Reel Rasquache – the only REAL LATINO festival on the block

Delusions of Grandeur after party

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.

The one of a kind Award trophies sculpted by Yolanda Gonzalez. click to go to her website

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.

Kenneth Castillo, the Trailblazer

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.

Pepe Serna
Maestro, Don, El Senor: Pepe Serna

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.

artwork by Juan Solis

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.

Meet Iris Almaraz, the emotional exhibitionist filmmaker of Delusions of Grandeur

Iris Almaraz

Iris Almaraz is the writer/director of the delirious, incandescent and quirky film, Delusions of Grandeur, about a naive, grunge-y chicana, Lucy who moves out of her dad’s place in Oakland, and out of her medicated dazed and confused mess, to seize her independence across the bridge when she moves in with a hopeless romantic tranny named Ilusion in the tenderloin of San Francisco. Pining for a mother who ditched her as a kid, Lucy launches into the stratosphere of self-discovery in a search for any kind of true love.  The performances of the diverse cast are so well inhabited and played with relish, the SF 90’s vibe is perfectly nostalgic and channels the city’s storied free love and psychedelia.  In essence, the theme is of womanhood tackled in a uniquely expansive manner, as seen through such a kaleidoscopic lens touching on the lights of sexuality, motherhood, wifey, gender variant roles, Madonna, all in the centrifuge of romance. Terribly sweet without the sugary sap coating, the film premiered at last summer’s NY Latino International Film Festival and is charming the independent film festival circuit across the nation.  The film is next screening at Seattle True Independent Film Festival Thursday, May 9 at 8pm and will screen here in LA, Saturday, May 18 at 8pm at the Casa 010 in Boyle Heights as part of the Reel Rasquache Film Festival.  I was already smitten with the film but now that I’ve had a chance to talk with the filmmaker, I’m an even bigger fan and appreciator of her easy yet bold candor which is felt in her work.   Check the trailer then read on for the realz scoop

Familia and barrio experience totally shape who we become and how we relate our stories. Me, I was born in Chicago’s mexican barrio and then my parents ‘moved us on up’ so to speak, to the neat, white suburbs where I was suddenly the only brown girl and my life became a back and forth between embracing and resisting my ethnicity.  How did your own coming of age inform part of Delusions of Grandeur?  Also what’s your relationship/experience with San Francisco?  I love what a great sense of place the film has with its location as character.

Funny thing is that I had the hood to ‘burbs experience too, only mine was from stints in juvenile hall to Christian summer camp, so by the time I found myself in San Francisco I had a double dose of Catholic guilt and Protestant repression. But when I got to that city the dark cloud that surrounded me EXPLODED!!!  I was a 22 yr. old virgin with a job as a phone sex operator.   My imagination ran amuck and everyday was like a post adolescent children’s book of “Dick & Jane”.  Anyway, you can imagine me trying to explain my college S&M films to my parents – “So how do you know those girls Iris…?” – “oh just from around…”

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 11.36.50 AMWoody Allen’s “Manhattan” played a big influence on establishing a city as a character itself.  San Francisco has so much personality that has not been captured cinematically that it is a shame. I felt I owed SF a big Thank You.

I really appreciate the multi-perspectives in the film on the fluidity of what defines a woman.  Why and what other recurring themes/narratives do you find yourself consistently exploring and attracted to as a result of your background and experiences? 

I’m very fascinated with the traditionally Mexican “Virgin/Whore” dichotomy.   My own woman hood is in constant motion . Even now as a mother of two I find the realities of a monogamous relationship that now has “Dora the Explorer” as the sound track, to be humorous, adventurous and worth discussion. I think I may just be an emotional exhibitionist.   That’s usually too much for people to handle but for some reason when I put it on film it seems to resonate with people who are still stuck in a shell.  They find hope in knowing that they are not the only freaks out there.

