Last night was the Opening Night Screening and Gala of the 2013 Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. Invoking it’s “Sweet Sixteen”, the tradition of celebrating an American Girl’s coming of age is appropriate even if technically, this would have been its 17th year, had it not taken last year’s hiatus. It’s appropriate all the same because this year’s program represents American (Latino) films AND a substantial amount of Latinas driving and depicting these stories. Newly instated Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti was on hand to give his blessing. The grandson of Chihuahua, Mexicans, his poetic remarks referring to Los Pobladores (the original mestizo settlers who founded LA in 1781) confirmed the passionate consciousness and respect he has for LA’s history. Edward James Olmos presented the Gabi Lifetime Achievement award to Pablo Ferro, a bohemian whose signature skinny long letters and influential film titles sequences on such films like Dr. Strangelove, Bullet, Russians Are Coming, BeetleJuice, Men In Black among countless others, established an art within the art of cinema’s first impression and tone.
The documentary, Pablo handled by Shoreline Entertainment and directed by Richard Goldgewicht is an animated, whimsical treatment of the life and times of this consummate artist and original hipster. Folks like Angelica Huston, Andy Garcia, Leonard Maltin praise his genius, and narrated by The Dude, Jeff Bridges gives it an added air of deadpan wit, whose “This is Pablo” narrative conceit, strikes the tone of the bohemian Cuban born artist. Wearing his trademark red scarf, Pablo accepted his award without so many words but no matter, as the audience generously paid enthusiastic homage to one or our own being rightly commemorated. Also at long last given the deserving (posthumous) commemoration was La Madrina of the festival, the late great Lupe Ontiveros. Olmos made a point that even in her passing she changed the course of our community when her painful absence of the In Memoriam at the Oscars galvanized the Latino Academy members to rally and re-examine their presence within the organization. Olmos’s handsome rugged face, much like Robert Redford, transmits such grit & soul, add to it that wicked Zapata mustache and his Escalante personality that he never got rid of, when he closed by saying It’s time for the community to take charge” his onda was fully registered.
At the party across the street at the Wax Museum where the uncanny real life sized figures freak you out every time you feel you should turn around to introduce yourself (guests remarked where are my brown wax at!) I got a chance to see many of the US Latino filmmakers with films in the festival. From Jesse Salmeron and Jeremy Ray Valdez of Dreamer, Richard Montoya of Water & Power. I got a chance to catch up briefly with one of my esteemed mentors and friends who is also a LALIFF Advisor Sydney Levine of Sydneys Buzz on Indiewire. She is a treasure trove of insight and knowledge in the international film circuit and I cannot wait for her upcoming comprehensive book focusing on Latin American Cinema. Maria Agui Carter, NALIP member and filmmaker whose documentary on civil rights soldier Loreta Velazquez, Rebel screens in its full running time on Saturday at 3:10pm (The 52 minute version has been broadcasted on POV). Maria and I started to get into a passionate chat on women authored and women depicted stories. I’m pleased to find out there is a panel, Women and girls in Media Panel at 5:30pm today. We agreed that a candid and collaborative discussion needs to be had regarding these so called female empowered yet still sexually objectified characters (see Sofia Vergara’s ak47 tits in Machete Kills), and on how as women we need to deconstruct our stories in a different way, not so much replace roles men have traditionally had. Stories doing just that at the festival along with Rebel, are Maestra about Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign, a profile of the women who taught a nation to read and write, by Catherine Murphy. Colombian non-violent revolutionaries, in We Women Warriors by Nicole Karsin. On the dramatic front there is Nicole Gomez Fisher’s delightful comedy Sleeping with the Fishes and the DIY Venezuelan inspiring guapa/activist/filmmaker/vlogger/mother, Fanny Veliz who has written directed, produced and has been distributing her film Homebound.
While LALIFF has had and continues to have many organization struggles and challenges, I’ve become so aware that one thing you can never take away from it, is the powerful sense and network of community. So many talent pursuing their craft have made connections, collaborated and grown in their careers as a result of hanging out at LALIFF. Someone should archive these fruitful connections as much as the films that have been shown. Further proof is the filmmaker who told me last night how he met someone he wants to cast in the film he is working on.
My dance card is full this weekend before I head to Mexico on Monday. I’m in screening crunch mode for Sundance, but I’ll try to run down to the festival at the TLC Chinese 6 theaters when I can to write up another dispatch of films and filmmakers to watch. If you are in LA please do buy a ticket to support the Latino Film Institute and the next wave of Mas American talent. As with any festival your best bet for discovering emerging voices is the short film program. Go watch shorts The Shooting Star Salesman by Kiko Velarde, Llegar a Ti by Alejandro Torres, The Price we Pay by Jesse Garcia and El Cocodrilo by Steve Acevedo. Go to http://latinofilm.org/festival/ for full program and check them out on Twitter & Face
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?
