Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Latino Film Festival Runs Through March 20

18-Year-Old Event Screens 185 Films Despite Meager Budget

by LEO E. LAURENCE, J.D. • Member, Latino Journalists of California

An army of young volunteers served as the backbone for the 18th annual Latino Film Festival March 10-20 at the soon-to-be-razed UltraStar Cinema complex in the Hazard Center in Mission Valley.

Ticket sales were “comfortable,” said Ethan van Thillo, executive director of the Media Arts Center in North Park, which annually produces the internationally respected, film festival.

While many of the screenings were sold out, overall tickets were running “about the same as last year,” van Thillo said on the festival’s third day.

Several student volunteers served as assistant reviewers, and were provided on-the-scene training by me how to watch a movie as a newspaper reviewer. Their observations provided a young per-spective on the 185 films, mostly in Spanish with English subtitles, ranging from high drama to Cine Gay, a special series devoted to Gay international films.

Vuelve a la Vida

“I’ll give it (only) a B,” said Ramon M. Silva, 23, who assisted in reviewing a Mexican movie, Vuelve a la Vida (Return to Life). Produced in 2010, it’s a documentary that makes a saint-hero out of “Perro Largo” (“Long Dog”), a legendary scuba diver in Acapulco in the 1970’s.

The 72-minute movie was mostly a long series of seated, face-on interviews with beach people who knew the diver, making it a monotonous.

“Documentaries are usually dull and boring,” observed Silva. “There was some humor (in the movie), but after 50 minutes of hearing the same stories over and over, it got a bit boring.

“There was too much repetition. It could have been a good, short film.”

“The producers had to be persistent to get this film,” explained Alan Cruz, 21. “There were no (professional) actors. There was no make-up. There was no lighting.

“This movie happened by accident,” Cruz added.


“The festival has expanded dramatically over the years,” said Ethan van Thillo, executive direc-tor of the Media Arts Center (which produces it), in an exclusive interview with Zenger’s Newsmagazine.

“We are now on four different screens (at the UltraStar Cinemas in the Hazard Center in Mis-sion Valley), each celebrating a different aspect of the Latino community” from life in the barrio to Cine Gay to animation,” says van Thillo.

“Something new this year, we are celebrating the Jewish Latino experience,” with that showcase funded by the Leichtag Family Foundation.

“Of top of that, we have chosen Brazil to be our country of focus. There will be Brazilian films and special Brazilian entertainment. Because of the (global) growth of Latino cinema, we can choose different themes and countries, and really spotlight those,” van Thillo added.

Latino music is highlighted at the festival and strikingly handsome singer/guitarist Gonzalo de la Torre, 34, of San Antonio appeared in person at a recent festival event to promote his new CD, Borderless, which may be available at the festival.

“It’s more mainstream, with a very energetic, ‘dancy’ feel,” observed James Dongegan, 21, a UCSD student and guitarist after hearing the CD. “It’s intense with basic rock chords.”

Festival staff can be reached at (619) 230-1938, by e-mail at, or on-line at

Difficult Problems

“The most difficult part of producing the Latino Film Festival (in the Hazard Center) each year is the budget,” even though “it stays nearly the same each year,” about $250,000, the executive director reported.

That budget “is very low for a ten-day, multi-venue festival,” van Thillo said. About fifty percent comes from corporate support, and the other fifty percent is from ticket sales and other earned income.

Finding staffing to produce the enormous event is also an annual struggle for the Media Arts Center in North Park, which produces the film festival and dozens of other programs like the Teen Producers’ Project.

Each year trying to find the staff and volunteers who can actually organize the festival is a challenge to van Thillo. “We’ll have well over 100, largely young, volunteers; and nearly 20 independent contractors.

Oddly, the “easiest part of producing the film festival is obtaining the huge selection of films. We will have watched close to 700 films, just to decide on the 185 that we’re screening,” van Thillo explained in our recent interview.

“There’s always a big wealth of great Latino films out there, though they’re not always easy to get and there are challenges,” he said.

Two major movies he wanted, but couldn’t get, were two Mexican films: Abel, directed by the renowned Diego Luna, and No Eres Tu.

Festival staff often runs into problems with marketing operatives involved in the movies, and their strict limits of screenings at film festivals.

Media Arts Center

“The success of the Latino Film Festival allowed us to create the Media Arts Center,” a multi-media facility that recently moved from Golden Hill to North Park (2921 El Cajon Blvd., [619] 230-1938,, van Thillo added.

“The Center has grown and now provides programming throughout the year,” van Thillo explained.

“The Center produces the monthly film series called Cine en tu Idioma from August to Novem-ber, operates the ambitious Teen Producers’ Project and produces digital, audio and visual work-shops at it large facility in North Park.

“Despite the economic crisis, we’ve been able to really connect the Media Arts Center into new avenues and with funding from new partnerships,” van Thillo said.


Student volunteers Alan Cruz, 21 (left) and Ramon M. Silva, 23 at the Latino Film Festival. Photo by Leo E. Laurence.