Sure, there are some fine films out there, but actor/filmmaker Randy Vasquez says most of the movies shown in America, such as the crowd-pleasing, high-grossing Meet the Fockers, are just short-term bursts of entertainment. They're kind of like the cinematic version of Chinese food-you're full for a little while, but it doesn't last.
"You leave the theater and forget about them," Vasquez said. "Films like Hitch and crap like that are just a temporary thrill. They don't jolt you or stay with you. I'm really picky about what I go see and what I spend my 10 bucks on. There are so many good films-all kinds-so why go see a film like Meet the Fockers when you can go see a great film that's only showing for one night?
"The whole point of going to see a film is to feel like you've gone on a journey and that's what Latino films do," Vasquez said. "They stick in your mind and introduce you to another culture. You can see how other people live and how other filmmakers think. Film is good for entertainment and, sure, it helps you forget your problems, but films can influence and inspire people. Filmmakers should question authority and challenge the system. That's when it's art."
Vasquez received numerous awards for his documentary, Testimony: The Maria Guardado Story, that premiered at the New York Latino Film Festival in 2002, and it led to a movie role.
"I made a documentary about a woman who emigrated from El Salvador to the United States in 1983 to escape the civil war. She survived kidnapping by the death squads there. It was a very successful film, and Beto Gomez, the director for Puños Rosas (Pink Fists) saw me and recognized me from some TV stuff. He thought I'd be right for the character."
Puños Rosas is just one of more than 100 films that'll be screened during the San Diego Latino Film Festival March 10 through 20.
Vasquez plays "Freddy," a Mexican-American who speaks "Spanglish" with a Texas twang and a ton of expletives in both languages. The film's title is an ominous clue to an ugly storyline.
"It's a boxing movie with homosexual undertones and mafia guys who smuggle stolen cars across the Mexican border," Vasquez said. "I'm the antagonist who's trying to take over the crime territory of this Mexican mafia boss."
Vasquez says it's a modern take on life on the border of Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico, that may not be an accurate portrayal of life there.
Vasquez was born in Escondido in 1961, but when his parents divorced, he and his brother divided time with their white mother in North Carolina and Mexican-American father in California. A jock at Escondido High School, Vasquez wanted to be a baseball player, but also dabbled in drama. He eventually moved to New York and spent years doing theater, even some Shakespeare. He got his big break in the Eddie Murphy comedy Beverly Hills Cop, and more film and television roles followed.
Vasquez is best known as Gunnery Sgt. Victor Galindez on the TV series JAG. Vasquez looks a bit like a young Richard Gere and is a favorite at "JAGnik" conventions. JAG pays the bills and allows him to work as a serious actor, humanitarian and filmmaker.
One of his favorites at the San Diego festival is Voces Inocentes (Innocent Voices), based on the true story of screenwriter Oscar Torres' horrific childhood amid the Salvadoran civil war. Oscar-nominated director Luis Mandoki will be present for the screening and will curate a sidebar of three films that influenced his career, The Battle of Algiers (1965), The Human Condition: No Greater Love (1958) and Rocco and His Brothers (1960).
Vasquez says San Diegans should also take a look at Machuca, a coming-of-age story directed by Andres Wood about the horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship as seen through the eyes of three children from different social classes. Machuca was Chile's official selection for the 2004 Oscar.
Ethan van Thillo, executive director and founder of the San Diego Latino Film Festival, started the festival 12 years ago to showcase student films. Now it runs for 11 days, and more than 15,000 people are expected to attend. It's really educational entertainment, van Thillo explained, and you don't have to speak Spanish to participate.
"This festival has something for everyone-documentaries, animation, features, experimental and comedy-and they're all in English or have English subtitles."
Confront your fear of subtitles. Unless you're illiterate or plastered, they're generally easy to read. You can learn great slang and cuss words that don't appear in any Berlitz book. After awhile, you'll learn to detect subtle differences in dialects and cadence between countries.
You may need a double espresso to keep up with the fast-talking Spaniards in the comedy Atun Y Chocolate, directed by and starring Pablo Carbonell, but the excited chatter is part of what makes it so funny. Carbonell plays Manuel, a fisherman along the Cadiz Coast who has to stop living in sin with his partner Maria and get married because their son wants to take communion. Manuel, his buddies and the whole village conspire to plan a wedding in spite of the town's economic crisis, reminiscent of Waking Ned Divine. It's rated for mature audiences, but if you cover the kid's eyes during scenes depicting hashish smoking, smuggling and perverse torture, it's a harmless hoot with a happy ending.
