The Power of Ten

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From a renovated church in East Austin, its bright offices lined with posters of exotic foreign films, Eugenio del Bosque presides over a rare marriage—an arts festival and outreach program for struggling schoolchildren that is proving to be a lasting union.

Cine Las Americas started in 1997 as an organization dedicated to bringing Cuban movies to Austin audiences, introducing overlooked Latino voices to an otherwise film-friendly town.

It has grown into a successful festival in its own right and along the way paired up with Austin schools to develop educational and mentoring programs aimed at cutting down dropout rates for minority students.

The independent nonprofit reaches the cusp of its 10th anniversary at a particularly vibrant time for Latino cinema with three films by Mexican directors—Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel, and Alfonso Cuaron’s The Children of Men—commanding widespread attention.

Channeling films to commercial success is not the primary goal of Cine itself, but del Bosque, who was born in Mexico City and studied in Monterey, sees the films as welcome evidence that Latin artistic voices are spreading, perhaps in some part thanks to the festival’s nurturing. “Business is important, generating certain markets, selling out houses night after night,” says del Bosque, who started as a volunteer with Cine several years ago and now serves as executive director.

This year’s weeklong festival runs from April 19 to 26. (The roster of films had not been released at press time but will be available on the group’s Web site, www.cinelasamericas.org.) The event has grown from its roots in Cuban film, becoming a wider celebration of Latino cinema.

When Cine began with support from Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum, “we were young, on fire, and we jumped into it with balls-out energy,” recalls Celeste Quesada, a founder along with Lara Coger.

Many artists were starting to realize the potential of digital cameras, and “it had suddenly become easier to document stories and lives,” says Quesada, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in studio art and photography. The digital revolution coincided with growing interest in Latino subjects. “Before Selena came out, there were no Latinos on screen,” she says. Most Latinos in movies or on television played maids or gangsters. But Latin representation was changing, and keeping up with this shift meant creating a showcase for the resulting films.

Cine was an immediate success and began gathering sponsorships and staging promotions so it could stay around. Quesada sought help from writer and activist David Rice. He brought to bear his experience in educational research and community development from working with the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development in South Texas. Rice insisted that he wasn’t going to get involved if Cine wasn’t about education, about keeping kids in school and getting them to college. “This had to be about more than movies. This had to be outreach, sanctuary, opportunity,” says Rice, who has chaired Cine’s board of directors for five years.

In 2001, Cine became a nonprofit and launched the second half of its effort. Partnering with the Austin Independent School District, it helped establish a Media Arts Center at Johnston High School, which has more than 80 percent minority enrollment, in East Austin.

Cine set up offices in a classroom and started programs aimed at propping up the district’s dropout prevention campaign. More than 100 students participated in music and dance programs during lunch periods and after school hours. Every student who took part worked in what was essentially an intern-level position, lending their youth and talent to Cine’s project. Starting with the fifth festival, students started helping screen and judge films, proofread programs, write grant applications, and most everything else associated with the festivities. An organization booklet describes the students as “the heart of our organization,” keeping Cine focused on what is “really important.”

Cine now works with an average of 170 students a year from Johnston and other campuses around town. Dozens of students involved with Cine are now in college. “You have to be patient,” Rice says. “You don’t get results immediately. The whole idea is just to plant some seeds. You whisper, and you hope your guidance takes root.” Its emphasis on helping kids has cost Cine access to funds from some sponsors—like liquor companies—that help underwrite other film festivals. “There is a lot of private money that can come into a more consumer-based film festival but at that point, our first priority was the children,” Quesada says.

cine las americas logo

The festival itself has grown, bringing in works from the United States, Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Canada, and Chile, among other countries. “A lot of festivals don’t incorporate all these voices,” del Bosque says.

Cine Las Americas searches for works that have been suppressed or ignored, especially indigenous voices, providing venues for powerful pictures about Inuit and Navaho cultures, love stories in Cuba, or the stop-motion, animated dream world of an Argentine boy who fantasizes about visiting Mars.

The films run the celluloid gamut: comic, experimental, traditional narratives, as well as works that lean toward agit-prop but are typically high-minded. This may have less to do with the actual jury selections and more to do with the nature of Latin cinema. “We used to have a reputation as ‘the tearjerker’ event,” del Bosque says, with serious subjects, heavy story lines, and a fair dose of politics. “Film is so expensive in these countries, and so directors say why mess around, why not make films that matter?”

Past films have focused on such subjects as deported Austin boxer Jesus Chavez and the flooding of Mapuche villages in Chile by a Spanish-owned power company. Recent immigration policies and debates have greatly affected the type of films now being produced. “We have had to turn down works because they were so alike, films that were about border crossing, not just into the Unites States, but into Mexico, into Spain, Chile, Argentina,” del Bosque says. “It’s on everyone’s mind.”

In 2004, Cine accepted a horror film, Rooms for Tourists, from first-time feature director Adrian Garcia Bogliano. It was not typical festival fare. Director of Programming Jacqueline Rivera (born in Puerto Rico and a graduate of Antioch College) says the movie was disturbing and yet obviously commercial; it was chosen purely on its style and cinematic strengths, and immediately won distribution, “and now you can get it on Netflix.” This doesn’t happen all the time, but the goal of marketing to a wider audience is inherent in Cine’s project. “If these films aren’t getting distributed, then we are not doing our job,” del Bosque says. And it is a job. Cine Las Americas has three full-time workers, who spend their days and nights edging toward the festival, and has a volunteer staff of 30.

The international aspects of Cine may overshadow its local significance, working with the bright and talented children of the city. They not only help stage the festival, but have access to an ever-growing media library and guest speakers such as Mexican American film director Lawrence Toledo and boxing champion Jesus Chavez. Both were brought in to mentor and motivate the students. Cine showcases films from youth groups and individuals in the festival’s Celebration of Emerging Filmmakers. The films are made by young directors, and the celebration is produced by participating Johnston students.

Typically the festival focuses on a particular director’s oeuvre and showcases exciting new talent. Cine has brought in such important international figures as Arturo Ribstein—the artist widely considered Luis Buñuel’s successor—and Carlos Bolado, who started as a film editor and has become an artist of introspective meditations on history and place, with films such as Baja California: El Limite Del Tiempo and Solo Dios Sabe.

Cine Las Americas is growing, and del Bosque admits he does not know what shape the future will take, because the festival and the school program are collaborative efforts.

The tenacity of Cine doesn’t just cultivate an audience for this kind of art, but demonstrates a popular taste for these movies. “If there is a unifying theme, it is surprise,” del Bosque says. “People don’t know we are around, that these films are available.”

Quesada, who has worked for the New York Latino Film Festival and the BBC since leaving Cine, is of course delighted with its success. “Cine was my baby for six-seven years,” and to see it move in this direction “is like watching your child,” she says.

Roberto Ontiveros is a freelance writer living in New Braunfels.

Roberto Ontiveros is an artist, critic and fiction writer; his work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Threepenny Review, the Dallas Morning News, and others.