If you are like me, you make local film festival plans last minute, which makes my annual WTF is Latino at LA Film Festival post not so much late as just (still) in time for you to make a few movie selections this weekend and next week. The festival started last Wednesday, June 1 and runs through Thursday June 9th. PDF of schedule here.
In full disclosure I am a Programming Consultant for the festival. These aren’t reviews as much as hopefully an insightful guide. My purpose in this series is not only to spotlight Latino writers/directors and monitor representation, but also to challenge notions of WTF is Latino. It is a U.S. context classification that is vast; a generational and geographic diaspora. The term Latino is often mistakenly appropriated to international filmmakers/talent from Spanish and Portugese-speaking countries. Alejandro Gonzales Inñaritu is not Latino or a Person of Color guys. I’m talking about ‘Merican – Latinos.
The biggest change at the LA Film Festival is that it has moved from DTLA’s L.A. Live Regal Cinemas to the West side in Culver City’s Arclight Cinemas. The festival has scaled down considerably from 2014’s nearly 200 features to this year’s 56 feature-length film lineup. It underwent a programming department shakeup last year, the result of which it achieved an unprecedented shift towards more inclusive representation. The festival also established a strict world premiere requirement outside of a few special screenings and the Buzz section in order to give new films a shot. For the second year in a row the festival remains leader of the mainstream festival pack with keeping true to its diversity mission. 43% of the films in competition categories are directed by women; and 38% of the films are directed by people of color. 86% of the films in competition are directed by 1st or 2nd time directors.
About the U.S. Latino rep – there’s 5 US. Latino feature-length writers/directors I can identify which comes out to roughly under 10%. In front of the camera the program includes co-starring/cameo roles from established actors like John Leguizamo, Eva Longoria, Lauren Luna Velez, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Judy Reyes, Emily Rios as well as hot rising talent like Gabriel Chavarria, Yvette Monreal and Victor Almanzar.
LOWRIDERS directed by Ricardo de Montreuil, written by Elgin James and Cheo Hodari Coker.
Everyone agrees that the film’s theme made this the perfect LA Film Festival world premiere and while I’ll take full credit in pitching the film to the festival, I certainly cannot take credit for giving it the prestigious Opening Night slot which speaks to Festival Director, Stephanie Allain’s mission of centering underrepresented films as festival headliners. About the film’s pedigree: The film was conceived by Hollywood producer Brian Grazer who grew up fascinated with the lowrider culture. Grazer enlisted Peruvian filmmaker Ricardo de Montreuil to direct, who with his super talented Colombian DP Andres Sanchez, captures the landmark bridges, hills, hotspots and avenues of El Sereno, Echo Park, Elysian Park and Boyle Heights. But its LA born and bred legendary tattoo artist Mr. Cartoon and photographer Estevan Oriol, listed as executive producers, along with co-writer Elgin James, who lend the film some cred and streak of authenticity into this male-dominated club culture. In front of the camera is East Los Angeles native Gabriel Chavarria (East Los) who plays Danny Alvarez, the graffiti artist son of a an OG lowrider club member. Cast is rounded out by Italian stallion sweetheart Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy) who plays his brother, Guatemalan-American Tony Revolri as a friend, Academy Award nominated Mexican actor Demian Bichir (A Better Life), Eva Longoria and Yvette Monreal. The Grazer/Blumhouse production, which is said to have cost around 5 million, has yet to announce a release date let alone a trailer or social media campaign.
A bittersweet tale about a fascinating and flawed man who comes to an unsettling realization about his impermanence. Set in Merced, California where Mexican-American filmmaker Reyes is from, Lupe Under the Sun is slotted in the World Cinema competition. I listed this film as one of my top 10 films to watch out for in 2016 so I’m so excited to see it get its first festival premiere. While it makes sense to tag the docu-fiction film under immigrant struggles, don’t get it twisted. Reyes’ sophomore film smartly eschews politics and portrays a personal and deeply moving character’s existential crisis.
11:55 directed by Ben Snyder and Ari Issler, written by Victor Almanzar
The title is a sly evocation to a 3:10 to Yuma type western duel in that it sets an increasingly tense timer from Marine Nelson Sanchez’s early morning return back home to that night’s arrival of a bus carrying a dangerous antagonist who blames him for the death of his brother and is out for revenge. Dominican-American Victor Almanzar who is a real life Marine, stars and co-wrote the film. The story is tight and oozes tension from the get as his homecoming is quickly overshadowed by the looming danger which conflicts with his genuine desire to move forward with his girlfriend and protect his sister and niece. Bomb performances by Victor and Elizabeth Rodriguez as well as John Leguizamo who plays a veteran in a wheelchair (damn he is good at drama). About the directors, both cinematographers in their own right, Ben Snyder notably was a Story Consultant for documentary The Wolfpack and did additional cinematography for Nas: Time is Illmatic, while Ari has shot music documentaries like Brothers Hypnotic and the Hip Hop Project.
The film had its first world premiere screening Thursday night so if you missed it I urge you to join the campaign to demand an encore screening slot. I hope it happens. This is a must watch as its an incredible feat of collaborative and guerilla filmmaking. It is a ridiculously authentic and compelling feature of interweaving slices of Black youth in Brooklyn led by one college-bound 18 year old Caesar Winslow’s pursuit of romance across Brooklyn.
When I asked Rivero how he defines his cultural background, he said Hip Hop. Which is a good reminder how each person identifies with their own distinct cultural upbringing (Okay he’s got a grandfather from Cuba).
Emily Rios (From Dusk til Dawn tv, The Bridge, Quinceañera) plays Alia Shawkat’s punk no nonsense best friend in the film adaptation of Paint it Black written by Janet Finch. It’s notably quite an impressive and dynamic directorial debut by actor Amber Tamblyn. The film is premiering in the U.S. Competition.
Lauren Luna Velez has a deliciously wicked role as police chief in the ultra-fun action violent cult comic adaptation Officer Downe about an L.A. supercop who is killed in the line of duty but is resurrected to clean up the streets. The joy ride is directed by M. Shawn Crahan (Slipknot) screening in the NightFall Section.
Judy Reyes (Scrubs) is called on to soothe the anxiety of a young girl’s first period and welcome her into womanhood in comedy Girl Flu written and directed by Dorie Barton, screening in the LA Muse section.
and now MISC: A couple of my recent festival faves and must-see’s if you can catch them at the fest.
KICKS, the pulsing and striking directorial debut of Justin Tipping is co-written with Joshua Beirne-Golden. Both of whom incidentally wrote an original script for Lowriders at one point and ultimately received co-producer credit. The Oakland set film stars stunner talent Jahking Guillory who decides to go after whats his (the Air Jordans he bought himself which he was jacked for) ultimately sending him on an irrevocable path torwards confronting what it means to be a man in his social construct. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. #KicksFilm
JEANS OF THE JONESES – saw this really witty matriarchal comedy at SXSW by first time filmmaker Black Canadian Stella Meghie starring Taylor Paige as a hopeless in love, adorably searching writer.
