Thursday, December 3, 2009

THE 2010 SUNDANCE FF LATINO ROSTER

The Sundance FIlm Festival, a.k.a. the golden ticket of independent filmmaking, recently announced the complete roster for its upcoming 2010 edition. It includes a good number of Latino films from the U.S., as well as Spanish and Latin American fare. Even Colombia and Bolivia (the latter rarely, if ever, has a film in the festival). Here are all the selected films by category:

WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Secrets of the Tribe/Brazil (Director: José Padilha)—Scandal and infighting abound in the academic Anthropology community regarding the representation and exploitation of indigenous Indians in the Amazon Basin. World Premiere

Sins of My Father/Argentina,Colombia (Director: Nicolas Entel)—The life and times of notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar are recounted through the eyes of his son, who fled Colombia to move beyond his father’s legacy. North American Premiere (I'm pulling for this one since my good friend Juan Aceves did the sound work on it!)

WORLD CINEMA NARRATIVE COMPETITION

Contracorriente (Undertow)/Colombia, France, Germany, Peru (Director and screenwriter: Javier Fuentes-Leon)—An unusual ghost story set on the Peruvian seaside, a married fisherman struggles to reconcile his devotion to his male lover within his town’s rigid traditions. Cast: Cristian Mercado, Manolo Cardona, Tatiana Astengo North American Premiere

The Man Next Door (El Hombre de al Lado)/Argentina (Directors and Screenwriters: Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat)—A small incident over two neighbors common wall sparks a conflict which affects the intimacy of the view over the chimney; the protagonist sparks a conflict and with a paranoiac obsession destroys everyday life. Cast: Rafael Spregelburd, Daniel Araoz, Eugenia Alonso, Ines Budassi, Lorenza Acuna. International Premiere

Me Too (Yo también)/Spain (Directors and screenwriters: Álvaro Pastor and Antonio Naharro)—A 34-year-old college-educated man with Down syndrome and his free-spirited co-worker forge an unconventional relationship. Cast: Pablo Pineda, Lola Dueñas, Antonio Naharro, Isabel Garcia Lorca, Pedro Alvarez Ossorio. International Premiere

Southern District (Zona Sur)/Bolivia (Director and screenwriter: Juan Carlos Valdivia)—In La Paz, Bolivia, in a villa surrounded by beautiful gardens, an upper-class family experiences final halcyon days of luxury as social change penetrates their bubble. Cast: Ninón del Castillo, Pascual Loayza, Nicolás Fernández, Juan Pablo Koria, Mariana Vargas. North American Premiere

PREMIERES

Abel/Mexico (Director: Diego Luna; Screenwriters: Diego Luna and Agusto Mendoza)—A peculiar young boy, blurring reality and fantasy, assumes the responsibilities of a family man in his father’s absence. Cast: José María Yazpik, Karina Gidi, Carlos Aragon, Christopher Ruiz-Esparza, Gerardo Ruiz-Esparza.. World Premiere

NEW FRONTIER

Memories of Overdevelopment / USA (Director and Screenwriter: Miguel Coyula)—Live action mixes with animation and newsreel footage of historical events to form a collage that emulates the way personal memory works for a misanthropic Cuban intellectual. An adaptation of a novel by Cuban author Edmundo Desnoes. Cast: Ron Blair. World Premiere

Oddsac/USA (Director: Danny Perez)—Perez)—An earthy, psychedelic experimental narrative infused with the band, Animal Collective’s aural and musical sensibilities. World Premiere

PARK CITY AT MIDNIGHT

Buried/Spain,USA (Director: Rodrigo Cortes; Screenwriter: Chris Sparling)—A U.S. contractor working in Iraq awakes to find he is buried alive inside a coffin. With only a lighter and a cell phone it’s a race against time to escape this claustrophobic death trap. Cast: Ryan Reynolds. World Premiere

SPOTLIGHT

Mother & Child/USA/Spain (Director and Screenwriter: Rodrigo García)—The lives of three women—a physical therapist, the daughter she gave up at birth three decades ago, and an African American woman seeking to adopt a child of her own intersect in surprising ways. Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Naomi Watts, David Morse, Annette Bening, Amy Brenneman U.S. Premiere
This year, Sundance decided to start a new category called "Next" to highlight films made on microbudgets that were being left out in previous editions of the festivals. The criticism that I've heard time and time again from filmmakers is that if your submission is unsolicited it's practically impossible to get into Sundance. In other words, without an agent or a friend with power in Hollywood your film doesn't stand a chance. Presumably, the films included in the "Next" category came from average Joes with no connections. But is that enough for Sundance to combat their elitist reputation? Looking at the competition categories, there are a number of films that easily exceed the $1 million dollar budget mark. The question is, why do they need to make special categories for lower-budget films? Does the quality and artistry of a film really depend on the money required to make it? I think Sundance still needs to do more. For starters, how about publishing a list that lets the public know which films were selected via regular submissions versus the ones that were pushed by rep agencies like Cinetic. Until there's more transparency, Sundance will remain, at least in my mind, an exclusive playground for a select few.

PHOTO CAPTIONS:
1. Sundance Film Festival marquee
2. Poster: "Los pecados de mi padre" ("The Sins of My Father")
3. "Zona Sur" ("Southern District")
4. "Mother and Child"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

TEN BEST LATIN AMERICAN FILMS OF THE DECADE

DiazFilm, in association with Cinema Tropical, today unveiled the Top Ten Latin American Films of the Decade, as chosen by a select group of New York film professionals whose work has been focused on the promotion and dissemination of Latin American cinema in NY and the U.S. Lucrecia Martel's seminal "La cienaga" took the top spot on the list. Rather than writing a separate article, I'll just post part of the press release we drafted, which has now made its way to news agencies all over Latin America and the world:

CINEMA TROPICAL ANNOUNCES THE TEN BEST LATIN AMERICAN FILMS OF THE DECADE, HEADED BY LUCRECIA MARTEL’S ‘LA CIÉNAGA

New York, December 1, 2009 – Cinema Tropical, the premier purveyor of Latin American cinema in the U.S., has compiled a list of the Top Ten Latin American Films of the Decade (2000-2009) based on a survey of distinguished critics, scholars and film professionals based in the New York City area.

The respected Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, accomplished an amazing feat by making the top ten with the three films she has directed to date. Her first film La Ciénaga got the first place spot and she also occupies the eighth and ninth spots with La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman) and La niña santa (The Holy Girl) respectively.

Under the initiative and coordination of filmmaker and blogger Mario Díaz (http://diazfilm.blogspot.com/) this first-ever survey of its kind was culled from 33 prominent local voices in film whose work has been devoted to the promotion and dissemination of Latin American cinema in New York and the United States. In all, 122 films representing 13 Latin American countries were nominated for the distinction of being Best of the Decade, demonstrating the great quality and diversity of films from the region.

“The project of creating this list had a two-fold intention, on one hand to serve as a promotional campaign to honor all the great film work that the region has produced in the past few years, and secondly to pay some kind of tribute to the professionals that have helped promote Latin American cinema in this city” says Carlos A. Gutiérrez, co-founding director of Cinema Tropical.


The so-called “Three Amigos,” Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También), Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) all made the top ten. Their three breakout films earned a combined $56 million dollars at the U.S. box office alone, elevating each of them to A-list status. Indeed the “Three Amigos” went on to direct such high-profile international films as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuarón), Hellboy II (Del Toro), and Babel (González Iñárritu). In 2006, they joined forces to form a production company called Cha Cha Cha Films.

Argentina is the country with the most films on the overall list with 43 mentions, whilst Mexico has four films in the first ten places. However, Brazil has a significant presence throughout the survey with 30 films out of 122 films mentioned. This includes two in the top ten: Fernando Meirelles’ City of God at number four and the documentary feature Bus 174 by directors José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda at number five. Looking at the top twenty-five, Karim Ainouz’s Madame Satâ came in at number 14, while the feature documentaries Santiago by Joâo Salles and Jogo de Cena by Eduardo Coutinho came in at 20 and 22 respectively.

