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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

credit: Juan Tallo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Jose Álvarez, the soulful filmmaker of Canícula

Top Doc Director, Jose Alvarez

Nothing beats the physical thrill of absorbing a high sensory image on the big screen, and in this past year’s Morelia Film Festival I had one of those unforgettable moments watching Canícula, a remarkably cinematic and revelatory documentary by Jose Álvarez about the Totonac people in Veracruz, Mexico.  My visual senses were so intensely activated by the rich photography its as if spillover stimulation tickled my sense of smell during a scene in which pristine vanilla bean trees are dazzlingly captured; I could almost smell the vanilla!   This fine mexican documentary is screening in next month’s Guadalajara Film Festival and mini-major doc fest True/False.  Check out the interview with the endearingly soulful filmmaker below.  Note:  Yours truly translated, but I’m also including  Jose’s unedited answers in Español because it sounds so much prettier!

CD: Tell us about the special meaning and significance of the word, Canícula  

The name of the documentary Canícula (Dog Days), has to do with the hottest 40 days that occurs in many parts of the world, in particular this zone in Ciudad Sagrada de El Tajín, Veracruz.  It coincides with a special season for the “Voladores” (or “Bird Men”), because it represents the time in which their fellow dead Voladores come down from the heavens.  For this reason they wear red Volador pants which symbolizes the blood and sacrifice, and ceremonially they ask the gods for rain, a bountiful harvest and health for their children and families.  As they spin and lower from the top of the pole circling around, they disperse prayers and blessings they’ve acquired from the heavens.  It may also represent the fire that comes from the sun, necessary to bake the mud and shape the clay of the beautiful ceramics the tribal women make.

~El nombre del documental Canícula (días de perros) tiene que ver con la época de los 40 días mas caluroso  que se viven en muchos lugares del mundo y en especial en esta zona de México, Ciudad Sagrada de El Tajín, Veracruz, esta época para los voladores representa el momento en el que bajan del cielo los voladores muertos, es la época del sol sangrante, por esa razón usan los voladores pantalones rojos haciendo referencia a este símbolo de sangre y sacrificio, a las peticiones que hacen a los dioses para que haya lluvia y fertilidad para sus cultivos,  salud para sus hijos y bienestar para sus familias.

Bajan desde la cima del palo volando y girando dispersando todas las bendiciones y favores a su pueblo que obtuvieron del cielo.  En algún lugar también representa al fuego que viene del sol que necesitan las alfareras para cristalizar el barro de sus piezas.

CD: Your documentaries spotlight the rich diversity of indigenous communities of Mexico (Flores En el Desierto).  On what social activist/awareness levels do you feel your films being out in the world, operate and give back to those communities.  And what expectations, if any, do these communities and people who agree to be in your films hold you to?

The people who see my films can easily engage with what they see as long as their hearts are open, they are willing to experience other human realities, and as long as they don’t reject different ways of life.  It’s the respect as well as the admiration of being able to witness original cultures like the Wixárikas or Totonacos maintaining their way of life, their faith, community, work, love, family and death.  Audiences can make a trip to lands far away yet be as close as we the filmmakers and be able to marvel at their millennial wisdom, a striking counter example for the otherwise chaotic times we are living.

The Flores En El Desierto documentary has proven to be of great help for the Wixárikas  (Huicholes) in regards to bringing awareness to their ongoing struggle they wage against the Canadian mining companies that come in and exploit their land, their center of sacrificial ceremony, and threaten ecological destruction as well as impose their imperial culture.  In my opinion, Los Totonacos like the Wixarikas have made these films.  We merely provide the instrument.   There are great producers and photogenic personalities in front of the camera.  I’ve always made the effort of making films as least intrusive as possible since I’m most interested in working FOR and WITH them.