The National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) is ramping up for its 14th Annual Conference this weekend and to my great gusto, the discourse promises to be more specific, relevant and fresh than last year on how to empower Latino independent storytellers. Judging by the practical and forward-thinking panel discussions, NALIP’s Official Selection YouTube channel showcasing a curated selection of current film trailers, and the hip, savvy talent invited to represent, NALIP is setting the tone for discovery and healthy debate. Chief among the themes will be a contextualized creative response to the much-propagated Latino trillion dollar purchasing power statistic, and how to strategically seize territorial claim to the wild wild west expansion of online distribution platforms.
Among the established and rising American Latino actors and filmmakers on tap are Richard Montoya, Cristina Ibarra, Aurora Guerrero, Gina Rodriguez, Danny Trejo, Jeremy Ray Valdez, and Jesse Garcia. The keynote speech on Friday will be given by none other than Richard Peña, one of the most influential film curators in the world who headed the prestigious Film Society of Lincoln Center for twenty-five years. It will be an insightful and thoughtful conversation moderated by the sensitive, masterly formal documentarian and MacArthur Genius Grant fellow, Natalia Almada. As this year’s NALIP Conference Co-Chair, Almada helped inform the direction of the conference and scored Peña’s participation. When talking about how each year’s conference organically takes shape with the feedback of board members, staff and hosting committee, Beni Matias, Acting Executive Director of NALIP, referenced Natalia’s concern of prominently featuring the voice of the independent filmmaker over the commercial as a guiding pursuit.
Natalia’s involvement with NALIP goes back to 2003 when she became the recipient of the Estela Award, given in recognition to an emerging filmmaker who has ‘arrived’. Her revelatory documentaries include El Velador, El General and Al Otro Lado – all which have been critically acclaimed worldwide and have been featured in museums and screened at film festivals including Sundance and Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. I asked her to share a few words about NALIP’s import and she replied over email, “I think that more than anything else the conference is a place where we can really exchange ideas, address shared concerns in our community and collectively fuel to keep going”.
Natalia is part of the sub-cine filmmaking crew who came of age through NALIP like Cristina Ibarra, Alex Rivera and Bernardo Ruiz. In fourteen years the organization has managed to be one of the few consistent Latino forums which has nurtured a family of artists/active organizers. Along with Beni Mathias, Maria Agui Carter who is a filmmaker and the Chair of the Board of Directors, has been actively with NALIP since the beginning. Other members who have continued to be involved with the organization since the beginning include Louis Perego Moreno who use to spearhead chapter leadership meetings, Jimmy Mendiola filmmaker and Director of CineFestival in San Antonio, Frank Gonzalez from Disney/ABC, Kim Meyers and Terri Lopez at WGA, Alex Nogales, to name just a few. NALIP has also enjoyed a sustained relationship with Time Warner and HBO who have taken turns at being the presenting partners of the conference since 2000.
Part of the reason I’m so eager to engage with and synthesize this year’s theme is this following text written by Maria Agui Carter to describe the Opening Plenary:
“Forbes magazine has called the Latino Market the “New Media Jackpot.” What is at stake? Why is every network and cable outlet now chasing the Latino market and how are Latino voices participating in this explosion not just as consumers but as creators?
There it is: “But as creators”. Amid all the hoopla over the rising Latino market data that makes corporate brands salivate over how to exploit us as consumers, I have yet to hear any of us fashion a reckoning of a counter creative force. We should be imagining how to harness, demand and unleash our creative power with that kind of purchasing power. Instead, the data is being used to make us a target of a non-stop branding attack in which the depletion of our capital power and identity is at stake.
Aimed to provide a more significant showcase for Latino filmmakers, NALIP is spotlighting recent films on their NALIP YouTube channel. They’ve done away with the NALIPsters On View programming where members could openly screen their work during the conference. Those screening rooms tended to be lightly attended since there was little visibility and competition from the panel programming. Instead, this year NALIP will be uploading trailers of current and upcoming films starting Thursday, June 6. The plan is to build buzz and promote the curated selection of 15 documentaries, narrative features and shorts.