Despite the fact that many of the films in the list never had a US theatrical release and that Latin American cinema is not yet widely seen in the U.S., the list demonstrates that there is a wealth of films being produced in the region year after year, and that cinephiles outside the country (or at least in New York) are taking notice. For example, Brazilian director Eduardo Coutinho, who remains largely unknown to audiences in America, has four films on the overall list: Jogo de cena (Playing, #22), Edificio Master (Master, a Building in Copacabana, #27), Peões (Metalworkers, #45), and O fim e o principio (The End and the Beginning #78).

Other notable performers include Argentine filmmaker Pablo Trapero who has four films included in the list, fellow Argentine Carlos Sorín with three, and Mexican arthouse favorite Carlos Reygadas who has three films as well, including the top ten entry Silent Light (#3) and Japón (#14).

“Best Of” lists usually favor recent releases, but the participants of this survey stuck to quality and personal taste as the principal criteria for their selections. The result is a balanced list made up of picks from the entire decade. In fact, six of the films in the top ten were released in 2004 or before.

“The decade that is about to conclude marked a turning point in Latin American cinema. Never before did Latin American films enjoy such critical and box office success internationally and in the U.S.” says Mario Díaz and adds, “this list is not only a powerful reminder of the great quality and abundance of films that emerged from Latin America in the last 10 years but also a celebration of Latin American cinema’s coming-of-age, for it is now considered at par with the world’s best.”

The Top 10 Latin American Films of the Decade are:

FILM DIRECTOR COUNTRY YEAR
1) La Ciénaga Lucrecia Martel Argentina 2001

2) Amores Perros Alejandro González Mexico 2000
Iñárritu

3) Luz silenciosa Carlos Reygadas Mexico 2007
(Silent Light)

4) Cidade de Deus Fernando Meirelles Brazil 2002
(City of God)

5) Ônibus 174 (Bus 174) José Padilha, Brazil 2002
Felipe Lacerda

6) Y tu mamá también Alfonso Cuarón Mexico 2001

7) Whisky Juan Pablo Rebella, Uruguay 2004
Pablo Stoll

8) La mujer sin cabeza Lucrecia Martel Argentina 2008
(The Headless Woman)

9) La niña santa Lucrecia Martel Argentina 2004
(The Holy Girl)

10) El laberinto del fauno Guillermo del Toro Mexico/Spain 2006
(Pan’s Labyrinth)

To view the complete list of films, participants, and individual selections please visit: www.cinematropical.com/programming.php?pid=3.

In case you were wondering, these are my personal selections:

1) Y tú mama también (2001) Mexico
2) La mujer sin cabeza (2008) Argentina
3) La nana (2009) Chile
4) Diarios de motocicleta (2004) Argentina
5) Bus 174 (2002) Brazil
6) Los guantes mágicos (2003) Argentina
7) Cama adentro (2005) Argentina
8) Cidade de Deus (2002) Brazil
9) Turistas (2009) Chile
10) El camino de San Diego (2006) Argentina

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

THE GOTHAMS

So I got all dressed up in a suit and attended the fancy 19th Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards last night at Cipriani's on Wall Street. I got to rub elbows with the likes of Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, and Meryl Streep, but mostly I was there to see my work projected on two big-ass screens. For the third year in a row, I've produced and edited the Tribute and Nomination Reels shown at the event. This year, the IFP (organizers of the event) paid tribute to Natalie Portman, Stanley Tucci, and director Kathryn Bigelow. I'm happy to report that the reels were well received and there were no technical issues (which is always my fear). Here's the Tribute Reel I edited for Stanley Tucci:

As far as the actual awards go, I was especially pleased that Catalina Saavedra, who gives a powerful performance in "La nana" ("The Maid"), took home an award for Breakthrough Actor. I got to meet her and chat with her for a while, and she couldn't be more gracious and sweet. Fortunately, she's nothing like the dour character she plays in the film. I think she's totally deserving of the award (she beat frontrunners Jeremy Renner and Patton Oswalt). Here's hoping this is just the beginning of a long awards run! For a complete list of winners, click here.

Speaking of awards (and "The Maid"), the nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards were announced today and wouldn't you know it... "The Maid" was nominated for Best Foreign Film. Mexican documentary filmmaker Natalia Almada was also nominated for the Truer Than Fiction award for her film "The General." Finally, Brazilian director of photography Adriano Goldman was nominated in the Best Cinematography category for his work in "Sin Nombre." Here is the complete list of nominees. The awards will take place on Friday, March 5, 2010 at 8:00 p.m and will air on IFC.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Puerto Rico's Oscar Submission

In a previous post, I had anticipated that Puerto Rico would not submit a film to the Academy Awards foreign-language category. An internet search turned up absolutely nothing, plus in 2008 Puerto Rico had opted out of the race rather than submit a sub-par film, so my assumption was that the same thing would happen this year. After all, Puerto Rico had very little presence in international fests in 2009... In fact, the only two Puerto Rican films I'd heard of were "Sin Mapa," a documentary about reggaeton supergroup Calle 13's tour of indigenous South America, and Rafi Mercado's "Miente," a slick-looking urban fantasy. I didn't think either of those were worthy of submission, especially when facing competition like the German-entry and Palme D'Or winner "The White Ribbon" or Peru's lauded "La teta asustada" ("The Milk of Sorrow').

So... when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences published the official list on October 15th, Puerto Rico was on it! Lo and behold, they submitted a film after all: "Kabo and Platon." It sounded like a war film but I did a quick search and quickly found out that "Kabo y Platon" is a actually reggeaton gangsta film, a straight-to-DVD film if there ever was one. So WTF??? Surely those two films I listed above are more deserving that this one? Guess not.

My feeling is that politics are involved here. Edmundo Rodriguez, the film's director, has been working in the industry for a while. He once directed a TV commercial for my uncle, who at the time was peddling a credit card aimed at the Evangelical community in Puerto Rico. I can't remember the name but it was something like Holy Charge. I'm dead serious - you can't make this shit up. Anyway, maybe the nominating committee (whoever that is) decided to reward their old friend Edmundo by giving the film a little push. Obviously, there's no way it would garner a nomination but the submission could improve its box office prospects at home. After all, the words "Puerto Rico's Official Submission to the Academy Awards" sound like a big deal. But it actually isn't. It's a major waste of time and a step backwards for the island's film industry.

Think about it, if "Kabo and Platon" is what we're showing the world as the best the island can produce, it speaks very poorly of our talent. Granted, I haven't seen it but you can get a pretty good idea of the film's merit from its trailer. The other thing that angers me is the expense. The Puerto Rico Film Commission usually picks up the tab for a film print and all marketing costs involved in sending the film for evaluation by the Academy Awards nominating committee. We're talking about thousands of dollars that are, in my opinion, better spent elsewhere... like fostering filmmaking in the island, which is the Commission's purported main objective. How about taking that money and spreading it around to up-and-coming filmmakers to help them complete their projects? There are lots of good scripts floating around that don't get made because funding is so hard to come by.

The only Puerto Rican film nominated to the Foreign Language Film category was "Lo que le pasó a Santiago" back in 1989. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico's film industry failed to build on that milestone. To be fair, there have been some bright spots. "Maldeamores" ("Lovesickness") was well received a couple of years ago, but overall there's been no initiative to truly cultivate new cinematic voices. In the spirit of recent protests against government ineffectiveness in handling the recession, police brutality, and hate crimes, it's time for the Puerto Rican film community and local audiences to call bullshit on these inane decisions by the government-run Film Commission, which seems to be doing more harm than good.

In other Foreign Film Language news, the controversial decision by Chile to snub Sebastián Silva's "La nana" ("The Maid"), in favor of veteran filmmaker Miguel Littín's "Dawson Isla 10" has both sides swinging. In this post on Cinema Tropical's blog, there are links to statements by both filmmakers.

