The hottest week of the year in New York City coincided with the Third Annual New York International Latino Film Festival, July 30–August 4. As the temperature never dipped below eighty degrees (even at night), fifty films divided into four categories (domestic features, documentaries, shorts, and international features) unspooled at two well air-conditioned venues on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
The weekend of screenings began in earnest Friday night, and even an enormously powerful electrical storm (which would kill one resident in lower Manhattan watching the lightning from his roof) could not deter the crowds from the world premiere of Antonio Miranda’s Big Pun: Still Not a Player, a highlight of the festival. In fact, so many people tried to attend the documentary’s screening that the festival organizers made an unorthodox decision to the move the screening at the very last minute to a larger venue in order to accommodate the overflow. That this decision would push back all of the evening’s other screenings was apparently not as important as getting those last few people in to see the show.
Big Pun, born Christopher Lee Rios, was the first Latino rapper to have an album go platinum. He died of a heart attack in 2000, at the age of twenty-nine. His particular style of young, pull-yourself-up, creative Latino talent is exactly what the Latino Fest is trying to support, celebrate, and promote.
The festival officially began two nights prior, with a double shot of cinemania: two opening night screenings held on consecutive evenings. The first was a starry affair featuring a preview screening of Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, from Dimension Films (a.k.a. Miramax). Spy Kids 2 was not chosen for the Latino Festival’s most prestigious slot because of its subtitle (although that is how Latinos are still treated in most media—relegated to an island of lost dreams, as gardeners, bus drivers, and hot chica babies). Spy Kids 2 was, instead, selected because its director is Robert Rodriguez, the once inspiring and plucky young director of El Mariachi, the in-the-can-for-$7,000 Sundance entry that launched a wave of imitators. El Mariachi was fresh and ground-breaking as opposed to this franchise sequel. The festival should have shown a repeat of El Mariachi instead of this inane spectacle.
The second opening night feature was more in tune with the ethos of the Latino Festival. Director Franc Reyes’ boys-in-the-’hood-style drama, Empire, starred John Leguizamo as a hustler in the south Bronx selling dope he’s dubbed “Empire.” The film showed at Sundance earlier this year and is the kind of earnest, well-made indie project that should benefit from festival exposure. The official closing night film was Manito, another boys-in-the-’hood story, though this time directed by Eric Eason and focusing on younger men than those in Empire.
Other than that, the films unspooled slightly behind schedule, panel discussions were hosted, and nightly parties were held. It is safe to say that more people attended and enjoyed the parties than any other event (except Big Pun). One panel which was actually more of an interactive workshop became, for this writer, the strangest and most memorable event at the festival. Panel 3, as it was labeled, changed my whole perspective on the festival and cast a strange and not so flattering shadow across the rest of the proceedings.
Held on the final Sunday afternoon, Panel 3 was officially called “Latino Media Literacy 101.” It was touted as an “interactive, entertaining, and reflective” attempt to “focus the audience’s lens toward critically looking at films, commercials, and music videos” with the goal of learning to “define and recreate our vision of Latino and Latina media.”
The workshop was led by a group of activists and filmmakers called Chica Luna, whose main activity is going around to schools offering this same workshop to educate students to the history of (mis)representation of Latinas in film and television. Their main points are obvious to anyone who has ever taken a media studies class: The state of Latina representation is only recently emerging from a painful history of limited and inaccurate exposure. The people in attendance (of which there were few) all seemed to have taken more than one such class in their lives, and so the women were mostly preaching to the converted. Yet as the participants discussed issues like whether or not “queerness is a Latina issue,” or “whether or not West Side Story was good for Latinas,” and “whether or not Jennifer Lopez is Latina enough,” the festival itself began to feel like a failure. Here was a room of incredibly bright people talking about the who, what, when, where, and why of a media revolution—but they were only talking about it with each other.
The purpose of the New York International Latino Film Festival is to advance the role of Latinos behind and in front of the camera. The organizers seek to accomplish this goal by supporting films and filmmakers who support this agenda of more and more complex roles and stories of, by, and about Latinos.
But what if the films chosen to express this are only okay? What if the roles for Latinos in the chosen films are just as stereotypical, ghetto-based, drug and sex-riddled as the “mainstream” films Chica Luna’s workshop was critiquing?
Of course all the films in the festival were not half as bad as Fort Apache. But here is the rub. The screening of All Night Bodega, the film I most enjoyed—an exciting girls-in-the-hood flick from director Felix Oliver––was only two-thirds full. And half that audience had festival “insider” badges hanging around their necks.
If a good, award-winning film is shown—this one’s lead actress, Jaime Tirelli, won best actress at the Los Angeles Latino Film Festival, and Oliver won the Lincoln-Mercury award of $5,000 in New York—and there’s no one in the audience, does it (can it?) make a difference? I don’t think so.
Where was/is the audience for All Night Bodega and for the rest of the festival entries? If a Latino Film Festival can’t sell out a screening of an award-winning film, how is anyone supposed to hope for producers to spend money on projects of, by, and about Latinos? If screenings and panels and workshops are not overflowing with enthusiasm and ambition at a festival, how can anyone complain about what makes it onto the big and small screens.
First and foremost, festival organizers need to get people into the seats. Give the tickets away if they have to. Go to local universities, high schools, record stores—this is New York City, remember?—and give the seats away to people not likely ever to see an All Night Bodega at an art house cinema. Yet they may see themselves in the character Tirelli plays so fearlessly.
Secondly, young filmmakers need help to make more interesting, entertaining, and complex films. They need education, opportunity, and support. Let’s start at the beginning, with scholarships to film school. Now that anyone can pick up a digital video camera and chase their friends through the streets and think they are making a movie, filmmakers need to learn the basics and then have the opportunity to hone their skills.
Both of these problems take money. Usually that is the biggest problem, but here it does not seem to be the case. For a festival in only its third year, the Latino Film Festival has hotels and screening rooms, world premieres and exciting parties, all provided by sponsorship from big names like American Airlines, Budweiser, NBC, and Lincoln-Mercury, not to mention a plethora of support from activist organizations and nonprofits, and public funding from the state and the city of New York.
Festival organizers should take half the money and give it to filmmakers so they can learn how to make a film the festival will be proud to show. They should take the other half and revamp audience services. They should do a better job of advertising; take the screenings out of the dullest part of Manhattan and bring them uptown, downtown, or wherever they want, as long as the films are brought to the people. Spend money on unorthodox approaches to festival programming, like Chica Luna’s workshop. Teach, entertain, and enlighten more than just the filmmakers, their friends, and the industry. Break down the insider clique that gets built up around all film festivals.
Why? Because I should not be the only white person at the New York International Latino Film Festival. Especially because I was only there to write this article, a situation that makes me feel ashamed.