Filmmaking Sin Fronteras

Mapping out Cine Las Americas in its 18th year

<i>Marshland (La Isla Mínima)</i>
Marshland (La Isla Mínima)

Has it really been 18 years since the first Cine Las Americas International Film Festival debuted in Austin and brought with it an astonishing wealth of Latin American and indigenous filmmaking? Well, yeah, it may seem like only yesterday that the scrappy upstart of Austin's increasingly crowded festival circuit began its annual April overload of awesome sin fronteras filmmaking, but that's just because its programming is so sublime. What other multilingual, community-based, nonprofit, cinematic arts organization has brought us Buñuel in the off-season, year-round free screenings, and a guarantee that once spring arrives, a weeklong film festival will be under way once more? (We're not counting that great behemoth in the room, SXSW.)

At a time when everyone and their hermano seem to have shown up in the 512 desperate to grab hold of the fabled, old-school "weird," Cine Las Americas has managed to remain a peculiarly Austin event. Despite recent budgetary cuts and a staff shake-up, which left the fest without an executive director, CLAIFF 2015 looks poised to be one of the best years yet, even though this year's edition has been trimmed down to five days. Still the festival will showcase 41 feature films, 49 shorts, and five music videos.

Incoming Festival Director Jean Lauer is a veteran of CLAIFF, and so when the nonprofit found itself without that key executive director position filled, Lauer, an Austin Community College adjunct professor and UT Department of Radio-Television-Film doctoral candidate focusing on Mexican film history, was tapped. "I started working with CLA as film program director in 2008, and it's very near and dear to my heart," says Lauer, "so when I was asked by the board to step in as festival director this year, that's what I did."

But why has CLAIFF cut its run virtually in half?

"It had to do with our budget and the resources that we could bring to bear [this year]," explains Lauer. "We had to figure out how many days, how many venues, and this turned out to be the answer. It's been a festival that, like many festivals, has suffered [due] to shrinking grant funds but we're very, very grateful to all our great supporters, donors, and sponsors. It's been incredible to see the support from people who want to keep Cine Las Americas going while we figure out what's next."

Additionally, Lauer's previous experience includes working as a volunteer and coordinating consultant at the International Pitching Market at the Guanajuato International Film Festival, as well as serving as the market coordinator for the Fantastic Market/Mercado Fantastico at Austin's long-running Fantastic Fest. In short, she's more than qualified to take over the reins at CLAIFF. That shines through in the wealth of international screenings this year, encompassing countries as diverse as Bolivia, Canada, Panama, Brazil, Cuba, and Venezuela.

Filmmaking Sin Fronteras

So what's on Lauer's own personal must-see list?

"Well, this is partly biased," she says, "because I did the programming for the Marchesa Hall & Theatre along with [Film Programming Associate] Elena Bessire, who's been here longer than I, and who really stepped up to curate, with the programming team, our competition lineup at the Mexican American Cultural Center and St. Edward's University Jones Auditorium. [She also assisted with] the new releases, the Hecho en Tejas showcase, and our Emergencia Youth Film special presentation. But there's great programming all around, of course!"

Certainly CLAIFF's biggest coup this year is netting Spanish director Alberto Rodríguez's moody stunner Marshland (La Isla Mínima), which was nominated for a whopping 17 Goya Awards – that'd be Spain's equivalent of the Oscars – and won 10, including Best Film.

Set against the political backdrop of post-Franco Spain and the emerging democracy that followed in 1980, the film at first appears to be a routine crime drama about mismatched cops on the trail of a possible serial killer in the literal backwaters of Andalusia. (Comparisons to True Detective have been noted by some critics, but if anything, Marshland is even more nuanced in its depiction of good vs. evil and how the two so often collide and commingle in the most random – and horrifying – ways.) Given Hollywood's proclivities, a North American remake is all but guaranteed despite the film's post-Franco subtext, but trust us, Rodríguez's original will rock you to your core.

Other can't-miss features include What's the Use?, Nicole Elmer's experimental, tragicomic follow-up to her eerie CLAIFF triumph In the Shadow, and Meredith Dreiss' fascinating documentary Agave Is Life, which tracks the course of humanity's "10,000 years of the human-agave relationship." Think about that the next time you're downing mezcal shots.

"We're kind of in a different ball game than all of those other types of festivals," Lauer says when I mention Fantastic Fest's recent filmmaker success stories such as the recent signing of "Chilewood" mainstay Nicolás López (Santos, Aftershock) to legendary Hollywood agency CAA. "Of course we want our filmmakers to succeed and [get distribution for their movies], but we can give them visibility and, you know, we're just on a different tier from other festivals. We're not the red-carpet kind of fest."

Which is frankly what has made Austin and its often bilingual filmmaking community such a glorious anomaly in the first place, and what continues to make CLAIFF a true original.

"Because of its mission," Lauer explains, "we balance such a weird, eclectic mix of films, right? Just this year we're opening with a U.S. Latino comedy; we have the [multiple Goya-winner] Marshland; there's an amazing stop-motion animation called The Lodge, which is the first feature from Terril Calder, a brilliant, indigenous, First Nation filmmaker from Canada. And then there's the broad comedy Viejos Amigos (Good Old Boys), which was a box-office killer in Peru, but no one's heard of it here. We take risks, you know? It's all about figuring out how to bring the best of what's going on in Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and the indigenous filmmakers from the U.S., Canada, and all over the Americas."

The 18th annual Cine Las Americas International Film Festival runs Wednesday, April 22, to Sunday, April 26, at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre, the Mexican American Cultural Center, and St. Edward's Jones Auditorium. The complete schedule, program descriptions, and admission information can be found at

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