March 27, 2009
By Jose Guzman
Seats became a hot commodity at an annual Latino film festival that rolled through San Diego this March.
At least 18,000 people attended the 16th annual San Diego Latino Film Festival to see approximately 165 films. But films were not the only attraction at the 11-day film festival where attendees found themselves not only surrounded by movies stars and independent film directors but also submerged in the Latino culture itself.
Latin art was displayed and music was played in the lobby of UltraStar Cinema, Mission Valley, where the festival took place. Ethan van Thillo, creator of the festival, said that such an event brought Latino culture from all over the world to one place where people could experience it.
“More importantly, I think it shows the diversity of the Latino films, Latino culture,” said Van Thillo. “It’s great to have four screens here at the movie theater where you can see different types of films like films from Peru, Chile, Argentina, documentaries and shorts.”
During the event, attendees had chances to interact with the film makers through question-and-answer sessions. It was not uncommon to see famous Latino movie stars sitting in the audience. Among some of the stars, Barbara Mori, known for her role in the soap opera “Ruby,” attended. Also, Latino actor Demian Bichir attended. He has been recently recognized by American movie-goers for his role as Fidel Castro in recently released, “Che.” This along with other stars such as Rafael Amaya, Karime Lozano, Maya Zapata, Ana Serradilla and more spoke to audiences at the festival.
Ana Serradilla, star of Latin America’s version of Desperate House Wives, said this was her second year attending the festival. Last year she said she enjoyed the heart-felt connection she established with the audience. This is one of her favorite things about the festival, she said. And like Serradilla, connecting with the audience seemed to be on the minds of a lot of other film stars and movie makers. Producer Simon Brand said the festival allowed him to transcend the critics and see exactly how his film, “Paraiso Travel,” connected with a live audience.
“I always said that I make movies not for the critics or for any judges, I make it for the audience,” Brand said. “We had the opportunity (to) screen the film for many audiences around the world. It’s been a great success.”
Brand said his film allowed him to express the human truths in the immigration experience. This type of movie was common at the festival. Movies portrayed different perspectives of the Latino culture, such as contentious issues like poverty, oppression and the struggle of being a minority in the pursuit of a better life. By the time people walked away from the festival they had experience the entire spectrum of Latino culture, from music and art to beautiful stars to desperate migrants.
Hometown filmmaker, producer and director Gregory Nava received a tribute for the 25th anniversary of his film “El Norte.” The movie, which was played at the festival, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984. The film is said to be at the vanguard of U.S. immigration problems, Nava said.
“It brought that issue into the focus for people,” Nava said. “It brought humanity, which is what I wanted to do. People come here to work, trying to better their life, to purse their dreams, to do what anybody would do if they were in this situation.”
Today, 25 years later, the issues confronted in “El Norte” are still alive, Nava said. He said immigration is even more relevant today. Nava called the movie “the most beautiful movie I ever made,” and said it was a testament to the power of independent films, saying that even with a tiny budget he was able to make a film that was tantamount to all the other films that he had made with much more resources.
But while the festival offered movies that tackled serious issues, it also offered movies purely for entertainment purposes. This is why director Jojo Henrickson, maker of the movie “GB 2525,” said his goal had bee to create “fun movies.”
“We want Latinos to be the guys that save the day” Henrickson said. “It’s always been a very stereotypical presentation or it’s always been a struggle or (a) Latino character has to prove its dignity in a white world…we are interested in making the Latino character (into) heroes and bad guys”.
Van Thillo conceived the idea for the event when a professor at his alma mater, University of California, Santa Cruz, challenged his class to create a festival dedicated to Chicanos. Thillo accepted the challenge and two years later brought his experience to San Diego. Sixteen years later this dream has been recognized. But, he said, it has not been easy. One obstacle was drawing talent to the event, he said.
“It’s a challenge to get those latest films,” said Van Thillo. “You are competing against films festivals”.
But, Van Thillo said, San Diego has provided the festival with an environment that nurtures growth. The cities proximity to the border and the county’s large Latino population all creates a perfect climate for one of the world’s largest film festival, he said.
“Our tagline is changing lives through film,” Van Thillo said. “So as long as we are doing that, that is our future.”