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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Benavides Born" Director Amy Wendel

By Indiewire | Indiewire January 3, 2011 at 5:11AM

In a small south Texas town, there aren’t many career options for young people besides oil rigs, the military, or fast-food restaurants. Luz Garcia, a fiery high-school athlete, is determined to forge a different future; she’s gained admission to the University of Texas at Austin. The problem is she can’t afford to go. With her one shot at a scholarship riding on the state powerlifting championship, she sees no choice but to bend the rules to ensure her victory. Although Luz’s rashness and frustration land her in increasingly hotter water, they also fuel her with courage and empowerment.
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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Benavides Born" Director Amy Wendel
A scene from Amy Wendel's 2011 Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Competition Film "Benavides Born." Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

In a small south Texas town, there aren’t many career options for young people besides oil rigs, the military, or fast-food restaurants. Luz Garcia, a fiery high-school athlete, is determined to forge a different future; she’s gained admission to the University of Texas at Austin. The problem is she can’t afford to go. With her one shot at a scholarship riding on the state powerlifting championship, she sees no choice but to bend the rules to ensure her victory. Although Luz’s rashness and frustration land her in increasingly hotter water, they also fuel her with courage and empowerment.

Rarely do we see a female protagonist with such agency, intelligence, and flawed humanity, and the experience is enormously satisfying. With lush naturalism, "Benavides Born" nimbly portrays the textured world of an America seldom explored onscreen: a place where multifaceted, third-generation Mexican American characters, conscious of obstacles and opportunities, fight to shape their own lives. [Description courtesy of Sundance Institute]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

"Benavides Born"
U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director: Amy Wendel
Screenwriters: Daniel Meisel, Amy Wendel
Cast: Corina Calderon, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Joseph Julian Soria, Julia Vera, Julio César Cedillo, Julian Works, Leticia Magaña
Producers: Daniel Meisel, Susan Kirr
Cinematographer: Rob Hauer
Editor: Andres Santamaria
Casting Directors: Toni Cobb Brock, Sally Allen
Production Designer: Jade Healy
Costume Designer: Amy Maner

Responses courtesy of "Benavides Born" director Amy Wendel.

From teacher to director...

Out of college, I joined Teach for America in LA. Surprisingly, filmmaking and teaching hormonally imbalanced seventh graders have a lot in common: both require a vision, endurance, and passion. In the process of helping others unleash their creativity, I started to think about my own. After four years of teaching, I figured new surroundings could trigger new feelings and new ideas, so I bought an around-the-world-ticket and traveled. Visiting and learning about historical sites, hearing other traveler’s tales, and experiencing my own adventures, I became drawn to storytelling and how it transports people. I think I gravitated to film because, as a visual medium, it most closely approximated the transportive experience I had traveling.

TV show leads New Yorkers to a small town...

My husband and I saw a "60 Minutes" segment about a small South Texas town, called San Diego, that had lost two of its youths in the first months of the war in Iraq. We were intrigued by the description of this town’s population as not only 98% Mexican-American, but also typically fourth or fifth generation American. We wondered what this community’s version of America might be like, and what options their children might have beyond the military – which dominated their school job fairs. I went down to San Diego and nearby Benavides without any preconceived notions of what I might find. I sought out people to interview – teachers, reporters, students, longtime residents, soldiers, and clergy. The first student I interviewed was on the women’s powerlifting team. I said, “The what team?” I was hooked. Every interview thereafter was like another door opening on a new world. My husband and I eventually crafted a story that incorporated the information and issues we found most compelling in these interviews.

The keys to achieving authenticity...

We wanted the film to be as authentic as possible and felt it essential to film in the places, and amidst the people, the story had come from. We filmed at real powerlifting competitions, on working oil rigs, and in an actual detention center. Our casting directors held local casting calls, and I had held informal auditions at over 30 high schools in the area. We also work-shopped the script with kids from San Diego and Benavides. The raw locations and landscape needed to be a character in the film, and our DP, Rob Hauer, shot hand held throughout to bolster the feeling that you’re actually there.

"Benavides Born" Director Amy Wendel. Image courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

Toughest thing about shooting in a tight knit community?

Staying true to our original vision despite all the pressures and variables that could have led us astray. There was also understandable apprehension on the part of many South Texans about two New Yorkers presuming to tell a local story. We worried, ourselves, about our ability to obtain authenticity. Ultimately, however, we weren’t trying to tell their story to them. We were simply trying to depict those elements of their community we found most interesting and felt other outsiders would as well. The best way to ensure authenticity was to seek and welcome the involvement of those whose stories we had incorporated.

The plus sides to filming among locals...

There is a tremendous benefit to filming in a supportive community interested in film production. Despite a tight budget, we were able to film in most, if not all, of the locations we had in mind when writing the script. We had a police canine and handler, oil rig, and major barn location fall through and managed to replace all three within just hours. Two days before our last day of shooting, we still hadn’t cast the Freshman Admissions Director at University of Texas at Austin. It’s a tough role requiring seemingly conflicting attributes: compassion and intimidation. Finally, it hit me over the head like a two-by-four, “Cast the actual Admissions Director.” Lucky for us, he was game.

What Sundance audiences can look forward too...

It’s a world that many of us have never seen before; it’s a character we can identify with; it has unexpected turns; and it’s thematically about something we all get passionate about -- following your dreams.

Gritty indie classics that inspired Wendel while shooting "Benavides Born"...

"Husbands" by John Cassavetes for its brutal honesty, "Bread and Roses" by Ken Loach for its world, and "Half Nelson" by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden for its flawed character.

And what's in store for the near future...

A romantic comedy set in a small northern Minnesota town involving another unique sport!

This article is related to: Features, Filmmaker Toolkit, Interviews, Inside Info