For those would-be directors born in Latin America finding funding for a new production involves applying for dozens of grants provided by their country’s film institute or local government money earmarked for the arts. There’s also European organizations that target filmmakers in the “developing world” and Ibermedia, a consortium of film institutes that support co-productions amongst Ibero-American countries with Spain and Portugal. These funders are rarely concerned with a movie’s commercial appeal and let the director pursue their vision, no matter how wonderfully weird it may be. This new capital-raising system is a result of policy changes that began in the ’90s and has served as an impetus for the filmmaking boom that most Latin American countries are experiencing. In stark contrast, for Latinos in the U.S. raising money to make a movie is fraught with difficulty.
In most cases, having American citizenship is an advantage, but for Latino filmmakers it adds a host of obstacles. Unless you happen to have a passport from the country your parents hail from, the children of Latino immigrants are left out in the cold – they are not eligible for Ibermedia grants or those for directors from developing countries. Then, there is the fact that the United States has no film institute to speak of. There are a few non-profits (including PBS) that provide money for documentaries (they usually need to social-issue based movies) but there is no U.S. equivalent to the public grants that Latin American cineastas have access to. That leaves Latinos to fight over scraps in the private sector.
It’s no surprise that Latin American directors are circling the globe, showing their finished projects at the top-tier film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, and Venice. When was the last time you heard of a U.S. Latino filmmaker doing the same? We’re not going to say never, but it’s pretty rare. Despite all the obstacles, there are lots of U.S. Latino directors who are forging a new path and are making movies without waiting for someone to give them money or for the industry’s okay to proceed. Here we celebrate 10 Latino directors whose movies may have played a big prestigious festival like Sundance, or won a ton of awards, or even secured theatrical distribution. We also chose to include some first-time TV directors who are pioneering a path for Latinos in the golden age of television.
Unlike his younger brother actor Benjamin Bratt, Peter Bratt stepped behind the camera instead of in front of it to get a taste of what Hollywood had to offer. He started his career as a director, writer and producer in 1996 with the independent drama Follow Me Home, which follows three artists on a road trip to Washington D.C. to attempt to paint a mural on the White House. Peter, who was born in San Francisco and graduated from UC Santa Cruz, then cast his brother in his second film, the 2009 drama La Mission, as an ex-con father who can’t accept that his son is gay. This year, Peter received critical acclaim for his documentary Dolores on civil rights activist and labor leader Dolores Huerta. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and opened in theaters in September. It also won the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and other awards at various festivals throughout the U.S.
– Kiko Martinez
Born and raised in San Francisco to Mexican immigrant parents director Aurora Guerrero graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Psychology and Chicano studies. She dabbled in shorts for several years before making her first film, Mosquita y Mari in 2012, garnering Guerrero an Indie Spirit Award nomination for Best Director. The queer romantic drama follows two high school girls as they deal with individual personal dramas and their own burgeoning feelings for each other while working on a school project. Earlier this year she directed an episode of Ava DuVernay’s groundbreaking series Queen Sugar, continuing DuVernay’s promise to have every episode directed by a woman of color. Guerrero is gearing up to direct a feature she’s writing entitled Los Valientes about a gay, undocumented immigrant who finds his life turned upside down after traveling to a conservative Pennsylvania town.
– Kristen Lopez
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, director Antonio Santini originally went to NYU to study how technology affected human communications. He eventually transitioned to directing, starting with his first short Killer Tranny in 2011. The homage to John Waters features exploring the nature of homophobia garnered attention and led to Santini co-directing his first feature Mala Mala, a documentary about sexual identity in his home country, in 2014. The feature would go on to be nominated for Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival that year. Despite the uphill battle to get his debut distributed Santini has continued working on unconventional stories. This year he co-directed and produced Dina, a love story involving an eccentric suburbanite and a Walmart door greeter. The film went home with the Best Documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival and secured a distribution deal from The Orchard. Dina has gone on to win several awards from various critics groups and was named Best Feature Film of the year by the International Documentary Association.
– Kristen Lopez
Janicza Bravo is one of the most engaging new talents working in television and film today. The daughter of Panamanian tailors Bravo moved to Brooklyn, New York with her family when she was 13. She attended NYU where she studied directing and design for theater. After racking up a series of credits in the costuming field Bravo turned to directing short films with prominent actors including Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffman. She also shot featurettes for fashion magazines, including Glamour’s 25th Anniversary Women of the Year Awards. Last year she helmed her first television episode, the spectacular “Juneteenth” episode of the FX series Atlanta. She made her feature film directorial debut this year with Lemon, a comedic drama detailing a man’s struggle to cope after being dumped by his long-term girlfriend, which she also wrote. The film received theatrical distribution via independent distributor Magnolia Pictures. Lemon went on to receive nominations at both the SXSW and Sundance Film Festival.