Without a doubt, the most anticipated happening of this year’s conference will be the NALIP and Sundance Institute screening of Richard Montoya’s debut feature film, Water & Power at the AMC CityWalk. The impact and influence of this Chicano icon will be evident by the droves of fans, familia and homies, a wide range of community activists, artists and politicians who will be in attendance – La raza who reflect the young and old blood of the characters he writes. I listed W&P as number one in my top five movies to watch out for in 2013 so I’m thrilled to see it screen this way. Richard Peña will moderate a Q&A with Montoya after the screening. I couldn’t think of a better filmmaker and moderator pairing.
On Saturday at the Awards Gala, Machete Kills star Danny Trejo, the menacing but actually sweet hood actor will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Aurora Guerrero, filmmaker of Mosquita y Mari will be honored with the Estela Award that comes with a $7500 grant from McDonalds. And in what will surely be an emotionally inspiring moment, the first ever La Lupe Award will be bestowed to Gina Rodriguez. Her effervescence completely evokes the spitfire tenacity of the late great Lupe Ontiveros. I couldn’t think of a more perfect homage and passing of the torch.
While I found last year’s panel topics all over the place, this year it feels more targeted and practical. Panels like Beyond The Latino Market: Getting Your Film Out To A Wider Audience with Gabriel Reyes, Writing on American Latino films moderated by Carlos Gutierrez of Cinema Tropical, the leading cross platform company promoting Latin and Latino Cinema (and yours truly will be participating!), Whatever It Takes: DIY Technology and the Democratization of Content Creation, Major writing programs and initiatives at networks and studios for writers.
On Sunday the Closing Plenary will be Latinos and Media Stereotypes in which Natalia Almada, Richard Montoya, Maria Agui Carter, Yancey Arias will participate and moderated by Mandalit del Barco of NPR. These are all highly experienced, opinionated individuals with distinct tastes and critical contribution to content so I expect this to be one of the more livelier talks.
Overall, this year’s NALIP conference is about to go off!
NALIP 2013 Spotlight on the Trillion Dollar Latino Market will take place June 7-9 at the Universal Sheraton Hotel.
Since Sunday night’s Oscar telecast the interwebs have exploded with fury about the omission of Lupe Ontiveros in the Academy’s In Memoriam segment. I didn’t think to add my 2 cents until right now because frankly I wasn’t surprised at all. But now I got something I think worth sharing. I was combing through my computer for some video and I ran into this clip I took of the late great Lupe at last year’s NALIP where she delivered a moving speech in her irresistible, witty, loving spicy way to bestow the Lifetime Achievement Award to Rita Moreno. You know what I get out of this? It’s our responsibility and ours alone to value and recognize our people. Are we really so appalled and shocked that the Academy denied her membership? What good is it to ask the Academy to explain and question their commitment to Latinos? I suppose it could be looked as a tongue in cheek PR move because clearly that is not on their list of To Do’s, let alone their sensibility. What really gets me is that it seems like we are seeking validation from an elite society of homogenized, old white males, half of them retirees. I believe the significance of the Academy Award is more an antiquated status symbol, a vestige of show business like the stars in my neighborhood’s Hollywood Walk of Fame, than a recognition of achievement.
If this incident serves to fuel and spill our community’s amor and tribute to La Dona Lupe’s legacy, that is indeed a positive. But hear her words in this clip. How she shares her sincere admiration, love and respect for Rita Moreno. It makes me think, its more beautiful, powerful and honest when we ourselves elevate and commend our mentors, peers and younger generation. Another key observation in this clip; Notice Lupe calling out Ms. Moreno by way of inviting her to be part of NALIP, essentially pointing out that this highest Entertainment Awarded Puerto Rican woman, is not part of the National Association of Latino Producers, a grassroots organization which struggles but continues to support a young crop of filmmakers with labs, workshops and development opportunities. “Show up once a year”, Lupe says. ” We need figures like you.”
Goes to show that there are members of the Academy who are brown. I take more issue with the Hollywood Latinos who having personally faced and overcome barriers and stereotypes, yet once on the inside, don’t take the obligation or responsibility seriously as self identified Latinos, to keep the gates open.
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:
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
And if you don’t know about Lisa “Khool-Aid” Rios, who plays herself as the DJ who puts Filly on the spot, and represents her flagship music stylings channel, Pocos Pero Locos, you should. We are all dying to get our hands on the official soundtrack she is producing along with E-Dubb Rios which we can expect sometime in the fall.