Follow the latest scoop @LAFilmFest, check out their YouTube videos for daily coverage and interviews, and for more info go to website or call box office: 1 866 Film Fest.
Heading to the Westside so stay tuned for more via my twitter handle: @IndieFindsLA
No better time than Oscar week to post my annual list of new films made by Latinos. I hope reading about these cool flicks inspires you to seek and consume the stories you value outside the super exclusive corporate media. Before we get to the list, my 3.63 pesos on the #HollywoodSoWhite convo.
Rafael Palacio Illingworth
I appreciated Dennis Romero’s recent LA Weekly article called “Hollywood’s Diversity Emergency is not Black” in which he gives big ups to the Black community for doing the ‘heavy lifting’ in making the diversity conversation trend. Romero essentially calls on the Asian and Latino community to take part in the dialogue because we stand the most to gain in moving the dial considering the wider gap that exists between Asian and Latinos’ population and their respective media representation compared to African Americans’ numbers.
Using the framework of proportion, USC’s Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity reveals that across the 309 episodes and 109 films they covered, 15% were directed by women (50% population), and 13% were directed by underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (38% non-white).
It makes sense that the percentage of on screen underrepresented characters increases (17.5%) when an underrepresented director is at the helm of a scripted episode or film.
I’m not sure what to make then of a recent phenomenon I have seen within the Latino community; an overwhelming desire/shift to tell stories UNRELATED to their Latino identity. Don’t get it twisted, I respect the artist’s prerogative and agree that just because you are from a certain ethnicity, you shouldn’t feel obligated to tell that ‘ethnic film’. But if the rationale is that in order to tell a universal story you can’t be ethnic specific, I totally take issue with that, and would argue on the contrary, we just haven’t done it enough to prove it’s not true. Along these puzzling but no less real lines, I was startled to read in the report, “As (female) power increases, female presence decreases. In film, television, and streaming executive ranks, 46.7% of Senior Vice President-level executives are female.” What’s up ladies?
Part of me gets it though, both artist and gatekeeper is faced with the obligation, pressure and responsibility to succeed in a business of mediated platforms. Unfortunately that usually means don’t stick your neck out, less risk. But what if we made it our goal to seize and create as many chances to allow ourselves to FAIL, at least as much as the rest get to, because that is how we get to the next level.
Okay enough rant! Here is my curated list of brand spanking new feature length fiction films written and directed by filmmakers in the US of A who have Mexican/Caribbean/Central/South American roots. Many of these films are in post-production but might be making their world premiere at a film festival or VOD later this year. As you can tell, some filmmakers clearly chose to tell a story from a specific Latino character/experience, while others drew from their culture in a more abstract, no less personal route. One thing is for sure though, each of these artists have been hustling their craft for years outside the studio system which is why you can see a distinct genre and aesthetic in their work. Make sure to check out the links to their previous work. It is one thing to say there we be underrepresented and quite another thing to be overlooked.
BETWEEN US written and directed by Rafael Palacio Illingworth
From Caviar Content, a multi media company that financed last year’s Diary of a Teenage Girl by Marielle Heller, comes this intense romance drama made by Mexico/Colombia raised AFI grad Rafael Palacio Illingworth. The film features two incredibly talented actors Olivia Thirlby (Juno) and Ben Feldman (Ginsberg in Mad Men!) as a couple navigating a tempestuous “post-honeymoon phase” while trying to hang on to the chemistry that first made them gravitate towards each other. Rafael starred in his own first film MACHO ( see here,) which like The Force, also tracked a relationship through the initial meet-cute high. Macho landed with IFC after premiering at the Raindance Film Festival in London in 2010. The film just announced its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Danny is two for two, his first and second films have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Raised in Virginia in a Cuban Catholic family, Danny cut his visual teeth while collaborating with avant garde music group, Animal Collective for years. His first film, Oddsac is in many ways a sensory album for the band. It screened in Sundance’s experimental New Frontier section in 2010. Taking his skills for phantasmagoric imagery and folding hyperreal narrative and social commentary Perez shot the wasteland USA set Antibirth which stars none other than the coolest indie queens, Natasha Lyonne and Chle Sevigny. The film got rave reviews, having premiered in the much talked about Midnight section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A film that’s been called “a debauched progeny of Cronenberg’s classic, The Brood, it has without a doubt the wildest, most bat-shit crazy ending I have ever seen. Must-watch. Stay tuned to hear where it lands more fests and distribution.
HEARTS OF PALM written and directed by Monica Peña
Following her first feature, the experimental street docu-fiction film, Ectotherms, which drew comparisons to Harmony Korine’s work, Monica Peña is back with her second feature, Hearts of Palm. The fable like film follows a romance en route to decay between two sentient beings. Peña brings to life her distinct vision with her previous collaborators Brad Lovett aka Dim Past who stars and is behind the sonic pulse of the film, and Jorge Rubiera, cinematographer who beams an otherworldly yet unmistakable Miami vibe. The Cuban American filmmaker is a Sundance Institute/Knight Fellow. Watch Ectotherms here. Hearts of Palm is world premiering at the upcoming Miami International Film Festival.
LUPE UNDER THE SUN written and directed by Rodrigo Reyes
Since the debut of his 2012 highly acclaimed and visual border documentary, Purgatorio, Rodrigo Reyes has been developing a number of projects, including this evocative tale called Lupe Under the Sun. Originally planned to be a documentary set in Merced, his hometown, Northern California, Reyes let the story evolve into a hybrid film about an old Mexican man who has spent his entire life working in the California fields. When he attempts to get back in touch with the family and life he left behind, he finds out that his absence did not stop them from moving on. Shot by Justin Chin, his D.P. on Purgatorio, the film casts a neorealist, tinge of black humor aided by the real world surroundings of the agricultural desert suburb. Lupe Under the Sun was selected to participate in IFP Narrative Lab last year and is expected to finish the film in 2016.
MARIGOLD THE MATADOR, written and directed by Kenneth Castillo
The prolific independent LA born and raised Chicano filmmaker, Kenny Castillo is currently finishing his 7th feature. Known for his popular short form series, The Misadventures of Cholo Chaplin which he is currently developing into animation, Castillo has since successfully specialized in urban films led by multi dimensional characters. Marigold the Matador focuses on a single mother from the perspective of an 11 year old girl who deals with her feelings of loneliness and isolation by imagining herself as a Matador in the world of the Day of the Dead. Most of the story was shot unscripted and the result is a very authentic and emotionally engaging film. He is currently raising funds to finish the film. The true blue indie filmmaker entrepreneur he is, you can head over to his website and buy a cool Cholo Chaplin shirt, check out his complete body of work, and donate to his film.
