The Man Behind the Vistas Film Festival

In 1990, a 50-year-old attorney, civil-rights activist, and lifelong film fan named Frank Hernandez shut down his law office in East Dallas, borrowed a friend’s 1953 Ford truck, and with directorial visions dancing in his head, drove 1,500 miles to New York City to enroll in the summer filmmaking program at New York University. Hernandez had worked as a lawyer in Dallas for some 25 years and had been involved in some of the most controversial civil rights cases in the city’s history—including the integration of its grand juries and the realignment of its at-large electoral system, both watershed cases. But by 1990 he felt it was time for a change. In a city where nobody knew his name or reputation, and in a class populated almost entirely by 20-year-old kids, he set out to re-create himself as a filmmaker.

A brief trip to Los Angeles after film school cooled his ardor about the prospect of a life spent networking and pitching ideas to Hollywood studio executives. An apprenticeship tweaking scripts and fetching coffee for his friend, producer Kit Carson (Paris, Texas; Bottle Rocket), produced little more than a pleasant distraction and a credit on the much-maligned and long-since forgotten erotic thriller Love Crimes. Today, at 66, Hernandez is still very much involved in the movie world. Instead of making films, he shows them, via the Vistas Film Festival, an annual screening of independent Latino films in Dallas. For the past eight years, Hernandez, his small staff, and a growing band of volunteers have brought films and filmmakers from as far away as Venezuela and Brazil, and screened the films at the upscale Angelika Film Center. Their goal is to highlight Latino culture and involvement in the film arts by providing public exposure for Latino artists and their work.

Presiding over a film festival might seem a stretch for a civil rights lawyer. But Hernandez sees Vistas as his contribution to the civil rights movement. “Films are valuable because they capture what our society loses as we advance,” he says. In life, “you lose cultural traditions, but in film, you don’t.

Frank Hernandez

“The fight is different today than it was back then,” he says, “but there’s still a fight.”

Hernandez doesn’t evoke the gravity of a career civil-rights leader and festival impresario. When I first met him, at his home in the mostly Hispanic Mount Auburn neighborhood of East Dallas, he was dressed in an oversized polo shirt and loose-fitting slacks. In his living room, the shelves were overfilled with books; the dining-room table was covered with CDs and documentary DVDs. Hanging prominently on a hallway wall was a framed T-shirt from George McGovern’s failed 1972 presidential campaign that read “Welcome Back, America.”

Hernandez grew interested in the civil-rights movement as a child in Galveston. As an undergraduate at Texas A&M, he initially planned to become a teacher, but a government class helped him decide that a law career would be a better way to fight discrimination. “If I could change the law,” he says, “I could change your activity. I might not change your thought process, but I really didn’t give a damn if you didn’t like sitting next to me. If you don’t like sitting next to me at the front of the bus, move. But you’re gonna let me sit at the front of the bus. That was my whole attitude.

“As a teacher I can only change so many minds. As a lawyer, all I gotta change is one law. Do that, and you’re changing all the activity in that society.” After graduating from A&M, he enrolled in the law school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Unlike most of us at SMU, Frank knew what he wanted to do from the get-go,” says Darrell Jordan, a lawyer with the Dallas trial firm Godwin Pappas Langley Ronquillo and a former president of both the Dallas and Texas bar associations, who has known Hernandez since their student days. “He always knew he wanted to be a civil-rights lawyer and work for human rights.”

Freshly graduated, in 1964 Hernandez traveled to New York City for a weeklong seminar on civil-rights law sponsored by the NAACP. Back in Texas, he began work on what would be the first in a series of modest legal proposals: integrating Dallas County grand juries.

While filing a motion to quash the indictment of a murder suspect, Hernandez put the Dallas legal system itself on trial. According to a Dallas Morning News account, during the hearing Hernandez subpoenaed some 60 prominent Dallasites to testify whether they had ever seen a minority grand juror. Although his motion was denied and the case went to trial (the defendant was eventually exonerated), Hernandez’s efforts later prompted several Dallas County judges to seek minority grand jurors.

“That’s a big difference, you know, integrating the grand jury,” Hernandez says. “I bet Tom DeLay wishes he had had 10 Republicans on [his].”