Last Friday while lunching on poached salmon and tomato bisque on the 21st banquet floor of the Universal City Sheraton, Robert Rodriguez enthusiastically shared a few anecdotes from his early career, remarking on the 20th anniversary of EL Mariachi, and expounding nuggets of wisdom like, Think Big, Be Positive and Take a NMIDIM mentality, a cute acronym for Never Mind I’ll Do It Myself, a really named production company of his. Referring to a notebook on his lap, his conversation sounded a bit scripted, with distinct pauses that cued applause from the packed dining hall. The floor-to-ceiling windows were all steamed up with only a few visible gray clouds which obstructed the usual gorgeous Hollywood Hills vista, giving our one-on-one setting with RR feel as if we had come to visit him at the top of Mount Olympus. I crashed a sponsor table in the front for a better view of the tiny stage that Rodriguez shared with a moderator who replaced the scheduled Luis Castro of HBO and who in the second half seemed to lose direction of the conversation which Rodriguez naturally hijacked. There was good energy in the room but looking around I saw more NALIP organizers, panelists, and sponsors than upcoming artists – which kind of defeats the purpose since the address is geared to green, next-generation of writers/directors/producers/actors.
RR’s steady stream of anecdotes deliberately kept coming full circle to hyping up his new Comcast network set to unveil in 2013, a place he says will welcome those stories and voices that Hollywood is not serving. Unfortunately this cut into time for the audience to ask questions. Only one person got the chance to ask a question, which made for a memorable moment. A true Tejano vato, Carlos Calbillo from Houston basically asked him what’s up with not identifying as Mexican-American or Chicano. Rodriguez responded swiftly and rather tactfully. You can see the video I took of this exchange here. The full transcript at bottom of post, but the main soundbyte is:
…”Now if I don’t specifically say I’m Chicano….I didn’t ever intentionally do that. But if you ask me now, ‘Would I say I’m Chicano?,’ You know I would probably say….I wouldn’t make myself that specific”.
UNIVERSAL BUT SUBVERSIVE
Rodriguez says that when he got to Hollywood to make Desperado he wasn’t trying to make a Latin film but a film that was entertaining just like when he saw John Woo’s, The Killer and he thought, “Damn I want to be Chinese”. With Desperado he liked the idea of people watching it, who would say, “Wow I want to be Mexican”.
About El Rey, he mentioned that he had considered creating TV shows before, but was turned off by having to compete with everyone in town for an NBC slot. Instead he thought if I have my own network I can put on any show I want (Think Big). He was quite open about what his pitch was to Comcast. Male oriented –‘”So the guys think if I’m home, I’ll be taken care of. If you’re a girl and a badass, you’ll like it too – if you are anyone who likes cool programming you’ll like it. Its for an English language, 2nd, 3rd generation, highest growing population, and they don’t have anywhere else to go. Its going to be addicting and intoxicating.” Rodriguez further ingratiated himself with the room by saying, “ Advertisers are desperate. They keep banging their heads on the wall asking how do we get to their wallet (pointing to his hip pocket), but nobody talks about this (pointing to his heart). So I was coming at it in a different way”.
Rodriguez emphasized the good things that came out of his early failures and setbacks, encouraging people to avoid thinking negatively. When he approached the owner of an Austin restaurant he frequents about having a show on his Hispanic cable channel, set around family and cooking, the owner hesitated and said, “But I don’t speak Spanish that well and I’m embarrassed about it.” When Rodriguez told him it would be in English, he responded, ‘You mean Pocho? ‘ (laughter). Rodriguez pointed out the negative connotation of the word and that’s what El Rey says, “You’re okay exactly the way you are. “
He went on to say that we have the key to content and ideas people haven’t seen before and guess what, that’s an advantage, that no one has heard your voices. If his network fails to succeed, he encourages us to sift through the ashes of his failure to pick it up and move it forward.
OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM
Rodriguez says he’s never worked with a major studio because it infringes on his freedom. He’s gotten close a couple times, like when he was attached to John Carter which fell through the second and final time he left the DGA. Prior to the Sin City debacle where he resigned from the DGA in order to give creator Frank Miller co-director credit, he had left the DGA in order to work on his segment of the Tarantino produced, New Years Eve anthology, Four Rooms (which in turn directly inspired him to create Spy Kids). Although this means he cannot collect residuals and will never be nominated for an Oscar, he no longer has to follow the rules. He made an interesting quip on the word Independent in the acronym of NALIP saying ‘You probably think you HAVE to be independent because you have no choice, I bet you actually want to be in the system’. The audience laughed as if in agreement. He encouraged people to change from feeling they have to be independent to wanting to be independent. “Sometimes you have to do it yourself because you have a vision that noone else shares. Do it first and then they’ll share.”
