CineFestival and the Meaning of 'Latino' Film 


"I'm trying to redefine what a Latino film is," Jim Mendiola, CineFestival director, told the San Antonio Current about the festival's 38th edition taking place through February 27 at the Guadalupe Theater. "I don't want to be so dogmatic as to what 'Latino' means."

Oh, the old etymological "Latino" debate ... See, when it comes to describing what a "Latino" or "Latin American" is, you unavoidably have to deal with opened cans of worms coming at you from all angles: Is America a country or a continent? In the U.S., are you also referring to, say, Romanians when you say "Latino"? Are there any Romanian films at CineFestival? What do you do when the very term "Latino" is a misleading word concocted by foreigners and eagerly embraced by post-colonial "Latinos" who preferred the L-word rather than "Hispanic" or, God forbid, indio or negro?

"The term 'Latin America' was invented by the French," the late Mexican author Carlos Fuentes told (in Spanish) Chilean writer and journalist Sergio Marras in 1993's América Latina, Marca Registrada (Latin America, Trademark), a collection of Q&As with most of the leading Latin American writers from the left and the right. Despite their different views, most of those interviewed agreed on the dubious origins of "Latino." Fuentes goes on:

"[The French's] purpose was to include themselves in the continental mass. Since the terms Iberoamérica [and] Hispanoamérica didn't include them, they thought, 'Let us invent a concept that does — Latin America.' And [we] were glad that, in the 19th century, the French would open up their arms for us. France was our ideal. Just read Esteban Echeverría, Vicuña Mackenna [and] the many Latin American writers and thinkers who believed we could escape the terrible curse of descending from Spain, from the Indians and, even worse, from the African slaves, allowing us to become honorary French. One way of becoming honorary French was to call ourselves Latin Americans."

Instead, Fuentes — both in Marras' book and in his own Valiente Nuevo Mundo (Brave New World) — preferred the impractical but more accurate Indo-Afro-Ibero-América, which "includes all the traditions, all the elements that really form our culture, our race, our personality," as he told Marras.

Now, transfer the debate to the U.S. and, more specifically, San Antonio, and you have a handful: Are Latino films united by skin color? For all practical purposes, I'm a Latino, but I'm white with blue eyes. Is it language? Plenty of "Latinos," here and in Latin America, don't speak Spanish. Are we united by culture? Any Latin American who never left his/her country doesn't know what a taco is. Simply put, Latinos come in all shapes and forms, and good luck trying to translate a cook book from English to Spanish: it is impossible to make all ingredients understood in every Spanish-speaking country.

So Mendiola took the practical, more honest approach: In the U.S., Latino film is a brown thing, hence the #CineSoBrown hashtag.

"In the context of #OscarSoWhite, Latinos aren't usually part of the conversation," said Mendiola. "It's either black or white." A true statement, even though Mexicans (and by that I mean Mexicans from Mexico) have done much better than anyone in the last two years: Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity won the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Director, Alejandro González's Iñárritu's Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director and the Golden Globe for Best Picture, and his The Revenant already won the Golden Globe for Best Picture this year and it is a strong contender to sweep again at the Oscars on February 28. Moreover, his back-to-back victories at the Director's Guild Awards (for Birdman and The Revenant) in the last two years are a first in history — no other director had ever won the top DGA prize two years in a row.

Yet, Latinos in Hollywood feel disrespected and underrepresented, no matter how many wins. All CineFestival can do is showcase the best Latino movies it can afford with a limited budget and hope for the best.

"For any festival to be successful, you need to attract stars, and for that, you need money," Jerry Ruiz, the Guadalupe's executive director since 2015, told the Current. Which brings you to the old chicken-and-the-egg dilemma: Do you first need to attract audiences before you get sponsors, or do you need sponsors to lure stars to San Antonio so people will come?

"The challenge with a film fest in San Antonio is balancing popular taste with interesting programming," said Mendiola. "The [reason] people come to festivals is because of stars."