I only recently discovered the work of this enigmatic filmmaker who’s been lurking along the coolest fringes of art genre. Among his previous films, 2014’s moody verite, Shadow Zombie won a prize for best “documentary-sh” film at the renowned Chicago Underground Film Festival. Sisters of the Plague starring Josephine Deckker screened at last year’s New Orleans Film Festival and Outfest. Back in 2011 Jorge was the cinematographer on Jonathan Caouette’s Cannes documentary, Walk Away Renee. Yes , he also directs music videos, including this neat Modest Mouse Strangers to Ourselves track. The Puerto Rican born filmmaker has also produced and shot a number of random videos you can find on his Tumblr. Upcoming films include a documentary about the Slacker esque Athens, Georgia music scene called A Peculiar Noise, premiering at this year’s Atlanta Film Festival, and Fugue, which follows a woman (Sophie Traub) who wanders around an island lost and out of place. Having binged on his work recently I can safely say that he casts spells of mad intrigue and strange dream-state feels. Definitely an indie auteur you should know.
Michael Olmos goes family superhero action film in The Green Ghost, his 4th feature film. It is not surprising that Olmos is collaborating with Marco Zaror; back in 2006 Marko made noise in the Chilean street action thriller, Kiltro which premiered at LALIFF, the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival headed by Michael’s father, Eddie Olmos. Michael’s underrated first film, Splinter in 2006 was shot on the streets of LA and displayed his stylish and gritty directing chops. Olmos went on to co-direct and produce the 2012 Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Competition film Filly Brown which catapulted Gina Rodriguez pre-Jane the Virgin. Zaror has many fans around the world having carved out for himself a string of martial arts action flicks, many of which have played Fantastic Fest where incidentally he and Michael sneaked some footage of the Green Ghost last year. The film is about a man having to overcome his insecurities to transform into a superhero and defeat the dangerous bruja Lechusa who plans to bring back the wrath of Moctezuma. Currently in post.
DADDY’S BOY written and directed by Daniel Armando
Daniel’s first feature What it Was made the Latino/LGBT film festival run. The story about an actor coming to terms with a recent family loss and her marriage breakup returns to her home in Brooklyn where she runs into an old college girlfriend. The film has raw verite scenes interlaced with poetic close up cinematic imagery. He has not one but two films premiering at this year’s Cinequest Film Festival next month. He directed a film called When I’m With You, and wrote and directed an erotic swoon and slow dance film, Daddy’s Boy which indulges in its queer cinema throwback and music interludes as it follows four young men behind the closed doors of a burlesque studio, shedding more than just their clothes and inhibitions. Daniel has said that he likes films that wander throughout space. He’s been quoted as saying, “A lot of my favorite films don’t feature characters like this, and I feel I have a responsibility as an artist of color to tell everyday stories from a perspective rarely seen.”
From the director of Big Ass Spider which played at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, comes this supernatural action thriller, starring none other than 80s movies action icon, Dolph Lundgren. Mike Mendez, born to Salvadorean and Mexican family parents, born and raised in LA has been busy. After Big Ass Spider he did Lavalantula about giant lava spewing tarantulas. Last year he put together an anthology of scary shorts, Tales of Halloween directed by various filmmakers including Lucky McKee (2002’s May is one of my long time cult faves). Mendez doesn’t show any signs of slowing his roll which is a good thing for his loyal fans. His love for genre is evident in his filmmaking, and his action/horror genre is mixed with a pure sense of humor.
A real bi-cultural American who spent his formative years in between Lima, Peru and Lawrence, Kansas, Alonso Mayo first moved to LA to attend AFI where he made his thesis short film, Wednesday Afternoon. In 2013, Gravitas Ventures picked up his first feature, The Story of Luke starring Lou Taylor Pucci, Seth Green, Cary Elwes and Kristin Bauer. His sophomore effort, Frozen Peas is a funny and honest film about a husband and father to three kids finds himself in the throes of a masculinity panic attack when pressured by his wife to consider vasectomy.
To round up the list here are three special mentions of directorial debuts to watch coming soon; Bruising for Besos written and directed by Adelina Anthony, the queer chicana poet who wrote the story for one of my favorite short films, You’re Dead To Me. A critically acclaimed and beloved solo artist performer, she stars herself in Brusing as Yoli, a smooth talker whose game is put to the test in pursuit of romance. Varsity Punks written and directed by Anthony Solorzano is a high school comedy following a tight knit rambunctious cross country team shot in El Monte starring Efren Ramirez as the coach. H.O.M.E by Daniel Maldonado which is premiering a the Queens World Film Festival stars Jeremy Ray Valdez as a young man with Aspergers. See trailer for H.O.M.E. below.
“I’m a compulsive filmmaker,” admits Eddie Muñiz the 33 year old California native who has 12 films under his belt.
One of them is The Never Daunted, his 10th film. Not too long ago I saw it as a festival screener dvd and I vividly and immediately felt that rare exhilarating rush of discovery amid the dvd stacks of derivative story lines. The film is about a man who, unable to cope with his infertility and the monotony of a dead-end job, becomes withdrawn from his relationship and grows obsessed with a strange Western that comes on television late at night – which only he can see. The film’s captivating sincerity and epic male psyche exploration makes Muñiz not only a writer/director to follow, but one to actively support. He’s one of those creative manic types who are actively pursuing their art of storytelling without frills, on the fly and for the love. On the weekends and perhaps limited by budget but never held back by its raw, transcendent humanity. In talking to him you can tell he is completely immersed in and relishes the craft. So much he hasn’t had the bandwith to fully explore the mine of distribution outlets. Thanks to our brave new world of Direct to Fan online distribution, we can finally check out some of his films, in particular the singular The Never Daunted. Now available to stream on Seed & Spark. Once you get hooked you’ll want to see more of his work, some of which is available on his website. Read on, get to know this cool cat and get a taste of his sensibility and work ethic and tell me if he’s not inspiring.
1. Putting together one film no matter how modest the budget requires a lot of collaboration, an insane amount of tenacity and organization. What is it about your creative process and style that has allowed you to be so prolific?
You’re right. Making a film does require a lot of collaboration, and I think there are either filmmakers who embrace this aspect of filmmaking or they don’t. I completely rely on it, but that’s also because I work with a lot of like-minded people and really talented, smart people. I think that the only real trick I have is that I won’t start with a script. The only reason I’m able to complete so many projects and get them done so quickly is because I’ll take care of the scheduling first, which I think is the hardest part, and then force myself to write something under pressure before the day I have to shoot. I never really start with an idea or theme in mind; I’ll start with a person I think is interesting or that I love being around. I know that sounds weird, but so many of the films I’ve done started from just hanging out with a friend or with new people. After hanging out and getting a sense of their personalities and of their views, I always think it’s interesting to take a version of that person and place him or her in different scenarios that I later come up with. This approach not only opens up several narrative possibilities for me, but it also makes it so that I can make the film and keep discovering new things as I’m going along. The part that I play in this is almost nonexistent. I just have to make sure to listen very carefully, work within my means, prepare for any setbacks or last-minute changes and finally remain objective enough to shape a film out of all of it. It is a compulsion in that filmmaking is a priority for me, and I’m constantly thinking about it. I never stop and it drives a lot of my friends and family crazy. I would always rather film than go to bars or to parties or to lunch or to dinner…unless I can film when I’m there!
