Media : Discovering Las Americas

Salsa outsells catsup, and players named Alex Rodriguez, Pedro Martinez, and Vladimir Guerrero dominate the national pastime of a nation that is browner than ever. The Latinization of the United States, where one in eight residents fits the census category “Hispanic,” is visible in the election of Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles and the prosperity of Univision, Telemundo, and Telefutura. Yet, though Jessica Lopez, Antonio Banderas, and Penelope Cruz glitter in the Hollywood firmament, it is easier for a lettuce-picker than a Latin American movie to slip through this country’s southern border. Even in the multiplexes of San Antonio, where more than half the population is Hispanic, the majority of movies speak English only. Though Spanish-language cinema once thrived in this city, the few foreign films lighting up local screens are more likely to be imports from France or Japan than those from Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, or dozens of other nations in our hemisphere. La Mujer de mi hermano, the only film currently in town en que habla español from beginning to end (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is adroitly bilingual), is so generically Latin American it could be mistaken for Australian. Written and directed by Peruvians, starring a Colombian, and shot in Chile, it is a melodrama about wealthy, light-skinned adulterers that unfolds in a villa splendidly isolated from any identifiable setting.

Valley of Tears, a 2003 documentary about the life of migrant workers in a Texas town, is one of the films that will screen at this year’s Cine Las Americas.

Films redolent of the lives of actual Latinos constitute the program of CineFestival. But San Antonio’s annual showcase of Latino works is an autumn event, and April can seem the cruelest month for anyone craving celluloid from Uruguay. However, relief is not far away — in Austin, where Cine Las Americas holds its ninth annual festival April 19-23. In contrast to CineFestival, whose institutional base, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, is both an asset and — during recurrent organizational turmoil — a liability, Cine Las Americas is an independent, non-profit operation. Most of its screenings take place in Austin’s Regal Metropolitan, with additional events at the smaller Hideout Theater and at the Millennium Youth Complex in East Austin. Founded in 1997 as a retrospective of Cuban cinema, Cine Las Americas has enlarged its ambitions to stretch from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. “Our mission,” says Eugenio Del Bosque, in his fifth year as director of the festival, “is to bring forth underserved voices in media and film.” Although L.A. holds a spot on maps of the Americas, Cine Las Americas, specializing in Latino and indigenous work, is not the place to catch Hollywood releases.

Because Austin’s demographics differ from San Antonio’s, Del Bosque emphasizes that Cine Las Americas aims beyond just Latino audiences. “It is truly an international event, with high-quality work that just anybody can enjoy,” Del Bosque says. Anybody who attended CineFestival in San Antonio last November might have admired Al Otro Lado (“To the Other Side”), a study of immigration and drug-smuggling from Mexico into the United States. The nonfiction feature, by Natalia Almada, who approaches her subject through corridos, will be the final offering of Cine Las Americas. Opening night brings an Argentine entry, Cama Adentro (“Live-in Maid”), a story of altered class relationships when, after 30 years, a woman can no longer afford to pay her domestic help.

Cama Adentro is director Jorge Gaggero’s feature debut, which qualifies it for inclusion in the festival’s first-feature competition. Other sections of the festival include: music documentaries, perspectives on contemporary Cuba, documentaries about Brazil, “Global Issues, Local Problems” — films that examine topics such as immigration, natural resources, and indigenous cultures — and “Emergencia,” competing entries by filmmakers from Austin, New York, and San Antonio who are under 20.

Jacobo, the central character in Whisky, has not seen 20 for more than 40 years, nor has he seen his younger brother Herman during all the years that Herman has been living in Brazil. When Herman returns to Uruguay for a visit, Jacobo, a terminally dour bachelor, wants his brother to believe that he is married and asks Maria, a loyal worker at the dilapidated factory he runs, to pose as his wife. Directors Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll use a stationary camera, long takes, and agonizing silences to create the oddest exercise in anomie since Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and the most memorable film from Montevideo that I can recall.

Chilean director Matias Bize also makes efficient use of minimal materials. En la cama (“In Bed”) is set entirely in a motel room to which two strangers who met at a party have repaired for a night of sexual distraction and personal revelation.

En la cama observes the classical unity of time (as well as place and action), but the most timely of the festival’s offerings might be De Nadie (“No One”), Mexican filmmaker Tin Dirdamal’s documentary about the plight of Central Americans (more than 200,000 a year) traveling 4,000 kilometers through Mexico en route to the United States. Focusing on the experiences of one desperate Honduran, the film examines the hardships these immigrants endure and exposes the abuses they undergo at the hands of criminal gangs and sadistic officials. De Nadie alone fulfills the mission of an adventurous festival designed to let audiences discover overlooked Americas.

See for the complete schedule, ticket prices, and locations.

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