Sixth Annual Latino International Film Festival

REVIEW by Willard Manus

The recently concluded sixth annual Latino International Film Festival has become a high-profile Southland cultural event. From its humble birth as a weekend attraction on a Universal Pictures backlot, the Festival has grown into a ten-day extravaganza at the Egyptian Theatre showcasing approximately one hundred films, plus gala celebrations, panels, lectures and youth programs.

With simultaneous showings in three auditoriums--many of which were sold out--the Festival achieved its most successful year yet, thanks to strong support from the City of Los Angeles and from such key sponsors as Blockbuster Video and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment/Fox Searchlight. The Festival was also strongly backed by LA's Latino community, which not only turned out in the thousands to attend showings and galas but signed up to work as volunteers.

Founded in 1996 by Mariene Dermer, George Hernandez and Edward James Olmos, the Festival soon became an empowering force in the Latino film community. Not only could filmmakers from the USA, the Caribbean, South America, and Spain exhibit their work here, they could meet top Hollywood studio and sales executives.

The 2002 Festival opened with a screening of DE LA CALLE (Streeters), which deals with Mexico City's homeless children. Directed by Gerardo Tort, this powerful and uncompromising social drama was well received by the audience and landed a distribution deal with Fox, which will release it this fall.

Other countries showing feature films at the Festival included Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela and the USA. Many of those countries showed short subjects as well, joined by Columbia and Costa Rica.

Among the outstanding American short films were Michael D. Olmos' THE LAST WINTER, a 26-minute look at the lives of four young people living in a South Bronx housing project; and ROAM (Pasos), Carolina Vila-Ramirez's 14-minute gritty portrait of two young Hispanic brothers trying to survive on the streets of Los Angeles.

Returning home was a common theme explored by numerous feature film directors and writers. In VIDAS PRIVADAS (Private Lives), directed by the Argentian Fito Paez, a woman visits Buenos Aires after twenty years in Europe, ostensibly to be with her dying father, but more importantly to exorcise the personal demons that have been hauanting her. This dark, moody, offbeat drama mixes politics and history with equal portions of kinky sex.

In MIEL PARA OCHUN (Honey For Oshun), Cuban director Humberto Solas' first film in eight years (it took him all that time to raise the $300,000 needed to make it), Roberto returns to Cuba thirty-two years after being abducted by his father and taken by boat to Miami.

He meets his cousin, who has grown into a beautiful but disillusioned woman. A painter, she came in for Party criticism because her work wasn't political and optimistic enough, causing her to give up all artistic dreams and settle for restoration work. Together, she and Roberto set out in search of his mother, joined by a salty-tongued taxi driver who provides hilarious comic relief throughout.

The trio's odyssey takes them from one end of Cuba to another. It's not just a physical but a spiritual journey, one that forces them to come to grips with the tragedy of exile, the complexity of Cuban/American history, their own flaws and confusion. But Solas avoids political pitfalls by emphasizing human values over propaganda.

MIEL PARA OCHUN is a plea for understanding and compassion by all Cubans, whether left or right. Deeply moving, beautifully rendered and acted, the film is a triumph in every respect, a warm, uplifting story that might just help heal the rift between Cubans and Cuban-Americans.