Mexicans Take Over Fashion Island
On Friday, Luis Valdez, the legendary filmmaker (Zoot Suit, La Bamba) and founder of the famed Teatro Campesino, stood under the big tent of the Island Hotel's Palm Room and told stories -- of arrests, pachucos, stormy days and heydays. He reminded the crowd that once upon a time when he was a kid, sitting in a movie theater if you were brown was punishable by law. Boisterous and in-your-face truthful, Valdez implored the crowd - a mix of filmmakers, novela actors, television writers, documentary film producers and actors who had gathered for the National Association of Latino Independent Producers conference -- to keep it real and keep at it. He told them to do like his mentor and collaborator "CC" (as his mom affectionately called Cesar Chavez) had done, and "make something out of nothing."
The new "something", by the looks of some of the films being screened and discussed at the conference, is marked by unpredictable pan-Latino narratives that span everything from the trials of a Puerto Rican Muslim rapper in Philadelphia (New Muslim Cool); to the sexual awakening of an intersex teen in Argentina (XXY) and the story of a young man who works in Mexico as a day-laborer by having his nervous system plugged into remote robots in the U.S. (Sleep Dealer).
First hatched by a group of frustrated Latino producers, educators, actors and execs from both coasts in 1999, NALIP today is a hefty, savvy force -- part Sundance Institute (for its success as an incubator of young filmmakers, writers and producers) and part National Association of Hispanic Journalists (networking, job hunting, connecting with funders and networks -- with djs and tequila on the side -- are all part of the game). It's the only organization of its kind for Latino filmmakers, producers, actors, and the like.
"I'm not really suprised that it's lasted," says Ligiah Villalobos, a film producer (Under The Same Moon) and television writer who sits on the NALIP board, "I'm surprised at the enormous improvement from the first day. A lot of times you're dealing with people that just have complaints about their situation in the industry, so it doesn't become that productive to be with people who are just complaining. What has been great for the last five years is that that is almost not even allowed...It's really about encouraging people, being a support to members, rewarding people that are doing well."
The networking parties -- cocktail hours where post-workshop conversations were aided by free-flowing tequila and (thankfully) peppered by only a handful of would-be actresses slip sliding around in slinky dresses -- were easy and lively. The multiple workshops (film case studies, funding strategies, trailer critiques, a look at media's social role) led by independent filmmakers and execs from PBS and HBO, and the awards gala, all seemed worth their while for the folks who had traveled far to attend, and for the many who were attending their fourth, fifth or sixth conference.
"We needed to stay in touch with every community where Latinos were working," says Galan, of the effort to keep regional programs and chapters alive and active over the years. "You do better work when you're not alone." Efforts in the past to do such a thing, she says, had fallen appart because they were always volunteer-run whereas NALIP maintains a paid, active staff to run the organization. The other side of the organization's work, one not immediately visible at the conference, is the advocacy role it plays in Washington. "We put together a coalition of major Latino civil rights organizations...each one has something to say and wants to have an impact in the media," Galan says, "Media affects all of the work that we do."
As industry execs traded cards with would-be and fledgling filmmakers in hallways and after workshops (and after the parties were over), the sentiment Valdez expressed on Friday seemed surprisingly palpable throughout the weekend in an industry that isn't usually associated with kind, earthy pragmatism: "Stay independent people. Keep your heart...You've got to maintain your soul and your relationship to reality."