks Jorge Hank Rhon, in bold type, “Why did your bodyguard Antonio Vera Palestina kill me?” It accuses the sitting governor of Baja California, and his predecessors, of doing nothing to pursue those who ordered Félix Miranda’s murder. U.S. papers would probably balk at doing something like this – then again, most U.S. papers haven’t buried as many of their reporters as Zeta has. I didn’t pursue an interview with Hank, because I don’t see REPORTERO as a work of traditional journalism where the default approach is to get “both sides”. Instead, I felt like the facts of what happened in “El Gato’s” murder as well as the archival interviews with Hank tell enough of a story. The information is there, and the viewer can decide what to believe.

CD: The documentary serves as a great forum for critical discussion regarding freedom of the press and safety concerns for journalists worldwide – what in your opinion and insight gleaned from your research, is needed from a social activist POV by the public who see  it and want to support and protect journalists in Mexico?  

BR: According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), more than 40 journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico  since President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa launched a massive military offensive against drug cartels in 2006. News outlets have been attacked with grenades and their websites hacked. Drug violence and corruption have devastated the news media and stripped citizens of their right to vital information. The culprits of crimes against journalists are rarely if ever, found or brought to justice. This is an election year in Mexico. President Calderón, who promised to protect journalists and bring justice in their killings, is leaving office in 2012. We are working with CPJ to promote their work, specifically a petition that is circulating.  People who are interested in the film and the campaign can join us on our FB page: http://www.facebook.com/reporteromovie

CC: Where can we see the film?  

BR: The film premiered in Mexico City last week through Ambulante, which is an amazing itinerant festival. We packed our two Mexico City screenings to overflow. Reportero tours with the festival, screening in 12 Mexican cities. Later this year, we air on POV (PBS) in September 2012. We are right in the middle of determining where our US premiere will be.

FB page

Bernardo’s website

Ambulante – Breaking Borders and a Model of Transmedia

The 7th Ambulante Film Festival, which was recently bestowed with Washington’s (WOLA) Human Rights Award for using documentary as a tool for change, launched its spring tour by debuting in Mexico City February 19 and will go on until the 23, before it continues its celebrated pilgrimage to Guerrero, Veracruz, Puebla and a dozen other Mexican cities.  The 2012 edition of the passionately led, itinerant film organization will screen 81 titles from 24 countries, and will have visited over 28 cities and towns by end of the year. Born during the 2005 Morelia International Film Festival by Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, Pablo Cruz, lead by Executive Director, Elena Fortes, and Programming Director Ricardo Giraldo, the pioneering non-profit which also brings and produces film workshops as part of its community outreach program, has already expanded and announced more plans to further its mission abroad and within the U.S.

Just this past week Ambulante capped off a successful partnership with Cinema Tropical on MOMA’s documentary fortnight in New York.  Ambulante will also have a presence at the upcoming Tucson Cine Mexico, showing four documentaries by female directors.   And in October, Ambulante will be hosting a screenings’ series here in Los Angeles (stay tuned for more details).  Ambulante has previously partnered with LA film organizations before, notably Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival, which in 2009 offered an Ambulante spotlight.  Ambulante’s expansion is testament to its success at presenting an intervention type of programming focus, and screening international documentaries in regions where it would otherwise never be shown, and in this latest edition, spearheading forums in which to address Mexico’s social issues such as the persecution of journalists, migration, drug and arms trafficking.

Showing his support at the premiere of De Panzazo!, a documentary about Mexico’s public school system, Gael Garcia Bernal expressed his deep belief of using film as a tool for social responsibility.

Below are just a few of the highlights of this tour:

VIVAN LAS ANTIPODAS by Vincent Kossakovsky  a quirky documentary that compares four pairs of locations on exactly opposite sides of the globe- Catch this at the upcoming SXSW festival!

REPORTERO – World premiere from Bernardo Ruiz, a Sundance Institute and Cinereach supported documentary profiling the fearless Tijuana weekly, Zeta.  It will be broadcast on POV in the fall.

UTOPIA IN 4 MOVEMENTS by Sam Green and Dave Cerf – the incredibly unique and live musical accompaniment documentary experience.

PINA in 3D by Wim Wenders, the Oscar nominated documentary about legendary dancer, Pina Bausch

The People Vs. George Lucas by Alexandre O. Philippe – the festival favorite documentary where the public who made the blockbuster franchise what it is today, get their say and take the series into their own creative hands.

Go to Ambulante’s website to see more info on films, interviews and photos.

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