Sundance Institute has just announced the 12 projects selected to participate in the five day winter cycle of the screenwriters lab, an immersive workshop where esteemed creative advisors challenge the filmmakers’ veracity in achieving their vision, and in many cases make them go through the proverbial ringer. Although this batch of filmmakers do not get a chance to enjoy the warm hiking weather of the Sundance resort in June, these folks have an extra perk as they are invited to swing by the film festival a few days afterwards, the perfect reinvigorating finish to the intense story workshop.
One of the projects selected is ZEUS from Mexican multi-media artist and ‘provacateur’ Miguel Calderon. Perhaps his most ubiquitous work outside the insular art circuit is the 1998 exhibit titled, “Aggressively Mediocre/Mentally Challenged/Fantasy Island”. Pieces from this collection were made cult classic by Wes Anderson’s inclusion in his Royal Tenenbaums film. Read more about Calderon in this article. He also created a fictitious grueling futbol match out of 100 hours of real footage between Brazil and Mexico – in which Mexico kicks Brazil’s ass. Calderon then broadcast in some bars in Brazil. This imaginary win is all the more prankster given the two country’s fierce rivalry (Brazil usually kicks Mexico’s ass). This was shown in 2004’s Sao Paolo’s Bienale. Sounds like my kind of artist. I’m looking forward to tracking this up and coming audiovisual talent. Zeus marks his first foray into feature films. The logline copied from the press release: “Sporadically employed and still living with his mother, Joel finds his only joy in falconry in the flatlands outside Mexico City, until an encounter with a down-to-earth secretary forces him to face reality.” Calderon was recommended by Fernando Eimbcke who developed his script for Lake Tahoe at the 2006 Screenwriters Lab. Although there is no submission fee required for international projects wanting to submit their screenplays for consideration, unless you fall into the region of focus (Central America, North Africa, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe) it is required to send a letter of inquiry or be referred by Sundance family. Among other Mexican projects that have gone through the labs in the past few years and I am eager to see come to fruition soon is HELI by Amat Escalante whose SANGRE and LOS BASTARDOS played Cannes Film Festival and I DREAM IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE by Ernesto Contreras who made BLUE EYELIDS which garnered a Special Jury Award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition category.
In other Spanish-language programming recently announced as part of the four additional feature films screening at Sundance, Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva will now have not one but two films screen at the festival. In addition to Crystal Fairy screening in World Cinema Competition, Magic Magic will screen in Midnight section. Michael Cera stars in both of Silva’s films but he speaks Spanish in only Magic Magic. Perhaps it was the second one they shot together this past year judging by the confident Cera deftly picking up the distinct Chilean vernacular melody. But its Juno Temple who plays the insomniac Alicia at the center of Magic Magic, an tensely unhinging film. This is her third film in the 2013 Festival. Temple is also in the films, Afternoon Delight and Lovelace. Also making an appearance in the film who we haven’t seen in a while is Catalina Sandino Moreno who was last at Sundance with Maria Full of Grace in 2004. Sebastian Silva’s hottie brother, Agustin Silva and gorgeous Emily Browning round out this good looking young cast. Sebastian joins the uber-exclusive Sundance 2fer club- a director with two films selected at the same edition of the Festival. British documentarian Lucy Walker had two films play in the festival, both in competition back in 2010 , COUNTDOWN TO ZERO and WASTELAND, and before that I’m not sure but I think that Alex Gibney has also had two documentaries at the same Festival. TBD
Robert Rodriguez’s now-infamous $7,000 guinea pig budget and 16mm shot first feature, El Mariachi is screening as part of The Sundance Collection at UCLA, twenty years after it screened at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. The Sundance Collection at UCLA is an important preservation program of Sundance Institute managed by Senior Programmer John Nein that actively offers and encourages all festival alumni the opportunity to store their films properly. Rodriguez’s down and dirty video action flick put the San Antonio native on the map and became the precursor to Desperado, the glossier, sexier Banderas/Hayek version which came about after Rodriguez was offered a considerably higher budget to flex and show off his intuitive action flair. If you have not seen El Mariachi, I highly recommend it. Watch it right now on Crackle for free.
Before I peace out on this post, I want to take a moment to address a couple comments on my Indiewire repost, “WTF is Latino at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival”. In it I break down the Latino elements of the Festival program – I lump together American Latino oriented films with films from Chile. Someone commented on my including Chile in a Latino post. “South American films are not Latino films…” first-name only Michael wrote. First of all I want to thank him for saying as much. I would have loved to hear his source and explanation. This is the point of my blog; trying to re-appropriate our representation and design new and accurate terminology of and for ourselves. The blanket category Latino is a very diluted term and one I’ve heard with Hispanic interchangeably. What IS the difference between Latin and South America? I want to focus my blog on primarily films from a bi-cultural, bi-literate American Latino community, which for me means US inhabitants who come from, or have ancestry from Mexico, Central, South America, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Does Latino accurately represent this group? Do you as the audience understand the reference I mean when I use Latino? Admittedly, these are two different things.
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.
In honor of the social rights activist who would have been 85 today let’s take a look at not just one but both of the feature films about his life’s work in the pipeline.
One is a narrative being directed by Diego Luna and written by Keir Pearson (Hotel Rwanda), the other, a documentary by Richard Ray Perez, an established film and video documentarian which has been supported by Sundance Institute. Both stand to give honor to the dogged labor rights organizer and activist in two distinct cinematic approaches. The documentary which is called Cesar’s Last Fast is entering the last stages of editing and a rough cut is expected by mid-summer. While the narrative, only referred to as Chavez for now, has just begun shooting.
