The Philadelphia Latino Film Festival: independent latino vision

Independent cinema thrives in Philadelphia. Many films come through the city by way of the Philadelphia Film Society and the cinemas in Old City. Philadelphia Film Society has its annual festival in October and international, national and local films are shown, some of which continue to receive prizes and acclaim in larger festivals. PFS recently bought the Roxy and the Prince Theatres, which gives them a permanent space to screen. The three Ritz cinemas in Old City regularly present independent films and have 11 screens, but these venues tend to show films with larger budgets and from more experienced filmmakers.

The Latino Film Festival offers another option. This year, it presents its fourth film festival at the Caplan Recital Hall at the University of the Arts on Broad Street. The festival includes discussions, films, receptions and live performances. Highlights of the festival include the film The Liberator about Gran Colombia’s Simón Bolivar, Canción de barrio, which is a documentary from contemporary Cuba, and the discussion  Filmmaking for Social Change. 
Although Simón Bolivar originally was from Caracas (in the provincia of Venezuela while under Spanish rule), he led a revolution that resulted in the creation of a new republic, Gran Colombia, which lasted from 1819-30. It included the modern day countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panamá.

Bestia de Cardo  was the first film show in the festival at 1:00 pm on June 20, 2015. I attended this screening and was excited to see a film from the Dominican Republic, since I had never seen one. Virginia Sanchez Navarro is the writer and director, and also stars as “Moira,” the protagonist. The story focuses on a young Dominican woman who leaves the island to study in New York and her very specific issues with her family and the local high society. It is obvious from the film that the writer/director has a theatre background. While watching, I felt from the beginning, the strong theatrical influence, with interior monologues, soliloquies, the emphasis on the darkness and very quick scene changes. The plot was quite strong but it depends a lot on symbolism, which is sometimes harder to depict on the screen than on stage. The overuse of dark scenes (nearly the entire film) was exhausting to the viewer, and the uni-lateral perspective from the protagonist forced the viewer into her gaze, even though the protagonist was not a very sympathetic character. I think that these strategies would have been amazing in a stage play but made for an uncomfortable movie going experience. (Perhaps this was the filmmaker’s intention and I am curious to see what the reaction will be from a wider audience).

The meaning of it all becomes clear at the end of the film, but it is a long road to get there, in which the audience may be perplexed and frustrated at times, trying to make sense of it. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant and poignant story and you do feel something for Hermes and Moira. And it is, after all, a first film. It takes time to develop a style and also a budget! With a larger artistic team (and a separation between actor and director–directing and acting in the same movie is something that is quite difficult to accomplish even for the most experienced of filmmakers), cinematography can be further developed to bring out the strengths of the medium to support the story.

I was looking forward to hearing from the director herself about some of these choices, as she was scheduled to give a question and answer after the screening. But unfortunately, she was unable to leave the Dominican Republic and had to cancel. Although unintentional and a disappointment, this was ironic since it parallels  Bestia de Cardo. We’d just watched a fictional feature film in which the main character constantly struggles to leave behind (either physically or mentally) the hypocritical high society of her town in the Dominican Republic. Still enveloped in the aura and ambiance of Bestia de Cardo, it almost seemed fitting and definitely pardonable that the director, who also starred as “Moira”, would somehow be thwarted in leaving the country to escape to Philadelphia.

The Fourth Annual Philadelphia Latino Film Festival continues this weekend. Don’t miss it or these independent latino films, the discussions and the performances. Check the website for more information: http://www.phlaff.org/

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