New York City is great in that being a melting pot of so many different immigrant and minority communities, the city often gives rise to new and exciting cultural movements that eventually have an impact upon America’s mainstream consciousness.
I am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t even been aware of the existence of the NY International Latino Film Festival until late last year (the festival is now in its eighth year). Because smaller, regional, and often less prestigious film festivals often beget mixed results-- many of which are not always a pleasure to watch-- I wondered what caliber of work to expect from this particular venue. Moreover, despite the fact that I was a Spanish major in college, I unfortunately hadn’t been tapped into the Latino film scene for quite some time-- even less so that of the indie movement that has been burgeoning amongst the Latino film community in New York for the last few years. My only clue as to what the festival might hold was a little gem-- written, produced, and directed by my friend Tony Valles and his brother Jaime-- called, Casi Casi, which had had its New York premiere at the NYILFF back in the summer of 2006.
A light-hearted, teen-caper comedy, Casi Casi is neither representative of nor does it go against any of the current trends in Puerto Rican cinema, namely because up until this point, there really hadn’t been a significant body Puerto Rican cinema of which to speak. Until the Valles brothers’ project came along, the Puerto Rican film industry had been mostly limited to producing just a handful of politically-driven and moralistic films each year. Meanwhile, Tony and Jaime, both children of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, grew up watching such American teen cult classics as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club. Determined to make up for the glaring absence of the teen comedy genre in Puerto Rican cinema, Tony and Jaime set out in 2005 to make their own movie, which would speak to Puerto Rican youth. And indeed, this little indie hit about the misadventures of a group of middle-class, Puerto Rican teens trying to escape the wrath of their formidable principal has proven to appeal to audiences across all age groups. The film was an official selection of numerous Latino film festivals throughout the United States in 2006, including the San Diego Latino Film Festival, where Casi Casi won the Audience Award. In October of 2007, the movie aired on the HBO Latino channel and was subsequently kept on HBO’s regular roster of rotating On-Demand films for a number of weeks.
I first viewed Casi Casi on DVD in the privacy of my own home. While the film isn’t necessarily the most complex stylistically or compositionally (its set-design and mis en scene are pretty bare bones) it nonetheless boasts a smartly-written script, fairly polished and fluid editing, and features a cast of winning, young, first-time actors whose exuberance emanates through every frame. The directors also cast an affectionate gaze upon the lovely city of San Juan, where both Tony and Jaime grew up. Impressive is the fact that Casi Casi was the directors’ first foray into filmmaking ever. (The Valles brothers come from a theatrical and operatic background.) In fact, neither Tony nor Jaime had ever even operated any of the equipment they used to film and edit their project until a scant few weeks before production began (talk about DIY!). Thus, their achievement has been all the more extraordinary given the film’s relatively widespread mainstream success-- a boon to all native Puerto Rican filmmakers for whom exposure is highly coveted yet has often been elusive.
This year, I was able to attend a few programs at the NYILFF and found myself continually surprised by the level of passion, originality of vision, and production values of so many of the films there. No small feat, considering that the majority of works I caught were shorts. Indeed, based solely upon the caliber of talent on display at this year's festival, there can be no mistake that Latino filmmakers working in the U.S. are currently on the rise. Even more compelling still is the overwhelming sense of community that seems to pervade the scene, an esprit de corps that explains why so many of the directors at every screening seemed to know one another. It soon became apparent that many in attendance at the festival had at one point or another worked on another director's crew, or at the very least had worked with several of the same actors. One very much got the feeling that the NY-based Latino film community is not only a network of business associates, but is in fact a space in which artists who share a common language and diaspora are able to share in a specific cultural dialogue that perpetuates artistic growth.
The first film I saw was second-time director Nestor Miranda’s feature comedy, The Startup. A bit of a mad-cap, screwball affair, The Startup is at its core a story about the coming of age-- via one of the worst thought-out sociological experiments ever. In an attempt to finally strike out on their own, three bumbling friends from Queens set up house in a ramshackle brownstone in Harlem, only to realize too late that their limited financial resources won’t be nearly enough to cover the bills. Ben (played by Rafael Sardina), the most responsible and only one of the trio who is actually employed, leaves on a business trip and returns a week later to find that things in the house have changed. A lot. In order to generate a source of income, Ben’s friends Will (Ramon Rodriguez) and Rick (Steven Leon) have turned their house into an international youth hostel-- for which they have no license, no staff, no experience, and no apparent sense of responsibility. Despite his initial misgivings, Ben quietly agrees to let his friends continue renting out beds when he sees how profitable the ill-conceived venture might be. But what neither he nor his friends are prepared for is just how involved running a legitimate business (even one without a license) can be. Things only become more complicated when a young boy named Reymond (played by the irrepressible Reymond Witmann) is abandoned at the hostel by his negligent mother.