THE REAL (FOOTAGE) CESAR
Most doc critics and enthusiasts would agree that a question worth asking when considering documentary cinema, is finding out the filmmaker’s connection to the subject/story. That is, why is THIS given filmmaker the best person to tell THIS story. In Cesar’s Last Fast, its fascinating to hear. Apparently it’s by inheritance that brought Rick Perez to the project. A woman very close to Chavez collected years and years of documentation and upon her death willed that only one person could take on and carry the project to fruition and that was Rick Perez. His venerable team includes Molly O’Brien, emmy award winning producer. What’s the focus of the documentary? As evident by the title, Cesar’s Last Fast, the documentary looks and is anchored by the specific 1988 act, the grueling 36 day fast Chavez undertook to protest pesticides, which exemplifies the man’s sheer strength and will. The documentary looks to have a very spiritual and humanizing bent. It includes very intimate, never before seen material from the family’s personal archive. More importantly it ties a lot of the history of Union Farm Workers Union he founded in 1962, with what is going on today; asking what is the face of organizing today – critically placing a contemporary context to it. No doubt the combination of these elements is what made this specific portrayal of Cesar Chavez so appealing to the Sundance Documentary Film Program which got involved early on with funding support. Sundance typically supports contemporary social issues but perhaps recognizing the same issues loom just as pressing today, were drawn in by the relevance Rick Perez posits. In addition to the money support, Sundance invited Rick to participate in the Sundance Producer’s Summit and a Works in Progress screening at the Hammer last year , a popular and overcrowded event which was accompanied by a panel with Edward James Olmos, Paul Chavez, Cesar’s son, along with current heads of the union. And recently, the DFP had a lab down in Imperial Valley free to all, where they had another work in progress screening of Cesar’s Last Fast followed by a master class given by Rick about story structure.
CHAVEZ – BASED ON A TRUE STORY
Back in 2010, screenwriter Keir Pearson and producer Larry Meli optioned life rights to a Chavez biopic after working with the family for over a two year period in which they visited them, including Paul Chavez, and gained their trust. Canana got involved by way of attaching Diego Luna to direct and adding Gael Garcia Bernal and Pablo Cruz as producing partners along with Larry Meli. Also attached as producer is John Malkovich’s Mr. Mudd, and additional cast include popular Culture Clash founder, Richard Montoya. Diego Luna previously showed off his directing skills in Abel which premiered at Sundance 2010, a psychologically harrowing story about a kid who takes on the role of man in the house when his father isn’t around. His traveling documentary festival, Ambulante was recently awarded with WOLA’s Human Rights Award back in November. Speaking for the Chavez film, over email Larry Meli was kind enough to email me back saying, “This is a terribly important story for all time and particularly in this moment in our history more so as we see manual workers being squeezed along with an entire middle class. There were some successes and some failures but most important it shows that one person CAN make a difference. For Mexican-American’s, it will be a great source of pride as Cesar stood up for the rights of others against the corporations and the system and won!!!”
I wasn’t able to find out what the screenplay’s take and focus is, whether it will be an epic period set retelling of Chavez’s personal lifestory, or if it will have a specific focus like the documentary, portraying his deeply personal struggles, and or pivotal marches and strikes as it relates to today. Considering Michael Peña has been cast as Chavez, and Rosario Dawson as his co-organizer, Dolores Huerta, I hope it means a considerable chunk will be about the early days, the beginning stages and HOW the literal first ever grassroots mobilization was accomplished, what later would go on to become the United Farm Worker’s Union.
SI SE PUDO?
Of the four library books I checked out on Chavez this week, Conquering Goliath by Fred Ross, which is all in Chavez’s words where he catches up with his buddy and mentor Fred Ross about the 6 year span in which he organized the Oxnard Community Service Organization, right before he moved to East LA to start the national movement, was the most fascinating. For one, the reader hears his inner doubts and insecurities (making him human and not on held up on a pedestal) and second how he learned to play ball with the growers, state and federal outfits, and interestingly how much it cost him to gain the trust of the workers. All the strategizing he learned in these early days sets the stage for when he took on the bigger challenge of mobilizing a national union. One is tempted to say, “The Rest is History”, but in this case, that history deserves to be analyzed and told and retold.
I’m personally thrilled that we have two films in two totally different genres that will embody deal the life history of Chavez and his efforts to make Labor Law change. In addition to reflecting on the impact he has today, I hope clear historic nuts and bolts will be told that which we could refer to in order to comprehend government policies that stand in the way of tackling the issues Chavez took on including the dangers of exposing workers to pesticides, and crucially, immigration rights. Chavez’s Si Se Puede (“Yes We Can”, hence, my post title, “We Still Can) is an inspirational chant used today. But its in studying the sweaty losses as much as his triumphs that we might fully understand the weight and responsibility that comes with that statement. Many issues we face today about immigration reform harken back to the Bracero Program, the guest worker program in which Mexicans were imported to the US to work the lands, a people caught in between Chavez’s struggle to gain rights for ‘domestic workers’. The more I read and begin to understand the political aspect, the program set the pattern and tone for the immigration rights battle we face today. Although in 1964 Congress voted to end it, like an ugly ‘call it by another name’ phenomenon, it exists today. A factsheet from the Immigration Policy Center (pulled from this article) reports between 53% and 75% of the 2.5 million farm workers who work in the U.S. each year are undocumented. Collective bargaining does NOT help this population; the provisions of a union contract are only enforceable for documented workers.
It’s nice to render tribute through films and books the symbolic meaning of Chavez, but its our responsibility and the filmmakers tackling this story, to responsibly learn and apply the lessons learned from his life to truly honor his legacy. And I trust both filmmaker teams will do just that.