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Why YOU should attend the Latino Film Festival
On March 16th the extraordinary San Diego Latino Film Festival kicks off. The festival will run for 10 days and feature more than 150 films from around the world that have a Latino connection. The festival is celebrating it's 21st year!

By T. Johnston-O'Neill


Why YOU should attend the San Diego Latino Film Festival even if you don't speak a word of Spanish

No matter who you are, where you come from, what language you speak or cinematic tastes you hold dear, this year's San Diego Latino Film Festival is a can't-miss-this experience. The majority of the films will be shown at the Mission Valley UltraStar theater in the Hazard Center (note, there is a trolley stop right in front of the theater, but there is also ample parking, too). A number of films will also be shown at the Media Arts Center's intimate Digital Gym (North Park) and also at Centro Cultural Tijuana. In addition to the great number of films, there will also be parties, workshops and many after-film question and answer sessions (mostly in English) with film directors, writers, producers and actors. The festival showcases famous film and TV actors such as Gael Garcia Bernal, Kuno Becker, John Leguizamo, Martha Higareda and Hector Jimenez. But the festival also presents a great opportunity for first-time directors and aspiring young (and a few old) actors trying to launch their careers. Don't speak Spanish? No worries, all the films either are shown with English subtitles or have English soundtracks. Tickets for individual films and shorts programs are $11 for the general public, $9 for seniors and students and $8.50 for Media Arts Center members. Festival passes are also available as a 5-ticket for $45 deal.

My Sisters Q
My Sister’s Quinceañera

At the recent media kick-off event we had the opportunity to speak with the festival's Director of Programming, Glenn Heath, as well as a couple of up and coming film makers. Heath told us that because the festival is celebrating its 21st birthday they will screen more comedies than normal. He also said that they are excited about the numerous film showcases, mentioning both the HBO showcases of made-in-America films and a special Cuban film showcase. In fact there are no less than 13 special showcases including ones that feature LGBT films, comedies, documentaries, shorts, world cinema and more. The showcases feature films that are new, and older films that have been shown in previous years at the festival. When I asked Heath what is the one "can't miss" film this year, he suggested the American-based film (set in a small town in Iowa!), My Sister's Quinceañera that was filmed with a cast with no previous acting experience. He said that the film is beautiful, honest, raw and emotional coming-of-age story. He also said one of his personal favorites is Cuban/American film: Sombre de Azul which tells the story of a young Cuban American whose brother commits suicide, and to deal with her grief and to reconcile, she fulfills her brother's life-long dream to visit Cuba where she finds romance with a very unlikely man. Made by an American filmmaker (Kelly Daniela Norris) and starring a Mexican actor (Seedne Bujaidar), is a semi-autobiographical film that transverses identities and aims for a universal appeal while remaining a quiet introspective tone poem of a film. The Frontier Showcase spotlights locally made by San Diegan filmmakers. Add to this mix hard-hitting documentaries, animated films, horror films, and a myriad of short films and you have a festival with films that can appeal to anyone's tastes.

We were excited to be able to get to speak to a handful of young film makers at the media kickoff. (Note to other film festival producers, this is an event to emulate!) First we spoke to Nina Piza about the documentary she produced, Debajo del Cuero (Underneath the Leather) about Tijuana's largest biker club, Sólo Ángeles. The film won the "People's Choice" award in Tijuana's Bordocs Documentary Film Festival last year in which five teams competed to produce the best 10-minute documentary in only 100 hours. Needless to say, the teams worked around the clock. The film seeks to offer a more complex view of a biker group that is often perceived only as a dangerous gang. The film looks at the philanthropic efforts the group makes and the sense of fraternity, solidarity and commitment that is shared among its members. Although the club is exclusively male, it allowed access to the filmmakers (some of whom are women) to their private clubhouse so that they could document the club's rituals and inner-workings. The film screens on Monday, March 17 as part of the Frontier Filmmaker's Showcase.

Debajo del Cuero
The Filming of Debajo del Cuero

Aaref Rodriguez
Filmmaker Aaref Rodriguez

Aaref Rodriguez, writer and director of the feature film, Avenues, grew up in a "tough neighborhood" in South Sacramento. He says he started making films at 14 and offers that it was the arts that sheltered him. His mother is Mexican but the stepfather who raised him from birth is from Afghanistan, which accounts for his somewhat unusual name. He said, "I grew up in a really weird household. Both my parents were immigrants to this country… the only language that unified the two was English." But Aaref learned a bit of Pashtun, Arabic and Farsi and a smattering of Spanish (saying "Mi español es muy malo"). His introduction to the world of cinema came through his experience at his mother's gift shop, which sold movie memorabilia. Love of film stayed with him and he ultimately received a masters in Cinematic Arts from the University of Southern California. The film Avenues is set in Highland Park (known locally as "the avenues" from whence the film got its name) in Los Angeles. The film is based on a true story about a man who returns home from a ten-year prison term and his efforts to connect with the daughter he had never met. Rodriguez says "I wanted to tell a story about fatherhood, not just a tale of 'the streets.' The reason fatherhood is so important to me is that I was raised by a step-father, who is my father, and I love him to death." He also relates that while the film is set in a Latino Neighborhood, the film does not dwell or focus on Latino life as the film strives more towards a universal message. He says the film is a quiet film where there is an economy of dialog. Avenues will screen 3 times at the festival with a special gala show on March 22nd. The film is part of the HBO US-Latino Films Showcase. The entire cast and crew will be there to answer audience questions at the Gala showing.

Another film that will screen for the HBO Showcase is the 8 minute short film Llegar a Ti (To Reach You). The film's director/ writer, Alejandro Torres Rezzio, said "I'm trying to portray Latinos in a different way. I'm of seeing my people [only] as foreigners, maids, chollos or gangsters." He says that the Latino experience is incredibly diverse and spans so many regions, nations and a broad spectrum of existence. The filmmaker himself hails from El Salvador. The film is semi-autobiographical with, he says, dramatic elements added here and there, adding, "It's got to be a movie, it's not a documentary." The film is about the relationship between an 80 year old man and his grandson. The filmmaker's own grandfather recently passed away and he told me "the only way I know how to let go is by writing and telling stories." He says he has been told by many who have watched the film (from many ethnic backgrounds) that the movie was tender and beautiful, saying they thought about people they had lost, which brought them to tears but they felt like it might help them let go. Torres Rezzio said he was unprepared for this reaction and tells me, "I said wait a minute, how can they go through that? It's only a ten minute movie. I guess that's the power of cinema."

Llegar a Ti (To Reach You)
Llegar a Ti (To Reach You)

Complete Film Screening Schedule

If you have already attended the San Diego Latino Film Festival, you already know how enriching the experience is. If you haven't, you are in for a real treat. There is no sign on the door that says "For Latinos Only" at the festival. You don't need to know a word of Spanish. If you take the opportunity to see a cross-section of the films, you will get to cinematically witness how immensely diverse Latino cultures are. Not only are you sure to learn a great deal more about Latino culture and experience (even if you already know a lot), but you will also experience intimately relatable human interactions, strivings to deal with life's problems (some comedic, some tragic), and emotions that will move you no matter what your cultural background or prior life experience.

by T. Johnston-O'Neill (who regrettably lacks Spanish fluency!)
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