Monday, October 19, 2009

LATINOS ROCK THE GOTHAM NOMINATIONS!

The 2009 Gotham Independent Film Awards nominations are out. Sebastian Silva's "The Maid" received a Best Feature nod as well as a Breakthrough Actor nod for Catalina Saavedra. Cruz Angeles was nominated in the Breakthrough Director category for "Don't Let Me Drown" and the cast of "Sugar" scored (pardon the pun) a nomination in the Best Ensemble Cast category.

I'm particularly overjoyed that the jury has recognized "The Maid," an unusual choice considering it is a foreign film for all intents and purposes (it qualifies here because Silva is a U.S. resident). As I've said many times before in this blog, "The Maid" is simply great and since it is a small film with limited marketing funds it needs all the recognition and visibility it can get.

Strange that Sebastian Silva didn't get nominated for Breakthrough Director. It may have something to do with the fact that there are different jury pools for various categories.

Friday, October 16, 2009

MAID IN CHILE!

Sebastian Silva's masterful "La nana" ("The Maid") opens today at the Angelika in NY. I saw this film back in April in Argentina and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. There are two main reasons why this film is so hard to forget. The first one is Catalina Saavedra's fierce and fearless performance. An accomplished actress in Chile, she first rejected the role because she was tired of being typecast after having played so many maids in her career. She eventually came around and, perhaps to get even, created THE most complex and heartbreaking portrait of a maid in the history of cinema. I'm not exaggerating when I say that her bravura performance is akin to Robert DeNiro's Jake LaMotta, full of outward anger but concealing a deep self-hatred.

The second reason this film is memorable to me is because of the sense of discovery I felt while watching it. I knew I was watching a true artist, someone with complete control of the medium. The storytelling mastery Sebastian Silva displays in this, only his second film, is astonishing. He was able to construct a compelling narrative that is (1) a study of class structure and social injustice in Chile, (2) an intriguing character study of someone who is deeply unhappy and potentially driven to violence, and (3) a story of friendship and renewal. Despite all these elements, the film is never far from plausible, admirably maintaining a naturalistic style throughout. I see great things happening to Sebastian Silva, both in the short and long run.

I wish I could write a complete review but work is keeping me busy. I just wanted to let you know that "The Maid" is not to be missed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

URUGUAY AT BAM!

Cinema Tropical continues to bring quality Latin American cinema to the Big Apple. In addition to doing a bang-up job promoting "Crude" and "La nana" ("The Maid") - the latter opens, coincidentally, on October 16th at the Angelika - Carlos Gutierrez (co-founder of Cinema Tropical) has now put together a showcase of current Uruguayan films under the banner "Go Uruguay!" It unspools at BAM October 16-18 and it includes the NY premiere of Adrian Beniez's lauded "Gigante" ("Giant"), as well as many other titles worth checking out.

Uruguayan cinema seems to always be under the shadow cast by its more popular and prolific neighbor Argentina. Every time a Uruguayan film gets some attention it feels like a one-off, a curious novelty item from a country no one bothers to think about much. But the truth is that Uruguay has been steadily carving out a unique cinematic identity and making films that have become hugely influential.

What makes Go Uruguay! so interesting and timely is that is has been designed as both a showcase of new works and a retrospective of roughly the last ten years in Uruguayan cinema. So depending on your previous exposure to Uruguayan films, you can either experience these treasures for the first time or use the opportunity to watch them again with fresh eyes and evaluate their merit. Perhaps you will agree with me that Uruguayan cinema deserves more recognition than it usually gets.

Arguably the most important film of the showcase is also the oldest. Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll's "25 Watts" enjoyed international success when it was released in 2001, but over time it has become the Latin American equivalent of Richard Linklater's "Slacker." I'm no film historian but in my mind "25 Watts" is the precursor of films like "Temporada de Patos" ("Duck Season"), "Lake Tahoe," and "Gasolina." Since its release, Latin American directors have not only tried to emulate its minimalist style (made for pennies, BTW), they also became more experimental, defying the formality that characterized Latin American cinema at the time. Suddenly, new possibilities arose. You could now make an entire film about three guys sitting on a curb, shooting the shit on a Saturday. Or a meticulous character study about a quiet sock-factory owner who secretly pines for his sole employee. That's exactly what Rebella and Stoll did with their sophomore effort, "Whisky:"

"Whisky" is my favorite of the bunch. It's quiet and slow, but beautifully acted and directed with wonderful restraint and empathy for the main character (it's also in color, muted browns mostly). It inspired a slew of similar films like the recent "Parque Via" and "Gigante," which share the same dark humor. The directors built upon the promise of "25 Watts" and delivered a meditative gem that strikes a perfect balance between form and content. It's visually very controlled but also puts the main character front and center and makes you empathize with him in a deep way. Too bad that Juan Pablo Rebella passed away. I really believe these two would have had an amazing career together (Pablo Stoll is still making films - his latest "Hiroshima" was recently screened at the Toronto Film Festival).

A hit at Berlin and San Sebastian (where it received various awards), "Gigante," is a recent production that follows in the tradition of "Whisky's" minimalism. It tells the tale of a night-shift security guard at a large supermarket who falls for one of the female nighttime cleaners while watching her every move through his black and white surveillance monitor. He's a burly, "giant" of a man but the twist here is that he has the soul of a child. The movie ends at the moment where most romances begin and I have to say that I don't know if it's enough of a payoff. Still, there are wonderful moments throughout - especially a scene where the security guard ends up having a bite at a restaurant with a nerdy guy his love interest had a date with hours before. Another interesting characteristic is that the film is shot as though we're looking at this guy's life on a surveillance monitor - all long shots, from a distance, where behavior is the main focus and dialogue is almost unnecessary.

I've seen two more films on the list, "La perrera" ("The Dog Pound") and "Stranded: I've Come From a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains." "La perrera" is another darkly comic film about a lazy college student who is forced by his father to build a small house in his property in an ettempt to teach him the value of hard work. In need of a bit of smart editing (I found it overlong), the film picks up in the second half when some of the odd residents of the coastal town begin to help him and turn the new house into a type of hang-out club. One even moves into the house with him.

I watched "Stranded" during a limited run at Film Forum exactly a year ago. I was already familiar with the story of the 1972 Uruguayan rugby team that resorted to cannibalism to stay alive in the Andes after its plane crashed there, but this documentary is so packed with interesting details (told by the survivors themselves) that I was completely absorbed and many things came as a surprise to me. Director Gonzalo Arijón only had a few actual pictures of the survivors during their ordeal, so he relies mostly on reenactments, but they're tastefully done and is able to sustain suspense throughout (much like "Man on Wire").

Rounding up the list are "El baño del Papa" ("The Pope's Toilet") and "Matar a todos" ("Kill Them All"). The only thing I know about "El baño del Papa" is that it was the film Uruguay nominated for the 2007 Foreign Language Film Academy Award. I never heard of "Matar a todos" before but it features Roxanna Blanco, the lead actress in "Alma mater," which would have fit perfectly in this sampling of fine yet unassuming assortment of art films from that country down in God-knows-where.

Here's the complete list of films:

Gigante - dir. Adrián Beniez, Friday 7pm
25 Watts - dir. Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, Saturday 4:30pm
La perrera - dir. Manuel Nieto Zas, Saturday 6:50pm
El baño del Papa - dir. César Charlone and Enrique Fernández, Saturday 9:15pm
Stranded: I've Come From a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains - dir. Gonzalo Arijón, Sunday 4pm
Whisky - dir. Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, Sunday 6:15pm
Matar a todos - dir. Esteban Schroeder, Sunday 9:15pm

Uruguayan producer/editor Fernando Epstein (who worked with Rebella and Stoll, and is a prolific producer of films both in Uruguay and Argentina) will be in attendance at some of the screenings to answer questions from the audience.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Latinos Triumph at the Woodstock FF

Cruz Angeles' "Don't Let Me Drown" took home the top prize for Narrative Feature at the 2009 edition of the Woodstock Film Festival. The tale of two Latino teens who fall in love in the aftermath of 9/11, "Drown" received positive reviews and word-of-mouth at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. Even though it didn't win any awards in Park City, the film went on to win the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in May. However, it remains without a distributor.