~Las personas que ven mis películas se involucran de manera fácil con lo que ven en ellas si es que tienen abierto el corazón, si quieren ver estas realidades humanas, si no rechazan la existencia de otras formas de llevar la vida, el respeto, incluso la admiración por ver a culturas originales como la Wixárka (Flores en el desierto) o los Totonacos (Canícula) desenvolviéndose en sus vidas cotidianas, en su fe, en su comunidad, en el trabajo, en el amor, la familia o la muerte, los espectadores podrán hacer un viaje a tierras y formas muy lejanas para estar tan cerca de ellas como nosotros que las filmamos y maravillares con su sabiduría milenaria, ejemplo para nuestros tiempos de caos.

Por ejemplo, Flores en el desierto ha sido un documento de gran ayuda para los Wixárikas (huicholes) en esta lucha que mantienen contra las intensiones de explotación de mineras canadienses dentro de las tierras donde están sus centros ceremoniales sagrados que generarían destrucción ecológica y cultural absoluta. Tanto Los Totonacos como los Wixárikas han hecho estas películas, nosotros hemos sido meros instrumentos para que se realicen, son grandes productores, grandes y fotogénicos personajes frente a la cámara, siempre me he dispuesto a hacer películas poco intrusivas, me interesa trabajara para ellos y con ellos.


CD: Clearly the viewfinder has so much to do with not only the context but the experience of what you are showing us, the angles, the focus, closeups, etc. In a way your films demonstrate a unique transportive quality. How much do you think about where to place the camera  –  as it relates to the ‘outsider looking in’ to a world unfamiliar with the audience ?

The film’s cinematographers, Pedro González Rubio (Alamar), Fernanda Romandia (Flores en El Desierto) and Sebastian Hofmann(Viaje Redondo) were totally free to photograph this colorful and intense reality in order to relate the gaze of a young child as well as say an elderly woman, in essence, encompassing the spectrum of our human existence.

When it appears that the camera knocks and pries open the door into the soul, its simply because there is something there to share.  In the context of making films, not only does it provide an opportunity for the world to see them, but also an opportunity for their eyes to meet the world as well.

~Los fotógrafos Pedro González Rubio, Fernanda Romandía y Sebastian Hofmann han sido libres para retratar esta realidad tan colorida, tan intensa, para adivinar en esas miradas desde la de un pequeño niño hasta la de una mujer anciana, los rincones de la existencia humana.

Cuando parece que la cámara toca la puerta del alma y esta se abre, es simplemente porque algo quiere decir, porque en el contexto en el que hacemos estas películas les abre a ellos una oportunidad también no solo de que el mundo los vea a ellos si no de que ellos miren al mundo.

CD: Your films are not only impressive in the ethnographic/anthropological sense but the divine cinematography that allows one to be captivated by the mesmerizing beauty of nature, and the unwavering spirituality of the indigenous who persevere a sacred connection with it.  Is this conscious on your part as far as making the films cinematic form so elevated and visceral?

I’ve had a lot of luck finding these amazing cinematographers who bring a keen understanding and who have embraced an approach that seems to pinpoint this language, but also the paradises these cultures inhabit are so beautiful that it could possibly be enough to take a camera and shoot or photograph.  What I always aim to express is the language of their land, people, music, art, ceremony, history and faithful existence.  I believe that what I’m in awe of, is also what will awe the audience.  It has much to do with the manner in how we ingratiate ourselves, become close to, and how we enter into this Mexico so wonderful and rich.

~He tenido mucha suerte en encontrar a estos extraordinarios fotógrafos, sin duda, que han entendido y han propuesto de forma muy atinada este lenguaje, pero también  los paraísos que habitan estas culturas son tan bellos que bastaría poner la cámara y grabar o filmar.

Lo que quiero plasmar siempre es el lenguaje de sus tierras, gente, música, arte, ceremonias, historias, su fe vivencial y pienso que lo que a mi me asombra de este acercamiento será también lo que asombre a los espectadores, tiene mucho que ver con la manera en la que nos acercamos y como entramos en este México rich maravilloso.

Canicula’s FB page here and trailer here

Industry subscribers –  you can catch both Flores en El Desierto and Canicula at Festival Scope