The Austin Chronicle

Films Without Borders

Cine Las Americas

By Belinda Acosta, April 24, 1998, Screens

by Belinda Acosta

(l-r) Lara Gocer, Sandra Guardado, René Renteria, Celeste Serna Williams

photograph by Kenny Braun

For many, Latin America is a schmear of people and things: Castro, Cantinflas, Carmen Miranda, and Evita. Bullfights, Carnival, Catholicism, and dictatorships. Mariachi, machismo, magical realism, Latin lovers, sultry señoritas, piñatas, and castanets. Spread all that on an Old El Paso taco shell and devour with a margarita. Such is the diet of U.S. perceptions of Latin America. While such actors as Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek have earned new fans in the States, and such recent films as Like Water for Chocolate and Danzón have reminded U.S. audiences that Latin America exists, it's still only a sliver of the pie. Perceptions are shaped as much by what we don't see as by what we do see.

Lara Coger wants to expand that perception.

"We're only part of this hemisphere. There are a lot of other Americas out there and we don't know them," she says. That's why Coger and a core group of organizers, supporters, and sponsors have come together to create Cine Las Americas, the first annual Festival of Latin American Cinema to be held in Austin Wednesday, April 29 through Saturday, May 2. The festival features six films from Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, and Mexico. Each film will screen twice; post-screening discussions led by local specialists in Latin American cinema will highlight selected screenings. The films in the inaugural festival are described as recent, feature-length releases with appeal to fans of arthouse and international film.

"Interestingly enough, Latin American cinema seems to be overlooked in this country," Coger says. "You can see French film, British film, and even German film, but rarely films from Latin America. It's not for lack of quality. Dozens of films are being produced every year. Cuban cinema, Mexican cinema, Brazilian, Argentinean, some real powerhouses. And yet they're just not making it to the world market, because the world market begins here [in the U.S.]. If you're not picked up by a distributor here, you're not screened in the States, and you're not going to do very well on the global market either," she explains.

"Recent films from Mexico and other Latin American countries are rarely seen in Austin, principally because distributors often think there is little or no economic value in picking up such films for U.S. distribution," says Charles Nafus, a professor of Radio-Television-Film (RTF) at Austin Community College, a board member of the Austin Film Society, and a Cine Las Americas advisor.

The Cine Las Americas team thinks otherwise.

"This market is ripe," says Celeste Serna Williams, the festival's marketing coordinator. Williams is an active volunteer in Austin's arts community.

"Dell is here, 3M is here, Motorola, Time Warner, and several other corporations are here. They all have Latin American divisions and these Latin American divisions are based here in Austin. We have a very affluent and diverse professional Latin American and Latino community," she notes.

Add to this the presence of the Institute for Latin American Studies at UT, social groups such as the Bolivian, Puerto Rican, and Brazilian Associations, Austin's long-standing Mexican, Mexican-American, and Chicano communities, not to mention the exploding film industry, and it's surprising that no one has created a Latin American film festival in Austin before now. But in fact, this is not entirely a new idea.

"Twenty years ago, Austin had two theatres which showed Mexican films, but videocassettes killed that market," Nafus says. "The Austin Film Society, Austin Community College, and the University of Texas' Radio-Television-Film Department have sponsored screenings of Cuban films, the Mexican films of Luis Buñuel, and a retrospective of Jaime Humberto Hermosillo (also of Mexico). But a festival dedicated to new, feature films from Latin America has long been needed."

"About six months back, I went to see the (Austin) Chicano/Latino Film Forum's screening of Latin American film shorts," Coger relates. "Now, these were obscure films, shorts from the Sixties that were part of the new Latin American Cinema Movement of social protest - and the place was packed!" This was potent evidence to festival organizers that there was a hunger for Latin American film in Austin.

While the Chicano/Latino Film Forum occasionally features work from Latin America, its primary focus is work by and about Chicanos and U.S. Latinos. But Cine Las Americas organizers credit the Film Forum for whetting the city's appetite for Spanish-language and Latino-oriented film.

"Cine Las Americas is building up off of four years of the Chicano/Latino Film Forum's work," notes Coger.

Internationally, there are several Latin American film festivals. Each March the Muestra de Cine Mexicano takes place in Guadalajara, Mexico. A London festival occurs in September, followed in November by a festival in Huelva, Spain. But the granddaddy of the international festivals is held in Havana, Cuba in December, the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cinema Latino Americano. It is the oldest, largest, and by far the best Latin American film festival in the world, according to Coger. Literally hundreds of films are screened there each year, with symposia, film poster exhibits, and related events.

There are several Latino and Latin American film festivals in the States as well. The Hispanic Film Festival was launched in Miami two years ago. Cine Acción in San Francisco features U.S. Chicano and Latino works much like the Austin-based Chicano/Latino Film Forum. The 21-year-old CineFestival, hosted by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, features film and video work "by and about Chicanos, Latinos, and the international Latino experience," according to promotional material. But the most prominent, exclusively Latin American-focused of the U.S. festivals is the 14-year-old Chicago Latino Film Festival which takes place the week of April 20, and in fact, is supplying this year's Cine Las Americas' offerings. Pepe Vargas, director of the Chicago festival, curated the Cine Las Americas festival, choosing six films from a pool of 50 shown in the Chicago festival ending this week.

