By Mukul Khurana
It’s true! As long as I can remember, it has rained in normally sunny San Diego. This year was no different. The weather forecast predicted rain at around 10:00 PM. On the dot, on the way to the opening party at Café Sevilla it started raining heavily. O.K.—so it might not always be the second day…
But that didn’t stop hard-working Lou Diamond Phillips, Sergio Arau, and Yareli Arizmendi from making appearances and mingling. As the San Diego Latino Film Festival celebrated it’s 20th year in 2013, the party kicked off another great year of Latino films, art, and music.
As we wrap up 11 days of culture, it is a good idea to reflect as to what two decades of the festival have brought us. A lot has happened from the days of a student film festival held at the University of California San Diego.
SDLFF is now one of the premiere film festivals in the U.S. San Diego’s proximity to the border might have something to do with it. But obviously, Ethan van Thillo, Festival Founder/Director, has something to do with it too. He knows a thing or two about how to run organizations quietly from the background.
Organizations also have their own dynamic and SDLFF seems to be blessed that way. But before getting hung up on laurels, what have 20 years of the SDLFF yielded? As Latinos are poised to become the biggest ethnic group in California this year, it is worth remembering that much which needs to be done in society can only be done through media change—racism, stereotypes, and social change are countered through constant exposure. That being said, what was different in this year?
Some things are permanent fixtures (like Cine Mexicano) while others are a “once in a lifetime” event (like the 20th Anniversary Showcase). New this year was the emphasis on the Science on Screen Showcase. As usual, the emphasis on border culture and documentaries remains through the Borders on Film Showcase and Documania. The San Diego Latino Film Festival is mainly about films. So, what is standing out this year as we wrap things up?
If we wait long enough, every year has standout entries. In 2013, three entries stood out in the first few days: Hecho en Mexico (documentary feature), Nostalgia for the Light (documentary feature), and Clandestine Childhood (feature narrative).
Hecho en Mexico was a delightful surprise. Directed by Duncan Bridgeman in 2012, this documentary feature showcased Mexican music in all its richness and diversity. But it was so much more… A liberal dose of philosophy and healthy national pride turned what might have been a dry academic exercise into a magical journey.
Through the art and music of iconic Mexican performers, a lens into contemporary Mexican culture was achieved. The list was as varied as Sergio Arau, Don Cheto, Blue Demon, Lila Downs, Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Diego Luna, Molotov, Café Tacuba, Gloria Trevi, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, and Julieta Venegas (just to name a few). The soundtrack and interviews were very impressive. Surprising is the criticism leveled at the movie not being serious about Mexico’s plight. Where are the drug wars, the killings, the corruption, etc.?
The truth is that those topics are being addressed from a cultural and philosophical context. Besides, how much bad news can anyone handle? What about showing the other side of a proud and resilient culture? Likewise, resistance and resiliency vis-à-vis the military dictatorship in Argentina was masterfully depicted in Clandestine Childhood. Using the personal perspective and drawing us in emotionally, this film, directed by Benjamin Avila, is a technically perfect offering from 2012.
Seen from the perspective of the young boy Juan, a family returns from exile in Brazil and Cuba to their native Argentina. Set in 1979, Argentina is still struggling against the Military Junta. Most people conform, but Juan’s family is revolutionary in its stance. As such, they will face the consequences of being branded as “enemies of the state.” However, his story is more about the trials and tribulations of growing up from a boy on his way to manhood than it is about politics and ideology.
Nostalgia for the Light starts off being a documentary about astronomy, but then also grapples with Chile’s version of the search for desaparecidos—not only is the search on for stars in our universe, but women (now an older generation) are searching for remains of their loved ones in the vast expanses of the Atacama Desert (though remains—and live bodies—were also dropped from planes in the vastness of the ocean). Patricio Guzman directed this excellent documentary in 2011. It comes to us as part of the Science on Screen Showcase.
Films and festivals don’t happen in a vacuum. SDLFF is part of the larger Media Arts Center San Diego (MACSD). Both, according to Ethan Van Thillo, were started with a certain goal in mind—to break the stereotypes surrounding the Latino community. Twenty years later, stereotypes are not the real problem anymore.
The Latino community has come far and grown to become a more powerful entity in the San Diego/Southern California landscape. It’s not that Latinos have suddenly appeared on the scene, but rather, they have been “discovered” by the mainstream—Latinos have always been there…
The aim in the next twenty years is to go beyond stereotypes. Van Thillo continues, “Past the stereotypes is the need to now get more specific about careers and jobs for the large number of Latinos—specially younger ones…” In order to that, MCASD and SDLFF are going beyond film into entertainment and other creative directions. “There will be more panels and workshops in the future…”
Referring to the Mexican border just 30 minutes away, the founder of the festival added, “Immigration as a topic has and will always remain an integral part of SDLFF. In fact, the border as a gateway also works on another level—this is where Mexican actors, directors, and producers (and others even further South) get exposure and entrance into the broader American mainstream.” We are, after all, now at the point where Latino and mainstream are not being differentiated as much anymore. Popularity south of the border translates into increasing popularity north of the border.
Speaking of immigration, another documentary, Harvest of Empire, attempted to portray what could be called one reason for the pressures of immigration into the U.S. An American project, it was directed by Peter Getzels and Eduardo Lopez. In 90 minutes, the audience got a historical and political tour of the Western hemisphere.
Whatever you can say about the political slant of this documentary feature from 2012, it is one thorough lesson. The American history of intervention in Latin American affairs is questioned continuously. It might be a facile treatment to make that the leading reason for the immigration crisis we are facing today, but it does provide us with compelling arguments about American militarism.
Of course, we know that everything is far from rosy south of the Rio Grande. Worth mentioning in that regard were Narco Cultura (documentary feature) and La Vida Precoz y Breve de Sabina Rivas (narrative feature). Whereas Hecho en Mexico attempted to leave us with hope and a nobler understanding of life, the brutality and raw reality of both of these feature presentations was stunning.
Narco Cultura, directed by Shaul Schwarz, comes to us from Mexico via the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. It is based on photojournalism born of conflict and war reporting. The Israeli director gives us a glimpse of a disturbing cultural trend that seems to be taking hold in the mainstream.
First, it was the desire for money. This led to the involvement with drugs (as a route to fast money). Drugs led to drug/turf wars. This led to killings. Now, we have the music which glorifies the lifestyle (to be fair, corridos have been around for a long time). But the elevating of narco influenced music to the level of rap and hip-hop—that’s new…
Immigration, drugs, gangs, and corruption were bundled in La Vida Precoz y Breve de Sabina Rivas directed by Luis Mandoki. This time, the border in question was the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Lo and behold, the power structure we experience on our border with Mexico is just shifted South.
As a nun said about working in Central America, “I tried to work for change, but things kept repeating themselves. I think the problem is systemic.” Though true to a certain degree, maybe human nature is the same everywhere… Maybe we need to stand guard. Maybe, we are the enemy.
Mukul Khurana is a local writer who has resided in various San Diego neighborhoods for over 25 years. During that time, he has studied at San Diego State University, taught writing, and has done a lot of writing. He has covered film festivals and been involved with local art and culture scene for at least that long. He has lived in Germany, Mexico, and India. He speaks the languages of the countries he has lived in and has an abiding respect for their cultures.
His work can be read in more detail at http://filmfestivalfilmreviewblog.wordpress.com