Been Around the World
Cine las Americas broadens its borders
When San Antonio-born actress Marina Gonzalez Palmier began auditioning in Los Angeles, it never occurred to her that someone would question who she said she was. Responding to a call for Latina actresses, she went to an audition, only to be asked, "Are you sure you're Latin?"
Palmier comes from a long line of Mexican-Americans. Her uncle and former Congressman Henry B. Gonzelez dedicated his career to representing Latinos. (His successor, Charles Gonzalez, is Palmier's cousin.) But because of her fair skin and a lean body formed through years of professional dancing, she was told she didn't look or sound "Mexican" enough.
The experience is ironic, given the subject of Palmier's first film, "White Like the Moon," one of 70 films featured at this year's Cine las Americas International Festival of New Cinema of the Americas. In her narrative film, a Mexican-American mother forces her dark-skinned daughter to bleach her skin in order to improve her appearance. In other words, white is right, but brown is frowned. Palmier had wanted to address the taboo subject for a long time, and finally wrote the script in application to the prestigious American Film Institute (AFI) Directing Workshop for Women. She was one of only seven admitted to the program.
"I felt that in order to get chosen for the AFI, I was going to have to write something damn good, something that would stand out and tap into some important issues regardless of my feelings or what others feel is appropriate or not appropriate to talk about," she said. "At this point in my career, if I'm going to make an impact on how Latin people or culture or women are depicted, I can't limit myself to the same few stories Hollywood tells about us."
Identity within Latino cultures and the expression of it is a recurring theme in this year's Cine las Americas Festival, now in its fifth year.
"We don't use 'Latino' in the title anymore, but [rather] 'New Cinema of the Americas,'" says Festival Director Celeste Serna Williams. "So many Latino cultures are combinations of African and Latino, or Latino and something else. Discovering the complexity of the cultures of the Americas, giving space to those underrepresented voices, discussing identity, and breaking down stereotypes are still important goals for us in picking our films."
The festival opens with La Tropical, by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Turnley. Titled after the famous dance club in Havana, the documentary celebrates the vital role music plays in Cuban culture. Yet, unlike other films that focus on Cuba's Old World charm, La Tropical directs an unflinching look at how skin color stratifies Cuban society. Other films, such as De Colores (April 13), It's Not Unusual (April 13), and A Piece of Earth (April 15), unpack the dynamics of identity within Latino families, highlighting the ongoing struggle to maintain links between the cultural or familial past while defining one's future.
As in the past, films in this year's festival come from throughout Latin America, Canada, Sweden, and the United States. There have been some structural changes for the fest beyond the tweaking of the title, however.
"The most important change for the festival is that we've merged with ALMA [Austin Latino Music Alliance] and are now housed at Johnston High," Williams says. The tie with ALMA allows Cine to broaden its activities. One new project is Sonidos de Barrio, a series of live concerts of Latino musicians filmed in Austin and made into one-hour documentaries. Grupo Fantasma, the Nash Hernandez Orchestra, and Ruben Ramos are the subjects of the first three films directed by Billy Morales Cooper. The Grupo Fantasma episode premieres at the festival April 21.
To meet the terms of its partnership with AISD, which supplies office space at Johnston High, Cine provides film and music programs for Johnston students and faculty. Eighty percent of the student body are ethnic minority students, and this proximity and connection to the students has invigorated the festival with its youthful, curious environment, but also with new ideas about what it means to be Latino.
"What I've noticed here is that a lot of students strongly identify with hip-hop culture," Williams says. "It's always tied to black youth, but some of the top hip-hop DJs here in Austin, like Trey Lopez, are Latino. There's also a big Southern hip-hop event that takes place every year right here in Austin, by Romeo Navarro. So, sure enough, we're screening four films about hip-hop in our Celebration of Emerging Filmmakers segment."
Curated by Cine student interns at Johnston High, the Emerging Filmmakers series features work by high school filmmakers from across the nation. Hip Hop 101, "an experience of complex culture on film," is one of three sections of the series. Emerging from youth-of-color communities in New York in the 1970s, hip-hop has evolved into a serious and important form of expressive culture, more concerned with community building and social issues than the commercialization of violence and oppression showcased on outlets like MTV. The short film Hip Hop: A Culture of Influence, from TV-YO in New York, deftly lays out the history of hip-hop, using person-on-the-street interviews and comments from art-rap artists and scholars. In addition to short films, Hip Hop 101 features a panel discussion with local freestyle dancer and B-Boy City Producer Romeo Navarro, rapper Bavu Blakes, and film scholar Chale Nafus. The Emerging Filmmaker series also features two other sections: "Blazing Trails in Digital Video" and "Search for Culture and Identity in Media." The Emerging Filmmakers series is free and open to the public and takes place April 13 and April 20.
Festival events take place at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown (ADD, 409 Colorado), the Texas Union Theater (TEX, UT Campus), the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex (MYEC, 1156 Hargrave), and the Camacho Activity Center (34 Robert Martinez Jr. St.). Tickets are $7 at the door. Festival passes are $50. An annotated schedule is below. For more information call 841-5930 or go to www.cinelasamericas.org.