Pride of the Eastside
The movers and shakers behind 'El Gallo' want you to rethink how movies get made
Wherever you look, change is in the air, flitting across countries and cultures, morphing the masses and their attendant media, and generally making this one of the most across-the-board creative – artistically, geopolitically, socially – moments in memory: a Revolution Summer, unfolding in real time, all the time.
Here in Austin, one film project is rather ambitiously attempting to confront and alter the very future of filmmaking, music, storytelling, social networking, community-based funding, exhibition, and distribution, and, last but not least, global multiculturalism.
This revolution won't be televised: It'll be "multichanneled," meaning cross-platformed, available for download, screened live, streamed, and available in every imaginable format, from smartphone to dumb lucky-you-wandered-into-this-particular-venue, amigo. It's called El Gallo, and if creator/prime mover Sergio Carvajal can just get the community hep to the fact that it will only happen with their participation, it'll be the way of the future, one way or another.
"El Gallo is an adult-oriented compendium of Mexican and Texican-tales woven carefully with the threads of magical realism. It blends elements of light and dark comedy with action, romance, music, and drama in order to tackle the rarely discussed subject of Mexican masculinity, as well as other timely Hispanic-oriented themes in a way that has never been done before.
"Through thirteen, forty minute long episodes that will be released locally in Central Texas and digitally via the internet on a monthly basis, El Gallo will follow the interconnected storylines of seven very peculiar characters. These range from Pepe, a drunkard and good for nothing norteño who happens to be a champion cockfighter, to Harry, a forty-year veteran of the INS whose decadent past haunts his now soon-to-be-retired-life."
– From El Gallo's Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund grant proposal
When the not-quite-finished "Pepe Kid," the prequel to El Gallo, was screened at Cine las Americas earlier this year, it not only packed the Mexican American Cultural Center's largest screening room, but also resulted in crowds having to be turned away, a festival first.
And no wonder: Shot by local cinematographer Drew Daniels in a style that perfectly captures the often anarchically beautiful realities of both the Mexican and Mexican-American experiences, "Pepe Kid" is a strikingly accomplished opening salvo in the El Gallo saga. As the series' origin story, it relates the bizarrely comical misadventures of preteen Pepe (played by Ramon Maldonado with an utterly manic, impish delight that recalls nothing so much as Roberto Gómez Bolaños' singular Seventies Mexican sitcom El Chavo) and his rough-and-tumble life as a street urchin in rural Mexico. It also introduces the series' most cocky character, the titular gallo, a mystical rooster named Sietecueros who can subliminally grant the wishes of whomever owns him; he may also be the golden rooster of the apocalypse. And that's just the teaser, the pilot episode intended to launch the El Gallo project and get the word out about what, exactly, Sergio Carvajal is attempting to create here.
And, by the way, who is this Sergio Carvajal, anyway?
A native of Venezuela who arrived in the U.S. 13 years ago, Carvajal, at 31, initially started off in the Austin music scene with the band Balistica and then with the Carabelas Collective before turning his hand to filmmaking via the University of Texas and the American Film Institute.
"I had been doing multimedia types of shows called Facundo," explains Carvajal, "which would maybe feature a band, a spoken word artist, and a film, which led to the realization that creating things around a theme is key. If it doesn't have a theme, the audience gets confused. It's insanity and chaos, which is something that is very much like South America; insanity and chaos are the norm there, and the only theme there is provided by the Catholic church. The idea of going into film seemed like the next step. Film seemed like it could be the glue that would hold everything together. It was all about having a more interactive approach to telling stories."
Carvajal calls his approach "multichannel" and has written a lengthy discourse on the principles of his strategy that include a central concept (or "a world"); interrelated seeds spawned from the central concept (e.g., smartphone applications, music videos, games, miniseries, and feature-length films); and above all, localization, i.e., creating a project specifically aimed at, funded by, and rooted deeply in a local community, which in the case of El Gallo, is Austin's Eastside Hispanic community.
That last goal of localization is proving to be the toughest hurdle Carvajal's nascent project has yet faced. A fundraising screening of "Pepe Kid" held on the Eastside in mid-June drew plenty of fans and more than its share of the curious, but reaped little in the way of actual financial gain – this despite a breathtaking performance by El Gallo star and longtime Austin musician Juan Diaz – and a recently launched Kickstarter campaign has yet to bear any major fiscal fruit.
