The 2017 Sundance Film Festival is officially underway, and its a special one for me because it marks my 10th year with the not for profit. I started working for the institute in 2007 and ever since, every year from from August to November, I screen submissions as a Programming Associate, primarily Latin American and Latino films. More than ever, I feel priviledged to watch such a volume and diverse array of perspectives.
As for my personal mission on this blog, I choose to talk about Latino representation in a laser focused way: highlighting the writers and directors who are out there telling the stories they want to tell the way they want to tell it, and emphasizing the U.S. context. As much as I love to talk about international films, the real void in the U.S. media and therefore urgent need to support, are stories created by first, second, third, multicultural generation Americans.
Overview: Boricuas dominating. Puerto Rico most definitely repping. Also, we got a healthy presence in Digital and Virtual Reality which makes sense beause it (WE) are the future. Without further ado, a rundown of WTF is Latino at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
In the U.S. Documentary Competition
DOLORES AKA Woman in Motion directed by Peter Bratt
Executive produced by none other than Carlos Santana and supported by the San Francisco Film Society’s Documentary Fund, this long overdue celebration of Dolores Huerta’s achievements over the course of her 60something years in civil rights is reverent, timely and galvanizing. Peter Bratt is an alumni of the festival. He wrote and directed the San Francisco set, gay coming of age La Mission which played in the 2009 festival. Armed with a rich archive of footage, banging soundtrack and one-on-ones with Dolores herself, the film chronicles one woman’s boldness in tackling the obstacles she faced on the sociopolitical battlefield along with the personal challenges of being an absentee mother. It encourages all women to seize claim to their often overlooked contributions to society.
New to the festival, Puerto Rican Antonio Santini’s first documentary feature co-directed with Dan Sickles, MALA MALA about the trans sex worker community in Puerto Rico, premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Like the intimate access of that film, Dina also has a striking sense of intimacy, unpresumptiousness and ultimately delivers an unexpected and very honest connection to someone as authentically unique as Dina.
In the high profile out of competition Premieres section
The Sundance Film Festival showed Arteta’s very first film, Star Maps back in 1997. Ever since he’s made a career of crafting indelible characters across film and television. He reteams with Mike White (Chuck and Buck, GoodGirl) on this deliciously wicked tale of a fateful dinner encounter between a humble holistic healer and a mega brazen successful business developer. The two opposing forces are embodied by the superb Salma Hayek and immense John Lithgow. Thought provoking, unpredictable and utterly engrossing, the dark comedy is produced by Killer Films. Watch an exclusive clip here.
Co-written with her star and partner in crime, Brett Gelman, Janicza’s striking feature length debut boasts an insanely big and comedically gifted cast including Michael Cera, Judy Greer, Gillian Jacobs, Martin Starr. Along with a background in design, Bravo has a knack for capturing characters lost in flight with a tragic humor and heart. An alumni of the festival, Gregory Go Boom with Michael Cera and last year’s Woman in Deep with Alison Pill, Bravo is a busy woman. Last May she debuted a Virtual Reality experience at Tribeca Film Festival, called A Hard World for Small Things about a day in the life of South Central, and also directed an episode of the Golden Globe winning show, Atlanta.
Marking their 12th project (features and shorts) at the festival in 7 years, multimedia mischievous artists, Jillian and Lucas bring a japanese inspired marionette short this year which like all of their work is eye-grabbing, provocative and is about more than meets the eye. The Miami full time Borsht Corp is a nonprofit which supports Miami filmmakers, they recently supported 28 filmmakers with cold hard cash all of which are poised to premiere at their festival which has been listed on Moviemakers 25 Coolest Festivals in the world. For more info on this February’s event click here.
Making her directorial debut, actor Rosa Salazar stars in this short shot around the hipster rising area in LA named Frogtown. The logline: A complex chick deals with a vanilla beau, a shitty brunch, and a dead coyote all in a Los Angeles day. Heart. Excited to see more of her writing and directing.
Marvin Lemus who made a short film with Project Involve called Vamonos which I loved (you can watch it on PBS online) will be premiering 3 episodes of this series that takes place in Boyle Heights. Each episode features a resident trying to pursue their living/art. Lemus hits a chord/funny bone here as most of the tension and strife is intergenerational; old school mexican generation clashing with millenials. The series is backed by Mr. Charles King and his company Macro. Lemus is in good company. Macro also produced Denzel Washington’s Fences, and at the festival Dee Ree’s WW2 period Mudbound.
Its only three years ago that William popped up on the radar with his animated series Gran’pa Knows Best, a really funny and sweet series in which he used3-D printed miniatures of his Puerto Rican grandfather over real voicemails that his grandfather from would leave for him. Initially an independent short, it was quickly snapped up with HBO. Victor y Isolina introduces his grandma to the mix, who is the perfect foil to his unapologetic grandpa. Produced by Elaine Del Valle who produced her own webseries, Reasons y I’m Single. Check out his website for more info.
In the New Frontier (the future) section
I don’t know much about this one but the description sounds super fascinating; a beauty salon of the future’. Fingers crossed I get an opportunity to experience it while I’m here. Also I’m dying to meet one of the artist/engineers, Carmen Aguilar y Wedge who founded Hypen-Lab, an international team of women of color working at the intersection of tech, art, science and narrative.