In addition to the top prize, "Drown" also received the James Lyons Award for Best Editing of a Feature Narrative at Woodstock. Andrew Hafitz is the film's editor.

In what was clearly a great festival for Latino filmmakers, Juan Carlos Rulfo received the Haskell Wexler Award for Best Cinematography for "Los que se quedan" (“Those Who Remain”), a film he also co-directed.

For a complete list of winners and more information about this year's Woodstock Film Festival, click here.

Oscar Submissions From Latin America (and Spain)

As promised, here's the list of films submitted by Latin American countries to the 2010 Academy Awards' Foreign Language Film category. Even though the deadline for submissions was October 1st, the Academy of Motion Pictures has yet to release a final list. Without the official list, it's still hard to ascertain whether Puerto Rico will participate this year, or opt out like it did last year. The complete absence of competitive films by Puerto Rico in the festival circuit this year leads me to believe that they will once again choose to stay out of the competition. So sad for my home country.

Turning our attention to the films on the list, I cannot get over the fact that Chile did not nominate "La nana" ("The Maid"). After winning the World Competition at Sundance and garnering honors at worldwide fests throughout the year, it was the obvious choice. But no, Chile chose "Dawson, Isla 10" ("Dawson, Island 10"), the true story of political dissents who were sent to a tiny island in the Atlantic and endured hellish conditions 35 ago. I haven't seen it, but it strikes me as Chile choosing convention over quality. "La nana" is one of the most original, beautifully directed and acted films I've seen this year and I just can't imagine "Dawson" can be as good. By the way, "La nana" opens in the U.S. on October 16th. I'll be publishing a review around that time. And without further ado, here's the list:

Argentina - EL SECRETO DE SUS OJOS (THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES), directed by Juan José Campanella

Bolivia - ZONA SUR (SOUTHERN ZONE), directed by Juan Carlos Valdivia

Brazil - SALVE GERAL, directed by Sergio Rezende

Chile - DAWSON, ISLA 10 (DAWSON, ISLAND 10), directed by Miguel Littín

Colombia - LOS VIAJES DEL VIENTO (THE WIND JOURNEYS), directed by Ciro Guerra

Mexico - EL TRASPATIO (BACKYARD), directed by Sabina Berman

Peru - LA TETA ASUSTADA (THE MILK OF SORROW), directed by Claudia Llosa

Spain - EL BAILE DE LA VICTORIA (THE DANCER AND THE THIEF), directed by Fernando Trueba

Uruguay - MAL DIA PARA PESCAR (BAD DAY TO GO FISHING), directed by Alvaro Brechner

Venezuela - LIBERTADOR MORALES, EL JUSTICIERO, directed by Efterpi Charalambidis

The last Latin American (or Spanish) film nominated in the Foreign Film Category was "El Laberinto del Fauno" ("Pan's Labyrinth") in 2007. Mexico's entry did not take home the award that year. If I had to make a prediction, I would say that without "La nana" on the list, it will be hard for Latin America to get a nod this year. The film that has the best chance, in my opinion, is "La teta asustada." It's the kind of well-made, politically correct film the Academy likes to reward but it might prove to be too sober and low key for them - they often choose bigger, heartfelt dramas like last year's "Departures."

One curious parting note... Taiwan nominated a film with a Spanish title: "No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti" ("I Can't Live Without You"), directed by Leon Dai. It's a black and white film set entirely in Taiwan and concerns a man who struggles to raise his child as a single parent. None of the articles or reviews I read explained the origin of the title.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gigante" wins Horizonte Award at San Sebastian

Slightly belated news from the San Sebastian film festival. Adrian Biniez's "Gigante" ("Giant") took home the coveted Horizontes Award, which includes 35,000 euros. Israel Adrian Caetano's "Francia" received a special mention from the jury (and presumably, no money).

Earlier this year, "Gigante" won the Grand Jury Prize Silver Bear, Best First Feature Film and the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin Int’l Film Festival. At San Sebastian, it beat a pretty strong roster that included Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Sin Nombre," Alejandro Fernández Almendras' "Huacho," and Ciro Guerra's "Los Viajes del Viento." You can see the complete lineup here. And for more information on the winners of other categories, click here.

Next up for "Gigante" is the opening night slot at the Go Uruguay! film cycle at the BAMcinématek, October 16-18

Saturday, September 26, 2009

MY NYFF TRAILER CHOSEN AS RUNNER UP

NYFF 09 TRAILER from Mario Diaz on Vimeo.


This year, the Film Society of Lincoln Center sponsored a competition to find a new trailer for the New York Film Festival. The worldwide contest was open to all filmmakers, young and old, experienced or not. So I'm happy to report that I was named a runner up. Click above to watch my trailer. For more info on the contest, go to the Film Society website.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

LATINBEAT Wrap-up

In its 2009 edition which concluded Thursday, Latinbeat (The Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual showcase of Latin American cinema) featured an impressive number of films directed by women. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) there's been quite a bit of Oscar talk in Hollywood lately regarding some non-Latino female directors, namely Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") and Jane Campion ("Bright Star") whose films have received overwhelmingly good reviews. Back in 2004, Sofia Coppola was nominated in the Best Director category for "Lost in Translation" along with 10 other women in other categories - a great feat by an underrepresented sector of the industry. We might have another Year on the Woman on our hands, which is always a good thing. But rather than ruminate on whether Bigelow and Campion will be recognized by the Academy (honestly, do they really need more recognition?), instead I'd like to spend my time singing the praises of some unsung female directors working way, way outside Hollywood's radar - i.e. Mexico and South America.

The first film I saw at Latinbeat was the opening night selection "Cinco días sin Nora," a wonderfully dry comedy about a non-practicing Jewish man who believes that, even in death, his ex-wife is still intent on controlling him. This is not some kind of metaphysical comedy - Whoopi Goldberg in "Ghost" suddenly came to mind - where the woman comes back from the afterlife and wreaks havoc on her poor ex-husband to humorous effect. There are indeed no special effects here. Instead, this is an acutely observed film about a man who lost his religion long ago and uses his ex-wife's suicide as an excuse to avoid real questions about faith, his uneasy relationship with his son, and the absence of community in his life. Writer/Director Mariana Chenillo employs a wonderful ensemble cast (especially veteran actor Enrique Arreola in the lead role) and lands some well-earned digs at a few nonsensical religious rituals. The film's visual style felt overly precise and controlled at times, but I'm sure that Chenillo will continue to build her confidence with future work. She's definitely a director to watch.

Next up is (Chenillo's compatriot) Eva López Sánchez's "La última y nos vamos" ("One For The Road") which is one of those visceral and astute films that keeps growing on you days after you watch it. The story concerns a trio of upper-middle class, twenty-something friends who go on a separate series of adventures over the course of an evening in Mexico City. The cleverness of the film comes from the fact that she subverts certain preconceived notions about Mexican society. In effect, the film forces us to think about danger and how much of it is a societal construct instead of actual threat. Even if the film's resolution is a bit too sunny (and perhaps unrealistic), it provides great fodder for thought.

I never heard of López Sánchez before but I got to meet her at the fest, where I found out she's been making films for 20 years. How's that for off the radar? In this film, she uses that tired structure of three interconnected stories and turns it completely on its head - and in so doing serves a playful critique of films like "Amorres Perros."