2. The dialogue feels so natural in your films.
There’ve only been a few times that I’ll have specific lines I want my actors to hit. Sometimes I’ll be married to these lines because I overheard someone say it a certain way, but all of the credit here should really go to my actors. I’ll know the emotion I want from the scene, I’ll know the tone, and specific expository points, but that’s it, and that’s only the structure or the blueprint. They’ll improvise off my sides, and sometimes this will be a page with four or five lines on it – between two or three people – and what would’ve been a 1-minute scene on the page, they’ll turn into a 3 to 4 min. scene full of twists and turns, with sharp, understated, and insightful subtext, sometimes strange, sometimes bizarre, sometimes hilarious. But always unexpected, and that’s the point.
3. In The Never Daunted, there is such a genuine vulnerability not often found in male driven films. You said you were raised by your mom and aunts, do you think this helped you get in touch with this modern masculinity side? You show such a profound and illuminating notion of the pitfalls of having to live up to a macho masculine, cowboy, protector and provider role, it really expands my perception and elicits my empathy for the male perspective.
That’s really cool of you to say! Because my mom was always working, I’d spend a lot of my days with my aunts and my grandmother…. I have two uncles that I admire very much, but I don’t think I ever measured up to that Mexican macho male thing, nor did I ever really care to. For what it’s worth, I grew up with more of a feminine perspective – because of my aunts and my mothers – and this kind of allowed me to see how proud men can be, how delusional, overbearing, fearful, and how selfish we can be as well. And I do love to look at this in my films, and I’m often guilty of all of this male posturing too. Although I understand the culture of cool cinema and even appreciate some of those films – the cowboys, the gangsters, the hitmen movies- I can’t help but see that same macho bullshit from my childhood being perpetuated over and over again in our culture. It’s also a constant reminder that I’m none of those things and that maybe I should be feeling like I ought to be. I think men are much more interesting than that though, much more complex and multidimensional. But a variation in movies is great – don’t get me wrong. Nevertheless, if there’s a story about a bank robber being chased by the cops, and he’s forced to pull a man and his little boy out of their car, and speeds off, I’d rather see the story about the man having to explain to his boy what just happened.
4. You mentioned you’ve gotten feedback from Guy Maddin and Monte Hellman, have they inspired your approach and aesthetic? Who else contemporary filmmakers do you draw from and connect?
Guy Maddin and Monte Hellman were the only two that took the time to respond, and they were also the two that I was desperately hoping would respond, so I did make more of an effort with them. I do love movies that are very postmodern and abstract and these two guys are still making very interesting and provocative work. Guy Maddin continues to find new ways to tell stories and I can’t passively watch any of his movies. They require my complete attention and that’s what cinema should be, I think. With Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, I had the experience where I had to keep watching the movie over and over again so I can decide whether or not I liked it. And Road to Nowhere was a movie about movies, which is something that still interests me, as indulgent as it might sound, and this meta-fictional element comes up in not only The Never Daunted, but in other movies I’ve completed since then. And I love all types of films and filmmakers, but as far as the ones that make me excited about not only watching their movies but going out and making more of my own, I’d say Hong Sang Soo, Carlos Reygadas, Lynne Ramsay, Agnes Varda, Gus Van Sant, Miranda July, Alfonso Cuaron, Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Mary Harron are maybe my favorites right now. And obviously, this list is always changing .
5. Does is it get easier with each film you make?
Working with actors and non-actors has gotten easier for me. It’s a different language I use with both, but I’ve learned to appreciate this aspect of filmmaking more than any other. It’s the part where I get to work with them as people, but the discussions aren’t always about choices or behavior or the psychology of a character. A lot of times it’s them telling me personal stories and me sharing personal stories with them as well, which is why I feel that the friendships I’ve made through filmmaking have been so rewarding and amazing to me. There’s no chit-chat or formalities; there’s no time for that. So a person will go from being an acquaintance to a deep personal friend you feel you’ve known for a long time, and this will happen simply because they’re willing to bring their personal experiences and specific views to the table. As cheesy as it sounds, it can feel like the purest expression of the self and art. Learning that a lot of them are willing to do this, or maybe because they trust me, has given me much more confidence when directing a scene, so it feels much easier. All the other technical stuff is a pain in the ass, but I learn it because I have to and because I didn’t go to film school.
6. What do you personally get out of making a film from the creation and observation of the human condition?
I guess it’s the same thing that I get out of teaching, but to be honest, teaching is much more rewarding. Both require a lot of self-reflection and discipline, but in teaching, the results are right there and you can actually see the light bulbs go on in front of you. With filmmaking, it can be very painful and I can think that I’m addressing several questions that are important to me, but once the film is done, I’m sometimes left with even more questions and concerns than before. The greatest pleasure that I derive from making a film is having connected with people in the process. At the end of a film or at the end of a screening, I often feel like a fraud and like I didn’t complete what I set out to do. I start wondering what I even want to gain from all of it, and I’ll just watch other people’s films and wonder, “Who the hell do I think I am, making my own movies, or assuming that people even care?”. But the one constant pleasure is my relationships with my friends. The fact that I built friendships in the process and that they trusted me and that we completed something together. Then, inevitably, I’ll get excited about another project and I’ll bury myself in another opportunity to work with them.
7. In your words, what is Haley, your latest film about?
The Haley Project has a couple of stories running parallel throughout, but at the center is the story about a girl named Haley, who we only see in the beginning of the film and in a flashback at the end. It’s loosely based on my friend Laura Benson, who actually plays Haley, but it’s also about other people in my life who I’m always in awe of. I have a few friends who are always telling me stories about these exotic places that they’ve visited and these crazy adventures that they’ve had. My friend Nick Null, who plays Murray in The Never Daunted, has a lot of stories like this too. But I thought it would be interesting to look at this kind of person, but from the perspective of all the supporting characters in each of their stories. How are these supporting characters, who don’t get to float on from place to place, affected by having met someone with a seemingly more interesting life? So I had two guys, played by Seth Johansson and Brian Randles, become competitive and mean with each other over their love for Haley, without Haley even there anymore. And in the same movie I have a romantic Frenchman who arrives in LA, in hopes of finding love. And I love this idea because it’s usually the other way around: the starry-eyed, American Francophile visits Paris in search of love.
Check out the trailer for The Never Daunted below and click here to watch the film on Seed & Spark.