"This is not an easy project, normally," Coger explains. "It's a real challenge to call up Latin America and negotiate with filmmakers or distributors, or the government bureaucracy... then, to get the films here, to get them on time, and in good condition is another matter. We are fortunate to pull the films straight down from Chicago."

Coger's enthusiasm about the festival is contagious. Paired with Williams - who has been called "a force of nature" by those who've spent any time with her - it's no surprise that the two were able to garner support from major funders like Time Warner and Univision.

"Celeste has been such an infusion of energy. Without her, I think I may have given up long ago," Coger states.

Other festival organizers include Robb Jameson of the Jameson Group, a longtime colleague of Coger's, and a fellow film enthusiast; and René Renteria and Sandra Guardado of the Chicano/Latino Film Forum. In addition to Nafus, key advisors for the festival include John Downing, chair of the RTF department at UT Austin, and Charles Ramírez Berg, an RTF professor at UT who specializes in Mexican cinema. Ramírez Berg and Downing will offer introductory comments and lead post-screening discussions after selected films. Other presenters include UT Spanish professor Sonia Labrador Rodriguez, who teaches courses on Cuban cinema; Rosental Alves, a professor of journalism at UT and former executive editor of a Brazilian newspaper; Maria Elena Martinez, a bilingual educator with AISD; and Alison Macor, a film writer for the Austin American-Statesman and doctoral candidate in RTF at UT.

So, how did a self- described gringa develop a love for Latin America and Latin American cinema? The child of military parents, Coger's father took her family to Norfolk, Nebraska, upon leaving the military. Yes, she admits, she's detassled corn, was invited to a castration, has eaten Rocky Mountain Oysters (deep-fried, hopefully battered, testicles of some farm beast), gone on hay rides, and rode a tractor to school.

"[Nebraska's] not a bad place to live, all things considered. We be good folk. But living [there] definitely gave me the impetus to get out, to see the bigger world out there."

At the age of 21, Coger headed for the Dominican Republic, where she taught English for a year. Since then she's lived in Costa Rica, traveled in Mexico, lived along the U.S.-Mexico border doing work in the colonias, and worked as an interpreter in North Carolina. In 1991, she made her first trip to Cuba and it profoundly changed her life.

"At the time, I had very little consciousness of Cuba - nobody did. The most you learned about it was two or three lines in a history book about the Cuban Missile Crisis," she says. "It was two years after the economic crisis had set in... but when I was there... it was the safest country in the world. I saw for the first time in my life what potential wide-spread education and consciousness-raising could do. This was a pueblo that appeared to have the common interest at heart and struggled for it. It was so powerful. And the people were so charming and so warm and invited you into their homes just to converse with you."

Her trip inspired her to study and learn more about the island nation as a student of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas, and to plan other trips, next in 1995 and the most recent this past December. In the meantime, she developed an interest in radio journalism - she's currently a production assistant for Latino USA, the radio journal of news and culture produced in Austin and carried locally on KUT - and in documentary filmmaking. Her plan is to eventually make documentaries about life in Cuba. Whether the embargo is lifted first or Castro dies, one thing is clear to Coger: There will be a wealth of opportunities to explore those changes and to capture those experiences - the perfect path for someone who loves to hear people's stories.

"There's this incredible diversity of voices out there. You work with migrant farm laborers, for example, you begin to hear their stories, and you realize that these aren't strange, distant, foreign people. I've worked in the colonias on the U.S.-Mexico border and what I found the most striking... is the same sort of concerns for their children, the same concerns for their families, about life. But yet, their voices aren't heard, they're not seen, they're invisible, and yet their stories are so sweet, so compelling, and their ideas and thoughts and life philosophies are so profound. We have so much to learn from them. If I can make a profession out of sitting around and listening to interesting and dynamic people tell their stories, I'll do my best to make it happen," she comments, adding, "I can't pass myself off as a Latina; I'm not. But I know this country and I know and love Latino cultures, and I can help bridge that gap, I can help facilitate it. That's what's happening with this festival... it's bringing Latin American experiences, their work, their art, their ideas to a larger audience."

Right now, all sights are tightly focused on the upcoming festival. Though small in scale compared to other festivals, the Cine Las Americas team is ambitious. Talk of future collaboration with other festivals to create a distribution network for Latin American films is seen as a distinct possibility. In five years, perhaps Cine Las Americas can offer a competitive narrative festival with film shorts, video documentaries, and guest filmmakers flown in from across Latin America. Perhaps offshoots such as a mini-series of Latin American film classics, visiting filmmaker programs, and museum collaborations will appear.

"Why not?" Coger asks.

Given the energy and the well-placed idealism of the Cine Las Americas group, it's difficult to disagree.

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