"La ronda" ("Love By Accident") and "Amorosa Soledad" ("Lovely Loniness") are minimalist efforts from Argentina, both offering tales about young men and women in Buenos Aires searching for love and grappling with their own neurosis and loneliness. The former was directed by first time director Inés Braun, who was inspired by the 1950 French film "La ronde." Just as in the Max Ophüls' classic, Braun's film presents a collage of stories linked together by a circular narrative. I'm sorry to say that Braun doesn't offer anything fresh or new here, and the great Mercedes Morán was wasted in an underwritten role. If you want to see a terrific film about the arbitrary nature of love and human relationships, check out Ophüls' original... or Jafar Panahi's "The Circle," which borrows Ophüls' structure to create a searing indictment of Iranian society's treatment of women. One positive thing about "La ronda," though, is that it has the most beautifully designed end credit roll I've ever seen.

"Amorosa Soledad" was directed by Victoria Galardi and Martín Carranza and it was a better effort than "La ronda," though I still felt it lacked originality and a strong core. It felt to me that they were trying to do an Argentinian version of mumblecore, albeit with better cinematography. As a result, the movie devotes too much time to the main character's quirky obsessions (she's a hypochondriac who is happiest inside hospitals or drug stores) at the expense of a strong narrative. It helps that Inés Efron plays the lead. She brings an effortless ease to her roles that's always a joy to watch but here she's unfortunately wrapped up inside a listless film.

There are other films directed by women I didn't get to see. Natalia Almada's "El general" ("The General"), Yulene Olaizola's "Intimidades de Shakespeare y Victor Hugo" ("Shakespeare and Victor Hugo's Intimacies"), and Claudia Llosa's "La teta asustada" ("The Milk of Sorrow") were highly recommended. I'm eager to watch them and I'll be sure to report on them when I do. In the meantime, I must talk about the last film I saw at the festival (which was also the best - a true discovery!), Alicia Scherson’s "Turistas" ("Tourists") from Chile. I can't even begin to describe what a joy this film was. At first I was put off by the sharp image quality (the film was shot and projected on HD) and yes, the first 10 minutes were a bit slow and meandering (I just didn't know where the film was going and I felt impatient) but I stuck with it and was rewarded with a subtle, soulful look at a woman who has lost touch with her sense of self.

Aline Kuppenheim plays Carla, an unhappy woman who confesses to her husband that she had an abortion while both are driving to a cabin in the country for their vacation. Minutes later, while Carla is peeing under a bridge, her husband drives off and leaves her stranded. After wondering for hours, she meets a young, gay Norwegian "tourist" (an inside joke, you have to see the film) who invites her to camp out with him at a nearby National Park. She agrees and it is there, surrounded by imposing trees, birds, and insects of every kind that she is able to put her life back into focus.

Scherson, who was a scientist before becoming a filmmaker, gives the film texture by including incredibly tactile shots of the fauna and flora in the park (this is maybe why she opted to shoot in HD) and she succeeds at making the audience (well, at least me) feel like we are there, living under the stars in this place where only the most basic things matter. The theme of the film is that only by being in nature - away from the hustle and bustle that clouds our priorities and instincts - can we truly discover ourselves and have real interactions with people. In other words, nature, if we allow it, has the power to bring us to sanity.

During her stay in the park, Carla meets a host of interesting characters - a has-been pop musician who now works as a ranger, a pair of almost identical twins, a jolly trucker - some with sad stories to tell, but what jumps out is their humanity. And it's to Scherson's credit as a director that she can elicit such winning performances from her cast. Finally, the script calls for a transformation of sorts from Carla but this is not overwritten or overt. In fact, there's no clear resolution here. Just a sense that the people who populate the film have been profoundly touched by those they've come in contact with and by the setting. Kuppenheim is such a consummate actress that she is able to convey an internal transformation without ever declaring it with words.

Oh, and did I mention the movie is funny as hell? I nominate Aline Kuppenheim for an Academy Award for best actress. Actually, scratch that. I think she should get the award outright.

One last thing I want to touch on is the fact that, with a few exceptions, the festival was curiously devoid of films dealing with social issues. Blogger Christian Del Moral wrote recently on his blog that the common thread running through the selections was "escape." Escape from reality, escape from our shitty lives, etc. I agree with him and it was definitely a welcome change from the heavy themes that tend to characterize Latin American cinema.

"Un novio para mi mujer" ("A Boyfriend for my Wife") and "Música en Espera" ("Music on Hold") are the best romantic comedies (directed by men, how ironic!) I've seen in a very long time. They adhere to the conventions of the genre but they elevate it with humor that's real and relatable. I was also impressed by the meticulous construction of the scripts. "Musica en Espera," in particular, is intricately written - almost the same way a classical piece of music encompasses different movements and textures that fit precisely into a thematic whole. It's a joy to see Latin American filmmakers beating Hollywood at its own game. That's what happens when art, not money is the priority.

Special thanks to Marcela and Gemma at the Film Society for being so wonderful and accommodating. See you next year!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

No Foreign-Film Oscar for Pedro in 2010

The Guardian announced today that Pedro Almodovar's new film "Abrazos rotos" ("Broken Embraces"), which is currently unspooling at the Toronto Film Festival and will close the New York FF in October, has been left out of the running by Spain's Oscar committee. This is nothing new for Almodovar, who in 2002 saw his film "Habla con ella" ("Talk to Her") snubbed in favor of "Mar adentro" ("The Sea Inside"), Javier Bardem's tour-de-force. Perhaps in response to the omission (and the media outrage that surrounded it), the Academy awarded him a Best Screenplay Oscar that year as a consolation prize. Will it happen again? The word from Cannes is that "Embraces" is an uninspired retread of familiar Almodovar themes, so maybe not. I will reserve judgment until I see the film next month since Cannes has proven to be an unreliable barometer. My favorite film of the year, "The Headless Woman," was booed relentlessly there last year.

By the way, the three films that remain in the running to represent Spain on Oscar night are:

Isabel Coixet's "Map of the Sounds of Tokyo"
Fernando Trueba's "El baile de la Victoria" ("The Dancer and the Thief")
- Trueba won the Oscar in 1993 for "Belle Epoque"
Daniel Sanchez-Arevalo's "Gordos"

The committee will announce its decision on September 29th. In related news, Venezuela is the only Latin American country that has already announced its official selection:

Efterpi Charalambidis' "Libertador Morales, El Justiciero"

I'll post a complete list of the films representing all Latin American countries when the Academy makes the official announcement later in the year.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

"CRUDE" Review

During the Sundance Film Festival, Variety published a positive, two-paragraph review of Joe Berlinger's new documentary "Crude." The writer called it a departure from the "intimate nonfiction dramas of his prior features ("Brother's Keeper," "Paradise Lost," "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster")." Now, I wouldn't necessarily call "Metallica" intimate. To me, it was more of an epic chronicle, albeit a psychological one. And Berlinger has obviously tackled issues of social injustice before in "Paradise Lost" and its sequel. So needless to say, I disagree with Variety's assessment. After watching "Crude," it's clear to me that Berlinger's talent is not limited to the scope of his films or to a particular subject matter. He simply excels at what he does because he is a keen, patient observer of human behavior, which is precisely the reason he favors verité. He keeps the cameras rolling not to capture some unexpected drama or conflict (as filmmakers bred on reality TV conventions are wont to do) but rather because he's waiting for the moment when a subject will reveal the inherent human complexity within. This remarkable skill is what elevates "Crude" from a mere issue-oriented documentary to a fascinating study of activists rising beyond their limitations to fight catastrophic corporate neglect.

