For all of its 15 years, there has only been one real constant at the San Diego Latino Film Festival: Ethan van Thillo, who was there at the beginning, when it was Cine Estudiantil, a small student-oriented festival on the UCSD and San Diego State campuses.
“I remember stacking chairs at midnight, being utterly exhausted, pulling all-nighters to design and edit the souvenir programs, driving in the pouring rain to get a print back on time in my little VW Bug,” says van Thillo, the festival's founder and executive director. “Of course, none of that has changed.”
SDLFF stayed in the classroom from 1994 to 1997. That was the year van Thillo brought Edward James Olmos to town to present a documentary the actor had produced. More than 700 people showed up to see him. “That was a bit of a revelation for me,” van Thillo says. “People really want to see celebrities.” The following year, SDLFF moved to Horton Plaza, began throwing parties and courting corporate sponsors—and started to grow up.
“That's when people began saying, ‘Oh, I didn't know there was a film festival in San Diego.' And even though we were only on one screen, you could feel the change.”
And while the legwork may still be the same, after 15 years SDLFF has grown into one of the preeminent Latino film festivals in the U.S. The festival, which kicks off March 6, now has four screens at UltraStar's Hazard Center Cinema featuring such high-profile films as Deficit, the directorial debut from Gael García Bernal; The Itty Bitty Titty Committee, a darling on the festival circuit screened as part of SDLFF's Cine Gay showcase; and an appearance from Efren Ramirez (Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite) as part of SDLFF's “10 to Watch.”
Of course, with such a wealth of films being shown at the festival, one has to wonder where Latino films are the other 51 weeks of the year. Van Thillo says that although Spanish-language cinema is enjoying a renaissance around the globe, Latino-themed films don't often do well at the U.S. box office. Why? Well, beyond the fact that most of them never get out of the art-house ghetto, the answer is, ironically, diversity.
“It's a big mistake, by producers and marketers, to say, ‘Oh, the Latinos will come,'” van Thillo says. “That's not the case. There are Chicanos, Chileans, Brazilians, Argentineans, people from Spain—these are all really different groups within the Latino culture. Every one of those groups has different film tastes and different particular interests.”But that diversity is exactly what's made SDLFF a success. “We have four screens and on any given night, the Brazilians can come out, the Chileans can come out, the Mexicanos can come out, the Chicanos can come out,” he says. “Each film can appeal to a different audience.”
And that's the thing—the strength of Latino filmmakers around the globe; more than 160 movies from all over Latin America, Spain and the U.S.; and appearances from more than 100 filmmakers and actors have combined to make SDLFF one of the best film festivals in San Diego in any language.
“Fifteen years ago, when you said Latino Cinema, a lot of people thought Stand and Deliver or American Me,” says van Thillo. “It was very Edward James Olmos and East L.A. focused. I've been trying to broaden that definition. This is a full spectrum of cinema for all tastes. Some people think because it's the Latino film festival—if they aren't Latino, they shouldn't go. But I like to say that if you go out for Italian food tonight, you don't need to be Italian.” The 15th San Diego Latino Film Festival runs March 6 through 16 at UltraStar Cinemas at Hazard Center. A complete festival lineup, as well as ticket and pass information can be found at www.mediaartscenter.org.
Reborn in East L.A.Most films showing at festivals are freshly made, but there's one picture at the San Diego Latino Film Festival that isn't new at all. In fact, it's one of the biggest Latino films to ever come out of Hollywood, and it's stood the test of time for 20 years.
Yep, we're talking about Born in East L.A.
“God, I had a lot of hair then,” says Cheech Marin, who wrote, directed and starred in the 1987 immigration comedy about Rudy, an Angeleno who gets deported to Tijuana with no ID and no way to get back into the U.S. It makes for a strange cultural touchstone, by focusing on illegal immigration and scoring both laughs and social-commentary points.
“It's the role of the comedian to take on issues,” Marin says. “It's almost like a hot-air balloon. It has this huge mass of very hot air, the comedy, in order to carry this very small payload, but the payload is what's most important.”
The immigration issue has evolved in the last 20 years—and not for the better, Marin says.
“It's gotten worse,” he says. “We're at the end of eight years of [Bush] Junior, and it's an election year. It's almost a given that whenever the economy goes bad, there's immigrant bashing. Whether it's Chinese, Italians, Poles, it doesn't really matter. The thing that makes this era different is that this is the largest wave of immigration ever in the history of the country, and it is in every state.”
But no matter who wins the presidential election, Marin says, the impact new immigrants have had is already changing the fabric of society.
“Salsa is now the No. 1 condiment. The change has already occurred. The process that's happening is the perception of the change.”
—Anders WrightBorn in East L.A. screens at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 16. Cheech Marin will be in attendance.
SDLFF '08 must-see filmsDeficit (Mexico): Ridiculously talented actor/super-hottie Gael García Bernal stars in his own directorial debut about youth culture and class differences on the outskirts of Mexico City. XXY (Argentina): The country's 2007 Oscar submission follows a teenage hermaphrodite whose parents pressure him/her to make an identity choice.Juan Francis: Live! (USA): An Anglo man grows up in a Latino familia and becomes an international superstar who sings songs in Spanish. The always awesome Danny Trejo co-stars.Cine'mation: SDLFF debuted its animated showcase in '07. This year is bigger and better.El Diablo y La Nota Roja (Mexico/UK): A documentary about a reporter in Southern Mexico whose beat is the crime section of the local paper—the Red Page.