Festival of Personal Journeys
Call Austin "festival city." Music, comedy, film, chili, jalapeños, Eeyore, and even the gelatinous potted meat otherwise known as Spam each has a celebratory festival. Just when you're thinking, "Whoa, I really need to wash some underwear, eat more meals at home, or find out what that funny smell in the kitchen is" -- another festival sneaks up and begs for attention. This time, it's the Cine las Américas Film Festival opening Friday at the Dobie Theatre.
In its second year, the festival has expanded from four days to a full week, and from six films to eight. It still features excellent films from Latin America never seen before in the United States, but this year the selection includes two films made by U.S. Latino filmmakers and one by a local filmmaker, University of Texas assistant professor and award-winning short filmmaker Lindy Laub.
Anyone familiar with starting and developing a festival can attest that making it successful takes a lot of work, good timing, and luck. Cultivating excitement and sustaining interest about the events can make or break a festival, but once that festival gains momentum the work does not stop. In some ways, the pressures become even greater.
"Last year's project was so successful. We had about a dozen people who came and saw all the films," explains Lara Coger, who is the co-director of Cine las Américas along with Celeste Serna. "People called to ask if we were doing it again and were so excited that we were. That kind of enthusiasm is sort of a blessing and a curse, because it means, guess what? We have to do this again, and again, and again."
"It's a lot of work for two twentysomething women with day jobs," adds Serna.
Not that they're complaining. Coger and Serna's enthusiasm for the project is still as palpable as it was last year when the two were stumping around Austin, selling the project to whomever would listen. With the inaugural festival now a part of history, and after a whole year to consider lessons learned, the two women are directing their energy to the next level: sustaining and improving the festival.
"Fortunately, a number of great relationships were forged with last year's festival," Coger says, "meaning that the focus can now be on developing the project, instead of trying to prove that it can be done."
Business support and backing from Austin's film community helped solidify Cine las Américas financially and administratively. Although the natural impulse of fledgling directors might be to reach beyond Austin to develop their festival, organizers here are reaching out locally, tapping into some of the city's commonly overlooked resources. Such on-campus and nationally affiliated organizations as the Bolivian Association, the Brazil and Mexican Centers at the University of Texas, and a host of others provide not only an obvious audience base but also an important resource network.
"There's a Bolivian filmmaker in town who knows all the Bolivian and Peruvian filmmakers. It's been a great contact for us," Coger notes. "We want to get the word out this year that we want to be a more inclusive project. If you're Colombian and you have friends who are filmmakers, or you know filmmaking, give us a call. We'd like to have a more direct relationship with those kinds of production houses. We want to take advantage of what's going on in the festival route here, as well as do, for example, a Colombian retrospective, or a Bolivian retrospective that's unique and not being seen anywhere else in the country."
Like last year's festival, this year's films are borrowed directly from the Chicago Latino Film Festival, which takes place the week prior to Cine las Américas. The only exception is Luminarias, which was picked up by Coger and Serna directly after the film's showing at this year's SXSW. If this collection of films were to have a subtitle, it could be the "festival of personal journeys." A homeless girl, a young man in search of sexual identity, an ex-prostitute, an unsuccessful lawyer, unemployed artists, working Latina professionals, and a survivor of childhood abuse are among the main characters whose stories are being told. Interspersed with these featured screenings, a retrospective of the work of Santiago Alvarez and student shorts from La Escuela de Cine in Cuba will also be shown.
Alvarez is revered as the foremost documentary filmmaker in Cuba and is internationally respected. His use of montage and music, combined with an active social conscience, has earned him a reputation as a filmmaker who "pensar con el corazon" (thinks with his heart). Alvarez is credited with successfully blending poetry and realism in what has been called "active" or "cinematic" journalism. Screenings of his work include 16mm newsreels produced in the 1960s and shown throughout Cuba, as well as some of his longer-format documentaries. One of his most important documentaries, Now (1965), offers a biting commentary on the treatment of African-Americans in the United States. Made when the U.S. was lambasting Cuba for human rights abuses in the wake of the revolution, Now is a bold mirror which harshly reflects the United States' own human rights abuses. Alvarez's films have never been shown in the U.S., and the Cine las Américas Festival offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view his work.
Other screenings include shorts created by students of La Escuela de Cine in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba. The film school draws students from around the world to learn about documentary filmmaking under the direction of Dull (pronounced "dool") Hernández. Hernández has handpicked the student films to be shown and will be in attendance to introduce the selections.
For those struggling with the idea of attending yet another Austin festival, consider this advice: Buy new underwear. Popcorn is good for you. And you won't notice funny smells if you're not at home.