San Diego Latino Film Festival Wants To Expand Horizons
Festival programmers discuss diverse films about Latinx experience
San Diego Latino Film Festival will close this weekend but there are still plenty of films to see, including "Canción de invierno" by Silvana Lazaro. The film was her thesis project and is a kind of road trip through Baja and Mexico, ending at the U.S. border. The film is very visual, which allows time and space for reflection. That quality connects well at this particular moment when the pandemic has given many of us the opportunity to be more contemplative.
Lazaro was thrilled to have her film selected for the festival because it was shot just across the border and she saw first hand how much U.S. culture mixes with culture south of the border and vice versa.
"I think that for us it's pretty hard to see how families get divided and how all of this context is going on the border and I feel that being able to have a film that can connect both places, it's pretty amazing for us," Lazaro said. "So I think that for us being part of like the Latino community, it's super important and it's been a statement towards what we do and the way we want to show our own stories and our own narratives and show our own landscapes that sometimes that that may lose when it is filmed by people that are not related with that directly. So I think that it's amazing to open this conversation inside the Latino community."
Her film screens tonight followed by a filmmaker discussion.
Screening this Thursday and Sunday is the documentary "18th and Grand: The Olympic Auditorium Story" by Stephen DeBro.
He said Olympic Stadium is "a venue, mostly a fight venue located in downtown Los Angeles that opened up in the 1920s. And the building still exists now but it closed for sporting activities in 2005. And what drew me to the subject and what I found interesting about it was it was this sort of central hub for the city and it was where the battles of Los Angeles were sort of fought out, some of those were ethnic battles, and because it's Los Angeles, many of the main characters-- the fighters, the wrestlers, the boxers and the fans -- were Mexican-American and Mexican. And so it had a very central and emotional place in the hearts of so many people. And as I approached it, that emotion and that connection really made it much more salient and much it made it deeper to me."
The festival will
SDLFF 2021 Top Picks
"Blanco en Blanco"
"Un Mundo Extraño Shorts Block"
"Zoot Suit" at the Drive-In
San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF) kicks off Thursday with films on two screens at the South Bay Drive-In. But the majority of the films will be presented online. Exhibitions Manager Moises Esparza and Un Mundo Extraño programmer Miguel Rodriguez discussed the diverse film options with KPBS.
People who program festivals live and breathe movies. They have to watch dozens of films, sometimes make painful choices, and then face the heartbreak of a film not being available.
Last March, SDLFF was the first San Diego film festival to have to cancel its live, in person event.
"Canceling the festival at its launch last year was a bit traumatic, to say the least," Esparza said. "In retrospect, and kind of in the chaos of putting a stop to everything, it was hard for me to contextualize just how emotionally deprived I felt from not being able to launch a physical edition of the film festival."
The festival canceled its scheduled March event and instead held a virtual festival last September. But whether virtual or in person, the important thing is that the festival stays true to its mission of championing Latinx cinema from all over the world, regardless of the exhibition platform.
Festival themes and top picks
Many times, Esparza has found that the themes of the festival emerge during the selection process. This year was no exception.
"During the selection process, what became clear is this reckoning with the topic of colonialism," Esparza explained. "A lot of the films I saw had this reckoning with how colonialism has bred violence that still exists to this day. And I think that's a really important thing to take notice of. The fact that this discourse seems to be happening among Latinx filmmakers, this idea that the trauma of generations past get passed down and it's up to us to reckon with it. I think the films that deal with this directly in our festival are proof that you can take on these very intense issues in really cinematically appealing ways."
Two of the films that tackle this topic in radically different ways are "499" and "Blanco en Blanco." "499" explodes your expectations of what a documentary can be. It opens with a conquistador landing on the shores of Mexico. We are uncertain of the time period until he picks up a plastic cup. That is the first jolt we get that this is not going to be a conventional film.
"This one is really form breaking and astonishing in the way it tells its story," Esparza said. "It explores the idea that colonialism has directly affected the violence in Mexico that's occurring in modern times. So, director Rodrigo Reyes frames it within this context of a conquistador arriving on the shores of Mexico in modern time. And this case, the doors walking through Mexico, kind of equating himself with like this new land, the new world. You hear anecdotes of of the violence that people have suffered in Mexico. So, through this kind of like travel-log that's he's embarking upon, you learn about the effects of what these conquistadors did to Mexican society. And the documentary is breathtaking in its scope, but it feels immensely personal because of the anecdotes that are told and shared. It really, really moved me."
