WTF is Latino at the 2013 LA Film Festival?

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.

736490_402811483141484_1993639310_oThe 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.

40 YEARS FROM YESTERDAY written and directed by Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck and Robert Machoian

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 12.06.58 PMThis 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:

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT written by Joseph B. Vasquez and directed by Henry Barrial

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.

Jack & Lilly Wedding - GRDThe 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.

 

my-sisters-quinceanera

MY SISTER’S QUINCEANERA written and directed by Aaron Douglas Johnston

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)

tapia_1520167aTAPIA directed by Eddie Alcazar

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.

INTERNATIONAL SHOWCASE

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 9.58.48 AMEUROPA 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”.

SHORTS

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.

kid-cudiLastly, 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.

Film Independent’s 12th annual Directors lab – Mexico and Brazil rooted director projects

The non-profit arts organization Film Independent continues to build a solid track record of supporting projects by culturally diverse filmmakers through its Artist Development programs like Project Involve, Fast Track, and the Directors/Producers/Screenwriters Lab.  Flip through those glossy FIND Talent Guide booklets they put out and it’s easy to see and read the range of multi-cultural and ethnic voices they have backed (the guides are actually extremely valuable for scouting talent; the online version found here).  Among the eight filmmakers selected for the 2013 Film Independent Director’s lab, two are of Latin roots.

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Aldo is in the red next to Josh Welsh (right), co-prexy of Film Independent

There is Aldo Velasco born in Guadalajara, Mexico to a Mexican father and gringa mother.  His project is God Loves Stu, based on the real life of Stu Rasmussen the first openly transgender mayor in Silverton, Oregon.   Velasco, 42, is a UCLA MFA Film Production grad who screened his second short film, Crabgrass Manifesto at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.  Since then his subsequent short films have played at SXSW and LA Film Fest, and he directed Tent City on season one of ITVS FutureState online short film series.

ImageThe other Latino filmmaker prepping his feature debut in the lab, is Brazilian-American Alex Moratto, 24. His thesis short film “The Other Side” won the 2010 Jury Award from the Directorʼs Guild of America for Latino filmmaker. Watch it here.  His untitled Amazon project is about a family in danger of losing their family home in rural Amazon and the indigenous treasure they might sacrifice to keep it.  His producer, Summer Shelton took his script to Sundance Institute’s Producer’s lab last summer where she was honored as the first ever Bingham Ray producing fellow.

Film Independent’s Directing Lab, a free and intensive 10 week workshop lab that connects young talent with established filmmakers and where they are given technical discipline, equipment and preparation, is exactly the kind of infrastructure crucial in helping under-represented artists develop their voices in whichever kind of stories they are meant to tell. In my ongoing quest to uncover and do something about why there seems to be such a low disproportionate number of working American Latino filmmakers in the independent film world when we comprise the fastest growing population, it’s worth looking at the vital role these workshop opportunities play and measure how accessible they are to American Latinos at large.  For far too long I have  heard around the festival and studio block that black and brown films are just not good enough or that there are not enough of them.  Can this be true?  If so, why, and on what criteria is ‘good enough’ based?  The pursuit of film as a viable career let alone a hobby, even in this day and age with all its technological advances and more accessible equipment, continues to evade the next generation born into working class families.  Along with stronger diversity development outreach (artist non-profits!) like Film Independent’s incubator machine to encourage and crystalize raw talent, it is also the role of the savvy film curator as influential cultural gatekeeper to propel these films out there.  I’m talking about someone who ‘gets’ where unheard of stories and filmmakers fit in connecting the dots on the long-erased or simply absent historical record and sociocultural map of those mixed communities and how that can be embedded into each and every festival mission. Based on the caliber and level of output I’ve seen in ‘blind’ American Latino film submissions it’s rarely the story that misfires, but a struggling technical confidence and proficiency to wrap it all together within the cinematic medium. Fierce originality and storytelling aptitude is innate and rare but out there in unheard volumes.  Film technique and craft meanwhile is a skill that can be developed and continually nurtured.

Mamacitas! Boyle Heights Latina Independent Film Festival – GO

I’m so sad I’m out of town for this!  But it doesn’t mean you can’t go to the East side this weekend to support the underrepresented talent and force on display by a program of all latina talent!

This weekend, starting Friday ,March 2 to Sunday Marc 4, in concert with International Women’s Day, the Boyle Heights Latina Independent Film Festival, founded by Josefina Lopez (Real Women Have Curves), with newly installed Festival Director and Film Independent’s Project Involve selected filmmaker, Sandra Varona, celebrates their 6th year drawing attention to the growing number of Latinas working behind the camera.  Along with 20 films on tap, there will workshops and panels and obvio, fiestas, all taking place at newly renovated CASA 0101, a state of the art cultural theater that features a 99-seat theater, art gallery and learning center in the vibrant community of Boyle Heights.  When Lopez bought it over a decade ago, it was a tiny neglected storefront in a depressing neighborhood.  Today, this stretch on 1st has seen a visible revitalization thanks to artists like Lopez who are from the area and create opportunities to showcase the area’s cultural arts.  Over email Josefina said, “It’s exciting to see this festival grow and to finally have it presented at our new theater.  Bringing this many Latina directors and this much talent is a real celebration of our community, femininity, and creativity.   It’s going to be so much fun!”
BHLIFE will officially baptize the brand new 99 seat theatre

While I have not had the pleasure of seeing most films I do recognize a few shorts, including the charming teen dance number, Understudy by Cristina Malavenda, and Child of The Desert, a moving drama about a woman lost, by Ilana Sosa, a short that recently caught my eye at San Antonio’s Cinefestival.

Big shout out and mucha suerte to the team at BHLIFE this weekend!

Visit website for tickets and like their FB page