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Spice Market

I am white and alone in a darkened room at night with over four hundred Dominicans in New York City. It is a room full of laughter. A room full of stereotypes embraced and shattered. And a room every American should experience in one way or another.
Oscar Herasme, president of the Dominican American Professional Association, introduces a night dedicated to his people by saying, “You’re all Dominican tonight. And if you’re not Dominican after the films, you’ll be Dominican after the food.”

That food—chorizos, pollo a la brasa, tostones, rotisserie chicken, and black beans and rice from El Malecon restaurant in The Bronx—offers just the right variety of spice, a perfect metaphor for the success of the fifth annual New York International Latino Film Festival.

The first sentence above is loaded, of course. How you read it depends on who you are; where one sees a stereotype based in some truth or fear, another sees a lie. Groups can be stereotyped fairly or unfairly. But individuals deserve to be met with the love and respect people wish visited upon themselves and only a fool would feel uncomfortable surrounded by endlessly smiling people, no matter how different they might look or talk. Sure, there’s nothing like race to get a conversation—or a film festival—going. And there’s nothing like the vexed term “Latino” or “Hispanic” to add some zing to the mix.

In 1970, Hispanics made up five percent of the US population. That number is now closer to thirteen percent, and census estimates project that by 2050, whites will have become just one more minority in this country. By 2125, Hispanics will make up thirty-six percent of the population in the United States.

Who are Hispanic people? They are Mexicans and Cubans and Puerto Ricans and Columbians and El Salvadorians. They are eighth generation Americans, second generation Americans, and recent arrivals. They are dark-skinned and light-skinned. They are as varied as any people of different cultures, united mostly by a language, but also by their complicated relationship to the United States. Films celebrating that diversity and shared experience—made by artists seeking a voice in an industry that often wears earplugs but not blinders—were screened during the steamy last week of July to audiences in a festival for filmmakers and lovers of film.

Rodrigo Bellott, first-time feature writer/director of Sexual Dependency (2003), said after a packed screening of his film, “I am Bolivian. I am American. I speak and dream in two languages; we are part of this thick line.”

His film, the first out of Bolivia since 1997 and the Bolivian entry for the Academy Awards, got him kicked out of Ithaca College’s film program four years ago. “I was supposed to make a six minute film,” Bellott said, “and I made a one hundred and eight minute feature.”

And what a feature it is. It’s mostly about sexuality, violence, youth and intercultural group dynamics played out on an amazingly broad canvas. From the streets of Bolivia to Ithaca College, the film follows an array of characters whose stories are so well cast, written and acted that they have a documentary feel. And yet, the screen is split in two, with cameras occasionally following the same action, one side sometimes flashing forward or backward in time. The kind of stuff that challenges a viewer to think instead of being a passive receptacle—and likely ensures the film won’t get a theatrical distribution in the United States.

Sexual Dependency sparkles with a ruthless intelligence and honesty, revealing the embedded layers of sexuality and violence that prey upon the young in a media–and marketing-saturated world. It has subtitles and the split screen; it features gays and blacks and Latinos and Americans. “The film economy is set for particular niches,” Bellott said. “This movie crosses over all the niches—this is a whole other monster. What I thought were my assets, have become the problem.” In Hollywood, refusing stereotypes can have a price.

But the reception his film received at the New York festival screening at Florence Gould Hall on 59th Street, felt to Bellott like “coming home.”

It was five years ago, at the first NYIL fest that executive director and founder Calixto Chinchilla screened Bellott’s first short film, allowing him to meet other Latino filmmakers and get that initial glance inside how the industry works.

Chinchilla was only twenty-two years old when he began the festival, and his dedication to showcasing rising talent from overlooked cultures continues to drive him. “We have the talent, the stories to tell, and an audience to sit down and enjoy them,” he said. “And we have an opportunity to educate the industry, develop an audience, and develop communication between the industry and filmmakers.”

This year’s festival featured events designed for filmmakers to network with industry executives and each other. Warner Independent Pictures president Mark Gill flew in to speak privately with filmmakers. In addition, a panel of development executives presented by festival sponsor HBO and an actors’ informational panel were popular.

At the actors’ panel on a sweltering Saturday afternoon in a frigid air-conditioned room in the Roger Smith Hotel in Midtown, the discussion, attended by about forty people, featured acting coach Tracey Moore-Marable (“Never go on an audition as if you have to pay your rent”), casting agents Ellyn Long Marshall and Maria E. Nelson (both advising, “Call. Be pushy.”), performer and poet Caridad De La Luz (a.k.a La Bruja, who spoke of how she had no training—only high school secretarial skills—and would sign emails with her daughter’s name to seem as though she had someone on staff), and entertainment lawyer Fernando Ramirez (who among other topics of interest, talked the crowd through the labyrinth of screen credit intricacies: Single card? Form? Placement? Sequence? Opening? Closing? In publicity? Producer-controlled?)

