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Festival Highlight: Borders On Film Program

Border Shorts Hold Their Own

Above: Zachary Kerschberg's short, "The World Outside."

Short films leave no room for indecisiveness. There is no time for the “what kind of film do I want to be” some long format films seem to suffer from. That said, short films can either pack a punch or slink off with a whimper.

The Borders on Film program (which played on March 9) at the 19th annual San Diego Latino Film Festival offered a mostly tight selection of seven shorts whose unifying theme was dealing borders of one kind or another, be they geographical, cultural or internal.

By far the strongest of the group were "Taxi Libre/Gypsy Cab" (Kaheh Nabatian) and "La Linea Invisible/The Invisible Border" (Lisa Diez Gracia). Both put a fresh spin on the Mexican immigration experience.

In "Taxi Libre," a surprising entry from Canada, Dr. Jose Garcia has left his family in Mexico to try for a better job in Quebec and ends up driving a taxi. While making his rounds and going on interviews, his tequila-swigging guardian angel, complete with a set of wings that would look less out of place on a Victoria’s Secret model, reminds him of his desire to marry the girl who waits for him in Mexico. Taxi Libre is a fun ride whose wry comments on what might encourage someone with an advanced degree from Mexico to immigrate puts a fresh spin on the usual immigration story. Well-paced and humorous, it’s an unexpected look at Mexican immigration north of the US border.

The documentary, "La Linea Invisible" takes the viewer deep into what is surely one of the most bizarre versions of the usual Mexican immigration story. One thousand miles away from the US/Mexico border, in the Mexican state of Hildago, the Hñahñu (Otomi) Indians in El Alberto make a good living engaging in something not your ordinary tourist attraction. By day, the park is a playground of water sports and hiking, but by night, it becomes something else. Mexican and foreign tourists become players in a passion play that re-enacts the night crossings the villagers make over the US/Mexico border. The scenario includes a trek through the “desert” with “la migra” hot on their heels. The tourists, now illegals, re-encounter the villagers as coyotes, immigration police and drug smugglers. "La Linea Invisible" is a surreal look at how one indigenous village copes with immigration to the US.

Local San Diego filmmaker Ron Najor imagines what if in his take on the border, "Land of the Free." In this short, Najor examines a scenario which loomed large over the Arab-American community after 9/11- the specter of WWII-era “relocation camps,” similar to what was set up for Japanese and Japanese-Americans under Executive Order 9066. Lest one dismiss this as paranoia, the racetrack at Del Mar was used as a holding center for San Diego region Japanese and Japanese-Americans before they were shipped off to “relocation centers” as “enemy aliens” for the duration of WWII. In Najor’s film, two Arab-American cousins try to figure out what to do as Homeland Security engages in searches for Arab-Americans who have been missed in the sweeps following a series of terrorist attacks. The two plot to escape over the border, but while hiding at a girlfriend’s house, one of the cousins has second thoughts and turns them in. Reluctant at first about hiding them, the girlfriend drives the cousins towards the border as Homeland Security barges in the house.

In the following Q and A, Najor, who is of Middle Eastern descent, said the film arose from speculating on what would happen in such a situation. While most of the film is well-crafted, Najor acknowledged that it lacked some cohesion in the narrative, specifically at the point where the action jumps from the house to the car. It is not quite clear why and how the girlfriend overcomes her reluctance and drives the two cousins to the border.

Najor, a graduate of San Diego State’s Television, Film and New Media department, is a local talent to watch. Known for making edgy short films, his first produced feature- "I Am Not a Hipster," directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, got a lot of buzz at Sundance this year.

By far the weaker of the lot by a country mile was "La Broma" (Luis Arenas) from Spain. "La Broma" (or Joke), focuses on a prank to steal the high school’s mascot gone awry. A send up of geek vs jock teen comedies, it could have been quite funny but just ended up being sophomoric and unbearably long at 12 minutes.

In contrast, "La Media Pena" (Sergio Barrejon), also from Spain, is a stylish study of how two people can change each other’s lives. One night, a bereft business executive, decides to commit suicide in his office. He is interrupted by the cleaning lady, an illegal immigrant, who takes full advantage of what the office has to offer: mini bar, shower, intercom to dress down the boss who just fired her. The executive hides under his desk, fascinated by the scenarios she plays out while no one is looking. One false move and she discovers him. He promises to get her re-instated, and she promises to clean his office- providing he goes home.

One of the best lensed pieces of the program is Zachary Kerschberg’s "The World Outside." Beautifully shot in a shifting color the matches the range of settings (prep kitchen interiors, inner city streets) and tightly edited, "The World" follows a parolee trying to make it at a new job as a chef’s assistant without giving away his status. Every lie he tells brings him closer the edge of parole violation until one day, he either admits he’s an ex-felon or get sent back. An unexpected insight from the chef helps him learn to trust his co-workers and truly start his new life outside.

"Todo Es Maybe" has the makings of a great documentary short which could be stunning with a little tweaking of the editing. Braulio Thorne is an amazing man. A Panamanian musician and entrepreneur, he lives and teaches music in New York City and plays baseball with the Long Island Bombers. All without being able to see a thing. Thorne’s philosophy, everything is uncertain, leads him to an infectious embrace of life, fun and music. A good, solid documentary, "Todo Es Maybe" rounded out a varied list of shorts on an satisfying note.

--Rebecca Romani is a San Diego-based documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist who has covered film and culture for a variety of publications such as Cineaste, The Levantine Review, and IPS.org.

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