IF NOT LOVE by Rose Troche
I been crushing hard on Rose Troche for as far back as I can remember. Go Fish changed my life. No joke. She was a producer on Concussion, and has since come back to the festival in the New Frontier program with a series called Perspectives, which puts you in the shoes of a person caught in a situation a result which shatters any idea of black and white and makes you swim in the gray. Per the description: IF NOT LOVE challenges the viewer to contemplate another difficult subject—a mass shooting at a nightclub, but this time with the question posited: is another outcome possible?
OUT OF EXILE: DANIEL’S STORY by Nonny de la Peña
I mean, she’s been called the Godmother of Virtual Reality. Nonny de la Peña also returns to New Frontier with this piece that recreates Daniel Ashley Pierce’s coming out video that went viral. If you don’t know the heartbreaking and inspirational story read here This experience puts your body into the middle of the action around audio that Daniel recording during that encounter.
For deeper coverage on Latino and Latin American talent at the festival check out REMEZCLA. For a closer look at all documentaries at the festival head over to What (not) to Doc. Livestream the festival’s panels and watch select shorts from home. And follow my BTS on Twitter @IndieFindsLA and insta ChicanafromChicago.
My boots are packed and ready to get to San Antonio tomorrow for CineFestival, the longest running independent Latino Film Festival in the US. I’m looking forward to hanging out with friends, old and new, who represent the rich emerging Latino independent film world, but I’m particularly eager to discover and connect with local filmmakers. But first, tonight I’m going to put on my heels and get fancy, for I’ll be covering a ‘Hollywood Hispanic” gala. I’m going to the National Hispanic Media Coalition Impact Awards. The NHMC is a non-profit media advocacy organization which seeks to recognize outstanding contributions to the positive portrayal of Latinos in media. Among this year’s honorees are Michael Pena, Mario Lopez and John Leguizamo. You can expect me to cover both events on the ground. What I won’t be personally covering is the big glitzy mainstream Indie and Academy Awards. Let’s take a quick look at WTF is Latino in that land, shall we?
Film Independent’s Spirit Awards
Mexicana Salma Hayek is an honorary co-chair of this year’s Spirit Awards. A ceremonial title that pretty much just confirms her presence at the show.
If we were to subscribe to NBC Latino’s overly positive scratching at the barrel of Best ‘Hispanic movies of 2012″, I would second the highlight John Ortiz, Bradley Cooper’s best friend in the nominated Best Film, Silver Linings Playbook. Sure he’s a solid supporting character with a sub-storyline and I applaud his acting talent. In that case, let’s mention Gael Garcia Bernal in Best Director nominated Julia Loktev’s film, Loneliest Planet,or Aubrey Plaza (yes she’s boricua baby – here is proof watch this clip FF 40 sec in) who is in Safety Not Guaranteed directed and produced by Colin Trevorrow, up for Best First Feature, and there is Wendell Pierce who is nominated for Best Actor in Four written and directed by Joshua Sanchez. But come on, lets be real, and more importantly, relevant to the awards. I count three:
John Cassavetes Award – Mosquita y Mari, written and directed by Aurora Guerrero
I’ve written a bunch of love letters on my blog about this film which I hold close to my heart. Check out the interview I did exactly one year ago with my sister, Aurora here.
Best Supporting Actor – Michael Pena – for End of Watch
hot hot hot.
Best Screenplay – Keep the Lights On Mauricio Zacharias – is the Brazilian born co-writer of Keep the Lights On, an extraordinarily written and acted film about a tumultous relationship between two New York City men. I always like to strip a gay or latino movie of its gay or latino element and ask myself if the barebones of the story would be as poignant without it and the answer here is definitively yes. However it’s also a celebration to finally have access to those specific narratives and previously unseen powerful images. The romantic sex and love scenes between the two men carry such weight and substance.(I think I’m channeling Franco with his Interior Leather Bar ‘thesis’ film)
The 85th Academy Awards
Just down the street from me, Hollywood Boulevard has been blocked off since last week to make way for the monumental Academy Awards. Huffington Post did a good job at covering the Latino in the nominations. Check out the full post and related “Latinos Snubbed” slideshows here. Basically they highlighted:
Costume Design – Paco Delgado, Les Miserables (Spanish)
Sound Design – Jose Antonio García, Argo (Mexican)
And I will add Searching for Sugarman by Malik Bendjelloul and Simon Chinn to this list. I am so grateful to these filmmakers for rescuing this story and incredible folk singer songwriter artist from obscurity. It might seem hard to believe but back then, unlike now, before Robert Rodriguez made it cool, the last name Rodriguez was discriminated against in the 60s and 70s. The Detroit native, first generation Mexican American literally had his amazing voice suppressed and blocked by labels who could not imagine that his amazing voice would transcend boundaries. I mean – his lyrics were also pretty powerful. I couldn’t be happier about the success of this film which has given us the chance to not only discover but to celebrate Sixto Rodriguez’s late but true contribution to our lives. Fingers crossed it wins Best Documentary.
And with that – I’m reposting a video I took of Sixto Rodriguez at last year’s LA Film Festival.
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)