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: 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