The story concerns a landmark class-action suit (sometimes referred to as the "Amazon Chernobyl case") leveled against oil giant Chevron by 30,000 indigenous people of the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. The plaintiffs charge that Texaco - which Chevron took over in 2001 - knowingly and systematically contaminated an area the size of Rhode Island during the three decades they conducted operations in the jungle. This led to an alarming rise in birth defects, skin diseases, cancer, and the destruction of the inhabitants' way of life. The film focuses primarily on the actions of two of the plaintiff's lawyers: lead attorney Pablo Fajardo, an Ecuadorian native who never litigated a case before, and consulting attorney Steven Donziger, a contrasting and idealistic American from the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The case - mired in jurisdictional battles and other legal delays - had been going on for 13 years by the time Berlinger arrived in Ecuador (sans his frequent collaborator Bruce Sinofsky - they're still friends, I hear). So the film chronicles the two subsequent years, purported to be the final stage of the case and in which on-site inspections are conducted by a judge and lawyers from both sides. These scenes, which make up the bulk of the film, show Trujillo admirably going mano a mano with the defense lawyer, Adolfo Callejas, who is faced with the unenviable task of defending a foreign corporation who has seemingly committed woeful neglect in his own country's soil. This culturally complex dynamic is one of the many pleasures of "Crude."


The fact that this non-courtroom, legal drama unfolds right smack in the middle of the jungle provides a rich tapestry of detail for Berlinger to explore. During the legal proceedings, his camera/eye wonders to a band of children carrying protest signs, their faces bewildered by the circus atmosphere, or to a contaminated goose close to death wriggling in pain, or to the defense lawyer's face in close up, framed against wild flora, listening to damning evidence and struggling to maintain his indignant facade. Indeed, "Crude" doesn't try to an objective piece of cinema. In the opening minutes, we see a TV report that shows a young girl pulling a tree branch out of an oil-covered pond. The oil is so thick it stretches like taffy. The image is so powerful as to negate anything said by Chevron reps throughout the rest of the movie. And I'm fine with that. Berlinger is obviously a biased reporter, so why pretend to be something he's not? If you want a fair exposition of both sides of a story try "60 Minutes." Berlinger's films are after something more subtle and interesting - people's behavior in the face of stressful or extraordinary situations.

Just like in his previous films, Berlinger's patient approach pays off in "Crude." In a powerful scene, an indigenous woman breaks down on-camera while talking about the struggle of taking care of his 19 year-old, cancer-stricken daughter. In that extremely intimate moment, the presence of the cameras never felt invasive. Rather, they provided a forum for her to finally share her incredibly real and heartbreaking emotions. In another memorable scene, Pablo Fajardo is shown a copy of a Vanity Fear article that features full-page glossies of him. The camera lingers on Fajardo's face as he reacts. At first he giggles playfully, but soon laments the fact that the article didn't include a picture of a sick family he instructed the photographer to take. "They are the very expression of the problem," he says, selflessly putting the issue in perspective. It is these rare moments that define the true character of the film's subjects and give the film its enormous soul.

When Berlinger interviews several Chevron executives and environmental reps he shoots them in extreme close ups. He's obviously not interested in the drivel they're saying but rather in what they're not saying - so he probes, visually, for clues to their humanity. The technique worked and I found myself watching them intently and wondering if these people were also victims of a different kind. Perhaps the same rampant corporate greed that ruins precious ecosystems is also capable of transforming perfectly decent people into corrupt automatons.

The difference between Berlinger and a filmmaker like, say, Werner Herzog, who has captured the Amazon in numerous documentaries, is that Berlinger does not impose his creative ideas on the subject matter and turns them into an expression of his poetic sensibilities. I admire them both very much but they have very different styles. Berlinger works with whatever materializes in front of his camera and constructs the film accordingly. He also seems very comfortable working within certain narrative conventions. "Paradise Lost" and "Crude" can easily be described as "legal dramas" and indeed they succeed in sustaining a high level of intrigue, but he also gives us much more. Taking full advantage of the medium (his cinematographer, Juan Diego Pérez deserves much praise as well for his almost tactile photography), he vividly SHOWS the effect of the devastation on these poor, tribal communities, the corruption of the legal system in Ecuador, and Chevron's bullying legal maneuvering, which essentially consists of filing motion after motion to make the case drag on until the plaintiffs run out of money.

The result is an engrossing documentary that works incredibly well as both as a legal thriller and as a cautionary tale of the human cost of corporate greed. For these two things to co-exist so well on screen requires a director with a lot of talent and soul. Berlinger has those qualities in spades.

"Crude" opens in NY on September 9 and in Los Angeles on September 18. It will roll out gradually to other cities throughout the fall.

Filmmaker Killed in El Salvador

The AP is reporting this morning that Christian Poveda, the French/Spanish director of the documentary "La Vida Loca" was found murdered in a car in El Salvador. Police said he was shot execution style, presumably the victim of the gang violence he exposed in his film.

Poveda had a distinguished, 30-year career as a photojournalist and wrote for a variety of publications including Time and Newsweek magazines, Paris Match and Figaro, from posts in Latin America, Iran and Iraq, Sierra Leone and the Philippines.

"La Vida Loca" recently won the Memory Award at the Guadalajara Film Festival and is slated to be shown at the upcoming San Sebastian and Havana Film Festivals.

The film focuses on gang members who served time in U.S. prisons and, due to new sentencing laws in the late 90's, were deported back to El Salvador. Some of them had spent almost their entire life in the U.S. If you're interested in this fascinating subject, check out this FREE podcast of This American Life. It features a first-person account of a former, L.A. gang member's life in El Salvador.

UPDATE 9-5-09: A suspect in the murder of Cristian Poveda was arrested Thursday. The only information police provided was that he was a member of the Mara 18 gang. It is unclear if he has been charged with the crime or the extent of his involvement.

UPDATE 9-11-09: After the initial arrest of one suspect on September 5th, six more gang members and a police officer have been taken into custody and charged with Cristian Poveda's murder. The name of the first suspect was revealed to be Lazo Rivera. He allegedly ordered the hit. Four of the men who were subsequently arrested were members of Rivera's gang: Mara 18. The police officer's involvement is not known. Read the CNN article.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cortos

The first order of business today is to persuade y'all to tune in to PBS Sept. 1, 2009 at 10pm for the broadcast premiere of "Ella es el matador," a beautiful doc about female bullfighters in Spain. The recipient of the Tribeca Film Festival All Access Promise Award and supported by Latino Public Broadcasting, POV, and Women Make Films, the film was directed by first-time helmers Gemma Cubero del Barrio and Celeste Carrasco, who hail from Spain. The film had its World Premiere just last Friday at the Roxie in San Francisco, so this is a rare opportunity to see a doc hot-off-the-presses, sort of speak.

Here's Michael Tully's review on Hammer to Nail.

Next up is Lisandro Alonso's "Liverpool," which opens Wednesday, Sept. 2nd at the Anthology Film Archives in NY. Alonso's films are rarely shown stateside and reviews like this probably won't win him any fans outside of the Cannes' selection committee (all 4 of his films have been invited to screen at the fest, though never in the main competition). Nevertheless, "Liverpool" was voted “Best Film of 2008” by Cinema Scope and made the Indiwire list of best undistributed films of 2008.

Here's a second opinion from The Rumpus, who gave the film high marks and interviewed Alonso at the Rotterdam Film Festival back in February.

IFC is releasing Alex de los Santos' New Directors/New Films entry "Unmade Beds" on Friday, September 4th at the IFC Center in NY. The film has received great notices on its recent fest run (Variety calls de los Santos a filmmaker with "an assured voice") and reportedly builds upon the promise of the director's first outing, the celebrated "Glue." The story concerns Axl and Vera, two twentysomethings adrift in London who keep missing each other while one searches for his father and the other heals from a wounded heart. Much has also been written about the film's cool soundtrack. If you were underwhelmed by "(500) Days of Summer" (as I was), perhaps this is your ticket.

Read the Variety review; a mixed review on Indiewire; or an interview with Alex de los Santos at Filmmaker Magazine.

