These Two Young Sundance Fellows May Be the Future of Latin American Filmmaking

© 2017 Sundance Institute | Photo by Ryan Kobane

Attending the Sundance Film Festival is pretty cool. Attending when you’re an emerging filmmaker as part of the Sundance Ignite program is even better. What is the Sundance Ignite program, you ask? It is yet another way in which the Park City institution continues to support burgeoning talent. Hoping to attract a new generation of filmmakers, the program sent out their second annual call for entries for their competitive fellowship last year. They wanted to see how directors in the 18-24 age range would answer that ever elusive question which felt all the more pressing in 2016: “What’s Next?” After receiving over 350 short films from around the world, 15 projects were chosen for the coveted fellowship.

Among those singled out were Esteban Cruz, from Bogotá, Colombia and Emiliana Ammirata from Caracas, Venezuela. These two young and talented directors got to fly to Utah to experience the Sundance Film Festival in all its glory. Oh, and did we mention that along with their trip to the fest — which included a chance to attend industry panels and meetings — they’re now getting a year-long mentorship designed to help them succeed in their future endeavors? Needless to say, they were both pretty excited about the whole thing.

Remezcla caught up with Esteban and Emiliana to talk about their respective projects, both of which are indebted to their Latin American upbringing and which feel even timelier this time around. His stages a tense interaction between two Colombians who were on different sides of the decades-long armed conflict that is finally drawing to a close, while hers tackles issues of body shaming in Latina households. Check out some of highlights from our chat below.

On The Projects That Got Them To Sundance

Emiliana: I had made this film. I’d wrapped it up in May 2016. Made for a sophomore year project at my university. The idea came from my country. I’m very inspired by South America and interested in the body image of the culture; how moms expect their daughters to look a certain way when even the moms themselves don’t look like that. But they transmit that down to their daughters. I’d seen that a lot on the streets, in my friends’ households and even in my own household. That became an inspiration for me because I saw such a different approach to it in the United States. I realized that I had been living in a mist that was very toxic. So I decided to make a film about it. Thus, La casa quebrada.

And in terms of being accepted – well, first of all, I didn’t really expect to get it. Because, you know, this was just a sophomore year project, and it was my very first short film ever. I just did it because it was free and sounded amazing, but I was never expecting to make it any further. When I got the Top 25 email that’s where I was like, well, maybe I can actually win this! But I still didn’t get too excited because I was just going to be disappointed. When I won, I was sitting with an açai bowl talking about the challenge to a friend on the phone, “Oh, yeah, I’m finding out in a couple of days.” Then I looked at my phone that an email had just arrived and it said on the top: “Congratulations!” And I was like, “What?!”

“The question “What’s Next? was something that was on every Colombian’s mind.”

Esteban: In my case, I also felt like it was a challenge perfectly made for the situation we were living in Colombia, because the challenge was released like 3 weeks before we were about to approve the plebiscite for the peace process in Colombia with Las FARC, which has been our war for more than 50 years. So the question “What’s Next?” was something that was on every Colombian’s mind, whether you were in favor of the peace process or not. So I just felt so inspired by the question that I said I’d write a short film for this. It was a process of 3 weeks. We did the project that is about the confrontation between victim and victimizer, which is what I’d really like to see next. It’s not a peace process that the president and the chief of the guerrilla groups sign. It’s something that those who were implicated: those who killed, those who lost their family, have to deal and confront one another. That’s what the short film is about.

It was surreal because we took the risk of using a nonprofessional actor, because we felt that the story needed someone from the countryside, because the film is set in the rural area. We were extremely fortunate that we found somebody, and that it worked out. We submitted it and this is something that I have problem with all my projects — I don’t feel comfortable with them. I always feel bad. They’re not what I expected. I always get frustrated with my own projects, so I wasn’t the most hopeful guy about it, but we got the great news and I just simply feel blessed and extremely grateful for having this opportunity.

On How Body Shaming In Venezuela Shaped Her Project

“I realized that none of my friends in the United States thought about female bodies in the same way that I looked at mine”

Emiliana: The idea came one night after I was with my roommate and she had noticed my behaviors. She suddenly pointed out like, why are you so obsessed with your body? She just said it out loud like that. That’s when I looked back and I realized that none of my friends in the United States thought about female bodies in the same way that I looked at mine — I was so critical. It became ingrained in my head because of the people I surrounded myself with in Venezuela.

From realizing that, it became a point of healing. I realized that I was wrong, that I was so critical and obsessed about my subject. Anytime I saw a female, that would be in my head and that would be a constant topic with my friends at home. All the time. And I know it’s like that on many countries in Latin America. The comparison of having escaped that bubble of gossip and body shaming to come into the United States to just focusing on the arts, and just making art to heal and being passionate and working very hard made me realized that I had just been living this idea of perfection in my mind that was completely wrong. Immigrating here had a big impact on this film.

On Using Non-Professional Actors

Esteban: For me, art is about understanding our species. That’s the basis of my inspiration. I honestly try to make my projects with that objective. I think it’s too ambitious to say that I’m going to change the world with my films but there’s a way I could change a few people’s minds. That’s why I have a lot of interest in working with nonprofessional actors, because I want to have people who have really lived these things portraying them. I think that gives it another level. Because it’s not about the film but about who’s inside of it. If you’re performing something that talks about yourself and something you’ve lived, I think that it’s a great reflection on yourself and it might help you cope with what you’ve been through. As I said, the peace agreements can’t just be about a piece of paper and just big political parties doing it. It’s about every single individual involved. That’s my ambition with future projects. Maybe set the bar with a film that shows actual real people that lived with this conflict in order to set an example.

On The Joys of Sundance Ignite

Emiliana: First of all, I think already in the past four days, the amount of growth that I have felt in myself and in my peers has been immense. Just the ability that Sundance and the people who work at Sundance have to inspire you and motivate you and make you feel like you can do anything, that you have the power to change the world with art, which is something that I had never felt motivated to do. I hadn’t been so validated about that or reassured, until I came here. The people that I have surrounded myself with in the festival and what I’ve heard in panels, just keeping my ears open, has just shaped me as a filmmaker in a completely different way now.

I realize that I’m not alone in what I want to do and that there are a lot of people who are trying to do the same thing. Now I have a found a team of people that are all going towards the same objective. In the past I’ve felt very alone, and so far, the fellowship has been amazing. We’ve been meeting with our personal mentors and they’ve just dropped knowledge every second that we’ve been with them. My mentor is screening his directorial debut and he’s just been talking about how he got there and it’s really inspired me to keep talking to him and keep the mentorship going.

Esteban: It’s amazing. I’m really surprised how Sundance just opens its arms to you and gives you this great opportunity. It’s extremely valuable. But it’s also a huge risk: they’re taking a bet on us and making us part of a family. That’s great to have that support. From now on, it’s all about growing and applying all that I’ve learned to my projects and get the best out of my mentorship.

Interview conducted by Vanessa Erazo.