The San Diego Latino Film Festival came to a close on Sunday after 11 crazy days of compulsive movie-going. I managed to watch 20 films in that span of time. That's what happens to me at festivals, I tend to go on a binge. A healthy binge, good for the mind and soul, but a binge nonetheless. Some films were like nice hors d'oeuvres - light and fluffy - others were disappointing dishes that left me half-full, while a select few were fully satisfying - a complete meal.
One of those complete meals was "Mi Vida con Carlos" ("My Life with Carlos") which rightfully won the Best Documentary Award. More on that exquisite film later. The Best Feature Film Award went to "Cuestión de Principios" ("A Matter of Principle"), from Argentina. I had high hopes for that film since I am an unabashed fan of Argentine romantic-comedies (plus, it features Norma Aleandro and Federico Luppi in the lead roles). I'm sorry to say that it was one of the films that left me half-full (more like half-empty, actually), and for the life of me I can't understand why the jury chose it over more deserving films like "Norteado" ("Northless") or "Los viajes del viento" ("The Wind Journeys").
The Audience Choice Awards went to "El Estudiante" ("The Student"), from Mexico, in the feature film category, and to "Sons of Cuba" in the documentary category.
The San Diego Latino Film Festival is a populist event. To satisfy its largely Mexican audience, the festival includes a large selection of Mexican films, some of which are mass-appeal pictures featuring telenovela stars. These films co-exist with more serious fare. Basically, there's something for everyone. I tend to gravitate to the more artsy stuff (why go to a film festival to consume the same crap you're fed at the multiplex?) so it was disappointing to learn, for example, that the fest screens documentaries only once, as opposed to narrative features which screen an average of 3 times. Still, the festival did include many noteworthy Latin American films I had been eager to see - among them some real gems.
The best film in the entire festival was previously unknown to me. "Mi vida con Carlos" is an elegantly crafted, heartbreaking, personal documentary about a man (director Germán Berger) who decides to confront the painful memories associated with his father's death. Carlos Berger was a resistance fighter who was tortured and murdered by Pinochet during the years of the military dictatorship. His death tore his family apart and they never truly spoke about what happened until they were brought together by Germán for this film. I'm not ashamed to say that I cried several times, partly because of the compelling subject matter and partly due to the sheer beauty of the filmmaking. Shot by Miguel Littin (who may or may not be the same Littin who directed "Dawson, Isla 10") on 35mm, the film is made up of perfectly composed vignettes profiling Carlos' two brothers, his wife (Germán's mother) and Germán himself. Through these vignettes we learn just how deeply everyone was affected by Carlos' death - and the fact that their lives were altered in drastically different ways. Despite the controlled filmmaking style, the director never manipulates the audience to make a point. Instead, he relies on truth and real, heartfelt emotion, which makes this film one of the most authentic and honest pieces of cinema I've ever seen.
Remarkably, the San Diego Latino Film Festival screening was the film's U.S. premiere, a fact that the organizers failed to advertise (the screening was 1/3 full). The producer also confessed that the Tribeca Film Festival had passed on the film, which is a travesty, in my humble opinion. Hopefully, the win in San Diego will help the film land in other domestic festivals since it really deserves to be seen.
The other big find of the fest (at least for me since this film has been making the festival rounds for some time) was "Beauty of the Fight," another doc. This rich, visually detailed portrait of two poor, forgotten barrios of Panama really got to me. John Urbano, a still photographer by trade, fell in love with the people of these two barrios and decided that he would document them as a way of preserving history. A melancholic tone permeates the film and you really get to see the place through his eyes (and learn to love the people as much as he does). I loved that Urbano told the story from his point of view, and did not pretend to be an insider. Even though he was using a video camera, he composed his shots like still images so the film plays like a fascinating picture book. It was definitely original and thought-provoking.
Other notable films from the fest include:
"Birdwatchers" - Powerful narrative film about the Guaraní Indians in Brazil. When some of their young commit suicide, the elders decide to move their tribe to their ancestral land which now happens to be occupied by wealthy farmers. Amazingly well acted by actual Guaranís.
"Los Viajes del Viento"/"The Wind Journeys" - Breathtaking "road film" about an accordion player who believes his instrument is cursed and travels the country in order to return it to his owner. A bit slow (especially at the end) but stunning to look at.
"Norteado"/"Northless" - An unassuming little film that creeps up on you in a big way. It concerns a young man who is intent on crossing the border but keeps failing. In Tijuana, he befriends two women needy for companionship who make him think twice about his desire to cross. The film features minimal dialogue and the audience is asked to figure out the characters' back story and motivation, which I enjoyed doing.
"Entre Nos" - Delicate, character-driven film about an immigrant mother who finds herself homeless in New York with two young children. An incredible tour-de-force by Paola Mendoza, who wrote, directed, and played her mother in this true story of her own family. Oh yeah, and this is her first film.
"Stages" - Documentary about inner-city youth and elderly Puerto Rican women who come together to create a play about their lives in New York's Lower East Side. The film was directed by a collective of 12 people yet it's surprisingly cohesive and effective.
A few duds:
"Io, Don Giovanni" - Everyone recommended this Carlos Saura period piece about opera lyricist Lorenzo Da Ponte, who helped Mozart write some of his best compositions. But I found it terribly stale and uninspired. The film was entirely filmed on soundstages and includes long opera sequences. Saura stages the film like a theater piece and no matter how many lighting tricks he uses, it ends up feeling way too theatrical. If I wanted to see an opera I would have gone to the theater, not the cinema.
"La Mission" - Derivative and stereotypical. Benjamin Bratt gives a fine performance but the script limits the range of his character for the sake of tragedic, moralistic ending.
"Cuestión de Principios"/"A Matter of Principle" - Unoriginal and often unfunny lesson in ethics from former comic-book illustrator Fontanarrosa. Federico Luppi and Norma Aleandro are wasted in lifeless roles.
In other news, the film festival gave special tributes to director Leon Ichaso ("El Cantante") and actor Benjamin Bratt. I edited the reels that the festival played in their honor. Here they are for your viewing pleasure...