19 years after first being founded, the San Diego Latino Film Festival (March 8-18) is returning to its roots: Celebrating films made by Latino filmmakers in the United States. “The 19th Annual San Diego Latino Film Festival is unique this year because our country of focus is the United States,” said spokesperson Glenn Heath. “We will be highlighting films that document the U.S. Latino experience, through both shorts and feature length films.” That’s exactly what Ethan van Thillo had in mind when he founded the festival almost 20 years ago.
He said his goal was to promote Chicano and Native American student cinema, giving unknown filmmakers their first chance to screen their works to a wider audience. Back then the festival was very small, had a miniscule budget, and it was called Cine Estudiantil. Chicano/Latino and Native American Student Film and Video Festival. Much has evolved in Latino cinema since that time. This year, over 160 films will screen and 200,000 people are expected to attend the ten-day fest.
Among the U.S. Latino films to be showcased in the festival are “America,” about a Puerto Rican woman who goes to New York to escape an abusive relationship; “Mosquita y Mari,” where two L.A. teenagers form a strong friendship, and “Under My Nails,” the story of a woman obsessed with the sexual practices of her neighbors. There will also be a special celebration of Latino actors on television, with guests like Rafael Amaya, Claudia Bassols, and Michael DeLorenzo. There's an explosion of Latino films being made in this country, Van Thillo said.
“There are more Latino movies, made by Latino filmmakers and more people interested in Latino cinema,” he added. It's thanks to this increased awareness that the festival has been able to create blocks of movies classified by themes, something that would have been impossible in years past. “I wouldn't say we're the most important Latino film festival in the country, but we have improved our quality year after year,” Van Thillo said.
One of the festival's goals is to expose local audiences to the international talent that exists in Latin America. With the nominations of Latino filmmakers at the Oscars and the Golden Globes, Latino cinema is experiencing an international boom. “We're seeing the fruits of many years of work promoting the cinema of many countries,” van Thillo said. This along with the interchange of creative and technical talent among Spanish-speaking countries, is creating a vast array of films with different accents, different realities and different cultures. A unique element to this year's festival is the New Chilean Directors Showcase, an exciting and vibrant medley of films that represents the diversity of perspectives that country has to offer.
Just like Latino cinema has evolved, the taste for Latino films among San Diegans has also evolved.
“Twenty years ago, the term ‘Latino cinema’ wasn’t in anybody’s vocabulary in San Diego, except among some researchers and artists,” Van Thillo said. “Now I think that thanks to the festival it has become an annual tradition for many people. I think the public in general has learned to appreciate more international cinema. People now feel comfortable watching a film with English subtitles.