Notes from the 2014 San Diego Latino Film Festival

Notes from the 2014 San Diego Latino Film Festival by film critic Danny BaldwinSan Diego wouldn’t be one of the first cities that come to one’s mind when thinking of places with vibrant film cultures, nor should it be. Returning to Los Angeles for graduate school has only reminded me what a dearth of cinematic opportunity my hometown offers for a metropolis of its size, with its parade of megaplexes all playing the same thing (there are only three first-run art-houses, all operated by Landmark, and no repertory theaters). Perhaps the old adage that most would rather soak up the sun on the beach than sit in the dark of a theater is true. But whatever the reason, being a cinephile in San Diego can be an epic drag. That’s why the town’s film festivals are so important to maintaining some level of a cinematic presence. And when I say film festivals, I mean the Latino and Asian film festivals and their respective seasonal showcases; the “flagship” San Diego Film Festival hardly counts, with its atrocious programming and party-centric focus.

The San Diego Latino Film Festival takes place every March, and luckily, it coincided perfectly with my spring break this year, so I was able to jet down to America’s Finest City for its 21st annual edition. CityBeat critic Glenn Heath is now the Director of Programming, and thanks to him, the festival slate offered the ideal mix of crowd-pleasers, more obscure fare, and vetted favorites from other fests around the world. Without as much time to burn watching movies as I would have liked, I mostly stuck with the latter category, catching four entries from Mexico and two from Argentina at both of the fest’s two venues, the UltraStar Hazard Center in Mission Valley and SDLFF’s Digital Gym micro-cinema in North Park. Some brief thoughts follow, with the films listed in rough order of preference.

Somos Mari Pepa
The titular teenage band in “Somos Mari Pepa”

Samuel Kishi’s “Somos Mari Pepa” poetically captures the fleeting nature of youth, mixing a tender, dreamlike filmmaking style that clearly establishes the film as a collection of Kishi’s own personal memories with the crude playfulness of its teenage male characters. It’s no small feat that a movie featuring a garage-band whose only “hit” involves the refrain “I wanna cum on your face!” comes across as heartfelt. “Somos Mari Pepa” is a welcome blend of both the now—after all, you couldn’t get away with that lyric in the prime garage-band era—and the nostalgic, understanding that the art of being a teenager hasn’t changed over time so much as the circumstances surrounding it have. This duality comes across in the aesthetic, switching from Kishi’s refined compositions to character-POV handheld shots without a trace of the directorial obnoxiousness that usually marks such a style. The film is also deeply tied to its home country, offering a vision of Mexico that’s not what we see in the news but entirely timely. A-

Armando Espitia and Andrea Vergara star in "Heli."
Armando Espitia and Andrea Vergara star in “Heli.”

In Amat Escalante’s “Heli,” on the other hand, those network-broadcast images of horror emanating from Mexico are regarded as child’s play, replaced with some of the most gruesome sights I’ve seen in a movie in years. The penis-on-fire that became a topic of endless publicity when the film played at Cannes—which I slightly regret mentioning again here, because pigeonholing this as the “penis-on-fire movie” is an insult to a major work of cinema—is only the tip of the iceberg. Some have criticized Escalante’s depiction of the havoc cartels have wrought on Mexico as brutal for brutality’s sake, but I think the filmmaker’s aim is actually much smarter than that. In taking the violence to an extreme level, the filmmaker is jolting the viewer out of their desensitization to graphic media content, pleading them to see the terrors of our world as more than just image-objects. They’re real and painful. I’d also be remiss not to mention the astonishing, wrenching lead performances by Armando Espitia and young Andrea Vergara. A-

Lisandro Rodríguez plays the protagonist dealing with mental illness in "La paz."
Lisandro Rodríguez plays the protagonist living with mental illness in “La paz.”

It’s hard to resist labeling Santiago Loza’s “La paz” as “minor,” and not just because it only runs 73 minutes. This feels like the cinematic version of a novella: compact, clear, concise. Which is not necessarily a bad thing—and it’s probably my own flaw as a viewer that I went in expecting something bigger—but the movie does come across more as a short than a feature. Liso (Lisandro Rodríguez), recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital, is rebuilding his life with the help of medication to keep him from suffering another schizophrenic episode. The film keenly observes the ways various sects of society view mental illness—clearly, not that differently in South America than in the United States—and Rodríguez delivers an effectively internalized performance, intimately captured by director Loza and cinematographer Iván Fund. One could argue that Loza takes the easy way out at the end with the story, although the brooding alternative would have been much worse. I just wanted more of everything. B-

The focal family of "The Amazing Catfish."
The focal family of “The Amazing Catfish”

Winner of the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Discovery Award at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, “The Amazing Catfish” is noticeably the work of a first-time filmmaker. That’s not to say that writer/director Claudia Sante-Luce does a bad job at all—I see the same potential in her that the FIPRESCI jurors did—but the movie is a little too precious and ties together a little too nicely for its own good. That said, given all that could have gone wrong with Sante-Luce’s premise—a lonely young woman with an appendicitis meets a mother dying of AIDS in the hospital and becomes part of her family of four kids—the sincerity of the results are commendable. Lead actress Ximena Ayala is one to watch for a potential American crossover career, and the cast of kids ain’t half bad, either. Sante-Luce also scored a big get in Agnès Godard as her d.p.; even though “The Amazing Catfish” reflects Sante-Luce’s beginner status on a narrative level, it sure looks like the work of a seasoned master. B-

The perils of Guatemala-to-U.S. migration are foregrounded in "La jaula de oro."
The perils of Guatemala-to-U.S. migration are foregrounded in “La jaula de oro.”

I was quite taken with Cannes-vet “La jaula de oro,” co-written and directed by Diego Quemada-Díez (camera operator on Hollywood films as diverse as “Any Given Sunday,” “Man on Fire,” and “Gone in Sixty Seconds”), for the first nine-tenths of its runtime. But a last-minute plot development turns a compelling migrant saga into a statement-picture that’s at best didactic and at worst culturally offensive. Telling a very similar story to 2009’s “Sin Nombre,” about a group of youths travelling from Guatemala via train-top, with cartel gangs endangering them along the way, “La jaula de oro” may lack the filmmaking virtuosity of its Cary Fukunaga-directed predecessor, but it makes up for this in the character department. We become invested in the cast’s journey, until Quemada-Díez screws the pooch by trying to end the film in a way that’s capital-I Important and ends up a laughingstock for it. As such, “La jaula de oro” is hardly worth one’s investment in the first place. C

The servants of "Los dueños"
The servants of “Los dueños”

Finally, Ezequiel Radusky and Augustín Toscano’s “Los dueños” has made some waves on the international festival circuit, but I found its treatment of Argentinian class dynamics to be mostly crude and obvious. The premise is ripe for social commentary: a wealthy family’s country home is usually left unoccupied, or so they think, as their servants actually make good use of the quarters while they’re away. And who could blame said servants—it’s a much more comfortable setup than they can afford. The problem is Radusky and Toscano take the idea in the places you’d predict and have the characters say the things you’d expect, grinding us with the narrative beats rather than focusing on fleshing out the inherent sociopolitical dimension. When the owners find out about what their servants have been doing, and then the servants keep doing it, the movie seems to be hitting us over the head with the same point over and over again. Still, the raw thought provoked by the setup and the decent performances save “Los dueños” from being a complete waste. C

That’s all from me for this year’s event. For more information on the San Diego Latino Film Festival, including the year-round programming at their Digital Gym Cinema, visit