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San Diego Latino Film Festival Kicks Off Virtual Edition

Arturo Ripstein's latest film "El diablo entre las piernas" screens as part of the San Diego Latino Film Festival's virtual edition.
Alebrije Cine y Video
Arturo Ripstein's latest film "El diablo entre las piernas" screens as part of the San Diego Latino Film Festival's virtual edition.

Online festival runs today through Sept. 27

This year’s San Diego Latino Film Festival was set to launch on March 12, but the festival had to cancel on its opening day due to COVID-19 restrictions. But the festival relaunches today with 140 films online.

Beth's Top SDLFF Picks

"El diablo entre las piernas" (latest from Arturo Ripstein)

"Feral"

"Pecado Original"

"Oblatos, el vuelo que surcó la noche"

"Raul Julia: The World's A Stage"

"El día de la bestia" (1995, newly restored print)

"El fantasma del convento" (1934)

"Santo contra hombres infernales" (1961)

"Divine Love"

"Ema"

"Seneca"

"Araña"

"La Llorona"

This year’s San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF) was set to launch on March 12, but that was also the day California placed a ban on public gathering of more than 250 people because of COVID-19. So the festival had to cancel on its opening day. But the festival relaunches today with 140 films online.

Canceling a festival on its opening day can leave an organization in shock.

San Diego Latino Film Festival Kicks Off Virtual Edition
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

"We had put all this money into putting this festival on and then, boom, it just ended," said SDLFF founder and executive director Ethan Van Thillo.

The abrupt cancelation also left the festival facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses. But in the seven months that have followed supportive vendors and various grants have helped soften the financial blow. And today Van Thillo is ready for a second launch, this time online.

"It’s been incredible," Van Thillo added. "Flexibility is definitely the key. Flexibility and innovation."

Innovation to make a virtual festival feel like an in-person one. That means creating opportunities to interact online as well as scheduling films at specific showtimes to mimic a real festival. So a film might have a scheduled showtime of Friday at 7:00 p.m. and a ticket holder could watch as early as 6:00 p.m. or any time within a 24-hour window. But Van Thillo hopes people will opt for the equivalent of the "live" experience.

"So watch the film at the show time and then participate in a Q&A afterwards, just like you would do it in person event," he said.

San Diego Latino Film Festival Goes Virtual

Challenges of a virtual festival

But this online model can’t generate the kind of revenue as an in-person event so the festival has had to set different goals.

"We have over 140 movies, different filmmakers and actors that have made these wonderful films," Van Thillo said. "It's about engaging them with local audiences. And so I'm really most excited about that live, virtual Q&A experience because to me that's been the most exciting thing to learn about these past few months, engaging people online because people still need that connection.

"We want to be in person but for now it's virtual and it's still really powerful. And I think what we found is that these virtual Q&A's can be wonderful opportunities for people to engage with filmmakers and especially with filmmakers that otherwise would not be able to travel here to San Diego."

"Pecado Original" serves up a smart, sexy romantic comedy of manners.
SDLFF
"Pecado Original" serves up a smart, sexy romantic comedy of manners.

The delay in holding the festival along with a move online meant losing about a third of the titles originally programmed. Most of those were bigger titles with more recognizable talent.

"The loss of those titles has definitely given some of our smaller films the chance to take the spotlight, which is really exciting," said Mopises Esparza, SDLFF's exhibitions manager. "And I think it's really authentically to what a festival should be about, highlighting emerging filmmakers who may not have distribution strategies in place or distribution, for that matter, and they're really relying on festivals as sort of they're their lifeline."

Van Thillo agreed.

"Those are films that we should, as local San Diegans, be supporting and trying to get these more Latino voices in front of screens and more directors behind the camera," he said. "So it's important that we support these independent and maybe smaller films that we're screening at this upcoming festival."

Programming highlights

Programming is divided into showcases by tags such as Frontera for local filmmakers, Un Mundo Extraño for horror, and Somos for LGBTQ+.

"I encourage people to pay attention to those tags because there's a kind... those are our way of nudging people in the direction of interesting themes and topics that we think would appeal to them," Esparza explained. "So there is something for everyone at our festival. It just takes a little bit of time to go through the catalog and identify those films that appeal to specific individuals and in the process reveal some of the gems that might have been obscured by or eclipsed by other titles."

One of the restored classics showcased at this year's Un Mundeo Extraño sidebar is "Santo contra hombres infernales" (1961).
SDLFF
One of the restored classics showcased at this year's Un Mundeo Extraño sidebar is "Santo contra hombres infernales" (1961).

There’s something for everyone from documentaries to smart, sexy comedies to films that tackle religion through the lenses of horror and sci-fi.

Gems such as a documentary on Puerto Rican actor Raul Julia or another on Mexico in 1979 and the underground resistance movements. There are also smart sexy comedies like "Percado Original;" an exploration of grief, loss and the creative process in "Tu Me Manques;" or explorations of religion through horror in "Feral" or through science fiction in "Divine Love."

Pushing the envelope

What I love about SDLFF is that they are not afraid to take risks and ask viewers to step outside their comfort zone in order to see something truly exceptional.

"We are definitely envelope pushers," Esparza said. "At least I try to be with some of my program selections. I hope to push individuals to explore new sensibilities, different modalities to kind of broaden their spectrum of what they perceive to be a good or acceptable film."

Each year Esparza finds that there are themes or ideas that run through many of the films. This year he said it was "a visual motif of unrest and, in a way, revolution."

Perhaps the festival will inspire people sheltering at home to rebel against the mainstream fare that is easily accessible streaming on Netflix or Amazon and will instead gamble on the lovingly curated fare of unique films available online through the 27th annual San Diego Latino Film Festival.

"I just want to encourage everyone to come together during these 11 days to celebrate Latino culture and celebrate Latino film," Van Thillo said. "Let's get together and talk about these movies, talk about the issues in the movies, and celebrate and support these filmmakers. Because remember, it's important to support independent artists and filmmakers during this time of crisis."

Buying a ticket is an easy way to show support for the festival (and its sponsoring organization Media Arts Center San Diego) and to encourage artists to continue to work during this pandemic.

Full festival schedule is here.

Digital Gym Cinema on El Cajon Boulevard officially closed its doors at the end of August.
Media Arts Center
Digital Gym Cinema on El Cajon Boulevard officially closed its doors at the end of August.

Digital Gym Cinema closes

And if having a pandemic force the reinvention of SDLFF in the virtual realm isn't enough of a challenge, festival organizers also had to deal with the closure of their physical venue, Digital Gym Cinema, on El Cajon Boulevard at the end of August. I have been volunteering as a film programmer for Digital Gym through Film Geeks SD for the past six years and was deeply saddened by the loss of this intimate screening space.

"We had a wonderful 10 years at the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park," Van Thillo said. "We converted an old dilapidated building into this thriving movie theater community and technology center that was reaching over 15,000 people a year. It was incredible what we had done these past few years. So our 10 year lease was up and it was time for change. And we have a great opportunity, which unfortunately we can't announce yet.

"But we will be moving to downtown San Diego and we have a wonderful partner that will be making the official announcement soon and where we're heading we'll have a state of the art facility where we'll have classrooms, we'll have a movie theater. So it's sad to see the North Park location leave but change is needed anyways and then, of course, we're dealing with this pandemic. We can't screen movies anyways so it kind of made sense. So we'll just wait until 2021 when the new space is open and have a big celebration when it happens."

Because of the pandemic, no closing party happened and that made the end of an era a little sadder. But there was an online good bye party where people, like myself, shared memories of the cozy cinema. I will miss holding events there.