Finally, Joe Berlinger's "Crude" opens Wednesday, September 9th, also at the IFC (followed by a national rollout). The man behind some of the most seminal docs in history - "Brother's Keeper," "Paradise Lost," "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" - Berlinger now turns his attention to a landmark legal case involving Chevron and 30,000 indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon (plaintiffs), who claim the oil company systematically contaminated an area the size of Rhode Island for more than 3 decades. Check out the official website and watch out for my review later this week.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In response to Eugene Hernadez's Indiewire article, "Nadie sabe nada"

On August 23rd, Eugene Hernandez, editor of Indiewire, posted this article, eliciting a number of responses from members of the Latin American film community, including this one from yours truly:

Dear Eugene,

A few weeks ago I started my own blog on Latin American cinema: http://diazfilm.blogspot.com. I decided to do so because I couldn't find an online destination in English that focused specifically on the rich bounty of films currently produced in places like Uruguay, Mexico, Chile and Argentina, among others. Indeed, production (and the quality) of films in many Latin American countries has increased exponentially in the last decade. So it is terribly unfortunate that worthy new works cannot enjoy the exposure they deserve as a result of our fragile economy and current distribution woes. I definitely share the concerns expressed in your article, and I believe that there is something we can do.

First, I think it's important to dispel some common misconceptions about Latino audiences. Latinos in this country are not a homogeneous group. Just because someone speaks Spanish doesn't necessarily mean that they will be attracted to a Spanish-language film. In fact, U.S. Latino filmgoers generally have a greater allegiance to films from their country of origin (or descent). In other words, you're most likely to see a Chilean supporting a Chilean film than a film in Spanish from another country. Crossover non-Latinos and cinephiles of every ilk are also important but to the extent that U.S. distribution companies don't observe these distinctions they are destined to miss the mark. Now that the old distribution models are going the way of the dinosaurs it is even more important to take these issues into consideration.

To me, theatrical distribution has ceased to be the be-all and end-all. The younger generations don't seem to have the same passion for watching films in cinemas as some of us, so why beat the theatrical dead horse - especially when it continues to fail foreign films and their audiences? We have to accept our new reality and find new solutions. I commend The Auteurs' Efe Cakarel for creating an exciting new model of distribution and, in that same spirit, I feel that we need to continue to support other non-traditional distribution ideas and grass roots initiatives. A good friend of mine, Ana Joanes - director of the documentary "Fresh," devised an innovative distribution plan where she targeted her audience directly (in her case, people interested or involved in the alternative foods movement) and through her website began to sell DVD's of her films and licenses for "home" and "community" screenings. She's been extremely successful, filling non-traditional venues such as libraries to capacity, and now distributors are knocking on HER door.

Ana's system is perfect for galvanizing specific Latino groups to support a given film. Puerto Rico, my country of origin, produces very few films a year but whenever one is released the groundswell of support can be astounding. This is so because everyone wants to rally around a film deemed as a "local production." The film becomes symbolic of our people and our art, so people flock to theaters, buy DVD's, etc. I believe that Latinos in the U.S. can be inspired in the same way to either go to theaters (if the choice is available) or, using Ana's DIY model, to attend a screening at, say, the local YMCA. And by the way, nationality is not the only common theme that can be of interest to Latino audiences. Films dealing with immigration, politics, gays, and environmental issues can easily find receptive Latinos. The key is to be smart about identifying your audience, and to reach out to them in a way that makes them feel that their participation is important.

Finally, people in the media can be instrumental in increasing the visibility of Latin American cinema and promoting audience engagement. Whether in a small forum like my blog or an influential website like yours, our commitment needs to be reflected in the continued coverage of Latin American films, festivals, news, etc. Otherwise, these films we all love run the risk of languishing in relative obscurity in the U.S. Recently, the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced its lineup for the 12th edition of Latinbeat, its annual showcase of Latin American cinema. However, I didn't see any articles about it in any of my trusted film websites (including Indiewire). I actually found the listing by chance when perusing the Film Society's website. Latinbeat was where, in 2003, one of my documentaries ("Viva Cepeda!") was bought by HBO after executives attended a screening. At a time when Latino film festivals are shutting down or close to it, the media's support is more important than ever. Or else, I fear future filmmakers might be deprived of the same opportunity I had.

As you can see from the responses you received, there are many people who share your concerns but who are, in equal measure, working to find solutions. I sincerely hope that you will use your influence to keep the dialogue going.

Mario Diaz
Producer/Director/Editor

Saturday, August 22, 2009

LATINBEAT 2009 Lineup

Without much fanfare, the Film Society of Lincoln Center recently posted its lineup for the 2009 edition of Latinbeat. I actually came across the listing while perusing the Film Society website, which is a pity because this is a first rate showcase that deserves more attention and publicity. My good friend Marcela Goglio is the curator and this year she's gathered an intriguing selection of films from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. With the exception of "La teta asustada" ("The Milk of Sorrow") which was shown at New Directors/New Films in April, the films are all New York premieres.

This year, Latinbeat celebrates the life of influential writer Julio Cortazar with a seven-film tribute. Other special events include Latin-O-American, a panel discussion with up-and-coming Latino filmmakers that features, among others, Alex Rivera ("Sleep Dealer"), Sebastian Silva ("La nana"/"The Maid"), and Natalia Almada whose lauded documentary, "El general" ("The General") is also included in the festival. The panel will be moderated by Carlos Gutiérrez, co-founding director of Cinema Tropical.

Take it from someone who has shown his films twice at Latinbeat and has attended the festival for many years - there's no better place to watch the best Latin American cinema has to offer. The screenings are held at the magnificently cozy Walter Reade Theater and many of the directors will be in attendance. Also, Marcela has a knack for finding unexpected gems - so be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by films you've never heard of.

Here's the complete lineup. As always, links of film reviews are provided if available.

1. ACNE - Uruguay/Argentina/Mexico/Spain/USA - dir. Federico Veiroj
Reviews: ION Cinema, L.A. Splash, The Hollywood Reporter
2. CHEGA DE SAUDADE (THE BALLROOM) - Brazil - dir. Laís Bodanzky
Reviews: New Times,
3. BLOW-UP - UK/Italy/USA - dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
Reviews: NY Times, NY Observer, Variety
4. LA CAMARA OSCURA (THE CAMERA OBSCURA) - Argentina/France - dir. María Victoria Menis
Reviews: Reel Film Reviews, The Depaulia
5. CANAL (Á)/ CHANNEL (Á) ON CORTAZAR:
- HISTORIAS DE VIDA
- CIUDAD NATAL
- BUENOS AIRES AL PIE DE LA LETRA
- NOCHE DE SABADO EN EL LUNA PARK
6. CORTAZAR (CELESTIAL CLOCKWORK) - Argentina - dir. Tristán Bauer
Reviews: Time Out London
7. EL GENERAL (THE GENERAL) - Mexico/USA - dir. Natalia Almada
Reviews: Variety, ION CINEMA
8. LA BUENA VIDA (THE GOOD LIFE) - Chile - dir. Andrés Wood
Reviews: La Mirada FF
9. LA RONDA (LOVE BY ACCIDENT) - Argentina - dir. Inés Braun
10. AMOROSA SOLEDAD (LOVELY LONELINESS) - Argentina - dir. Victoria Galardi and Martín Carranza
Reviews: Nisimazine, By The Firelight, Variety
11. MENTIRAS PIADOSAS (MADE UP MEMORIES) - Argentina - dir. Diego Sabanés
12. LA TETA ASUSTADA (THE MILK OF SORROW) - Spain/Peru - dir. Claudia Llosa
Reviews: Variety, Slant, Hollywood Reporter, Screendaily
13. MUSICA EN ESPERA (MUSIC ON HOLD) - Argentina - dir. Hernán A. Goldfrid
Reviews: Variety
14. CINCO DIAS SIN NORA (NORA'S WILL) - Mexico - dir. Mariana Chenillo
Review: Slackerwood
15. OCEANO (OCEAN) - Russia/Cuba - dir. Mikhail Kosyrev-Nesterov
16. LA CIFRA IMPAR (ODD NUMBER) - Argentina - dir. Manuel Antin
17. LA ULTIMA Y NOS VAMOS (ONE FOR THE ROAD) - Mexico - dir. Eva López Sánchez
18. INTIMIDADES DE SHAKESPEARE Y VICTOR HUGO (SHAKESPEARE AND VICTOR HUGO'S INTIMACIES) - Mexico - dir. Yulene Olaizola
Reviews: Variety
19. ARRANCAME LA VIDA (TEAR THIS HEART OUT) - Mexico - dir. Roberto Sneider
Reviews: Variety
20. TURISTAS (TOURISTS) - Chile - dir. Alicia Scherson
Reviews: SBCC Film Reviews, Hollywood Reporter, Screendaily, Cinemaverytasty
21. UN NOVIO PARA MI MUJER (A BOYFRIEND FOR MY WIFE) - Argentina - dir. Juan Taratuto
Reviews: Variety

See you there!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"La mujer sin cabeza" ("The Headless Woman") in U.S. Theaters - Finally!

