FESTIVALS: New York Latino Shows Broad Spectrum; "MACHO," "Ballad" Unsung Highlights
by Sarah Sundberg
(indieWIRE/ 07.03.01) -- Ranging from the ultra commercial "Crazy/Beautiful" -- a cute teenage love story -- to the obscure and downright weird "Animals" -- a story of one man's sexual relationship with a sheep, from American movies with only one or two Latino characters, to movies set and produced in Latin America, the second annual New York International Latino Film Festival accomplished what they set out to, namely to show a broad spectrum of Latino filmmaking, providing a diverse portrait of Latin American life.
During the four-day event (June 20 - 24), 13 features and several shorts played at the Florence Gould Hall and Tinker Auditorium on 59th Street in Manhattan. Categories included "international features" (Sergio Bizzio's "Animals" won best feature) and "domestic features" (Jan Egelson's "The Blue Diner" won best domestic) as well as "vanguard: shorts and documentaries." A best documentary award went to Juan Carlos Zaldivar's "90 miles," which chronicles a Cuban family divided geographically and by political differences between the U.S. and Cuba. Peter Sollett's festival favorite "Five Feet High and Rising," which follows a young boy through the Lower East Side on a hot summer's day, won Best Short.
The festival opened on Tuesday with "Dominican Night," showing shorts examining life in said republic and the life of Dominican immigrants in the U.S. Also, Venezuela was honored with its own shorts program. One refreshing element of the festival was that it focused on smaller, lesser-known countries, rather than those relatively common films coming from Brazil or Cuba.
Three feature films had their New York premieres at the festival outside of the competition: Salvador Carrasco's "The Other Conquest"; John Stockwell's "Crazy/Beautiful" (coming soon from studio Touchstone); and, most notably, "3 AM" (a Showtime Original). Taxis and film mix well. This tried and true recipe works well for "3 AM," directed by Lee Davis and co-produced by Spike Lee. Over the course of two nights and a day, the separate lives of three New York taxi drivers unfold. Hershey, an aging ex- NBA player; Rasha, a Bosnian Refugee with a son lost in his home country, and Salgado, a tough and angry Puerto Rican girl. Each face a series of life-altering events in this slow paced, yet action packed film. Pam Grier, Danny Glover and Michelle Rodriguez ("Girlfight") play their roles to perfection.
The most remarkable film in the "domestic features" category was Kinan Valdez's "Ballad of a Soldier," an adaptation of the Luis Valdez play, "Soldado Razo." Set in an anonymous American town during the early Vietnam War years, it is the story of Johnny Rodriguez (David Barrera) on his last night at home before flying off to Vietnam. A young man without much direction in life, Johnny changes when he is drafted. Becoming a soldier and going to war spawns hopes of returning home a hero, well respected by family and friends. The film was shot in black and white by Anahuac Valdez and the effect is astounding as the present blends with flashbacks and visions of the future into a dream-like, sad, yet ultimately beautiful film.
The documentary short "MACHO" may not be exceptional in the technical sense. Still, the gentle and respectful director Lucinda Broadbent paints a portrait of the members of the "Men against Violence Group of Nicaragua." "MACHO" is one of the most memorable documentaries of the fest. Many of them former wife and child beaters, the "Men Against Violence" have stopped to question both their actions, and roles in the culture they are raised in. They hand out pamphlets to the regular, beer drinking men at cockfights, talk to street kids and travel to San Francisco where they teach American men about being more manly and less macho.
"Homeland" a short directed by Doug Scott, shows Lower East Side gang member Adrian (Nil Majano) as he is deported to El Salvador, after having served a five-year prison sentence. He is forced to deal with sorting out his life and identity in a homeland he barely remembers, where he is instantly recognizable as having grown up in the U.S. By taking him out of the environment he was raised in and placing him in the country in which he was born, this film portrays Adrian as an alien in the country he came from.
Winner of Domestic Feature and Audience Awards, "The Blue Diner" uses a somewhat similar technique to raise questions of homeland and identity in young Latin immigrants. Elena (Lisa Vidal), a young Puerto Rican woman living with her Spanish-speaking mother (Miriam Colon) in Boston, suddenly loses her ability to speak Spanish. One of the characters points out that this should not be a big deal in an English speaking country. Yet it renders her unable to communicate with people close to her and causes one annoyed Latina to wonder (in Spanish) "What's wrong with her, is she Nuyorican?" But at times the phrase "exploring Elena's identity" is virtually scrawled across the screen. "The Blue Diner" is a tad too explicit in its effort to bring the underlying message home to the audience.
The New York International Latino Film Festival generally held a high and even standard, which might lead one to wonder why "The Blue Diner" was showered with great reviews and awards, while other perhaps better films like "Ballad of A Soldier" did not receive the same response. Calixto Chinchilla, founder and director of the festival, attributes this largely to the buzz "The Blue Diner" created at other festivals.
In the end, however, NYILFF was an interesting festival with a well planned program, slimmed down considerably compared to last year -- this time prioritizing quality over quantity. It set itself apart by focusing on more complex accounts of urban Latino life in the U.S. and by cinematic journeys outside the usual realm. One of the goals of the NYILFF is to encourage networking among Latino actors and filmmakers. It also provides insight in and awakens the curiosity of Latin film, in general, for those who are neither Latino nor filmmakers -- and well worth the time, money and the occasional half-hour standing in line in the rain waiting for the evening's feature to start.
[Sarah Sundberg is a Swedish freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.]