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The San Diego Latino Film Festival: 25 Years Old And More Relevant Than Ever

Credit: courtesy still

Above: "Zama" by Lucrecia Martel

When the San Diego Latino Film Festival first opened in 1993, it was a scrappy, student-organized event run out of the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park. Fast forward 25 years and the modest festival has become a 10-day full-fledged event, following the careers of major Mexican actors like Diego Luna and giving talented local filmmakers their first major screenings.

Over the years, the festival has grown in parallel with Latin American cinema — showcasing such exciting developments as new Argentine cinema — as well as championing productions celebrating the diversity of life along the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the Latino experience in the U.S.

For its silver anniversary, the Latino Film Festival is going all out, screening beloved classics while adding retooled and new showcases.

It’s a big festival with seemingly wall-to-wall programming scheduled into two venues, the cinema at Fashion Valley and the Digital Gym on El Cajon Boulevard. There are a number of gems and special screenings you won’t want to miss.

Among them are several of the more popular and accomplished films to come through the festival, including work by Guillermo del Toro and Patricia Riggen.

This has been the Mexican director Del Toro’s year with major wins at notable festivals. But before Del Toro’s "The Shape of Water," San Diego audiences saw his nascent talent on screen in "Cronos," Del Toro’s 1993 stunning feature debut about an antiques dealer who is offered an unorthodox chance at immortality. "Cronos" screens once on March 15.

Many film buffs remember Mexican stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna from a host of well-received films. But do they remember how the pair got their start? The 25th-anniversary showcase features "Y Tu Mama Tambien," a classic buddy comedy that brought Garcia Bernal and Luna international recognition for their roles as two Mexico City teenagers who get involved with a beautiful older Spanish woman.

Local directors

The festival also brings back the Mexican drama "Bajo La Misma Luna" ("Under The Same Moon"), one of Mexican actress Kate Castillo’s best-known films and one of the top Mexican films directed by a female director, Patricia Riggen.

Local directors are also front and center in this year’s festival. Local filmmaker Isaac Artenstein returns along with the Jewish Latino Films showcase with one of his signature documentaries, "Tijuana Jews" and a new work, "Challah Rising In The Desert," a fascinating look at a little known group of Jewish Latinos in New Mexico, some of whom trace their roots back to Conversos escaping the Spanish Inquisition more than 400 years ago.

Another filmmaker with local roots, Paul Espinosa, is screening his most recent documentary, "Singing Our Way to Freedom," about local San Diego musician and community activist, Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez, who received a National Heritage Fellowship in 2013. Sanchez’ music defined an era of both local and national Chicano activism and gave voice to the concerns and causes important to the community. Espinosa takes a close look at both the local Chicano community and the advances in civil rights that Sanchez, who died in in 2016, celebrated in his music.

Stunningly visual production

The East Coast may have to wait until April, but this month, San Diego festival goers get to be the first to see "Zama," a stunningly visual production and one of Argentina’s top films for 2017. Set in 18th century Argentina, "Zama" is a tale with resonance for our time — a governor for the Spanish crown awaits a transfer to Buenos Aires, but as his frustration grows, so does the push-back from those he governs in the name of empire.

RELATED: San Diego Latino Film Festival At 25

If it’s lighter fare you’re looking for, love and music are always at the heart of the Latino Film Festival. This year’s El Corazon showcase lists a rare presentation, "Donaire y Esplendor," a comedy from Panama. Panama’s film industry has only started to emerge from an almost 60-year slumber and films like "Donaire" are breaking the box office in their home country. Set during Carnival in a small town in Panama, "Donaire" is a comedic look at how the romance between the children of two beauty queens threatens to disrupt the festival and the delicate rivalry between two neighborhoods.

For those who love dance, the Ritmo Showcase is a must this year. The films run the gamut from a documentary on Capoeira players who travel the world to a look at why Tango is experiencing a resurgence both in Argentina and around the world. Also, not to miss, the documentary, "Conexiones," a brilliant and fascinating look at Cuba’s love of Mexican culture through the eyes of a Mexican-American roots group on a rare trip to Cuba.

In keeping with its commitment to supporting women in film, the film festival has a particularly strong Viva Mujeres showcase this year. In addition to "Zama," directed by Lucrecia Martel, a rising star in new Argentine cinema, there is the stunning "La Novia del Desierto" ("The Desert Bride"). A slow burn, the film has an aching loveliness as a 54-year-old maid is forced to take a new job in a town across the desert of Argentina when her long-time employer sells his house. What she thought was the end, may be a surprising new beginning.

Ready for some futbol?

New this year is a brash, dynamic showcase whose main question seems to be: Are you ready for some futbol? Camino al Mundial is more than ready for the 2018 World Cup with films from Peru to the U.S. If you are a die-hard soccer fan, you’ll want to see "Tuya Mía … Me La Apuesto" from Mexico, a comedy about an obsessed soccer fan who has to make a choice between his wife and the game.

The film festival continues through March 25 with a wide variety of films from Central Americans riding the trains north from Mexico to the retooled ¡Somos! Showcase of films focused on the LGBTQ community.

Especially strong this year are the shorts selections, in particular, the Frontera Filmmakers program with films made about and on the Mexico/U.S. border region.

For more information about the films, screenings, and additional events, see The San Diego Latino Film Festival.

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