For a film that got booed after its premiere at Cannes in 2008 (what were they expecting, "Speed Racer?"), "La mujer sin cabeza" has rebounded quite nicely. On the eve of its U.S. theatrical release (it certainly took a while), critics have given Lucrecia Martel's masterpiece phenomenal write-ups, forcing those who might have initially dismissed it to take a second look. It would appear that film critics still serve a purpose...

I've seen the film three times now and every time I watch it I discover previously unregistered details - precious cinematic clues placed strategically in the periphery of the action - that make me marvel even more at Martel's meticulous construction. In the last viewing I noticed more than ever how her set design helps convey a sense of class decay. Even though the film is set in contemporary times, she places her protagonist Verónica (Maria Onetto) in locations that feel frozen in time, specifically in the late 70's - the dark years of Argentina's military dictatorship. It's just one of many hidden (or I should say, not conventionally obvious) elements that connect to Martel's themes of social inequality and the bourgeoisie's rotting and noxious influence.

Herein, some of "La mujer sin cabeza's" critical champions (and a few detractors at the bottom):

In his review, the New York Times' A.O. Scott delves deep into the thematic aspirations of the film, calling it "a meditation on Argentina’s historical memory. It subtly compares Verónica’s silent disavowal of responsibility for any crime she might have committed with that country’s silence during its dictatorship, when suspected dissidents disappeared."

Film Comment's Editor-at-Large Kent Jones has been a supporter of the film since Cannes (and actually, of every film Martel has ever made since they have all been shown at the NYFF). In this report that appeared last year, he discusses Martel's "forensic" style: "Martel excitingly confines herself to her heroine’s traumatically realigned viewpoint (the scope frame is used in the most exacting fashion, in conjunction with the soundtrack, to suggest a hallucinatory mental space both within and without María Onetto’s character)."

The venerable J. Hoberman, writing for the Village Voice, focuses on the film's texture: "As dense and fluid as Martel's movie is, the viewer—like the protagonist—is compelled to live in the moment. And a rich moment it is. With its shallow focus, chiaroscuro lighting, off-centered wide-screen compositions, and constant background noise, The Headless Woman teems with life."

On indiewire, Eric Hynes seems to withhold judgement, but his review is thoughtful nonetheless. He interestingly talks about how Martel's approach to class has evolved since her first film: "Martel’s approach to class in “The Headless Woman” is both more subtle and forceful. Fewer racist complaints about filthy, shady “Indians” are heard than in “La Cienaga” and “The Holy Girl,” but Vero’s entire existence depends on and is restored by privilege. A young boy whose corpse is found clogging the canals—Vero’s victim?—remains unidentified while Vero’s identity is exhaustively retraced. Even her guilt (itself a privileged emotion), though it prompts her to small generosities toward house staff and day laborers, assumes an interchangeability of the underclass."

Glenn Kenny, from Some Came Running, wrote about "La mujer sin cabeza" last year in Cannes: "Throughout, Martel places the character in shallow focus widescreen close-ups; therein, those people in her periphery—generally servants, workers, and so on—are diffused, hazy. It's an oblique way of reflecting on contemporary class relations, but it's apt, and in point of fact this is one of the few films in the largely-socially-conscious Competition that reflects on class relations as such."

A couple of detractors (actually, Rotten Tomatoes gives "La mujer sin cabeza" a 50% Tomatometer - suggesting that critics are evenly divided. However, a quick online search will get you more fresh tomatoes than splats):

For the New Yorker, Richard Brody (why not Denby or Lane?) writes: "Martel tries to have it both ways, attempting to construct a rich reality by accretion of ordinary and realistic detail, while stacking the narrative deck so rigorously that the characters evaporate into symbols almost upon their appearance."

Slant's Akiva Gootlieb, argues that: "Films that try to convey a state of disorientation live and die by their central metaphors, and the one that lends Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman its title is certifiably lame."

I guess you can't win 'em all!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

San Sebastian Announces Lineup For "Horizontes Latinos" Sidebar

The 57th San Sebastian Film Festival (which runs from September 18-26, 2009) unveiled on Tuesday the selections for their Horizontes Latinos sidebar, a competitive showcase of Latin American films that have gained festival traction throughout the year. 13 films from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay - some of which are co-productions with Spain, Germany, France, Holland, Portugal, USA, and Canada - will compete for the main prize of 35,000 euros.

The opening slot was given to Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Sin Nombre" - in my opinion a hackneyed dual tale of a reluctant teenage gang member from Tapachula, Mexico whose girlfriend was killed by a rival gang member, and a Hondural girl embarking on a long and dangerous journey to the United States. A multiple award winner at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Other titles include: Adrian Biniez's "Gigante" ("Giant), which garnered three awards at Berlin this year, Ciro Guerra's "Los Viajes del Viento" ("The Wind Journeys"), and Alejandro Fernández Almendras' "Huacho." The last two were shown at Cannes' Directors Fortnight and Cannes' Critics Week respectively.

However, not all the film selected for Horizontes Latinos have had festival exposure. Several, like Cristián Jiménez's "Ilusiones ópticas" ("Optical Illusions"), came from the 2008 edition of the San Sebastian's Films in Progress lab.

Should you be planning a trip to Spain in September, here is a complete list of films, along with links to reviews (if available):

1. EL ARBOL (THE TREE) - Spain/Mexico - dir. Carlos Serrano Azcona
Reviews: Variety, The Rumpus
2. CONTRACORRIENTE (AGAINST THE TIDE) - Peru/Colombia/France/Germany - dir. Javier Fuentes-León
3. DANIEL Y ANA (DANIEL AND ANNA) - Mexico/Spain - dir. Michel Franco
Reviews: Nisimazine, Huffington Post
4. FRANCIA (FRANCE) - Argentina - dir. Israel Adrián Caetano
5. GIGANTE (GIANT) - Uruguay - dir. Adrián Biniez
Reviews: Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Screendaily
6. HUACHO - Chile/France/Germany - dir. Alejandro Fernández Almendras
Reviews: Variety, Screendaily
7. ILUSIONES OPTICAS - Chile/Portugal/France - dir. Cristián Jiménez
8. LA INVENCION DE LA CARNE (THE INVENTION OF FLESH) - Argentina - dir. Santiago Loza
9. MAREA DE ARENA (SAND TIDE) - Mexico/Argentina - dir. Gustavo Montiel Pagés
10. PERPETUUM MOBILE - Mexico/Canada - dir. Nicolás Pereda
11. SIN NOMBRE (NAMELESS) - USA/Mexico - dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
Reviews: NY Times, Variety, LA Times, Cinematical, The Guardian
12. EL ULTIMO VERANO DE LA BOYITA (BOYITA'S LAST SUMMER) - Argentina - dir. Julia Solomonoff
13. LOS VIAJES DEL VIENTO (THE WIND JOURNEYS) - Colombia/Argentina/Germany/Netherlands - dir. Ciro Guerra
Reviews: Variety, Screendaily