In 1994, a few Chicano students came together to put on a film festival that would represent the real Latino lifestyle, which they felt was absent or askew in mainstream media.
With the student body support of San Diego State University, UCSD and other local colleges, the grassroots gathering grew to become San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF). For this, the eleventh year, founder and director Ethan van Thillo predicts more than 17,000 attendees.
Screening March 11-21 at the Madstone Theaters, SDLFF will feature more than 100 films from such soccer powerhouses as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Spain and the U.S.A. (the latter being the exception to the soccer rule).
One San Diego entry is Giancarlo Ruiz's experimental short, Insecto. "[It's a] film about a girl who begins to identify with insects as a result of her male dominated reality," Ruiz explains, "consisting of her surreal brother, jealous father and the handyman she falls in love with."
The other local entry is Visiones: Latino Arts and Culture, produced by Paul Espinosa, president of the Board for Media Arts Center San Diego. Visiones is a documentary about the Taco Shop Poets, a socio-political poetic mainstay in San Diego that drew attention in the mid-'90s by performing in local taco shops and now regularly reads at the Voz Alta cultural space in downtown.
"This will be a sneak preview," says Espinosa, who produced the 1998 TV miniseries The US-Mexican War. "But the majority of work at this festival will never get distribution. These festivals are a tremendous opportunity for mainstream audiences to see high-quality, provocative films about the Latino community."
The mainstream audience at the festival will include a wide range in ethnicity, but the majority will naturally be Latino. Despite being the second largest ethnic group in the United States, the Latino story continues to be ignored in mainstream media. International critics may acclaim films such as Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien, but Americans are more likely to recall Frida, Julie Taymor's 2002 film about the famed Mexican painter, starring Selma Hayek.
A great film, sure. But there is always more to a culture than its internationally famous painter-goddess.
"The festival addresses the lack of Latinos in mainstream film and television," says van Thillo. "[There is a] need for accurate and positive images in front of the camera, as well as a presence behind the camera."
While such affirmative images have the power to validate the cultural self-image of Latinos, festival organizers are convinced that ethnic belonging isn't necessary to appreciate the art at hand.
"All films are about local stories, many with universal qualities," claims Espinosa. "They're why we go see films. Chinese, French films, for instance: they tell us something about what's going on in a particular location, but also the human condition."
Yet what qualifies as Latino? An all-Spanish cast? A Chilean leading lady? A Frida Kahlo painting hanging on the set of a Julia Roberts blockbuster?
"We are looking at the Spanish-language world, and then we throw in Brazil," van Thillo jokes (if you don't get the joke, know that Brazilians speak Portuguese). "A film is Latino if it's made by Latinos, even if on the screen there are no Latinos."
"Latinos are in the forefront of many groups, mixed races coming together," Espinosa says. "It's not a box that you're either in or out of. People are feeling mestizaja, which is an expression we use to describe the mixture of race and culture that the Latino culture is a product of."
This year, SDLFF has set it up so that attendees can meet and discuss films with more than 100 filmmakers and actors. They'll also provide workshops on film financing, distribution, screenwriting and producing for film and TV; a "Latinos in TV" showcase; and tributes to established artists like John Leguizamo (Son of Sam, Moulin Rouge!), director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) and actor Eduardo Palomo (El Misterio del Trinidad, Kingpin).
Organizers are aware that nothing draws the average moviegoer quite like celebrity sightings, and the big names confirmed for the festival include: Nicolas Gonzalez (Anaconda, Spun), Gregory Nava (Selena, El Norte) Rene Lavan (El Nominado, One Life to Live), Adam Rodriguez (CSI-Miami), Freddy Rodriguez (6 Feet Under), Roselyn Sanchez (Rush Hour, Chasing Papi), Patricia Velasquez (The Mummy, Zapata) and the cast from the PBS series, American Family.
In the "guest director" series, Arturo Ripstein (No One Writes to the Colonel, The Virgin of Lust) will present three 35mm films that influenced his career: Nazarin by Luis Bunuel (who tutored Ripstein), Frederico Fellini's La Dolce Vita and Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai.
Gala parties will be held at downtown's Westgate Hotel. Other events include: Arte Latino!-which is work by Los Angeles visual artist, Alma Lopez; Para la Familia events anchored by the American Family cast and children's author/recording artist Jose Luis Orozco. The annual Cine Cubano sidebar will focus on Roble de Olor this year, the new feature film by award-winning Afro-Cuban filmmaker Rigoberto Lopez Pego.
A new addition to the festival is Sonido Latino!, a nightly showcase of Latino music, including national acts like Los Angeles folk trio Quetzal, Plankton Man (of the Mexican DJ collaborative Nortec Collective) as well as local artists like funk-soul-Latinos Agua Dulce and trumpeter-bandleader Gilbert Castellanos.
Those who have attended a Latino film festival in the past know such a varied atmosphere is par for the course. So how does San Diego's version differ from those in other cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago-which host the country's largest Latino film festivals?
"I think every festival is playing an important role in developing the Latino audience," says van Thillo. "Much of the festival's programming is all about timing. We were able to premiere Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien because of their release dates. Programming is all about timing-just depends when the films are being distributed."
The Latino Film Festival takes place March 11-21 at Madstone Theaters. Call 664-681-7084 or, for a full listing of nightly events and showtimes, visit www.sdlatinofilm.com.