One result of the recent multiplex building boom is that there are now more movie screens than gunshops in San Antonio. That, however, does not mean more movies. If you want to see The Matrix at a theater near you, the theater is nearer than ever, and it is likely to be offering that hit on more than one screen. But if you want to see a foreign, independent, or nonfiction feature, or almost anything longer than a trailer but shorter than an hour, you are probably either out of luck or out of town. Two huge national chains dominate the local market, and here, as elsewhere, programming decisions, made far away in corporate headquarters, are driven by grosses not delicacies. Of the eight Academy Award contenders for either best documentary feature or best documentary short for 1998, only one, The Last Days, was shown in a commercial theater in greater San Antonio. Truly greater cities offer wider options.
In 1962, Michael Harrington’s book The Other America startled thousands of middle-class readers with revelations about a shadow society of 50 million Americans who did not share the country’s affluence. In 1992, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center began an annual film and video festival designed to illuminate Americas made other by differences of race, religion, language, gender, sexual preference, class, and ideology. By 1997, the Other America Film Festival had grown into a nine-day event held at venues throughout San Antonio. The Esperanza serves as an umbrella organization for a variety of progressive groups, but in 1998 City Council rained – or micturated – right through it. Outraged by the Esperanza’s support for gay cultural projects, the City of San Antonio withdrew all municipal arts funding from the center, and the Other America Film Festival was canceled.
This year it has returned, with a diminished budget (between $10,000 and $15,000) patched together from various non-government sources, including a Rockefeller grant. Reduced to five days (April 7-11) the Festival still managed to screen
seventy-three entries (forty-four of them by women) at seven locations. Also scheduled was a panel discussion, “Mujeres and their Millennial Musings,” with seven women filmmakers. Ranging in duration from thirty-five seconds to 156 minutes, the Other America entries offered local audiences visions seldom dreamt of in Hollywood. According to festival coordinator Vida Mía García, Other America’s purpose is “to recognize and legitimize perceptions by communities that are ordinarily marginalized.”
This year’s Other America menu of fiction features included: Naturally Native, an amiable story, directed by Jennifer Farmer and Valerie Red-Horse, of three sisters who market American Indian cosmetics; Drylongso, Cauleen Smith’s drama about a young black woman who challenges violence and sexism by compiling photographic documentation of endangered young black men; Melting Pot, Tom Musca’s earnest comedy about a black vs. Latino race for Los Angeles City Council; and La vida es silbar, in which Fernando Pérez depicts the interlocking lives of three contemporary Cubans. But some of these seemed too pious in their otherness, not nearly as effective as the nonfiction productions in the series. It would be difficult to invent a plot as compelling and appalling as Haitian history or the struggle in Chiapas, and the best of the festival entries directly hold up a mirror to the vanities and vexations of social realities.
An amazing Other America of turbans and tortillas is revealed in Roots in the Sand, Jayasri Majumdar Hart’s documentary about farming men from Punjab, primarily Sikhs and Muslims, who came to California’s Imperial Valley at the turn of the century and, despite anti-Asian sentiments and regulations, stayed, thrived, and married Mexican field workers. The story is told largely through the testimony of their prosperous descendants, who now feast on Christmas dinners of curried turkey and roti. In the cinematic essay Treyf, Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky, companions who met at a Passover seder, ponder their unkosher experiences in New York and Israel as Jewish lesbians. Treyf is the Yiddish word for unkosher, and, as one of them notes, “To be treyf is to be an outsider.”
But nothing in the Other America series was more of an outsider to mainstream Texas sensibility – or to the very definition of a festival about alternative Americas – than Overstay, Ann Kaneko’s lingering look at the lives of foreign workers in Japan, gaijin from Brazil, Iran, Pakistan, Peru, and the Philippines who are never entirely assimilated into the host society. Conditioned by stereotypes of the quintessentially corporate culture, American viewers might marvel at the complaint, made by a Pakistani immigrant, that the Japanese are excessively individualistic. But though the Asian island nation is so other it is not America, familiar problems with illegal immigration and mutual misperceptions of minorities and majorities earned the piece a place in this festival about Others.
Lourdes Portillo is best known for her 1985 study of the aftershocks of state terror in Argentina, Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Her latest work, which received its Texas premiere here, explores an America closer to home. Unlike the movie melodrama Selena (or, presumably, Selena the Musical, which is scheduled to open in San Antonio in the fall, on its intended way to Broadway), Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena is an attempt to analyze an icon, to understand how and why the late Latina singer became such an inspiration to so many. “That’s not a model I would want for a young woman,” snarls author Sandra Cisneros, about the unschooled entertainer tutored from an early age to market her sexuality. But members of the Quintanilla family and dozens of fans, even idolators, help create a largely sympathetic portrait of the slain celebrity. Selena’s assassin, Yolanda Saldivar, however, is depicted entirely from the outside, as an ugly duckling with delusions of power and glamour, and the film makes little effort to place Selena’s career within the context of Tejano music culture.
An icon of a different sort is the United States Army School of the Americas, the camp at Fort Benning, Georgia, to which repressive regimes from throughout the hemisphere send military and police personnel for training in how to harm their own citizens. Directed by Robert Richter and narrated by Susan Sarandon, Father Roy: Inside the School of the Assassins exposes the human rights abuse fostered by the school – in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in Latin America. The film celebrates the stubborn courage of Roy Bourgeois, who became a Maryknoll missionary after serving as a naval officer in Vietnam. Father Roy has spent more than three years in federal prison as a result of his crusade to close down the School of the Americas, while none of its murderous graduates has been imprisoned or even tried. Though completed in 1997, the film is as timely as the imminent annual battle in Congress to defund the S.O.A.
Rezistans was also made in 1997, but the continuing crisis in Haiti has not bleached the blood from its frames. Directed by Katharine Kean, it is an extensive, impassioned polemic about what went wrong with the Caribbean island that was the site of the first successful slave revolt in the Americas. Kean focuses on the popular forces that brought President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1990 and the violent coup that drove and kept him away. We follow the work of Antoine Izmery, a wealthy, engaging businessman committed to fostering genuine democracy, until his brazen assassination, captured on camera, in 1993. Noam Chomsky advances a credible claim that media coverage of the misery in Haiti has served corporate interests more than the truth. Rezistans suggests that Izmery, like thousands of other Haitians, is the victim of a brutal oligarchy that conducts its reign of terror with the collusion of operatives from the U.S. government.
The risk for any festival dedicated to exploring otherness is a tendency merely to cultivate the exotic. As an antidote to sameness, the Other America Film Festival strives mightily to offer unfamiliar images: of the nether reaches of Argentina in Patagonia, directed by Dan Boord and Luis Valdovino; of an indigenous rebellion in Mexico, in Nettie Wild’s A Place Called Chiapas; of a traditional ceremony of the indigenous Taino Areito people of the Caribbean, in Gypsie A. Runningcloud’s ethnographic record Gua Areito Bia Gua Hebeyono: Our Songs for Our Ancestors; of Singaporean lesbians relocated in California, in Madeline Lim’s Sambal Belacan in San Francisco; and of the Lebanese civil war, in Walid Raad’s The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs. After five days of concentrated exposure to all this, a viewer might well come away with either a spurious sense of encyclopedic consciousness or else a bad case of cultural vertigo. Yet disorientation disrupts the Orientalisms of an imperialist mind. The Other America Film Festival makes it hard to accept the single take of the multiplex. The beginning of wisdom is a recognition that the world beyond the self is something else. An important local showcase of alternative cinema is back and bold.
Steven G. Kellman is the Ashbel Smith Professor of Comparative Literature at U.T.-San Antonio.