"While heavily infused with elements of fantasy, El Gallo acts as a unique window into the rarely explored underbelly of new Mexico-America, partly due to the series' host of local Mexican and Mexican-American non-actors and real locations, and partly due to our approach of collecting real anecdotes from the people of Central Texas, and then intertwining them with the ones of the El Gallo universe.
"If you add to this mix the ultra-localized approach of production and distribution, where each shoot, as well as each premiere, is treated as a local event, El Gallo then becomes a project where each phase connects with the audience and pushes the story forward, from the conceptualization phase to the deployment."
– From El Gallo's TFPF grant proposal
"Here's the thing," says the profoundly earnest Carvajal: "If El Gallo doesn't get funded by the people, then El Gallo gets put into standby mode. El Gallo will only work if it's funded by the people. That's one of the things that's very important for people to know, because even if somebody came in with, say, an American Express [product placement], we wouldn't do that. It's tempting, sure, but the only way to have the impact that we want to have – the impact on the local community – is by being completely independent and by letting the people fund you. That's the basis of the whole idea of the El Gallo project. You have to close the doors to everything from outside the community, the brands, all that. That can come later, maybe. Then they'll play our game, the game the people want, instead of us playing theirs, which is what usually happens.
"We are saying to the community, 'If you're happy with this crazy-ass ["Pepe Kid"], then we think you'll be happy with the rest of what we're planning to do.' So, you know, help fund us so we can help you create this whole new type of hyper-localized, community-based entertainment."
Is Carvajal attempting to paint too big a picture given the current woeful economic palette? Maybe, maybe not. One of the more remarkable aspects of the project, and of "Pepe Kid" specifically, has been Carvajal's ability to attract talent from all corners, including some that didn't actually exist before. None of the cast members are professional actors, and yet the acting in "Pepe Kid" is organic, raw, and downright gripping.
So, too, has it gone with the producers, of which, Carvajal wryly notes, there aren't any. At least, no professional Hollywood types. The director hired on his longtime Venezuelan compadre Alejandro Yrausquin as one executive producer and his multitalented paramour, photographer Romina Olson, as associate producer. Somehow, things get done, with cast and crew shuffling from one unpaid position to another, a stew of creative types testing their limits for a dream project that, ultimately, may or may not happen.
Speaking to the question of who, exactly, is doing what at any given time on El Gallo, Carvajal says: "It shifts. People have been coming in and out of the project as needed, and that's sort of the beauty of the theory [of multichannel] in the sense that everybody has the potential to become a producer, everybody has the potential to become an actor, everybody has the potential to be whatever. Ramon, who plays Pepe, was working construction when I found him. He ended up moving into my house so that I could teach him acting, but he also learned about the producing side of things because we spent all this time making sure everything looks good on the first episode. Everybody who is involved is wanting to give more, to do more. ... I'm convinced of the potential of everybody."
In addition to the filming, the fundraising, the Kickstarting, and the uphill slog against long odds for a dream project that could potentially change, if only a little, how films are made, perceived, funded, and distributed across this crazy new, viral, transmedia landscape, Carvajal and his crew embarked earlier this year on a campaign they dubbed Remember the East Side.
Like everything Carvajal does, his description of this particular Eastside-centric gambit sounds slightly overwhelming: a "disruptive social campaign ... collecting door-to-door 500 stories from people on the Eastside." Those filmed snippets of Eastside lives – not all of them at once, mind you – were then screened for audiences in two separate events held, respectively, at the Grackle and the Volstead Lounge at Hotel Vegas. Carvajal even managed to include filmmaker Angela Torres Camarena and her Cannes-selected short film "Frente Noreste" to give an illustration of how this sort of small-scale community storytelling could, indeed, go places outside the Eastside. Visionary? Sí, señor.
For now, though, El Gallo's epic journey from concept to conversation-starter languishes – hopefully not for long – as it awaits the due attention of the community it seeks to entertain and enlighten. As ever, the funding's the key to continuance, and, as ever, the funding remains the toughest battle to win, or at least break even in.
Still, says Executive Producer Yrausquin, "I feel that the way we're doing things will eventually become the standard way a production will work. It's more the necessity of what needs to be done, as opposed to a [clearly delineated] role. Today one person does one thing, tomorrow they may do another. Whatever it takes, we'll make it happen."
A screening of "Pepe the Kid" and a talk about Now Community Cinema take place Friday, Aug. 19, at Studio 4D in the CMB building on the University of Texas campus. Space is limited; rsvp to firstname.lastname@example.org.