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Kino Lorber
Manuela Martelli’s "Chile '76" offers a portrait of a middle-aged, bourgeois housewife named Carmen (Aline Küppenheim) who is living under Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile.

San Diego Latino Film Festival celebrates 30 years

A 30 year journey

The journey to this year's 30th edition of San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF) has been a long and amazing one. SDLFF had to cancel its festival on opening day in 2020 when the pandemic hit and orders to stay at home were issued. But even in that pandemic year it managed to regroup and put on a festival.


Founder and executive director Ethan Van Thillo is thrilled to have overseen this three-decade journey.

"We can't believe that it's been 30 years since I came to San Diego," Van Thillo said. "I met with some students at UCSD, and I said, 'hey, let's organize a Chicano film festival.' And they eagerly said, 'Yes, of course, if you do all the work.' And I said, 'Yeah, sure, I'll do it.'"

The festival started as just a small student film festival and over the years involved UC San Diego, San Diego State University, and Central Cultural De La Raza. From those humble origins, the festival has grown into an impressive showcase drawing films and talent from around the globe. But it is not just the festival that has changed.

"When I first started the film festival, I would call a filmmaker up in Mexico City, and then they would look in their closet and say, 'Yeah, I got the 35 millimeter print.' But since then, the world of cinema and film festivals has changed greatly. And then, of course, we all just lived through this pandemic where the streaming giants, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, have just basically taken over and bought all the content. And they, unfortunately, don't allow film festivals or smaller movie theaters to screen the films that we would like to screen. Now the festival, and the committee and the selection committee has shifted, and we're really focusing on an emerging Latino talent, which is actually wonderful when you think about it, because that's how we got our start 30 years ago."

Cinépolis Distribución
Actor Joaquín Cosío (center) will receive a tribute at this year's San Diego Latino Film Festival featuring three films including the opening night feature, "Lecciones para canallas."

Opening night

For opening night, the festival will finally get to make good on the Joaquín Cosío Tribute that had been planned the year the in-person festival was canceled. The actor, perhaps best known for his television work on "Narcos: Mexico" as well as appearances in "Quantum of Solace" and "The Suicide Squad," will be feted with a trio of films including the opening night presentation, "Lecciones para canallas."

Venues this year

This year the festival returns for the second year to AMC Mission Valley where it will not only have access to multiple screens, but it will also be able to set up its Sonido Latino stage for music performances and take over the old Ruby's Restaurant to create a festival lounge.
"AMC Mission Valley and thankfully Westfield Mission Valley Mall is really supportive of the festival," Van Thillo said. "For us, it's much more than just the films. We have 160 wonderful movies. But this idea of just celebrating Latino culture and community and food and art and music all in one place, I think that makes it exciting for all the attendees."
The festival will also be utilizing its new Digital Gym Cinema in East Village as a satellite venue that will be activated during the entire 11 days of the festival.

El Artesano Films
The gorgeously shot "Antes que lleguen los zopilotes" is one of the films in the Un Mundo Extraño Showcase at San Diego Latino Film Festival.

Sidebars and showcases

Each year the festival offers sidebars and showcases focusing on different themes, issues and genres. The categories make it easier for attendees to look for films that might suit their tastes or interests.

"We're looking to highlight the immigrant experience every year, the LGBTQ+ experience, the indigenous experience," exhibitions director Moises Esparza explained. "We have a great showcase called Historias Originarias this year. So it's all about the indigenous experiences of individuals all over Latin America, Mexico and the United States. I think what we're looking forward to every year is making sure that we're covering as many experiences as possible. The Afro Latino experience, women filmmakers are a big highlight every year."

Since I am drawn to dark and challenging film, my favorite showcase every year is Un Mundo Extraño, which translates as "strange world," and the films serve up genres such as sci-fi, horror, experimental, and just envelope pushing content.

"The most experimental film is 'Antes que lleguen los zopilotes,'" Esparza said. "It's a black and white feature directed by Jonás N. Díaz. It blends themes of magical realism with melodrama. And it's about two women who are trying to exit their own domestic spheres and kind of chart their own path. And it has just really beautiful imagery that I still think about."

It is a film that absolutely epitomizes the notion of "strange world" and is perfect for the adventuresome filmgoer who wants to see something entirely fresh and original.

XYZ Films
"Huesera: The Bone Woman" screens as part of the Un Mundo Extraño Showcase.

Another excellent offering from the showcase is "Huesera: The Bone Woman."

"'Huesera,' directed by Michelle Garza Cervera, is a film from Mexico," Esparza said. "It has kind of all of the facets of maybe a horror film. It's a bit of a haunted house film, there's possession elements in it — black magic. But it's also a very interior film about the anxieties of motherhood. So it works on very fascinating planes. We have the director and some of the actresses coming to present the film on closing day of the festival."

I will have an interview with the director next week. It's a visually stunning work that gets to one of the themes that Esparza saw emerge from the submissions this year.

"I think what I'm excited about this year is showcasing these new films that have kind of come after the height of the pandemic that are very ambitious thematically as well as visually," Esparza said. "They play with genre in very fascinating ways. I guess a common theme that I saw this year is this play on domesticity, because we were all locked away in our house, our the domestic sphere. So a lot of films this year, I think are playing with what that means post-COVID, which I think is a pretty fascinating thing to, like, contemplate."

Festivals tend to attract large crowds for the big opening and closing nights, and the crowd pleasing titles. But film festivals should be a place where filmgoers challenge themselves to tray something out of their comfort zone or something that may never screen anywhere else. But it can be a challenge to get audiences for those films.

"The onus is on us to kind of get the word out," Van Thillo said. "We have to tell people why to get excited about these certain films and these different themes and wonderful short films, documentaries, features. The challenge right now is to get the word out and get people to come to the cinema and learn about these wonderful films and collection of comedies, dramas, horror shorts. The selection committee has done a wonderful thing this year, we have guest programmers who are also helping to promote the different programs as well."

You can order tickets, find links to film showcases, and see descriptions for all the films here. So go out and explore the movies at this year's 30th Annual San Diego Latino Film Festival.

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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