All in all, Rodriguez had valuable advice to share. Themes like Finding Success in your Failures and Staying Positive made for an inspirational address. Yet I’m personally skeptical when it comes to him talking about his network becoming a platform to serve under-represented voices and stories that are made by and for the US Latino community with their distinct point of view. What does he mean exactly? Well, here’s a Variety article where RR talks about the underserved hispanic male audience (!).
Ever since he started shooting movies, beginning with the engaging, b/w, sibling rivalry, $400 short film, Bedhead, you can say Rodriguez has written from his heart and what he knows best – and that’s big family dynamics (he has nine brothers and sisters, and has five kids of his own) and awesome action/adventure. If you ask me, that is as universal of a genre classification you can get. What distinguishes Rodriguez’s work is those brushes of Tejano culture, which as I learned firsthand with my recent trip to San Antonio, is a very distinct socio/political culture within the US Latino spectrum and one beyond the 1st generation of bi-lingual folks like myself. Rodriguez’s impact in the indie 90s film scene is huge and two-fold; On top of showing major studios he can capture a market they can’t by making an entertaining movie for as little as $10,000, the fact that his last name is Rodriguez and his protagonists were heroes who spoke English with an accent, made a difference to the growing population of US Latinos. After all, Rodriguez’s first trilogy began with romanticizing and glorifying the mariachi, an icon terribly dear and close to Latinos. Wrap it in gritty action packaging and it works for that lucrative 18-35 male demographic.
Rodriguez says he’s consciously been subversive about the identity angle. Which is an interesting observation I made and makes me wonder if he’d have the luxury of being able to work outside the system if his genre was not the potentially commercial mine of the family and male driven audience? Would he be as successful if his films were say showed the true life contemporary struggles of underrepresented and multi-dimenstional gay Latinos and empowered females? The point is he knows his audience. His work up to now has represented US Latinos in a corporal sense. I agree that identifying with the physical image onscreen can be an empowering experience but there’s a difference between taking a hero archetype and painting him/her Latino, and making a Hero out of an everyday Latino in middle america.
Whether simply because he’s a successful Latino in a position of power makes Robert Rodriguez obligated to represent the diversity of the US Latino fragmented mass is debatable. And anyway why would he want to suddenly step outside his tried and true money making action fare? Lets be real, Comcast licensed him a network because they are after the audience of Rodriguez’s franchises, El Mariachi, Spy Kids and Machete. So while I would love to see him hold the door wide open and program content that demonstrates the rich dimensionality of Latinas and the Latino LGBT community – that’s not going to happen here. However, if he’s still got that subversive renegade in him, he just might ‘flip the script’ and support unique content on his channel made by the next generation of storytellers who are authentically rendering their unheard, real life based experiences into multi-media. I love intoxicating fantasy and pop entertainment as much as the next person….but thats just one dimension of our lives.
I say we take the hooligan to task and pitch El Rey our most kickass and personal passion projects for a slot on the network. Contact his partners, John Fogelman and Cristina Patwa at Factory Made Ventures at info@FactoryMade.com.
Lets see just how open and interested they are to tapping our talent and showing our point of view.
RR in response to why it doesn’t seem he identifies as Chicano:
“ That’s a valid question, that I’ve never identified myself as Mexican American, but, if you look at my bio, that’s the first thing it says, Mexican-American. I’m very proud of that. (cue clapping). You bring up something very important about identity, because you want to belong and identify with something. This leads to El Rey, you don’t have a place where you can say that’s me, or someone’s success that you can attach to and you feel some of that success is yours, and if that’s a person who isn’t acknowledging that, that’s a terrible thing, I’m sorry you felt that. But I’ve always pointed out, that what I am, what I do with my work speaks for itself. I’ve tried to do it in a very subversive way because that’s been the key. Even after the success of Desperado and From Dusk till Dawn I wanted to do Spy Kids and again, you write what you know, you write in our image, its based on my family. My uncle Gregorio worked as special agent so Antonio’s character’s name is Gregorio. The kids are named after my brothers and sisters. Its all about my family. But the studio says, “Why are you making them Mexican American? Why don’t you just make them American?” That’s why its so important to have a Latin filmmaker to make this argument; “Well because its based on my family”, and its not going to be like only Latin kids are going to watch it, …and then I had the best argument possible, I said, “ Lets put it this way you don’t have to be British to watch James bond. (applause)
You identify with it more if its universal and not that specific. So of everyone watching it, if you’re Latin, you just changed their idea of what’s possible, you’re changing the child’s idea of what they can accomplish because they see my name at the end, “Rodriguez” directed it, two kids with Latin names as spies. It’s very empowering. You want as many people to see it as possible. (Applause)