Interested in the future of independent filmmaking? One could hardly find a better opportunity than the latest edition of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts’ CineFestival, scheduled for this weekend. U.S. Latino filmmaking has come a long way since such pioneering works as Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983) and San Antonio native Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1992) played at Sundance decades ago. The festival will showcase two award-winning indie features straight from last year’s Sundance Film Festival: Peter Bratt’s La Mission and Cruz Angeles’s Don’t Let Me Drown. After months on the festival circuit, both are slated for commercial release this spring.
The Current spoke to directors Angeles and Bratt about their films.
Cruz Angeles was born in Mexico City and raised in South Central Los Angeles. Don’t Let Me Drown is his first feature film. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and child, and he is currently co-writing a border thriller set in Arizona.
When did you realize that filmmaking was a possibility?
When I got accepted to the NYU graduate film program, which is a very selective program, I realized that I might have a shot. But it truly became a reality when I went to the Sundance Director’s Lab. Sundance gave me the grace to find myself. I had participated in workshops previously, so it was great to find myself here.
What inspired Drown?
As a filmmaker, memory always fuels my creativity. Memories of growing up in a turbulent South Central Los Angeles — in the ’80’s as a teen when the terror of gang violence reigned over the streets reminded me of how hard it is to live with fear, loss, anger, and financial hardship. And I remember that sometimes the only thing that would help me escape all the craziness was daydreaming about that girl I had a crush on. This simple idea initiated the long journey of writing Don’t Let Me Drown.
What might audiences come away with after watching Drown?
I am hoping they will take away that love and hope are powerful tools to combat hardship, that young people are a reflection of their parents but can grow up to be different and better than them by escaping the negative cycles that plague some families.
As a filmmaker and storyteller, it has always been my aim to bring visibility to the invisible stories that are consistently left outside of the mainstream news fare and that get lost in history. I decided to use this opportunity to document what was going on in the Latino community after 9/11, but while always anchoring it in the universal.
Drown is first and foremost about love in the time of tragedy. This story can happen anywhere and at any time. Its message can cross all boundaries because love and hope are all you need to survive in hard times.
Peter Bratt’s first feature film, Follow Me Home, was shown at Sundance Festival in 1996. He and brother Benjamin co-produced La Mission. Bratt lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is currently developing a feature film about Silent Spring author and environmentalist Rachel Carson.
When did you realize filmmaking was a viable option?
I was a political-science major at UC - Santa Cruz. My mother was a single mom and an activist in the turbulent ’60s — the American Indian Movement and civil rights — so I had this activist bent. I never thought I’d go into filmmaking.
Then I took a film theory course, thinking it would be just a kickback. Instead, we had to write a paper every week, and the class was taught from a feminist-Marxist perspective. What if you look at the same film and deconstruct it from the point of view of race and culture? Wow. I wanted to bring issues of race, class, and gender to the screen. It was only later that I fell in love with the actual craft.
What does Sundance represent to Latino filmmakers?
I have so much respect for Robert Redford and his vision and what he created with the Sundance Institute and Festival. I have several friends who have gone through the labs to develop a concept into a finished script, and a few actually produced feature films.
Even though Sundance is really accessible to the industry and full of flash, it is the number-one market for indie film in the world. And it still holds onto its original roots of creating a forum for alternative and new voices to be heard.
What might an audience take away from La Mission?
I love it when people come up with different interpretations, but there are two things we set out to do. One, we want to tell a story of a Latino person and show the depth of human complexities of that character and his world. Oftentimes in films of Latinos in urban settings I find the characters to be two-dimensional. We wanted to draw a character that was richly complex.
The other intention was that the film meditates on personal change and transformation. Obama was elected on the platform of “change we can believe in.” A lot of people were excited about that idea. But what my film tries to express is that on the individual level, sometimes it’s really difficult to change habits, opinions, and attitudes that have been developed over a lifetime. It’s easy to say let’s change, but it’s a completely different animal to manifest it in your everyday life and behavior.
