I nodded off at 3am with Orange is The New Black finale in the background while compiling my old yahoo contacts and email lists from the various film festivals I’ve worked in the past 12 years. Why? To prepare a Master email blast to ask people to back Ambulante California on Kickstarter. If I didn’t love this social cinema platform and believe it to be a noble and radical vehicle that stimulates the ecosystem of audiences and filmmakers I would probably think twice about emailing folks I haven’t talked to in a while. But that’s not the case. Here’s me a few hours ago all showered after two strong instant black coffees making a video to commemorate the launch.
And here is the campaign video and page. Please click HERE to go to page and get involved and support this project!
Don’t be shy, tell me what you think. I will try to update my blog with this crazy rollercoaster journey of the Chicana from Chicago heading up a traveling documentary film festival.
Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, co-founders of the traveling documentary film festival, talk about the inception of Ambulante, the power of cinema, and the upcoming launch of Ambulante California. Coming soon September 21 – October 4
Peep this and pay mind folks, especially Festival Programmers and Distributors. Here’s my list of the most exciting American Latino independent fiction films coming through the pipeline ready to break out and make noise in 2013.
All are first features by wildly original voices who are remixing potent multi-cultural heritage and inventing their own unique brand of genre. So much talent! Makes this Chicanita proud.
Let’s start with numero uno:
1. WATER & POWER – from Chicano wordsmith warrior and Culture Clash iconoclast, Richard J. Montoya, produced by Mark Roberts. This is the screen adaptation of Montoya’s 2006 play originally performed at the Mark Taper Forum. Rife with the City of Angels’ legends, haunts and lore, the Chicano noir tale (how cool is that?) takes place over the course of one fateful night. An intense story unravels centered on twin brothers nicknamed “Water” played by Enrique Murciano and “Power” played by Nicolas Gonzalez who were born and raised on the East Side streets playground – one grows up to be a senator and the other a high ranking cop. The amazingly gifted musical artist and composer Gingger Shankar (Circumstance, Charlie Wilson’s War) has contributed music to the film. The project participated in the 2007 Sundance Institute screenwriters & directors lab. A madly prolific playwright (a regular Berkeley and Yale Repertory Theatre collaborator), I got a chance to see Montoya’s uproarious and thought provoking American history redux play, American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose last fall (read the LA Weekly feature review here). An uncompromising artist with a thundering voice all over the pop culture pulse and map, Montoya’s first feature film tops my list of films to watch out for in 2013. Can. Not. Wait.
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2. PARDON – written and directed by R.F. Rodriguez and produced by his production company BadMansSon. A story that deals with a cholo ex-con who returns to his barrio ready to go on the straight and narrow but soon finds himself pulled by his old gang familia may sound familiar, but never has it been as emotionally excavated and depicted with such sensitivity and complexity. Hector Atreyu Ruiz is Saul Sanchez whose driving motivation is the chance to reunite with his estranged daughter. Guided by a sympathetic parole officer, played by Tracey Heggins (from the 2008 indie African-American gem Medicine for Melancholy), Saul tackles catch-22 circumstances towards his mission and confronts a growing uneasiness and threat from his vatos who continue to test if he’s still down. At its core the film is an exploration about fatherhood and coming home, and speaks to the social phenomenon of absentee fathers as the result of incarceration, an issue predominantly afflicting Latino families and communities.
Set in Highland Park, Rodriguez, a USC film school grad, shot the feature before graduating, having fleshed the story further out of the short film he made of the same name. His project mentor, Patricia Cardoso (Real Women Have Curves) encouraged him to do more with it and this is the amazing result. With earnest and raw performances, the moving and powerfully directed film marks this a sign of a true filmmaker talent discovery.
3. RECOMMENDED BY ENRIQUE written and directed by Daniel Garcia and Rania Attieh and produced by their NY based company En Passant Films. Shot in border town Del Rio, Texas (the U.S. side of the Rio Grande) with an offbeat hipster cast of young non-professionals plucked locally, the quirky, mystical tale is about an aspiring actress and an old cowboy who each arrive into town with respective plans and expectations, only to end up waiting for something to happen. Forced to wait out their time, they’ve nothing to do but explore the bewitching town and its people. Lino Varela plays the Cowboy and Sarah Swinwood, a Canadian newcomer actress nails the airhead wannabe star.
This is the second feature film from Texas native Daniel Garcia and Lebanese born Rania. Their first film, OK, ENOUGH, GOODBYE screened at San Francisco International Film Festival among other world wide festivals, and the duo were included in 2011’s Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. Undertones of a Twilight Zone type of dimension and the spellbinding pull of the dusty town are perfectly captured – as anyone who’s been in these strange little Texas towns can attest. Unexpected and unpredictable, this definitely gets my recommendation.