The Startup doesn’t claim to be any more than what it intends to be-- that is, indulgently silly and playful entertainment. Considering how the recently christened “mumblecore” movement-- which is partially yet ostensibly characterized by its predominantly white, middle-class casts-- has so inundated the indie film scene with angst-ridden, overly-serious, sometimes overly pretentious films about twenty-somethings trying to “find their way,” it’s refreshing to see a film about the quarter-life experience told from a different perspective (one that is more spontaneously comical at that). The Startup has no aspirations of social weight other than by virtue of the fact that it is performed entirely by an all-minority cast and was made entirely outside of the Hollywood system. This is not to say that the film is without its flaws: with three main characters-- each with his own individual storyline to develop-- and all the zany antics of new characters who are constantly being introduced, Miranda at times lets the structure of the film slip, lapsing into moments that are neither crucial to the plot, nor are they always that funny. Nevertheless, the film’s immensely likable cast prove to be the film’s greatest assets, without whom our suspension of belief would be impossible. (The Startup’s real breakout stars are Rodriguez and Aro Sanchez, both of whom turn out energetic and endearing performances.)
The second film worth mentioning is “Hero the Great,” a short that might be considered The Startup’s sister film if only because its writer/director, Juan Caceres, served on the producing team for the latter project. In “Hero,” our attention is focused solely upon the daily travails of a young boy living with his maternal grandmother in what looks to be the Lower East Side. The milieu and concept behind the film may be somewhat reminiscent of the 2002 feature flick, Raising Victor Vargas; but the tone, look, and sensibility of Caceres’ work are most assuredly and delightfully original. Whereas Raising Victor Vargas revolves around a teenager blossoming into adulthood, “Hero the Great” is very much about that stage in between adolescence and childhood, when children are only beginning to become aware of themselves as self-realized individuals, yet are still very much children in that they retain their sense of innocence and play. Furthermore, Caceres’ visual style is decidedly rich, drawing from such influences as disparate as Francois Truffaut, Michel Gondry, and Spike Lee. The director does an extraordinary job directing his actors: Dennis Torres, who is mature beyond his years in the title role, and once again Reymond Witmann, this time re-incarnated as Hero’s rather puckish, cheeky side-kick, Biscuit. Together, this modern-day Quijote and Panza run, skip, skate, and skulk through Caceres’ verité-styled digital lens and emerge onto the screen as beautifully idiosyncratic, entertaining, and poignantly drawn characters. The film is not so much plot-driven as it is a uniquely rendered portrait of an old soul filtered through the eyes of youth.
Finally, while the majority of other shorts at the festival were all competently made, only one other film truly captured my attention with its brutally visceral visual style and a message as thought-provoking as it is emotionally affecting. Shot on location in black and white 35mm and using non-professional actors, “Primera Comunión” ("First Communion") focuses upon the desperation of a young boy, Eleuterio, and his suffering as the result of society’s capacity for negligence, cruelty, and religious hypocrisy. At the film’s outset, we are immediately plunged into the final moments of Eleuterio’s young life, a frenetically cut montage of images showing the boy lying on the ground, struggling to breathe, interspersed with memories of his family members, both alive and dead. The rest of the film is one long, neo-realistically shot flashback sequence, detailing Eleuterio’s day to day efforts to steal and beg in order to survive. In a mere fifteen minutes, we are able to grasp the totality of Eleuterio’s simple life, comprised mostly of a series of encounters with fellow denizens in his rural Mexican village, as well as the tragic pointlessness of his imminent demise when the film posits the question: who is really to blame for the boy’s hapless fate? Those who would wield a knife against him in order to better their own situation? Or those bystanders (specifically members of the Catholic church) who would deign to lift a finger in order to save him? The director chooses to magnify the film’s dramatic impact by having his principal characters played by children, lending to the final scenes in which Eleuterio is both assaulted and ignored by his peers a categorically chilling effect. Written and directed by Daniel Eduvijes Carrera, a graduate of Columbia's filmmaking program, “Primera Comunión” is one of those rare cinematic debuts which heralds to the world the arrival of an exciting new talent.