San Diego Latino Film Festival Wants To Build Bridges Not Walls
Audiences should expect to be challenged and rewarded
Beth's top recommendations
"I Am Cuba/Soy Cuba"
"Muere, Monstruo, Muere (Murder Me, Monster)"
"La Casa Lobo"
"¿Eres tú, papá?/Is that You Father?"
"Manos Limpias/Clean Hands"
"Lucha, More than the Fight"
"Cassandro, the Exotico"
"Comprame un revolver"
"Juez Juan Guzmán y la búsqueda por la justicia permanente"
"First Lady of the Revolution"
The San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF) kicks off its 26th year on March 14 with a stellar line up of shorts, features and documentaries from around the world.
Being a border city and hosting a Latino film festival in today's politically charged climate is something that founder and executive director Ethan Van Thillo said proves how relevant and necessary SDLFF still is.
"What’s been happening at the border is the exact opposite of what we as an organization, as a festival have been trying to promote for the past 26 years," Van Thillo said. "The festival has had screenings on both sides of the border for almost every year, you know we are trying to open up doors, we are trying to break down barriers, build bridges and we have a federal government that is trying to do the exact opposite. But what is really important about the film festival and this is why we started it in the first place is to break down barriers, to tell the world about the realities about the Latino experience not just what they are seeing on mainstream news. We really want them to understand the realities of the migrant experience, of the border experience and that there is no crisis here on the border for example."
That's why this year the festival is having a "Migrant Voices" showcase to highlight stories about the immigrant experience.
But the festival also looks to the past with its "Tesoros" (Treasures) showcase featuring the 4K restoration of "Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba)" as well as "Mi Vida Loca" and "Salon Mexico."
"Every year there’s the issue of relevancy, how do you maintain your festival being attractive to supporters who have been with you since the beginning but also how do you appeal to brand new audiences? That has been my quandary for the past six years but what I always go back to is select films that speak to issues that the San Diego community cares about," Moisés Esparza, who has been a festival programmer six years, said. "So it’s always about connecting with the past while looking forward, so it’s a challenge, I’m not going to say it’s not. I think this year the programming is pretty unconventional in a very dynamic and exciting way."
One of the reason I love SDLFF is because of its willingness to take risks and to push audiences out of their comfort zone. It still programs crowd pleasers, heart-warming drama and romantic comedies but it makes plenty of room for films that challenge audiences. Esparza is an especially thoughtful programmer who is passionate about the art of cinema but also appreciates film's ability to tackle social issues. So you will find showcases highlighting women and LGBTQ stories as well as sidebars on soccer and life in the ring.
"Un Mundo Extraño"
Audiences always find the opening and closing night films, and the ones with big celebrities like Damián Alcazar. That's why I always try to highlight the films that might get lost in the shuffle or just do not seem easily accessible. For the past few years SDLFF has designated a showcase called "Un Mundo Extraño" to highlight genre films, especially horror and science fiction. Some of these films have sent people running for an exit but all have been works that push the envelope on cinema in some way.
"As a programmer of course I hope that people show up to the movies that I book, however, I don’t necessarily set being a crowd-pleasing festival as a priority for me," Esparza said. "I want to screen confrontational cinema, I want people to feel a little bit uncomfortable, I want them to feel like they have seen something new and fresh and innovative. I like challenging audiences. I’m not really necessarily interested in whether our supporters like the movie in a very conventional way but what appeals to me is if they are willing to have a discussion about what they just watched because I think that fosters growth and understanding so for someone to have an initial reaction of, ‘oh I didn’t like that or I hated that,’ what interests me more is in digging a little deeper. Why didn’t you like that or what about this dislike can we dissect to maybe make it more appealing for you in the next round and also for myself to learn as a programmer."
Miguel Rodriguez has plenty of experience programming films that challenge audiences. He is the founder and director of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival and he curates the "Un Mundo Extraño" showcase with Esparza. (Listen to their full interview about Un Mundo Extraño on my Cinema Junkie Podcast, which also includes an archive interview with Guillermo Del Toro.)
"The name itself, 'One Strange World, Un Mundo Extraño,' I just view that as using a lens, a fantastic lens to deal with real life topics," Rodriguez said. "We might be able to talk about something that causes anxiety or fear and use something like science fiction or horror or crime thriller to access that and maintain a little distance from it. But honestly all I am really looking for are films that are a little off-kilter and as we said maybe a little uncomfortable or for my personal view, films that showcase a topic that the filmmaker is using to express some type of anxiety about the world and using a fantastic means or an unusual means to get that message across."
My favorite of the three features screening is "Muere, Mostruo, Muere (Murder Me, Monster)" from Argentina. It is a monster movie but of an innovative kind.
"After beginning with one of the most original moments of shock of the year, this horror quickly presents its vision of the Mendoza region of Argentina as a moody hellscape, full of ethereal nightmare images," Rodriguez said. "Director Alejandro Fadel is fond of letting the camera linger, allowing us to fully explore the night side of such a beautiful landscape. Part murder mystery, part metaphysical head trip, part creature feature, and all darkness, 'Muere, Monstruo, Muere' is one of those films seeks to have us peer into the void, and wonder what monsters may stare back."
It also serves up surprising compassion for the monster. "¿Eres tú, papá? (Is That You Papa?)" also serves up the unexpected. The story involves 13-year-old Lili and her mother who live an oppressive life under a domineering patriarch in rural Cuba.
"When he suddenly disappears, his psychological hold on his family becomes apparent. Strong enough that young Lili goes through long lengths to try to get him back--and learn disturbing truths about her family history in the process." Rodriguez said. "A debut feature from Rudy Riverón Sánchez, '¿Eres tú, papá?' explores the contradictory relationship between Cuba and its people through the lens of a psychological horror. It is fascinated by the nature of people attached to their abusers. The horror contains elements that are both universal and uniquely Cuban at their core."
The final feature of the showcase is "La Casa Lobo (The Wolf House)" from Chile. The film's stop-motion animation style is what lends the film its particular brand of the fantastical.
"If you are looking for a truly unique experience this year, look no further than the Chilean bizarro film 'La Casa Lobo,'" Rodriguez said. "This stop-motion animated feature takes the framework of a fairytale, with a quirky style, but warped by the real-life inspiration of Colonia Dignidad, the real life organization in Chile controlled by former Nazi Paul Schäfer. If that weren’t sinister enough, the narrator is an analog of Schäfer himself, lending a nihilistic pall to the entire production. The animators chose this project as a way to reconcile a distressing part of Chilean history by projecting it through the fairytale aesthetic. The result is possibly one of the most interesting cinematic experiences of the festival."
"Un Mundo Extraño" also has a shorts program to check out.
Once again SDLFF offers a tantalizing array of films and I urge attendees to seek out films that might push you out of your comfort zone. These films may be challenging and may deny you a happy ending but they are also richly rewarding.
The festival opens March 14 and runs through Sunday, March 24 at AMC Fashion Valley and Digital Gym Cinema.