The brief and tumultuous life of prizefighter Johnny Tapia, who passed away last year at the age of 45, elicits overwhelming empathy and incredible awe. The documentary directed by Eddie Alcazar, intimately reveals the immense emotional agony and pain he suffered in his life but also shows that for the series of extreme, rock bottom lows of misfortune, Johnny always jumped back up to reach equally extreme heights of success and triumph, like winning five boxing championships, meeting the love of his life, Teresa Tapia, with whom he has a young son, and becoming a beloved hero to his hometown Albuquerque, as well as around the world. Johnny grew up without a father, and his mother was the world to him. At the tender age of 8, his mother was viciously murdered – a traumatic catalyst for what became the pang of his tortured existence. The documentary, which is world premiering in competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is powerfully narrated through Johnny’s own words. Alcazar adds a touch of style and a gorgeous cinematic framework. The film opens with Johnny’s slightly raspy Burqueño slanged voice over young Johnny Jr. punching the air in the New Mexico desert plains and celestial horizon captured in wide panoramic vista at the magic hour, painting a metaphysical element to the legacy he leaves.
Eddie was working on a dramatic feature about Johnny but after he passed, Eddie took the research footage and made it into this documentary film. The dramatic feature, which he is co-writing with Bettina Gilois, (Glory Days, The Hurricane) who co-wrote Johnny’s biography, Mi Vida Loca is readying for a fall shoot in Albuquerque. 50 Cent is an executive producer on the documentary and is also onboard for the dramatic version.
The documentary is gripping and utterly poignant. Hearing his inner, unwavering fury takes on a dark possession. His voice and soul feel weary but he is unrelenting against the demons he waged battle with every single day of his life. Seeing him from his early days rising up through the boxing world first as the “Baby-faced Assassin” to his later years as the lines of anguish take over his face and his body becomes heavily drawn with symbolic tattoos, his killer instinct clashing with his vulnerability. At the world premiere screening, his wife Teresa and son, Johnny Jr. came out to introduce the film but did not return after the screening, as much as everyone wanted to see them. I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was too overwhelming for them and Eddie declined to do a Q&A out of respect, feeling that what’s important in the doc is Johnny, and Teresa is the only person who could talk about and for him. He told me that a couple days later when I got the opportunity to interview him. I learned the ABQ native has some Bolivian lineage and found out more about both Tapia films. Here’s a redacted transcription of our talk:
How did you know Johnny, how far did you too go back?
I never actually met him until I knew I wanted to do a movie two years ago. Back then it was about creating the narrative version of his life so I sold him on my idea of doing one year of his life in his youth and he was totally up for it. Then I got the rights and we basically just started following him around at that point. As I was following him around I was writing the script. It was all about research and compiling all this archival footage.
Relating to him.
A lot of it is because he embodies the Albuquerque culture, which is a little bit different. Having somebody that stands out from ABQ is always kind of special and he definitely kept it real from his upbringing so I think that’s why everybody in ABQ has that strong connection with him and each other. It’s distinct. The community always looked up to Johnny. There is no professional football or baseball team and he was one of the first professional athletes who came out of that area. More than seven thousand people came out to his funeral.
How did you manage to contrast the darkness of his life with all the other light and positivity he also experienced?
It was tough, which was I never intended to do the documentary. I wanted to concentrate on one year of his life because there is so much to his whole life, and it was a really really hard process confining everything that he’s been through so I was experimenting and discovering it as I went. Bu there are as many highs as there is lows and his life in particular is filled with many from each side of the spectrum. As far as my experience with him I never saw too much of the dark side other than when I interviewed him. I mean personally it was just fun, just me and him playing around. He was always active, jumping on the trampoline, playing ping pong, when we’d go out to eat he’d shake everybody’s hand. He really couldn’t stay in one place for too long.
Doc vs narrative, what do you intend to do with the dramatic feature you weren’t able to do with the documentary
The documentary was about trying to hone in on what he said and having him say it directly to the audience. I didn’t want to interrupt anything too much. We did a little bit of stylistic stuff intertwined to show a little bit of the spiritual side, you know like his connection to his son, and his connection to nature. But I wanted to keep it pretty loose on that, only scratching the surface of what I’m going to do in the feature. The feature is going to definitely be a little dreamy and spiritual. When I say spiritual, there’s this thing that I recognized when I would talk to Johnny, I was always trying to pin point how his mind works – and he feels like his mother is right next to him. So that plays a large role in the actual film; the presence of his mother, always around and also that connection with his youth. In the feature as its written now we pop back and forth in his life from Johnny at 27 years old, and when he was 8 years old when he lost his mother. Its always trying to establish the connection of where he finds all this anger but also power, passion and energy that was super important to have. That drives every action in his life, I think, from that point forward, and I’ve had conversations with people who agree he became stunted at that age. He still felt like an 8 year old when I’d talk to him, he had a child like spirit, insight. He was not that formally educated, he was street smart, he improvised with whatever was around him. He had that excitement, wonder and would be happy to see someone looking to give him love, and made people happy. He was always surprised at any good news.
In a way its hard to imagine him as anything but a boxer, literally pounding and fighting his demons…
He was really hyper, boxing was a natural thing for him, it was a natural release of energy, it was actually perfect, getting into the ring, always training is what kept him alive. It’s hard to think of him as anything else, maybe some other kind of athlete.
How did 50 Cent come on board?
It all came through Lou DiBella, (executive producer) the boxing promoter and tv/film producer. When we finished the film we started showing a handful of people to get people’s thoughts on it. Lou was actually head of the HBO sports division who helped put together the infamous Johnny Tapia/Danny Romero fight back in the day so he had that connection. He showed the movie to 50 cent with who he has a partnership… 50 felt all these similar things and really connected with what Johnny went through (they both suffered the loss of their mother around the same age). Also he grew up in similar crazy circumstances. Its weird how you connect the dots….
Tell me about your producer Andrea Monier
Yes, Andrea Monier has been pivotal. We are friends, she’s also an actress but an amazing producer. We worked on an Everlast spot first and she did an amazing job. To do a documentary you have to have a super strong producer because there is a lot of work like archiving footage, etc. I couldn’t have done it without her.
Describe the driving creative process in writing the narrative
(Losing his mother) that’s the biggest thing. All his issues stem from that; drugs, psychological conditions, we explore a lot of him meeting and falling in love with Teresa. It’s a big part of the film; the love story, but then that also connects to the mother. There’s a lot of similarities between Teresa and his mother as far as the expectations Johnny had, he almost felt like Teresa was his mother, she replaced her in a way.Feeling like a baby with your mother, a lot of the treatment you get from your mother at that age. I come from a single parent as well and it helped me a lot to realize how much Johnny valued his mother. Like, I don’t’ know where I would be without my mother, those thoughts always trickled through my head. Johnny was super proud to have Teresa next to him as his woman. I don’t think he ever constricted her in any way. She was more the person who kept him in place, she was the one who handled the business and dealt with the promoters and he looked up to her in terms of what direction to take. He trusted her opinion above all.
What do you think she saw in him?
She likes to joke that she was young and stupid but I know there’s a lot more to it. She has all the traits that he may have needed help on, and likewise, he showed her the excitement, spontaneity that she was looking for in life, and that quality of never expecting or knowing where the day is going to go was interesting and that’s what she gravitated to.
