BOOKS & THE CULTURE I BY JOSH ROSENBLATT The Man Behind the Vistas Film Festival ‘The fight is different today than it was back then … but there’s still a fight.’ 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 historyincluding 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 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. “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 civilrights 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 diningroom 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 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 8, 2006
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