4. VINCENT & LUZY (FKA On the Run) written and directed by Alberto Barboza and produced by Cinético Productions. A charming, hip and modern fairy tale love story between a soulful graffiti artist,Vincent, played by Miguel Angel Caballero, and sexy tattoo artist, Luzy played by Iliana Carter Ramirez. The film captures and romanticizes the happening, multi-culti rockabilly/emo scene and counter culture of Boyle Heights and features lots of home grown talent and spots like Self Help Graphics, the community visual arts mission center. The posters created by Vincent in the film are designed by rising street artist, El Mac (Miles MacGregor). You’ll recognize some of his murals around LA like this one on Hollywood and Wilton, one of my favorites. He just did the album cover for No Doubt.
An eclectic soundtrack featuring local Vallenato band, Very Be Careful, Hermanos Herrera,Irene Diaz, Doghouse Lords and more. The cast also includes ol’ G’, Sal Lopez (American Me) and Lupe Ontiveros in what may be her last film role before she passed away last year (she also has a small role in Water & Power).
Fresh, exuberant and inhabiting a distinct, heightened magical street reality, Vincent & Luzy might be the first film to truly reflect this young, vibrant artist subculture, making this one a hot flick to track.
5. BLAZE YOU OUT – written and directed by Mateo Frazier and Diego Joaquin Lopez and produced by Alicia J. Keyes. Set in the rarely seen mystic world of New Mexico, this young female driven thriller is uniquely atmospheric. Starring the rising young talent, Veronica Diaz Carranza (Mamitas) along with a terrific cast including Elizabeth Peña, Q’orianka Kilcher, Raoul Trujillo and Mark Adair Rios, all who ignite the screen. Diaz stars as Lupe, a DJ who is forced to venture into her town’s heroin trade underworld in order to save her younger sister Alicia’s life. To do so she must confront mysterious occult figures and harness the power within her to connect with the divine that surrounds her.
I was thrilled to hear that Lionsgate picked up the film at AFM a couple months ago. Lionsgate/Grindstone will release the film July 2013. 6 Sales is handling rights to rest of world. Intense and wicked and unlike anything else this is a sizzling genre film to look forward to. In the meantime, check out the press kit, pics and more on their site.
CHAVEZ – written and directed by Diego Luna and produced by Canana Films, Mr. Mudd and backed by Participant Media. Given it’s a biography of an iconic Chicano figure, labor rights activist Cesar Chavez, and Luna is an international name talent, this project has already attracted major press coverage ever since it was first announced so it doesn’t really fit my ‘Discovery’ profile. That said, it is a highly anticipated and important film. I really hope the film opens wide and mainstream – although Participant will likely need a partner to make this happen in the U.S. Michael Peña, the Puerto Rican actor catapulting towards leading man roles and already a regular in big Hollywood films (he’s in Gangster Squad opening this weekend), embodies a young Chavez. It wasn’t quite ready for Sundance so it’s possible the film will bow at a high profile festival like Cannes or Toronto. Although I’m hoping Stephanie Allain, director of Film Independent’s LA Film Festival will go hard after the film to wrangle what would be a fitting LA gala premiere. Diego Luna proved his salt as the filmmaker of Abel, an eloquent and heart-stirring portrait of a little delusional boy who pretends to be the man of the house since his father left. Peña recently shared his approach was to be truthful to Cesar the MAN not necessarily the legend or myth generated by his colossal perseverance and labor rights feats. All eyes will be on the representation of such a querido and influential figure. My bet? All in. I trust the filmmakers and cast will deliver a resonant and accomplished cinematic film worthy of the inspiring civil rights story, and more importantly re-introduce Chavez to mobilize our millennial generation.
Do you have a hot independent American Latino film recommendation I should track? Holler at your girl. Email me at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Next up, Non-Fiction American Latino films to track in 2013
In honor of the social rights activist who would have been 85 today let’s take a look at not just one but both of the feature films about his life’s work in the pipeline.
One is a narrative being directed by Diego Luna and written by Keir Pearson (Hotel Rwanda), the other, a documentary by Richard Ray Perez, an established film and video documentarian which has been supported by Sundance Institute. Both stand to give honor to the dogged labor rights organizer and activist in two distinct cinematic approaches. The documentary which is called Cesar’s Last Fast is entering the last stages of editing and a rough cut is expected by mid-summer. While the narrative, only referred to as Chavez for now, has just begun shooting.
