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Teresa Sánchez is shown in an undated still from "Dos Estaciones." She won the Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for acting for her work in "Dos Estaciones," which screens at San Diego Latino Film Festival this year.

San Diego Latino Film Festival is back in person starting Thursday

San Diego Latino Film Festival kicks off its 29th annual showcase with 200 films plus food, art and music.

On March 12, 2020 San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF) had to cancel its 27th festival on what was to have been its opening night because of COVID-19. It has been forced to go virtual by the pandemic for two years but on Thursday night it returns in person and at a new location, AMC Mission Valley.

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Roland Lizarondo
Maralove's fabulous art provides vibrancy to the old Ruby's Diner at Mission Valley Mall where San Diego Latino Film Festival is creating a festival village for attendees to hang out. March 9, 2020

New venue

"We have a partnership with the Westfield Mission Valley Mall," explained Ethan Van Thillo, SDLFF founder and executive director. "They've been very supportive to us these past few years during the pandemic. They, in fact, give us a free storefront these past two years where we've been having our educational classes for youth media and tech camps and our Teen Producers Project. It was a natural fit to also have the San Diego Latino Film Festival here. We've taken over this old Ruby's Diner in front of AMC cinemas. We have a stage outside. When people come to see the movies, they're going to see a lot of activities. We call it a festival village."

After two years of watching films at home for the festival, it is great to see the vibrant space Van Thillo and his team have created in the old Ruby's Diner. It is now filled with art, will have a bar, and will provide a space for people to hang out and talk about the films they have just seen. The AMC Mission Valley Theatres will also provide more space for films and attendees.

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An undated poster for the documentary "Pepe Serna: Life is Art" is shown above.

Opening night features the documentary "Pepe Serna: Life is Art."


"It's exciting to be able to premiere this movie," Van Thillo said. "(Pepe Serna is) a wonderful character actor from 'Scarface' to 'American Me.' People will recognize him when they see him, but to have him in person, to talk before the film, to do a Q and A. Again, that's what the film festival is all about. You can't get that from your TV or your Netflix account. We're really excited to bring back that in-person component. And Pepe Serna is one of those amazing people that will be here opening night."

San Diego Latino Film Festival is back in person

Film programming

Exhibitions manager Moises Esparza, who also curates films at the newly reopened Digital Gym Cinema, is excited to be screening films back in cinemas.

"Which sounds so quaint in a way but it's really exciting to me to be able to be back in a movie theater sharing films as a community," Esparza said. "We'll still be playing some films virtually, but the majority of the activations will be in person. I may be a traditionalist in the sense that I like watching my movies in a dark room with a lot of people on a big screen. To be able to get back to those basics is really amazing to me."

Esparza, who is one of the most thoughtful film programmers in San Diego, always makes the film-going experience sound transcendent. And some of his film choices are divine, such as "Dos Estaciones."

Dark Star Pictures
"Al Morir la Matinée" is one of the films featured in the Un Mundo Extraño Showcase at San Diego Latino Film Festival.

"It really floored me in its delicacy and intimacy, which kind of translates to this very interior film about small actions, small movements, small brief encounters," Esparza said. "It's all about the brief moments in life that kind of define us. And there's an actress who headlines the film called Teresa Sánchez, who won a big prize at Sundance. And without even saying anything, her face communicates so much. The film is so many things. It's an exploration of a woman who's on the verge of maybe losing her tequila factory, but it's also about her journey to create emotional connections."

Esparza is also excited about the expanded programming team this year who have brought different perspectives to some of the sidebars and showcases at the festival.

"Adriana Trujillo, who is a wonderful filmmaker herself from Tijuana, she led the way with the Fronteras Filmmaker section," said Esparza. "Ebony Bailey, who is also a filmmaker, did the Viva Mujeres! And we have a couple of brand new showcases. One of them is Vozes, which is focused on Central American stories and that was curated by Nicole Góes and she did such a wonderful job curating this. And we also have a showcase focused on comedy, The Lighter Side of Life, curated by Luis Martinez."

Un Mundo Extraño Showcase

One of my favorite things at the festival is one of the longer running sidebars, Un Mundo Extraño Showcase, curated by Horrible Imaginings Film Festival's Miguel Rodriguez. This collection of shorts and features may push you out of your comfort zone with bold and audacious filmmaking. I highly recommend Brazil's trippy and politically charged "Medusa" and the meta fun of "Al Morir la Matinée."

Music Box Films
An undated still from "Medusa" is shown above. Brazil's "Medusa" is another entry in San Diego Latino Film Festival's Un Mundo Extraño Showcase.

"Miguel Rodriguez always has done such an amazing job," Esparza said. "There's a very almost like old school slasher called 'Al Morir la Matinée,' which is like 'Death by Matinee,' which it's like a giallo-inspired slasher film set in a movie theater. I saw it at home on my computer, but I want to see the slasher film about a movie theater in a movie theater. But then there's a great Brazilian film called 'Medusa,' which explores kind of religious zealotry amongst a group of women and how they band together to be the moral police in a way, and then go out of their way to hunt women who they consider to be immoral. But along the way, one of the group loses her way a little bit and starts going into very interesting directions, even having an awakening of her own. And then not to spoil it, but it takes some very almost like fantasy-based turns. So political commentary, kind of fantasy elements and just some really beautifully staged sequences."

Closing night

In addition to the film screenings there will be art, vendors, music, and the Sixth Sabor Latino: Food, Beer and Wine Festival. Closing night will take place outside the Mission Valley festival village.

"We're going to have Sabor Latino, the food festival, in the daytime and then March 19, Saturday (is) our closing night at Bread and Salt in Logan Heights. We are taking over that space and it's going to be our awards ceremony. But then we have this wonderful ten-piece band coming from L.A., Jungle Fire. Expect two hours of dancing music. It's going to be great. We encourage people to come out and have a good time. And what a way to celebrate getting back in person."

Having attended 28 of the San Diego Latino Film Festivals, I am eagerly awaiting number 29.

I cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.
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