"Blanco en Blanco" is equally provocative, and I urge viewers to refrain from judging what its message is until the startling ending that sort of reframes the entire movie.
"What's really striking about this film is how it portrays how history is captured and how the way that history is captured is the way we interpret it as actually happening," Esparza explained. "So, in a way, you are asked to think about how history is captured and how we interpret it today, and how the way that something that's supposed to be factual is captured is not actually how it happened. So it's kind of this like meta-narrative film on how we look at images. I would say that 'Blanco en Blanco' is one of the more provocative offerings the festival has to offer, but encourage audience members to to take a chance on it, because the reason to attend a festival in person or virtually is to watch films you would not typically watch and to watch challenging films and subject matters that are sensitive. And you that's part of the festival experience to expand horizons, to become a more learned filmgoer. So, it definitely gives audience members opportunity to kind of embark on a truly film festivalesque journey."
Esparza's commitment to choosing films that challenge viewers in the best ways is just one reason I always look forward to the festival.
Impact of Geo Restrictions
One thing that has impacted SDLFF more than other San Diego film festivals is what is known as geo restriction, in which distributors restrict who can gain access to the virtual screenings.
"Geo restrictions are a necessity but we are in a way a binational film festival because we're so close to the border," Esparza said. "So, there are some films that our audience in Tijuana will not have access to because of these geo restrictions. Prior to this virtual edition, we had individuals who would cross the border every day to watch films and they would come from even further south — Baja sometimes. And it was just so impressive to see their commitment to to attending the festival, watching these films. So, I do think for such a regional festival, it's kind of a hindrance to us in terms of access to our films and potential revenue streams."
Un Mundo Extraño
For Miguel Rodriguez, the challenge for this year's Un Mundo Extraño sidebar was about asking filmmakers to screen their films virtually when in person events in cinema may be just a few months away. He lost three of the four titles he wanted to show.
"We're at this point now where filmmakers could have a premiere at this festival online or in a month and a half or two months or even four months, they could have a premiere in an actual cinema with actual in-person networking opportunities and have talent arrive and meet folks," Rodriguez said. "So, I completely understand why one would opt to hold off and wait. So, that has definitely made it a challenge to secure films that that we wanted to show."
The one feature he is showing in the sidebar of horror, sci-fi and fantasy is a kind of gothic haunted house tale made by an entirely Honduran crew but shot completely in a famous Maryland haunted house.
"The film is called 'The Countess,' and Honduras is a country that I have not been able to showcase very much in Un Mundo Extraño so that alone makes it interesting to include it," Rodriguez stated. "But also this film has a very interesting story in that during production they got shut down because of COVID-19 and it nearly destroyed the entire project. But they had a week left to film and and they were able to complete production and actually get it to a point where it goes on to post-production and that's a little more COVID friendly."
The film has a twisting plot involving multiple timelines and some dark family secrets. The highlight of the film is the countess herself who haunts the film is a fittingly creepy manner.
The shorts program is always great because it allows for filmgoers to sample a greater diversity of styles and genres in one block.
"We are kicking it off with a Mexican short called 'La Bruja,' which is very much a classic kind of Mexican witch short film. And then I'm following it up with a period piece that takes place in the 1700s called 'At Last the Sea,' which is about a witch again," Rodriguez said. "Then we've got we've got a musical, we've got a film called 'Unlivable,' which examines the life of trans communities in Brazil and we've got some stuff that's fun and funny and also some stuff that's a little bit heavier. But lots of different countries are going to be represented, lots of different people behind the camera of different gender identities and different other types of identities behind the camera. So, we got a little bit of something for everybody."
The Un Mundo Extraño sidebar and many of the other films will be followed by live discussions with filmmakers and actors. So step out of your comfort zone or find whatever strikes your fancy at the 28th annual San Diego Latino Film Festival, which runs Thursday through March 21.