How did you go about getting this from script to production?  Did you try to go the traditional route as the system would dictate?  Or did you always know it was going to be the hard DIY way?  What kind of support from orgs/friends/grants were you able to garner and recommend?

leantripIntitially, I had a feature script that would have required a much larger budget.  There was interest in the script but not with me attached as the director.  I knew I couldn’t continue with creating dead end shorts and a feature was the only way this chubby chicana from the East Side was gonna get anyone to pay attention.    The first thing I did was sit down at the kitchen table with my dad and ask “Hey Dad you know that Quinceañera I never had, and the wedding I never asked for… well I need that money now.”  After that, other key members of the cast and crew pulled their family and friend resources together .  We also used online crowd funding to complete post-production .  Our saving grace, however, was having amazingly talented friends who committed their souls to the project.   As a young film maker you have to get used to asking for more even when you have been told “no” a million times before and make sure you keep good company.  People will rally behind you if you believe in you.

I see your work as totally distinct and a truly original American Latino walk of life.  For me it is so encouraging to see there is now more than ever, a steady incoming wave of amazing diverse storytelling from our multi-culti pockets.  Who are some emerging narrative Latino filmmakers/peers you are excited about, that we should all track?

The hopeless romantic, Illusion, played by the talented Salvador Benavides

This is such a tough question to answer for all the right reasons.  I am continuously blown away by all the diverse work right now.  It will be unjust for me to list of a few when I will inevitably  leave  out  so many.  That being said, there are two filmmakers whose work has moved and inspired me personally .  The first is Aurora Guerrero who has paved a path that young film makers can look to as a blue print for how to do it right.  Not only is she a talented unique voice but she also has an innate comprehension for how the business works. The second is Cristina Ibarra who is an amazing talent that is going to blow people away with her vision and well crafted stories.

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 12.04.18 PMI love how honest your film feels.  Did you ever feel pressure that you had to talk specifically to a Latino audience, or conversely  you ever felt like you had to cut something to avoid alienating any non-Latino audience in your film – if only to reach a ‘broader’ audience.

Absolutly not.  In general I feel like an outsider in most established social groups, so I try to remain true to what my instinct tells me to do.  My priority is and always will be to make films about people.  That’s hard enough to figure out besides trying to appease others always tangles me up in someone else’s web.

How has your experience been with the Latino Film Festivals you’ve been invited to with your film?  How do they rank and operated? What do you think they do best and what do you wish they did better?

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 11.46.55 AMWe have been so blessed this year with the opportunity to meet the most amazing people at festivals.  New York Latino was the first Latino festival we played in and what can I say, there is nothing like New Yorkers. They can be gruff and thuggy on the outside yet sweet and intellectuals on the inside.  The festival takes great risk in programming and finding new talent.  Austin was incredible because the people  of Austin are so down to earth yet out there. It was a perfect match  for our film.  Chicago Latino was the unexpected surprise in the bunch.  Well organized, elegant and classy.  I have to admit I was initially intimidated by the other film makers from Latin America who were the cream of the crop.  But the audience reassured me that I was in the right place.   It seemed as if they had been waiting a long time for a film like ours to come along.The festivals were all amazing at welcoming out-of-towners, but if I were to throw a penny in a wishing well I guess I would say it would be nice if more marketers and distributors would attend the festivals so we could figure out how to get the product to the people.

Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 11.50.35 AM
Leana Chavez

Both!! I had to have been a little, or very,  delusional to think we could pull of this film with as little as we had.  And I can’t help but feel like life is a dreary place if you don’t have a little bit of magic to make you believe that anything is possible.

What are you working on next?

My next project is “La Puta”, (what-ya gonna do, right? ) The story is set in a mythical dessert border town that nobody can remember which side of the border it was on.  But they all remember “La Puta”, the town whore who lactates a healing nectar from her breast and heals a town desperately trying not to drown in the sea of sand that surrounds them.

~Love it!  Muchisimas gracias mujer!  All y’all Angelenos better come to see Delusions of Grandeur and meet Iris in person Saturday, May 18.  Buy tickets here. 

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