It must have been hard to watch him fight all the time
Well, the professional aspect is almost better than the day to day reality in ABQ. There are worse street fights, guns involved. Every time I’d go to a party there were gunshots. I wanted to show this world that is not familiar, Breaking Bad does it a little bit but its not as dark or raw as it really is. (ABQ) is a beautiful place but it’s a weird thing; there’s this subculture, an underbelly. It has a big native American population, Spaniards, Mexicans, I don’t know what leads to so much conflict but maybe the biggest thing I can relate to is there’s not too much to do. So people just …they are bored and act crazy sometimes.
Big thanks to Eddie for the interview. LA folks I urge you to go see Tapia tomorrow night, Saturday at 9:50pm at the Regal at LA Live. Get tickets here. Details on the big ABQ screening forthcoming. Also be sure to queue it up on GoWatchit and like it on Facebook to support it and to get updates on where it lands with its theatrical/television/VOD release.
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?
Latino Film Festivals have always lumped together international films and American films under the same Latino category. As if the Latin prefix used to classify the totally different identities of South & Central America, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Spain was not already broad enough. The few indie US narratives selected inside these programs look scrappy compared to the Spanish-language, art-house films which boast a higher production value due to their country’s government film subsidies. It’s like forcibly pressing two pieces of a puzzle together, when they clearly don’t fit. These two kind of films do not lend themselves to the same audience. Which is why I’ve always sensed the US Latino film in this platform is treated like an adopted stray. Up until now, I had not heard of any sustaining film festival devoted entirely to American Latino (I’d love to be corrected. If you know of any, give me a shout!). Enter the Reel Rasquache Art and Film Festival in East LA. Leave it to the activist Chicano studies curriculum track at Cal State to oppose such a disparity of their representation and say, oh Hell no, by way of their actions. They galvanized the community and wrestled a space for a showcase, led by the efforts of Dr. Richard T. Rodriguez and Dr. John Ramirez, who in 2004 christened the festival with the name Rasquache, derived from the Native American Nahuat people.
Sadly, I was not able to attend the entire jam-packed weekend festival that took place May 17-19, but I did manage to make it to the closing night and awards ceremony on Sunday. I arrived to see Counterpunch, a film dramatizing the real life story of an undiagnosed, bi-polar boxer – the latest film by Kenneth Castillo who was bestowed with a Trailblazer Award. Other Awardees of the evening; the Lifetime Achievement Award went to Carmen Zapata who was not able to attend but were assured by her friends accepting on her behalf she was fine and dandy in her 80 years young age. The Pioneer Award was bestowed on a colorful and lively Pepe Serna.
In the crowded, over-awarded Hollywood landscape, I’ve usually found awards, arbitrary or unwarranted, and just an excuse for a gala event driven by money and press. And within the ‘Hispanic Hollywood’ circle, the awards tend to be given to the same artists over and over, celebrated BECAUSE they have (already) been recognized by the mainstream. I’m not saying the breaking of barriers is not a triumph worth celebrating, but the days of Rita Moreno and Ricardo Montalban is long past (40 years). In this day and age, we are bigger and stronger in numbers and we should be using our ‘purchasing power’, to demand our content and taking back our history. It’s much more constructive to empower those who the mainstream forgets, dismisses and generally fails to acknowledge. Those, who despite the lack of mainstream recognition, persistently continue to craft their art and who do not shy away from identifying as Chicano, Puerto Rican, whatever their bi-cultural origin may be. Although I’m embarrassed to admit, I share as proof to my argument: Until Sunday night, I was not familiar with Kenneth Castillo – a genuinely independent working director who is about to shoot his seventh feature this summer. And worse yet if someone were to have mentioned to me Pepe Serna or Carmen Zapata –I would not have been able to place the two veteran American actors – both of whom have forged incredible careers that span over six decades within both mainstream and indie theater and film. Thanks to Reel Rasquache’s recognition of their talent I am now turned on to their work. It allows me to connect the dots of the history of American Latino entertainers, who have been and continue to be so harshly forgotten and suppressed from mainstream history and therefore our collective psyche.
It was my first time at the new location of Casa 0101, the cultural center founded by writer Josefina Lopez. A comfortable 99 capacity seat theater is located at the end of a a long hall on which walls hangs an arresting series of artwork. On Sunday it was the paintings of Juan Solis whose palette provided the signature theme of the festival this year. Kiki Melendez, a saucy comedienne and 96.3 Latino radio personality emceed the festivities. Kiki straight up asked what I had wanted to ask but was too embarrassed to; Just what the hell does Rasquache mean? (“Is it like scratching your ass?” she uncouthly asked). The academic maestro Dr. John took the podium to illuminate us on how the word references the festival – it’s made of whatever scraps you can pool together to make the most out of the least.
In his acceptance speech, Kenneth Castillo commented on the urban crime drama genre of his filmography (including such titles like Chronicles of a Drive by). His earnest thoughts challenged me to re-think my resistance to American Latino writer/directors pouring out the same cholo gang hood films. Clearly, there is a population heavily influenced by the gang crime genre (I’m no exception, I’m the biggest Goodfellas fan). It makes sense that the young filmmakers who are fans of the genre, evoke it in their work. If they are conscious about flipping the script and attacking the stereotype by developing deeper dimensions to the characters, then that IS a game changer. Because what I’ve heard frequently is that these filmmakers KNOW these people. They grew up around them. Kenneth reminds me, they are real people. That the stories and characters continue to be stuck in the barrio is evidence of the lower socioeconomic class that still plagues black and brown communities.
I kept noticing an older man with rascal eyes wearing a loud green jacket and white pants in another row. Turns out this was The Pepe Serna. Serna has over 100 movie and television credits including Scarface, American Me, Caddyshack. For years he has been performing his one-man show, Ruco Chuco, Cholo, Pachuco in which he punctuates Mother Goose a la barrio rhymes like, “In order to beat the gringo. At bingo. You gotta learn the lingo.” Like a wise and sprightly elder (he’s a Cancer survivor) his vaudeville comedy sense of show and his Texas hospitality twanged voice utterly endeared me to him. He charmed the audience some more when he treated us to an impromptu performance right then and there. With exaggerated cholo swagger he first transforms into a young gangbanger who thinks he’s all that, only to then transform and be schooled by the Cholo’s older self, now called Ruco who espouses words of wisdom about the path he’s going down. Serna also paints; his wild kaleidoscope Mona Risa series will be showing in Untitled Projects gallery on Beverly Blvd June 15th . His next role is in the upcoming high comedy, A-GuroPhobia co-written and starring the gifted and pretty comic multi-hypenate, Jade Puga ( Kristen Wig watch out!). It looks like an enjoyably, hilarious campy riot given the trailer they showed at the festival.
Continuing its winning streak of racking up Best Film Awards, Mission Park written and directed by Bryan Ramirez won, once again proving its connection with filmgoers. It will next screen at the Las Vegas Film Festival. A theatrical release September 6 is scheduled (self-financed by producer, Flip This House star and Real Estate magnate Armando Montelongo), and Lionsgate will put it out on VOD. Producer Douglas Spain was on hand to accept the award and later we both marveled at the gorgeous copy of the Juan Solis print on the Best Film certificate. He confided it was one most beautiful awards ever to be bestowed to the film.