Adrian Martinez, who will appear in Taxi with Jimmy Fallon and Gisele Bundchen as well as Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, asked about how to get publicity in magazines and other periodicals. When Marshall congratulated him for doing pretty darn well so far, Martinez replied with endearing petulance, “But I want MORE!”

With so many courageous, engrossing and artistically successful films, festival filmmakers and moviegoers could see Martinez’s punchline as a rallying cry. Who knows how many people might see the festival’s best picture, Mission Movie, a thought-provoking examination of San Francisco’s immigrant-heavy and gentrifying Mission District; or best short An Assignment, that portrays the battle between hope and despair in a snapshot story of city life; or best documentary First Words, a tender and revealing portrait of the filmmaker’s relationship with both her Peruvian immigrant father and the English language.

But at least for one week, these and other worthy films found their most appreciative audience. William Moldonado, an Information Technology manager for the City of New York, said, “I’m here to support the efforts of other Hispanics in the community; to see visually what we’ve been feeling inside.” Alexandra Chavez, waiting on line to see the Mexican caper film Nicotina for the second time, said, “I’ve been living here for thirty-two years. I miss the land, the people. Sometimes I feel like I don’t speak Spanish.”

Carlos Sandoval, a Mexican/Puerto Rican American and co-director of Farmingville, a gripping documentary of the rabid conflict provoked in a small Long Island, New York, community with the recent influx of illegal/undocumented Mexican day-laborers, despaired at the persistent dearth of Latino films. “I’m fifty-four years old,” he said. “Old enough to remember how it used to be, and I would hope that there wouldn’t be such a need to see ourselves on screen. But the hunger for these images is tragic in a way. There is still an absence of that identifying factor.”

It’s the identification that provokes so much laughter on Dominican Night. Certainly, there are funny moments. But much of the laughter, during moments in the series of shorts where no humor is intended, came from recognition. As though the audience couldn’t contain their joy at seeing something so familiar—a daughter talking back to her mother or child actor Victor Rasuk strutting his awkward preternatural cool in the Raising Victor Vargas (2002) precursor Five Feet High and Rising—laughing aloud at the idea that yes, I know exactly what that’s like!

And then there’s A Day Without a Mexican, co-written and directed by Rock En Español pioneer, political cartoonist, painter, and filmmaker Sergio Arau. Though not in competition after its May commercial release in California, Arau and his co-writer and actress wife Yareli Arizmendi (Sergio Gurerrero also shares a writing credit on Mexican) enjoyed a rollicking East Coast premiere of their film, which balances stinging social and political commentary with hilarity when one day, Californians wake up to learn the Hispanic population has vanished in a mysterious fog. Agriculture workers, doctors, nannies, the lieutenant governor, rock stars, husbands, wives—everyone.

“Gabriel Garcia Marquez told me that the best thing going for yourself is that you are absolutely crazy,” Arau said.

Arau’s craziness, cultivated from his award-winning political cartoon past, is calculated to subvert stereotypes with laughter. The images of an unmanned leaf blower spinning wildly or a restaurateur nervously buying tomatoes on the black market, share screen time with scrawled editorial comments like how agriculture is the number one industry in California, not Hollywood. Or a mock interview with a character who legitimately reveals that while ex-governor Pete Wilson complained that illegal immigrants sapped $3 billion from public services without paying taxes, he neglected to mention that they contribute about $100 billion to the economy through their work.

Arau and Arizmendi believe that the growth and perceived threat of Latinos in America should just be accepted and dealt with logically, not confronted with fear and ignorance. “Is it a threat or just life?” Arizmendi asked. “When does it stop becoming a foreign thing—the largest minority or what Newsweek called the new mainstream? We’re just stirring the pot; cooking up something.”

“It can be a nice recipe,” Arau said. “A nice dish. We add spices.”

Arizmendi, who played Rosaura in the recipe-filled Like Water For Chocolate (1992), can be forgiven this stereotypical Latino food analogy. After all, what use is a stereotype if it can’t be used to point out occasional truths, allowing people whose voices must be heard to laugh at themselves? And if this year’s NYIL Film Festival proved anything, it’s that there is nothing like the sound of shared laughter.

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