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Exclusive: Riviera Maya Film Festival Director Paula Chaurand Talks Why the Fest Matters to Mexico, and the World

Exclusive: Riviera Maya Film Festival Director Paula Chaurand Talks Why the Fest Matters to Mexico, and the World

In three Mexican cities along the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo, the Riviera Maya Film Festival packed up its third year last weekend and oh, what a week it was. 

International press spent most of the festival shuttling between the teeming tropics of Playa del Carmen, the beautiful city of Tulum and the spring breaker hotspot Cancun, catching a variety of films fresh off last year’s festival circuit (“Nymphomaniac,” “Under The Skin,” “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”) as well as homegrown Latin American indies we’re not likely to see anytime soon in the United States.

Some films, like “Don Hemingway” and “Nymphomaniac: Volume II,” screened right on the Caribbean Sea. We watched the films on beach towels, the waves lapping up within earshot, with free drinks and fabulous after-parties to follow. All screenings were free and open to the public — if you could grab a seat and/or towel, that is — which you don’t see very often.

On opening night (which I talked about in my report here) I sat down with festival director Paula Chaurand. She’s young, hip and cinema-savvy — in other words, the perfect person to spearhead a Latin American fest that’s relatively new to the ever-growing film festival world. Chaurand talked openly about her ambitions in starting this festival, her background as a social anthropologist and how that informs her role as festival director and founder.

Chaurand also talks about the Riviera Lab, a program that complements and supplements the Riviera Maya Film Festival but also bolsters emerging independent film projects (for comparison’s sake, think Tribeca Film Institute). The Riviera Lab allows for “work-in-progress” screenings at Riviera Maya, giving filmmakers a chance to screen their work to the public before submitting to major film festivals (Cannes included).

Our Q&A follows on the next page.

Ryan Lattanzio: How would you describe the festival to a foreigner?

Paula Chaurand: This festival should be considered something different compared to others at an international level. The idea is to [screen] different films that aim at understanding the culture and the background in Quintana Roo, but also can be identified and understood by people coming from other countries or other parts of Mexico as well.

Why Quintana Roo?

We consider Quintana Roo a state where there’s a lot of foreign and domestic tourism, and it’s a party destination. So the festival is not just for Quintana Roo, Mexico and tourists. It is a sophisticated festival offering sophisticated material and films, but it should be understood by everybody. Each person in a different country can understand and participate. One of the most important points here is that there are 70 films going on right now, and 40 are being presented for the first time nationally in Mexico. 

How would you describe the state of cinema in Mexico as it stands now?

In Quintana Roo, cinema is very commercial and we believe that [this festival] is very important for us because the people deserve to see other kinds of movies. We have around 20 theaters, at least in Playa del Carmen, but all the time it’s just Hollywood presentations. And that’s okay. We’re okay with that. But our mission is more about getting cinema free and openly to the people. Should I see a very big movie or go to the film festival, with free programming? In Mexico, all the festivals, for me at least, are very private. If you’re in the film industry, you can enjoy a very good film festival in Mexico. But our mission is about getting cinema to the people of Quintana Roo.

Why is the festival free and open to the public?

Our first year was very complicated. People try and choose between a large movie or an independent film. So we decided, for Quintana Roo, to go with a public presentation. We thought, what if we put them in open air? Given there are lots of movie theaters in the Riviera, you have to pay to watch a film and in general everything is related to Hollywood rather than independent movies. Audiences here generally don’t have a background for the film, the director, the cast. So why not have something different? This festival helps people understand this context, with a wide variety of timetables. And it has been successful so far, in public places, theaters, on the beach. It’s amazing for Quintana Roo.

What can Mexico do to bring more better cinema to the nation, and what is your role in that endeavor?

All festivals throughout the country have a solid, positive platform for films being shown for the first time or not. But what’s different about the Riviera Maya Film Festival is we try to contribute films that are not shown in Mexico, or films that never come. We invite directors and cast, and invite the public to have access for the first time in Mexico and for free.

As a fairly young festival, were there struggles to get international art cinema into the country?

Sometimes. But, for example, “Nymphomaniac” was a very good experience. We thought we couldn’t get the major presentation of this film, because we are a young festival. But suddenly they said, okay, your festival is the best option for us to present the film in Latin America. In that moment, I felt, we are doing something right. That’s the right message.

Why date the festival in March? Is this a peak tourism week for Quintana Roo?

In Mexico at this time, there are many festivals. We need a couple of months because here we have people who choose films for Cannes [after Riviera Maya]. We chose March because it helps give the festival good acceptance worldwide. The more tourists we have during the season, the more it’s going to be known easily. But we try to foster new projects and productions to be able to participate in Cannes in the future, in our Riviera Lab, which is a solid platform that can create projects that can participate in other festivals worldwide.

What is the purpose of the Riviera Lab?

It was created for the festival but also works as a complement. One of the most important things about Riviera Lab is that we try and have projects from all over the world in order to be inclusive. For example, this year marks the first time we have a project from Kazakhstan. 

How has your background informed your role in founding this festival?

I studied at the Quintana Roo University as a social anthropologist so I am really into the social aspects. I consider cinema to be one of the most important means to deliver culture and expand culture among different people of various social backgrounds and education. 

I am trying to work on an international level but also with Mexico, trying to provide people with culture from all over the world, whether for free or a very low cost, with help from the government [or elsewhere]. 

I spent time at Locarno, Toronto and San Sebastian picking films for the festivals. My programming team and I travel to pick the best films. It’s a very good experience because you can see what happens in other, very big festivals. I think about my festival and it’s very little, but I perceive it as very solid.

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