When Alfonso Cuarón won the Best Director Oscar for his groundbreaking work in "Gravity" earlier this year, he not only made history by becoming the first Hispanic filmmaker to win an Academy Award for directing—he also cemented himself as a gateway artist for American mainstream English-speaking audiences to discover lesser known avenues of Latin American cinema; a whole new wave of moviegoers are now going to back into his filmography, and will discover titles and themes from a different cultural context (namely a vision that isn’t the direct by-product of Hollywood). Cuarón’s roots are in the fiercely independent Mexican cinema movement, especially highlighted by his earlier films "Sólo Con Tu Pareja" and "Y Tu Mamá También", and the Latin American cinematic discourse as a whole has been flourishing at a rapid pace in the years since his 1991 feature film debut. Which is why the 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival takes on even more precedence this year. Spanning from April 3rd through April 17th in downtown Chicago, the CLFF continues its march forward with curating a truly diverse program that ranges from semi-mainstream commercial films to more humble, micro-budget independent films from all of the Latin Americas and Spain. Here’s a preview of some of the films at the year’s fest:
Finally, there’s Costa Rica’s "Agua Bendita (Holy Water)", which looks at the displaced Nicaraguans who live in a small village within the Costa Rican border, after fleeing the Sandinista Revolution. Shot on what looks to be the Panasonic AG-HVX200 camera, "Agua Bendita" almost looks like a Dogme 95 (the avant-garde style created by Lars Von Trier) film, with its handheld camera movements, use of the location’s natural light and its genre-less tone. But this movie wasn’t shot on 35mm film. Still, it plays out like Von Trier’s "Dogville", in that it looks closely and purely at the inhabitants of a community and their struggle with a coming crisis. In "Dogville", Nicole Kidman’s character was on a run from the mob and therefore she introduced chaos into that town; in "Agua Bendita", a pending drought will put these villagers in serious depravity, with the possibility of fatal results, unless they can successfully bring an affordable aqueduct to the village. Jumping back and forth between the villagers’ own testimonial asides and the “story” playing out, "Agua Bendita" emerges as a message movie—but a potent one. Living in a great city like Chicago, with Lake Michigan as a massive water resource, it can be easy to dismiss or even be unaware of a larger portion of the world’s struggle to gain access to drinking and cleaning water. In "Agua Bendita", the vitality of water is re-contextualized for the eyes of American viewers. There is a key scene between two children that stresses this. As a little boy prepares to kill an insect, a young girl advises: “It’s better if you let it go.” The boy responds: “With so many [insects], I don’t think that for one the world will end.” The girl then says: “No. But if you get this you will always want to get more.” It’s that kind of moment that will have viewers studying the theater’s bathroom sinks closely while they wash their hands after the film’s festival screening.
It’s the kind of eye-opening worldly view that Chicago Latino Film Festival has consistently brought back to our attention, year after year.