DON’T LET ME DROWN
Dir. Cruz Angeles; writ. Angeles, Maria Topete; feat. E. J. Bonilla, Gleendilys Inoa, Damián Alcázar, Ricardo Chavira
Director Angeles provides an instant sense of New York City after the attack on the Twin Towers. TV replays the horrific event 24/7 as people desperately search for loved ones and attempt to regain a sense of normalcy. The youngsters in the predominately Puerto Rican and Dominican barrio maintain their cool with trash talk and hip-hop, yet a sense of dread lurks at every turn. Lalo lives with his immigrant parents and an uncle in a crowded tenement building. His father, once a janitor in the Towers, has been pressed into service clearing the rubble at Ground Zero. His return home at night covered in grit and debris, is phantasmagoric. Lalo forms a friendship with Stefanie (Inoa), a young Dominican teen who lost her older sister in the attacks. The loss has also taken its toll on her parents and their marriage. Her father (Chavira) grieves by watching old home videos or listening to cell-phone messages from his beloved daughter. Despite the darkness, there are comic and loving moments as Lalo helps his mom spread tamales; Lalo and Stefanie write love letters to each other and sneak away to Coney Island to avoid parents who discourage relationships with Latinos outside their own ethnicity. Bonilla and Inoa are perfectly cast as the young couple, and the gritty photography captures the Latino presence in New York with precision. Angeles’s uplifting story is a loving testament to youthful resiliency and love in a world in turmoil. — Gregg Barrios
Screens 8 p.m. Thursday, February 4.
Writ. and dir. Peter Bratt; feat. Benjamin Bratt, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Erika Alexander, Jesse Borrego.
Initially, director Peter Bratt leads us to believe we are in for a Chicano gang film with its focus on Che Rivera (Bratt), an ex-con, single father, alcoholic bus driver who converts old cars into gleaming low-riders. But when we meet his teenage son Jesse (Valdez), a high-school honor student, and discover his relationship with a white boyfriend, it becomes obvious that things are bound to go bad at Casa Rivera. The seismic event occurs when Che discovers that Jesse is gay and unleashes his monstrous fury in a horrific public gay-bashing. It becomes difficult to watch the doomed Che unsuccessfully battle his demons, and although we may recognize his existential pain, he is the reason for the tragic events that unfold. Unanswered questions abound: Why doesn’t the brutal public beating result in Che’s arrest? Why doesn’t the school report the boy’s abuse? Where is la buena gente to get Che the mental help he needs? Is this the beloved barrio Bratt wishes to portray? Still, the film’s saving grace is that Jesse’s story becomes empowering as he takes command of his destiny and finds the strength to become his own man. — Gregg Barrios
Screens 8p.m. Saturday, February 6.
Dir. Yomi Park; writ. Park, Olivia Hinojosa; feat. Julia Babin, Gigi Isaac
Kids, don’t come out to your mom via email. That’s one of two lessons I’d like to relate from Skye— a half-hour film made by students at Say Sí (where staff writer Enrique Lopetegui’s wife Guillermina Zabala, credited as one of the film’s producers, works as media-arts director). The other is this: Today’s high-school students are a whole lot cooler and more talented than they were when I was one. The film opens with a soundless glimpse of Skye’s boyfriend breaking up with her in an otherwise empty classroom. Literally moments later, she’s questioning her sexuality, and within five minutes she’s setting out to inform her friends and relatives. As a former Lubbockite who didn’t realize he had gay high-school friends until a few years into college, when they finally came out to everyone from the safety of a distant city, I tensed up at the coming-out scenes the way I do at horror films, fearful for the poor girl’s safety and mental wellbeing in a roomful of Texas teenagers. That her family handles it so well was reassuring and not completely unexpected, but she also comes out to her freaking church youth group, which filled me with the urge to scream at the screen like she was about to investigate the cause of late-night chainsaw noises coming from underneath an abandoned house. “Don’t go in there, Skye! Just turn around and run away!”
It’s not as bad as I feared, fortunately. She encounters a few jerks, but nothing close to a hate crime. For the most part, her friends and family behave like human beings. In fact, from a purely dramatic standpoint, the film might actually have benefited from a little more conflict and tension about something or other, but that’s quibbling. Skye looks absolutely beautiful, and young actresses Julia Babin (in the title role) and Gigi Isaac (as supportive friend Jess) build some impressively authentic characters by the time the closing credits roll. The dialogue sometimes reads like talking points in a tolerance-promotion campaign, but the script manages to avoid feeling cliché by telling its story in an appropriately nontraditional way. Skye’s tolerant attitude and the legitimate potential shown by the students involved make it one of the most encouraging San Antonio-set films I’ve seen. — Jeremy Martin
Screens Saturday, February 6, as part of the free San Antonio Student Film Showcase, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.