Saturday, September 26, 2009


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


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


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.