The festival does offer family-friendly films, documentaries and TV shows from Mexico, Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Colombia and the United States. Acquaria is a fantasy set in a future without water. El Carro is a comedy about a teenager who sees a car as her ticket to freedom. Maya & Miguel is PBS' new bilingual, animated kids show, and children younger than 12 get in free.
Van Thillo says films, concerts, guest directors, art and photography that are all part of the festival offer many ways for people to connect.
"We're taking over three screens at the Mann Theaters in Hazard Center," van Thillo said, "to celebrate the Latino culture and to have the Latino community come out and see films from their home country. For a young Latino teen, it's really tough to be bombarded with negative stereotypes and grow up with those images. There's a large Latino population here, but there's still only 1 to 2 percent of Latino representation on mainstream films and TV, and that representation is usually based on stereotypes." It's the film festival's goal to expand audience awareness, but also entertain, he added, noting that films like local director Isaac Artenstein's Tijuana Jews do just that.
While Hollywood films are known for special effects and big budgets, van Thillo said, Latino films are known for telling up-close and personal stories.
"Latin American cinema really strives to get up close," he said, "and you'll see a lot of hand-held camera work. We have a huge selection to choose from, so if you don't like one film, I bet you'll see another one that you like."
To be accepted into the festival, films must be made by a Latino and/or be about the Latino experience. Van Thillo said organizers screened films that have been shown in major film festivals around the world, such as Cannes and Sundance.
"We've selected about 80 films from a database of more than 800 films that were produced in just the last two years," he said. "That tells us there a lot of films being made, but a festival is a way for bigger audiences to see them. There are about 1,000 feature films made in the U.S. every year and in Latin America; there are tons of emerging artists and others who've been making great cinema for years."
Films screened at the San Diego festival over the years have gone on to become popular in the mainstream and have even been nominated for an Oscar, like Y Tu Mamá También and, this year, The Motorcycle Diaries and Maria Full of Grace.
This year marks the centennial of the birth of Mexican screen legend Dolores del Rio. The festival will honor the occasion by paying special tribute to her and showing her films Flying Down to Rio (1933), La Otra (1946) and The Fugitive (1947). There will also be tributes to Mexican actress Carmen Salinas and actor/producer Danny Trejo.
Cruising down an L.A. freeway, Trejo talked on his cell phone to CityBeat about the world premiere of Champion, a documentary about his life. Trejo grew up on the streets of L.A. and spent three years in San Quentin for drugs and robbery. When he got out, he was determined to kick his drug and alcohol habit and help others do the same.
Years later, he was on the set of Runaway Train (1985) to support a man he'd been counseling. Well-talk about timing and being glad to have a face with some wear and tear on it-Trejo was offered a role as a convict.
Trejo went on to star in films such as Spy Kids, Heat with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and Once Upon A Time In Mexico: Desperado with Johnny Depp. In the early days, Trejo says, it was frustrating to work in a white-dominated industry.
"When I first started, I never had a name. I was just listed as "gang member 1' or "mean Mexican No. 1.' But as long as I was thug No. 1, 2 or 3, I figured I still had a career. But now we've got some major players in this business, and the beautiful thing is that it's creating more and more work in the industry for Latinos.
"When you start getting directors like Robert Rodriguez who say, "No, wait a minute, Brad Pitt's fine, but he's not Mexican. This role is for a Mexican, and I want a Mexican to play the role!' that's a good sign. Most of the time we'd get somebody to play a Mexican! Hey, look at Training Day. We used a guy from New Zealand to play the head Mexican in the gang. Hey, the guy was a good actor, but he wasn't Latino."
Trejo says Latino film festivals introduce people to some great films and help them better understand Latino culture.
"Films can open up the world to people and make it less intimidating. Latin films are no different than American films, as far as content. We just have different people in them. We don't have Brad Pitt playing Emiliana Zapata the great revolutionary. We have Juan Garcia.
"My pal Dennis Hopper and a whole lot of people are coming down to San Diego for this festival. People that understand this film industry know Latinos have some great stories and great things going on. Film festivals are all about seeing movies that you wouldn't otherwise get to see. But the best part is having a good time."
The 12th Annual San Diego Latino Film Festival runs March 10-20. Tickets for screenings start at $8.50. A full Festival Pass is $175. For complete information on passes, tributes, galas, workshops and concerts, visit www.sdlati nofilm.com. Films are listed alphabetically by name and country.