Hernandez has become both a political and legal fixture in the Dallas community and a thorn in its side. In 1969 he helped form the Commission on Mexican-American Affairs—better known at the time as the “Dirty Dozen”—a small group of prominent Hispanic businesspeople, doctors, and lawyers who used their status and contacts to change local policy through education, legal work, and a push for greater electoral representation. He helped found the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, in 1971, and the Mexican-American Bar Association of Dallas. He was a vice-president of MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

His work with the League for Educational Advancement and the Tri-County Commission helped lead to the integration of the Dallas Independent School District’s board, and in 1975, Hernandez helped change Dallas’ system of City Council representation from nine at-large voting districts to a single-member system. He says the change resulted in a more equitable political system for minorities and shook the “captains of industry” who made up the old, lily-white Dallas Citizens Council.

In 1999 Hernandez decided that a film festival could help broaden the public’s view of Hispanic life, allowing the legal work he did in the 1960s and 1970s to resonate with Latinos as well as what he calls “majority” culture. Latino culture had changed, as had Latino film, and Hernandez figured people should know about it.

“Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Chicano and Latino cinema really started,” says University of Texas film professor Charles Ramirez-Berg, “it was part of a political movement to educate the country and also educate ourselves as to who we were and why we didn’t have to be ashamed of who we were and what our history was.”

A professor in the university’s radio-television-film department and an expert on Latinos in film, Ramirez-Berg says changing demographics in the United States and improvements in Latinos’ social and political status have altered the role that films play in way Hispanics are perceived. “You could say that the movement succeeded to the point that after a while we didn’t have to tell ourselves that it’s OK to be Mexican-American,” he says. He says this shift in demographics and cultural awareness has resulted in a wider scope of themes and stories. “The films have changed [over the last 30 years],” he says. “They’re less hard-edged and ideological, and, as a consequence, they’ve opened up to a broader audience.”

Many of the films screened at Vistas bear witness to this shift. Maria Full of Grace, The Motorcycle Diaries, and El Crimen del Padre Amaro, the controversial drama about a wayward priest—all crowd favorites at Vistas—typify this trend away from ideologically driven films with clear messages toward more subtle productions with wider appeal. Their commercial and critical success here and abroad, Ramirez-Berg says, proves the growing aesthetic and cultural relevance of Latino films.

Every year the festival’s curators aim to cast the widest possible net across the Latino cinema world: documentaries from Honduras and feature films from Costa Rica, comedies from Spain and tragedies from Puerto Rico, high dramas set in El Salvador during the civil war and bedroom farces set in the parlors and bedrooms of Argentina—all are welcome. According to the festival’s director of special events, Carmen Guzman, films selected represent the widest scope of Latino experience possible, “so we can make sure the Latin community is shown in its totality.

“Frank is very committed to using film as a medium,” Guzman says, “as a vehicle to show the world that Latinos are totally different from what’s being depicted in the small roles they have in Hollywood”—the gangsters, the maids, the migrant workers. For a veteran of the civil-rights battles of the 1960s like Hernandez, the fight to control the means of one’s own cultural production and to change popular misconceptions through the media is as significant and political as any other struggle. Like the integration of the grand jury and the creation of a more equitable electoral system in Dallas, he says, the Vistas festival is a means of “leveling the playing field” and putting control in the hands of the Latino community.

Attendance at the first Vistas festival in 1999 checked in at just under 500, possibly because of its somewhat vague offerings (the lineup included such Latino classics as Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me). Last year, more than 2,000 people showed up over the five-day festival. This year Vistas is featuring an opening-night film by award-winning Spanish director Joaquin Oristrell; a filmmaking workshop with Argentine director and actress Teresa Costantini; and a Raul Julia retrospective. Organizers expect more than 5,000 people.

When Hernandez talks about Vistas, it’s obvious that numbers aren’t his main concern. As the festival grows in size and reputation, and as more corporate sponsors get involved (American Airlines parent AMR Corp. and Jack Daniel Distillery are two of the most prominent this year), he’s made it clear to his colleagues that the festival’s independence is the most important thing: more important than movie stars, than good press, than money. He limits sponsor donations to $2,500.

“I’ll tell you what happens when you let sponsors give you $50,000 or $100,000,” he says. “They’re gonna call you up and say, ‘You know, we don’t think you oughta be showing Tie Me up, Tie me Down. We don’t think you should be showing El Crimen del Padre Amaro,’ [which are] controversial films.

“But we won’t let that happen,” he adds. “We’re an independent film festival. We don’t answer to anybody. We don’t owe anybody.”

Josh Rosenblatt is an Austin-based freelance journalist who frequently writes about the arts. For more information about the Vistas Film Festival, see www.vistasfilmfestival org.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.

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