Now in its 24th year, the San Diego Latino Film Festival [SDLFF] has steadily become an essential event. This year, the fest will showcase over 150 new features and shorts from around the world during its 11-day run. By emphasizing themes of hope and equality, SDLFF has developed a reputation for programming thought-provoking documentaries that deal with myriad diverse subjects.
Take for instance Tatiana Huezo’s heartbreaking documentary Tempestad, which critiques cycles of violence and intimidation that have permanently altered the daily lives of Mexican citizens. Two different women share their traumatic stories through haunting voice-over, each providing converging perspectives on how everyday people randomly find themselves at the mercy of powerful cartels and corrupt government forces.
Miriam Carbajal was a trusted airport customs officer before being unjustly accused of drug trafficking. Without much due process she is whisked away to await trail at a “self-governing” prison run by gang members and separated from her young son indefinitely. Misconduct and extortion are a daily occurrence, with female prisoners having to pay protection fees in order to avoid beatings and death. The story of circus performer Adela Alvarado is no less harrowing. Sex traffickers kidnapped her 20-year-old daughter ten years ago, creating a gaping emotional wound that has never been closed.
Instead of presenting interviews through standard talking heads, Huezo layers the women’s voices over elliptical b-roll of modern Mexico. People travel by bus across the countryside, shop at local fish markets, and go about their daily business. More than once federal police trucks with armed officers reside in the background. Tempestad effectively places the viewer in the mindset of a victimized populace slowly being suffocated by fear. It makes clear that Adela and Miriam’s plight could happen to anyone at any time.
Similarly heavy themes can be found in the narrative feature programming. Felipe Guerrero’s Oscuro Animal is a dialogue-free escape film about three Colombian women entangled in the madness of their surroundings. Rocio (Marleyda Soto) returns home to find her village sacked by a rebel death squad and heads to Bogota for safety. La Mona (Jocelyn Meneses) kills her abusive paramilitary boyfriend only to be chased through the jungle by his compatriots. Former soldier Nelsa (Luisa Vides Galiano) decides to leave her death squad after witnessing an atrocity.
All three women live in a world no longer in need of language. Often primal, their journeys are dominated by nature’s ambient noises that threaten to overwhelm all sense of directionality. In choosing action over stasis they’ve taken the first step toward reclaiming some sense of individual power. But the film offers nothing in the way of closure by the end credits.
João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist is a different kind of liberating experience. It follows Fernando (Paul Hamy), the titular Portuguese scientist who has sequestered himself in the woods studying the mating patterns of different bird species. When his canoe tips over during a river expedition, he ends up being saved by two Chinese tourists. This is where the film parts ways with logic and reason, becoming an unabashedly surreal exploration of backwoods mysticism and religious fanaticism.
Crazy rituals, strangers by the lake and a Christ figure come to define an alternative world that seems to be tilting on its own axis. Fernando’s return to civilization takes multiple psychotic turns, ultimately leading toward an overly symbolic reincarnation of the spirit. Despite being self-indulgent and occasionally incoherent, The Ornithologist proves why Rodrigues is one of the world’s most daring filmmakers.
SDLFF will also present a retrospective on the work of master Mexican director Arturo Ripstein, special sidebars on female and LGBTQ filmmakers, and will once again spotlight the latest comedic and dramatic hits in mainstream Mexican cinema.
San Diego Latino Film Festival runs from March 16-26 at AMC Fashion Valley Cinemas and Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.