Afterwards I got a chance to hang with the filmmaker of Delusions of Grandeur, my new homegirl Iris Almaraz and I did a sort of follow up to the interview I did with her a couple weeks ago. Check it here. Not only is she working the latest draft of her next film, La Puta, but she is already swirling around a concept for the next one which although unplanned might form a a novel trilogy about the contemporary female odyssey going through womanhood, motherhood, and a post motherhood sexual discovery.
At Reel Rasquache I discovered such a refreshing confidence and tuned-in conscious of identity, unfettered by what the mainstream is NOT doing for them. Instead, the spiritually resilient and tireless efforts are focused on making art for ourselves. I noticed in Dr. John’s Closing remarks he included the term ‘self-identifying Latinos’ when talking about who Rasquache is geared towards. It was in stark contrast to what I usually run into; a desperate want to assimilate into the mainstream, or the commendable, yet generic and trite aim of telling ‘universal’ stories that transcend ethnicity, or the irksome thought that we should not ‘limit’ ourselves by identifying as Mexican American or Chicano (thanks Robert Rodriguez). But don’t we all perform and write what we know? In that sense sharing it with the people who will relate to it the most feels the most unifying and mutually satisfying. We crave an audience to share our art with, that’s what keeps us going. Who better to show it to than someone who gets it.
Within the kingdom of Americans who have a widely mixed variance of Latino descent, there exists a fierce genus called La Raza. Unapologetic, raw, fiercely conscious of their people’s history, embracing of multi-cultural solidarity, they ain’t waiting around for opportunities but seizing them for themselves. I admire this incredible sense of identity and believe that is what is worth celebrating and awarding. This confidence is the missing key to taking charge and writing our own narratives. Not to mention, confidence is just más sexy.
The summertime, downtown set, glitzy yet ‘cashz’ LA Film Festival, presented by Film Independent has announced their film lineup today. The verdict on the Latino rep? Compared to the last three festivals I’ve examined this year, Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca, LA Film Festival comes through with arguably the most valuable representation; there are three films representing American Latino in the narrative competition and one in documentary competition.
The lineup consists of a handful of new American indies mixed in with many favorited international films from last year’s Toronto, Venice, London and Berlin film festivals, and seven Sundance films screening out of competition including Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, which won both the Audience and Jury Awards in Park City. Starring Boricua Melonie Diaz as Oakland police murder victim Oscar Grant’s girlfriend, Fruitvale will be given the gala treatment (like last year’s Sundance awarded, Black film, Middle of Nowhere), alongside the direct-from-Cannes, Only God Forgives, the reteaming of director Nicolas Winding Refyn and GQ sensitive alpha hero Ryan Gosling (Drive).
But I’m not here to comb and recycle through the ‘high profile’ films that come armed with buzz. As always I’m spotlighting U.S. films in which the writer/director/cast are native born whose ethnic/cultural roots originates from the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, Central or South America. In addition, films by filmmakers who may not be Latino, but whose narratives explore and relate to the relevant bi-cultural experience/subjects. And finally I also like to mention the Latin films (international).
While I’m happy to acknowledge and give it up for LA, it’s still painful for this blogger/programmer to know there are so many more fresh American Latino films out there ready to be discovered. Game-changing films offering such fresh and original perspectives, which have by and large been dismissed by most of the major US Film Festivals. With the futures of the two highest profile Latino niche festivals in limbo, The Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival and HBO’s NY International Latino Film Festival, it’s especially crushing to know that these films might also be robbed of their only community platform. It’s cause for alarm and high time to address this void. But wait, lets save that for another post. For now, lets get back to the Latino stories coming at you at this year’s LA Film Festival. For official synopsis and pics check the Film Guide here.
NARRATIVE COMPETITION – Notably 9 of the 12 are US, hopefully giving the scrappy indies a better chance to compete and win the cash prize against the healthy subsidized production value of foreign movies. Five are first features and only one female narrative director.
This is the first feature from the writing/directing team who got a lot of attention with their 2010 short Charlie and The Rabbit. Ojeda-Beck (whose parents are from Peru) and Machoian who is from the heavily Mexican populated King City, met at Cal State, Monterey Bay where they forged a tight artistic collaboration. Forty Years from Yesterday is described as Machoian’s imagination of how his mother’s death would unfold for his own family, capturing the loss his siblings would feel in losing a parent and his father’s pain in facing the death of his partner.
The duo have their way with documentary, fiction and experimental form, instilling an aura of temporality in an anchored realism. This unique evocative alchemy is found in Machoian’s doc short, Movies Made from Home #16, a 4 minute existential moment which screened at Sundance this year. The cosmic life themes they tend to broach are treated in such a down to earth and sensitive way, which is further made relatable by the natural non-pro performances they employ. Robert’s father, Bill Graham has starred in a few of his films and in Forty Years from Yesterday, both Robert’s parents and siblings play themselves. See this endearing behind the scenes clip of the making of the film:
Written by the late Joseph B. Vasquez (d 1995) whose 1991 movie, Hanging with the Homeboys, was a groundbreaking urban comedy when it came out, now very much a classic, albeit sadly forgotten gem. The only one of Vasquez’s five movies that was distributed (by New Line), Hanging with the Homeboys was shot in the South Bronx where he was born and raised. About four homeys, two Puerto Rican (one of them played by a baby-faced Johnny Leguizamo) and two Black, the movie, available on dvd from Amazon (or, I found it in 6 parts on Youtube) screened at the Sundance Film Festival at its indie darling peak. Its good-natured humor is derived from neighborhood beefs, trying to rap to ladies, and the racial tensions of the day delivered with unapologetic commentary. A slice of barrio life, the film is clearly an early influence for the Ice Cube Friday series.
The House that Jack Built similarly has that raw and authentic Nuyorican energy but pushed into a rollercoaster of a dysfunctional family drama with warmth, affection and intensity. The director, born from Cuban parents and raised in Washington Heights, Henry Barrial, is also an alumni of Sundance (Somebody 2001). The film stars E.J. Bonilla as the hot-blooded self-imposed king of his family who buys an apartment building to keep his family close, only to start dictating everybody’s life since he’s letting them live rent free. Bonilla is a fiercely charismatic up and coming actor who has been turning heads in the indie world. This is his third consecutive time at the festival (Four, Mamitas) and he was in Don’t Let Me Drown (Sundance 2009). An uproarious and high-edged Harlem set chamber piece, the heavy conflict of gravity that besets Jack is from being pulled in opposite directions by his street values on one side and deeply rooted family values on the other. See the trailer on their Kickstarter page.