THE REAL (FOOTAGE) CESAR
Most doc critics and enthusiasts would agree that a question worth asking when considering documentary cinema, is finding out the filmmaker’s connection to the subject/story. That is, why is THIS given filmmaker the best person to tell THIS story. In Cesar’s Last Fast, its fascinating to hear. Apparently it’s by inheritance that brought Rick Perez to the project. A woman very close to Chavez collected years and years of documentation and upon her death willed that only one person could take on and carry the project to fruition and that was Rick Perez. His venerable team includes Molly O’Brien, emmy award winning producer. What’s the focus of the documentary? As evident by the title, Cesar’s Last Fast, the documentary looks and is anchored by the specific 1988 act, the grueling 36 day fast Chavez undertook to protest pesticides, which exemplifies the man’s sheer strength and will. The documentary looks to have a very spiritual and humanizing bent. It includes very intimate, never before seen material from the family’s personal archive. More importantly it ties a lot of the history of Union Farm Workers Union he founded in 1962, with what is going on today; asking what is the face of organizing today – critically placing a contemporary context to it. No doubt the combination of these elements is what made this specific portrayal of Cesar Chavez so appealing to the Sundance Documentary Film Program which got involved early on with funding support. Sundance typically supports contemporary social issues but perhaps recognizing the same issues loom just as pressing today, were drawn in by the relevance Rick Perez posits. In addition to the money support, Sundance invited Rick to participate in the Sundance Producer’s Summit and a Works in Progress screening at the Hammer last year , a popular and overcrowded event which was accompanied by a panel with Edward James Olmos, Paul Chavez, Cesar’s son, along with current heads of the union. And recently, the DFP had a lab down in Imperial Valley free to all, where they had another work in progress screening of Cesar’s Last Fast followed by a master class given by Rick about story structure.
CHAVEZ – BASED ON A TRUE STORY
Back in 2010, screenwriter Keir Pearson and producer Larry Meli optioned life rights to a Chavez biopic after working with the family for over a two year period in which they visited them, including Paul Chavez, and gained their trust. Canana got involved by way of attaching Diego Luna to direct and adding Gael Garcia Bernal and Pablo Cruz as producing partners along with Larry Meli. Also attached as producer is John Malkovich’s Mr. Mudd, and additional cast include popular Culture Clash founder, Richard Montoya. Diego Luna previously showed off his directing skills in Abel which premiered at Sundance 2010, a psychologically harrowing story about a kid who takes on the role of man in the house when his father isn’t around. His traveling documentary festival, Ambulante was recently awarded with WOLA’s Human Rights Award back in November. Speaking for the Chavez film, over email Larry Meli was kind enough to email me back saying, “This is a terribly important story for all time and particularly in this moment in our history more so as we see manual workers being squeezed along with an entire middle class. There were some successes and some failures but most important it shows that one person CAN make a difference. For Mexican-American’s, it will be a great source of pride as Cesar stood up for the rights of others against the corporations and the system and won!!!”
I wasn’t able to find out what the screenplay’s take and focus is, whether it will be an epic period set retelling of Chavez’s personal lifestory, or if it will have a specific focus like the documentary, portraying his deeply personal struggles, and or pivotal marches and strikes as it relates to today. Considering Michael Peña has been cast as Chavez, and Rosario Dawson as his co-organizer, Dolores Huerta, I hope it means a considerable chunk will be about the early days, the beginning stages and HOW the literal first ever grassroots mobilization was accomplished, what later would go on to become the United Farm Worker’s Union.
SI SE PUDO?
Of the four library books I checked out on Chavez this week, Conquering Goliath by Fred Ross, which is all in Chavez’s words where he catches up with his buddy and mentor Fred Ross about the 6 year span in which he organized the Oxnard Community Service Organization, right before he moved to East LA to start the national movement, was the most fascinating. For one, the reader hears his inner doubts and insecurities (making him human and not on held up on a pedestal) and second how he learned to play ball with the growers, state and federal outfits, and interestingly how much it cost him to gain the trust of the workers. All the strategizing he learned in these early days sets the stage for when he took on the bigger challenge of mobilizing a national union. One is tempted to say, “The Rest is History”, but in this case, that history deserves to be analyzed and told and retold.
I’m personally thrilled that we have two films in two totally different genres that will embody deal the life history of Chavez and his efforts to make Labor Law change. In addition to reflecting on the impact he has today, I hope clear historic nuts and bolts will be told that which we could refer to in order to comprehend government policies that stand in the way of tackling the issues Chavez took on including the dangers of exposing workers to pesticides, and crucially, immigration rights. Chavez’s Si Se Puede (“Yes We Can”, hence, my post title, “We Still Can) is an inspirational chant used today. But its in studying the sweaty losses as much as his triumphs that we might fully understand the weight and responsibility that comes with that statement. Many issues we face today about immigration reform harken back to the Bracero Program, the guest worker program in which Mexicans were imported to the US to work the lands, a people caught in between Chavez’s struggle to gain rights for ‘domestic workers’. The more I read and begin to understand the political aspect, the program set the pattern and tone for the immigration rights battle we face today. Although in 1964 Congress voted to end it, like an ugly ‘call it by another name’ phenomenon, it exists today. A factsheet from the Immigration Policy Center (pulled from this article) reports between 53% and 75% of the 2.5 million farm workers who work in the U.S. each year are undocumented. Collective bargaining does NOT help this population; the provisions of a union contract are only enforceable for documented workers.
It’s nice to render tribute through films and books the symbolic meaning of Chavez, but its our responsibility and the filmmakers tackling this story, to responsibly learn and apply the lessons learned from his life to truly honor his legacy. And I trust both filmmaker teams will do just that.
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.