Mendiola and the Guadalupe's budget is limited, but what they lack in funds they've been compensating for with lots of imagination, and this year may very well be a turning point for the festival: After five years on board as a programmer/curator or co-curator, Mendiola (who was CineFestival curator in 1998-99) is now the festival's director and has a much-needed ally in Ruiz. What started as a showcase of made-in-the-U.S. Latino films is gradually turning into a welcome Pan-American fest. So the stage is set for a full-time, year-round curator (instead of the part-time role Mendiola currently has) and, in that regard, both Mendiola and Ruiz have shown positive signs.

"This is a transition year, when the festival has a chance to grow," said Mendiola. "I think I can finally do a festival the way I think it should be. The new administration really recognizes that and it's letting us grow in a way that will make this festival pretty unique."

"We're all interested in growing the festival and attracting a bigger audience to the West Side, but also potentially in the future do screenings in other locations too, not just the Guadalupe," Ruiz said. "[CineFestival] is the first festival of its kind in the U.S. and we want to keep investing in it, but to grow you need at least one year-round staff person, if not more. That would be a worthy investment for us."

Time speaks for itself, and CineFestival's staying power is its most convincing argument to lure potential investors to join the cause. So far, the festival has been able to exist for 38 years only through the passion, dreams and sweat of the handful of people and sponsors behind it year after year, but much more is needed. Yes, the fest has stumbled at times, and every year is a miracle. But never since I came to San Antonio did I see a CineFestival that settled for cheap thrills. Instead, the festival has strived to secure the best possible films with what's available, and it has nothing to be ashamed of. But the festival, like any other serious small, medium or large festival out there needs stars and not just "the best available" films — it needs the best, and Mendiola and Ruiz deserve a chance to make it happen. In the meantime, Mendiola has been learning a few lessons from other comparable neighboring festivals.

"The Morelia [Michoacán, México] International Film Festival is 12 years old, and in 12 years they have become one of the major international film fests in the world," said Mendiola. "Of course, they have a lot of money, but they also have good ideas. I don't have the money right now, but I can borrow some of their ideas."

One of those ideas is to showcase first-time shorts, and the following year first-time features by up-and-coming local and national talent and have them return to the festival year after year to show their new films, so local audiences follow and embrace their career. But Morelia not only showcased those films: It went to the film schools to look for the best new talent and offered significant prizes to them, thus attracting la crème de la crème of the new generation of Mexican filmmakers.

"It was a strategic development and it worked," said Mendiola. "By the sixth year, these filmmakers had their movies shown at Cannes. That's something I'd love to start doing here eventually."

Today's CineFestival budget is much, much larger than in 2004, when I started following the festival (I'm finding it hard to get Mendiola and Ruiz to tell me the number on the record, but I'll keep trying), but still nowhere near the minimum amount necessary to produce a serious, kick-ass festival. And I don't mean Cannes, and not even South by Southwest. I'm talking about a medium size, cool festival that will offer the cleverest, edgiest "Latino" movies in the U.S. and abroad and the incentives to attract key figures in the movie industry and, with it, massive crowds. The crowds grow a little year after year, and sold-out nights are becoming more common. But in order for CineFestival to really grow, explode and become the type of festival it always dreamed to be, somebody needs to cough up the big bucks, even though Mendiola had a special mention for Galia Farber, San Antonio's new film commissioner.

"She's starting to recognize the value of the festival and [the commission was] very supportive of us."

So I tried one more time, and asked Mendiola for attendance and budget figures.

"Our budget this year is a little bigger, but not at the level we hope to attain," said Mendiola in an email. "As the festival has grown over the last few years, and with the continuity of programming, its impact is felt [and] we had a bit more success with sponsors. Attendance is on the rise. People are used to seeing movies at the Guadalupe again and we want to continue that habit with monthly screenings."

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