This was reportedly one of the most talked about American films in the experimental leaning Rotterdam Film Festival this year. The filmmaker who was born and raised in Iowa, Aaron Douglas Johnston, has an impressive academic pedigree having attended world prestigious universities, Oxford and Yale. His first feature, the small town, gay life set, Bumblefuck, USA screened at Outfest 2011. In My Sister’s Quinceanera, he uses the local Mexican-American Iowa residents as his non-pro actors with whom he collaborated with on the story. It’s a gentle and earnest portrayal of a young man named Silas who is convinced he has to leave town to become independent and start his life but must first see his sister’s Quinceanera take place.
WORKERS written and directed by Jose Luis Valle (Mexico/Germany) – A quietly simmering artful drama about a retiring factory worker and housemaid in Tijuana circumstantially reunited and trying to compensate for their spent lives. An accomplished and arresting feature debut, the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama section and won Best Mexican Film at the Guadalajara film Festival. A full investment into the contemplative tone and rhythm yields an appreciation for the film’s visceral and dry humor undertones. Born in El Salvador, Jose Luis Valle previously made a documentary short called Milagro del Papa.
DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION: 7 out 10 are US, 4 first features, six female directors (incl. 2 co-directors)
The 5 time world boxing champion and emotionally damaged blue-eyed Chicano from the 505, Johnny Lee Tapia, survived a series of near deaths before his turbulent life ended at the young age of 45 last year. The sheer volume of tragedy and coping afflictions Johnny endured in his Vida Loca, as he openly shares in his autobiography, includes the scarring experience of seeing his mother’s kidnapping and violent murder at the tender age of eight. Tapia funneled this heartbreaking formative incident and many other painfully grueling experiences to fuel a successful professional boxing career. Tapia’s confrontation to such tumult is so impressive, it’s no wonder that former EA video game designer Eddie Alcazar decided to both dramatize and document his harrowing real life story. Originally announced as a biopic, subsequently the documentary was born of it, in which Eddie captures final interviews and archival footage with the haunted boxer. This is actually the first feature out of the gate for filmmaker Eddie Alcazar whose radical sci-fi film 0000 has been curiously tracked as in production for a couple years now and the ambitious looking trailer only piqued mad interest. Watching the clip below of Johnny, there is a poignant sadness yet slight zeal and spirit, however low key and worn, that emanates from the towering rumble of his battered lifetime – unquestionably his refusal to be knocked out.
PURGATORIO directed by Rodrigo Reyes (Mexico) – An elegiac and cinematically shot poem filled with emotional narration and iconography, this border film is told by way of a tapestry of stories that culminates into a strong cry for human compassion. Imagining the border as if purgatory, where migrants must suffer in order to get through to the other side, the dangerous plight in crossing the US/Mexico border is viewed outside political context but rather a metaphysical prism. This is the fourth film from Reyes, a talented young documentarian from Mexico.
EUROPA REPORT directed by Sebastian Cordero and written by Philip Gelatt – From award winning Ecuador born filmmaker Sebastian Cordero (Rabia, Cronicas, Pescador) Europa Report marks his first film in English. Somewhat shrouded in mystery, the story is written by Philip Gelatt, an adult comic book author, and is set aboard the first manned mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The genre bending sounding sci-fi thriller was recently picked up by Magnolia’s Magnet division and will go straight to VOD on June 27 after its LA Film Festival premiere. Cordero, who is a UCLA grad, has a well-controlled gritty realism to his aesthetic, which might inhabit and distinguish this deep space thriller among the genre’s canon.
CRYSTAL FAIRY written and directed by Sebastian Silva (Chile) – From the crafty young Chilean filmmaker whose first first film, The Maid put him on the international map, this is one of two films he screened at Sundance this year. A road trip of self-discovery featuring the charming free spirited Gaby Hoffman pitted against a smarmy American tourist Michael Cera in the long and vast Chilean coast side, the film explores their unusual and fluid character dynamic and opposing auras.
THE WOMEN AND THE PASSENGER directed by Valentina Mac-Pherson, Patricia Correra (Chile) – A 45 minute version of this screened at the prestigious documentary film festival in Amsterdam IDFA. An unobtrusive camera follows four maids as they clean the rooms of one of those clandestine by-the-hour motels. Amid the moans behind doors and bed aftermaths of torrid love affairs, the women reveal their own perspectives about life, love and sex in some kind of visual love letter to the special place. I don’t believe the title is translated to interpret its full meaning, its more like, “The Transients’ women”.
I WAS BORN IN MEXICO BUT…. written and directed by Corey OHama – 12min (US) – Per the IMDB description, “using found footage to tell the story of an undocumented young woman who grew up thinking she was American, only to find out as a teenager that she didn’t have papers because she was brought to the U.S. as a young child. “ Sounds like the thousands of Dreamers plights whose stories are being suppressed.
MISTERIO written and directed by Chema Garcia Ibarra (Spain) 12min – So even though this is from Spain (not the Americas), I mention it if because I’m a huge fan of Chema’s shorts, Protoparticles and The Attack of the Robots from Nebula-5. I have no doubt this will share that similar strange, whimsical vibe.
AL LADO DE NORMA written and directed by Camila Luna, Gabriela Maturana 14min (Chile) – 49 year-old Jorge is a silent, tired man, whose life seems to revolve around Norma, his elderly mother who has Alzheimer’s. But Antonio, who rents a small room in their home, will provide him with the chance to examine himself and question his monotonous life, which might just make for a radical change.
PAPEL PICADO – written and directed by Javier Barboza – From a 2007 Cal Arts Alumnus, and independent animation teacher and filmmaker, this looks wild! Check out his vimeo works here.
SAINT JOHN, THE LONGEST NIGHT, written and directed by Claudia Huaiquimilla (Chile) 18 min – The filmmaker is of the indigenous Mapuche tribe of Southern Chile. Set amid the happy Saints celebration of June 24, a young boy must wrestle with the reappearance of his violent father.
TOO MUCH WATER (DEMASIADA AGUA) written and directed by Nicolas Botana, Gonzalo Torrens (Uruguay) 14 min – A young woman fills her backyard pool every night and finds it empty in the morning. Strange neighbors and even stranger circumstances stir her paranoia.
Lastly, I have to mention dance beat rapper Kid Cudi’s feature film acting debut in GOODBYE WORLD directed by Denis Hennelly (Rock the Bells doc about Wu Tang Clan) and written by Sarah Adina Smith. Essentially, the film is about a group of friends hanging out when some kind of apocalypse hits. Hijinks ensue. (There’s a trend here after It’s A Disaster and the upcoming “look-we’re-so-cool-we-play-ourselves celeb cast partying of This is The End). Although he’s one of seven players, including Adrian Grenier, Mark Webber and Gaby Hoffman, it is one a few films Kid Cudi is in that are coming through the pipeline. Born Scott Ramon Seguro Mescudi in Cleveland Ohio, he is a beautiful brown mestizo blend of African American on his mother’s side and Native/Mexican mix on his father’s side.
The LA Film Festival kicks off with Pedro Almodovar’s, I’m So Excited on June 13 and runs until the 23. Tickets and info here.