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31st Chicago Latino Film Festival: Reigniting the Movie-Going Experience

At this year’s Oscars, “Birdman” took home four major Academy Awards, garnering statuettes for its Hispanic film crew in the writing, cinematography, directing and producing departments. Earlier this week The New York Times released a scanned copy of Jeb Bush’s 2009 Miami-Dade County voter application, showing that the probable Presidential candidate listed himself as “Hispanic.” This revelation came on the eve of Chicago’s mayoral election, where Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia gave incumbent Mayor Rahm Emmanuel a run for his money by forcing a Tuesday runoff voting narrative. Finally, according to Variety, next week, Time Inc. will unveil its very first program produced in Spanish (“SOS: Salva Mi Casa”), in an attempt to connect to the growing number of young Hispanic homeowners across the country. In other words, as “Zoolander”’s Mugatu might put it: “Hispanic is SO hot right now.”

All of this Hispanic-centric news in the media just adds to the electricity surrounding the opening night of the 31st Chicago Latino Film Festival in downtown Chicago, Illinois. Once again using AMC River East 21 as its main theatrical exhibition venue, the ever-popular festival runs from April 9th through 23rd, offering the city’s movie-going firmament a deep and rich catalog of feature length, short form and documentary titles.

Anthony Lucero’s USA entry, “East Side Sushi” is a light and delectably satisfying modern day story about Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres), a Mexican fruit cart vendor who tries to break into the male-dominant sushi kitchen industry. After having a violent run-in with some street thugs in East Oakland, California, where her daily fruit cart earnings get stolen, the frustrated and disillusioned Juana takes up employment as a kitchen assistant at a well-respected sushi restaurant. Although the movie sets up predicable dilemmas (Juana’s father pushes back on her embracing of another culture’s food and its business), the film works because Juana is quietly determined and has hardly a rotten bone in her body. Lucero worked as a visual effects editor on Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” back in 2008; like Favreau’s recent film “Chef”, Lucero focuses less on packing in story and more on relishing in the act of cooking. Several enjoyable sequences show sushi being made in medium to close-up shots, sometimes scored to Latin-infused rhythms, and there is satisfaction in seeing that tight-lipped smile emerge beneath Juana’s big curious eyes. Here is a tale that starts off dark and then turns the lights on and zeroes in on the everyday quest to find moments of happiness and purpose. It’s a modest culinary Cinderella story built around the underappreciated street vendors from whom we buy our favorite Hispanic foods on a daily basis.

Taking a turn for the morose is the eulogy-framed Venezuelan documentary “El Silencio de los Moscas” (The Silence of the Flies), directed by Eliezer Arias. Set against the backdrop of the Andes region, Arias’ camera floats throughout the film, often set against voiceover narration, eliciting the sense of loss, especially when it surveys the empty rooms of its rural homes. One of the film’s chilly effects is its staging of its talking head subjects just staring hopelessly into the camera, while their pre-recorded interviews play on the soundtrack. Its thesis is that there is an epidemic of suicides among the youth in the community that could be attributed to many things, including poverty and the effects of cultural globalization. The documentary contemplates on the tragic lives of a few rural families but spends a lot of time on two mothers in particular: Mercedes and Marcelina. Mercedes’ teen daughter Maria Jose hung herself in her bedroom, as part of a suicide pact with another teen “Emo” Maria Elena, whom Mercedes has never met. This leaves Mercedes contemplating what could have driven her daughter to such an act. Suffice it say, there were no shortage of driving factors for the young Maria Jose: she was a victim of attempted rape at a young age and then went through a confusing and depressing stage of questioning her sexuality when she was teased about her body in school. On the other side of town, Marcelina handles her grief in a different manner; rather than talk about her teen daughter Nancy’s suicide in explicit detail, Marcelina chooses to speak about her living children and how they’ve been shaped by their sister Nancy. It’s a different sort of grieving—a more buried and unnerving void in their domestic travails. However, much of the film is spent outside these families’ homes, and Arias makes good use of the Andean locations to elicit the grander scheme of wonder and helplessness. Two shots in particular burned in the memory: one is of personal belongings of passed loved ones tied to various branches of a tree and the other of a photo floating down the water stream. In physicality they are foiled; the tree stands still and the stream keeps flowing, but they both arrive at the same fate. Eventually, the tree will die and those artifacts will fall with it, just as that photo will disappear into the horizon, beneath the unforgiving ripples of water, alluding to that elusive phenomenon of “time.” Try as we may, we can never make time stand still. Our memories are all we have.

And lastly, there is the Nicaraguan drama “La Pantalla Desnuda” (The Naked Screen) from filmmaker Florence Jaugey. It’s important to note that this continually unnerving tale has the payoff of a Neil LaBute film—meaning that if you’re hoping for a character’s comeuppance, you came to the wrong place. Jaugey is obviously into testing the audience’s willingness to see an awful character continually turn the knobs on the people around without having a moment of introspection. That character is Octavio (Roberto Guillén), a poor college student living at home with his single mother and younger brother. Attending college on a scholarship, Octavio shamelessly adores the richer lifestyle of his best friend Alex (Óscar Sinela) and secretly despises Alex’s love and relationship with the beautiful Esperanza (Paola Baldion). One night when Alex and Esperanza are having sex, Alex—in the heat of the moment—pulls his cell phone out to film Esperanza climaxing. The gesture itself is meant to be a shared, kinky artifact for the two lovers. But in today’s high visibility, social media-driven world, sex videos are hardly ever unseen. In Alex’s unfortunate case, Octavio steals his cell phone one night when they’re drunk and he anonymously uploads the video to the Nicaraguan version of YouTube. The film then spends the rest of its running time watching these people continually break apart from each other. The only character to come away unscathed (for the most part) is the creepily diabolical Octavio. There is a powerful statement there, perhaps. Jaugey’s film could be viewed as an allegory to today’s online bullying. These individuals sit in their dark rooms, most of the time going unidentified, creating irreversible, devastating impacts to the real life people outside. Our world is the most connected it’s ever been on a technological level. But in some ways we ourselves have become eerily disconnected from each other.

In the end, these few films hardly scratch the surface of what the Chicago Latino Film Festival has to offer this year. With two weeks of programming, there is plenty to explore. So leave your Netflix at home, and go see a different part of world at AMC River East 21, where the collective movie-going experience can be reignited once more.

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