A Great LA Filmfest on Endangered Species List?

Prakriti Maduro in "Habana Eva."

LA Filmfest Endangered

I was introduced this year to the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, which shines the limelight on Latino filmmakers and cinema, but according to LALIFF Chairman and co-founder, actor Edward James Olmos (Zoot SuitStand and Deliver ), the filmfest may be taking its final curtain call this year. Olmos, who presented each screening I attended during LALIFF’s 14th annual fete, told ticket buyers that there might not be a 15th year because the Festival’s budget has been cut by 55%.

That would be a great pity, because an important cultural institution could be lost to us, and along with it the ability to see numerous entertainment industry panels, dialogues, features, documentaries, animated and live action shorts – many of them foreign — Angelenos might not otherwise have the opportunity to watch (at least not on the big screen). These range from New Children/New York, a doc about the struggles of three aspiring immigrant filmmakers in Brooklyn by director Gisela Sanders Alcantara and screenwriter/producer Lauren Mucciolo, to the remarkable avante garde feature Memories of Overdevelopment, which even more remarkably starred my old Hunter College film school classmate Ron Blair.

Overdevelopment is the sequel to the 1968 Cuban classic Memories of Underdevelopment directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, based on the novel by Edmundo Desnoes. The film is about a Cuban intellectual who – unlike most of his upper class relatives and friends – decides to stick it out and stick around in his native country after Castro’s 1959 revolution in order to see what happens to his country. The feature is notable for its theme of alienation, which contrasted sharply with the so-called “socialist realism” of Soviet and Eastern European cinema (which, I never fail to add, was generally neither socialist or realistic).

"Memories of Overdevelopment."

Ron Blair in "Memories of Overdevelopment."

In 1979, around the time of the Mariel Boatlift (or, as the Fidelistas called it, “Operation Adios Gusanos!”), Desnoes moved to New York, and his novel Memories of Overdevelopment is a sort of sequel to the work he’s best known for. In Cuban director Miguel Coyula’s screen adaptation, the Cuba-born Blair depicts Desnoes’ alter ego, an estranged academic and intellectual who has a penchant for disastrous affairs, collages and existential angst, and lives off of his former glory as a writer of the revolution he no longer believes in.

When we went to Hunter I remember Blair aspiring to be a cameraman, and not a thespian; according to Coyula this is Ron’s first acting role, and he does a good job, as the long suffering, taciturn lead character. As I recall, Blair was actually quite the temperamental artiste, so this was either good acting technique on his part, or he has mellowed over the decades. In any case, I’m very proud of my former classmate and I take my red-starred beret off to him, especially for starring in such an experimental, visually stunning, unusual cinematic work.

However, for the record, I’d like to point out that contrary to Overdevelopment, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of the death of the Cuban revolution and of Fidel are greatly exaggerated. I can remember when Cuba was a pariah in the Yanqui dominated Western Hemisphere and was excluded from membership in the Organization of American States. But – and methinks this is simply a statement of fact, and not an ideological assertion – Cuba and Castro are currently held in higher esteem now throughout Latin America and the Caribbean than at any time since Che and Fidel triumphantly marched out of the Sierra Maestras and into Havana – and the history books. Oliver Stone’s new doc South of the Border about South America’s new left-leaning presidents, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, makes this regional admiration and acceptance of Cuba clear.

LALIFF also screened another feature about (and made on location in) Cuba, co-writer/director Fina Torres’ sexy comedy with liberal doses of magical realism, Habana Eva. The Venezuela-born Torres is quite an accomplished filmmaker, who previously made the 2000 Penelope Cruz pic Woman on Top , 1995’s Celestial Clockwork and 1985’s Oriana. Habana Eva is the tale of Eva (Prakriti Maduro), a Cuban seamstress who has her designs on becoming a haute couture fashion designer, but her entrepreneurial flair and initiative is stifled by a factory bureaucrat in this parable of the dilemmas facing contemporary Cuba under Raul – not Fidel – Castro. Eva is wooed by two lovers – one of them representing Cuban socialism, the other, a Cuban born photographer who lives in Venezuela, symbolizing bourgeois values. Eva’s amusing choice is a prophecy of Cuba’s future in the near future, and a far cry from the revolutionary zeal of Humberto Solas’ famed 1968 Cuban feminist film, Lucia.

“The Storm”

“The Storm”

Like Polynesian vahines, Cuban muchachas were famed for their beauty and sensuality, and Cuban women epitomized the silver screen stereotypes of those “hot Latin lovers.” In Habana Eva Torres seems to be toying with these torrid tropical tropes. But, ideology aside, the problem with this movie is that Eva’s friend Teresa (Yuliet Cruz) outshines her in all of the scenes they appear in together. Teresa is simply sexier, prettier, funnier and more likable and vivacious than Eva (spoiler alert: even when she’s dead and becomes a Fellini-esque Yuliet of the spirits!). Cruz simply steals every scene she graces the screen with her appearance in. When she’s offscreen viewers may make that Shakespearian pleading: “Wherefore art thou Yuliet?” To top matters off, Yuliet Cruz is actually Cuban, while Prakriti Maduro is Venezuelan. The comparison between the two is similar to comparing Natalie Wood as Maria and Rita Moreno as Anita in West Side Story. But this is a quibble; Habana Eva is a rollicking sex farce with great location shooting in Cuba, charmingly sprinkled with magical realist (not socialist realist!) motion picture pixie dust.

The best film I saw at LALIFF was Raymond Telles’ well-made, highly informative documentary The Storm that Swept Mexico. This ambitious film tells the story of the Mexican Revolution, pointing out that it was the first major revolution of the 20th century. And what a thrilling cast of characters: Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and a cast of thousands of bandolero- and sombrero-wearing, horse riding rebels, revealed in vintage film clips and through insightful narration and talking heads (including veterans of the century-old uprising). The two-hour doc is a panoply of Mexican history – the murals, Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! and more are all breathlessly crammed into this saga that stretches from pre-1910 to the brutal suppression of student demos in 1968. All one could say was “Bravo” and “Viva”!

One unique touch brought by the Western Beauty Institute to LALIFF’s filmmakers, sponsors, volunteers and journalists were complimentary haircuts, manicures, makeup, etc., provided by WBI graduating pupils in a hotel room at the nearby Renaissance Hollywood Hotel. I had a relaxing back facial skillfully, expertly administered by a soon-to-graduate student named Jessica. This brilliant marketing idea was the brainchild of WBI’s Creative Director Judi Jordan.

It’s this type of marketing pizzazz that could help save the cash-strapped LALIFF. Film lovers and the creative community should stand and deliver to LALIFF so that it can continue to showcase unusual, offbeat Latino movies. Don’t force Olmos to make Zoot Suit II to finance it out of his own pocket. Viva LALIFF!

The Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival is taking place through August 25 at Mann’s Chinese Theatre and the Egyptian Theatre. For info: (323)469-9066; www.latinofilm.org.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based freelance writer and author of Progressive Hollywood.

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