– Kristen Lopez
Born in Puerto Rico to a Peruvian father and Spanish mother, filmmaker Miguel Arteta hit the ground running in the industry in 1997 when he directed and wrote the comedy-drama Star Maps about a young, aspiring Latino actor in L.A. moonlighting as a prostitute at the behest of his pimp father. After his debut film, which earned him praise in indie circles around the country, Arteta directed 2000’s Chuck & Buck written and starring Mike White, 2002’s The Good Girl starring Jennifer Aniston (also written by White), 2009’s Youth in Revolt starring Michael Cera, 2011’s Cedar Rapids starring Ed Helms, and 2014’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Arteta studied filmmaking at Harvard University, Wesleyan University, and the American Film Institute. He reteamed with screenwriter White this year on the dark comedy Beatriz at Dinner, which stars Salma Hayek as a massage therapist who clashes with a wealthy real estate tycoon (John Lithgow) during a dinner engagement. Beatriz was heralded as “the first great film of the Trump era” after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. It went on to have successful theatrical opening across the US.
– Kiko Martinez
After working at Pixar Animation Studios as a storyboard artist on Toy Story 3 and in other capacities on Monsters University, Ratatouille and The Good Dinosaur, Pixar rolled out the red carpet for Adrian Molina to co-write and co-direct the studio’s 19th animated feature film Coco, which tells the story of a young, aspiring Mexican guitarist who is transported to the Land of the Dead on Día de Muertos and goes in search of his true musician roots. Molina, who was born in Yuba City, California and is of Mexican descent, graduated from the California Institute of the Arts in 2007, the same year he joined Pixar as a 2D animator. Since Coco’s debut in theaters in Mexico, it has become the country’s highest-grossing movie in cinematic history. In the U.S., Coco, whose voice talent includes actors Gael Garcia Bernal, Edward James Olmos and Benjamin Bratt, has been a champion at the box office, coming in No. 1 three weekends in a row and garnering major Oscar buzz.
– Kiko Martinez
Breaking out in a significant way in the 2002 comedy-drama Real Women Have Curves, L.A.-born America Ferrera’s stock continues to grow each year in the film industry as an actress, producer and new director. After her film debut in Curves, Ferrera, who double majored in theatre and international relations at the University of Southern California, went on to star in a handful of movies including The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, End of Watch and Cesar Chavez. She landed one of the biggest roles of her career on the hit ABC series Ugly Betty and is also the voice of main female character Astrid in the How to Train Your Dragon animated film/TV franchise. In 2015, Ferrera booked the lead role in the NBC sitcom Superstore as an employee of a big-box outlet. This year, she made her directorial debut during the show’s second season on the episode Mateo’s Last Day, which aired earlier this year. This past year, Ferrera announced production of a new docuseries with her new company Harness and also helped assemble a group of Latina trailblazers together to discuss why they, too, should direct the TV shows they star in or write for.
– Kiko Martinez
Gloria Calderon Kellett
Not only did Gloria Calderon Kellett create, write, executive produce, and act as co-showrunner on the Netflix comedy One Day at a Time, which is loosely based on the ‘70s-‘80s TV show of the same name, she also directed one of the episodes in the upcoming second season of the sitcom, which will start streaming January 26. The show follows the Alvarez family, Penelope (Justina Machado), a single veteran mom, her two children Elena and Alex (Isabella Gómez and Marcel Ruiz) and her mother Lydia (Rita Moreno) as they maneuver through the challenges life throws their way. Kellett grew up in Beaverton, Oregon, and San Diego, California, and earned her degree in Communications and Theater Arts from Marymount University. She’s not stepping into directing without some experience. She directed two shorts a few years ago, Mouthbreather and Blind, and an episode of the webseries Misery Loves Company in 2017. Earlier this year, Kellett announced she is developing a new TV show for CBS, History of Them.
– Kiko Martinez
Mexican-Guatemalan-American filmmaker Marvin Lemus got his start in digital production, working on viral videos and marketing campaigns, including those utilized in the film Dear White People. After dabbling in shorts Lemus transitioned to creating his first series with the help of executive producer and star America Ferrera and Charles King’s Macro Ventures. The result was a web series titled Gente-fied. The 7-episode series is described as “High Maintenance meets Do the Right Thing” and follows a group of Boyle Heights residents dealing with the encroaching gentrification of their neighborhood. After the Sundance premiere of series, Lemus and Macro Ventures juggled offers from several networks for Gente-fied. The studio that’s financed Hollywood productions including the Golden Globe-nominated Mudbound and Roman J. Israel, Esq. – gave Lemus and writing partner Linda Yvette Chavez free reign on the series which premiered at Sundance NEXT Fest earlier in the year. Despite not being widely available there’s plenty of humor that’s stuck with audiences since seeing the series at Sundance, and it’s hoped release isn’t far behind.
– Kristen Lopez
Born in Sinaloa, Mexico, Natalia Almada is a dual citizen of Mexico and the US who went to the College of Santa Fe and the Rhode Island School of Design where she studied photography. Her eye soon went to film and documentary in particular. 2009’s The General follows controversial former Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles who is also Almada’s great-grandfather. While El Veldaor in 2011, dealt with the proliferation of cemeteries in Mexico that cater to narcos. She was the recipient of a coveted MacArthur Genius grant which together with the Mexican government’s IFECINE fund allowed her to finance her first fiction film, Everything Else. Starring Oscar-nominated actress Adriana Barraza, Everything Else tells the story of a bureaucrat who questions her existence and place in the world after 35 years on the job. Six months ago, Almada was one of the handful of directors invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science in the hope of expanding the voices of women and people of color.
– Kristen Lopez