Cesar Cervantes Didn’t Always Feel Welcome, Now He’s the Winner of Sundance’s First Latino Fellowship

Cesar Cervantes with advisor Tyger Williams

A chance conversation with Mosquita y Mari director Aurora Guerrero ended up changing Chicano filmmaker César Cervantes’ life. Cervantes, who’d been developing Hot Clip, a film based on his experience growing up in Southeast Los Angeles, was encouraged by Guerrero to look into the Sundance Labs program. He’s the first to admit he didn’t think much of it. “You know, when I thought of Sundance, it was all white indie films,” he confessed. But to his astonishment, after contacting the famed Park City-based program, he heard back just a few days later. As it turns out, Sundance had recently developed a new fellowship aimed specifically at encouraging U.S. Latino talent, and after submitting a requisite application, Cervantes found himself chosen as this year’s recipient of the first-ever Feature Film Program Latino Fellowship.

The Feature Film Labs have been around since 1981. They were a part of the founding program of the Sundance Institute and have nurtured indie talent for more than three decades. Among its storied alumni are Darren Aronofsky (1999, Requiem for a Dream), Joshua Marston (2002, Maria Full of Grace), and Ryan Coogler (2013, Fruitvale Station). As Ilyse McKimmie, Labs Director for its Feature Film Program, told Remezcla this new fellowship, while a new and concerted effort to support U.S. Latinos trying to make it as independent filmmakers, is just a logical next step for an institution that has long championed diverse voices: “I know ‘diversity’ is a kind of a hot word right now, but we’ve always embraced that value and in every sense of the word.” It’s something Cervantes learned once he dug into the large catalogue of Sundance films, noting that there’s plenty to support the vision of Sundance as a hotbed for storytelling talent regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or income. Look no further than the past two years of Sundance film festival winners, which have been heavy on Latin American cinema, championing films like The Second Mother, Between Sea and Land (La Ciénaga), and Mi Amiga del Parque.

“It made me feel like, I’m gonna make it because I don’t like people telling me you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Or just assume I wouldn’t be able to do it given the background I have, which is Chicano first generation.”

But McKimmie did stress that the fellowship will hopefully cut through that initial hesitation that Cervantes himself experienced. “You know, sometimes Sundance can seem far off, an unattainable goal for some people. So we’re trying to get the message out. We do want to hear the stories that you’re telling. And the fellowship is a way of putting our money where our mouth is.” As its first recipient, Cervantes got a chance to participate in the Screenwriters Lab which took place ahead of the 2016 film festival. As Eva Vives, whose Join the Club short screened in Park City this year, told us back in January, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “It was an amazing and intense experience!” she gushed. “I am in such awe of my fellows for giving so much of themselves and sticking to their ideals and also in awe of the advisors who selflessly donate their time and expertise to help us.” Cervantes was just as effusive: “It’s magical, really.” Coming from a working class immigrant family, it’s clear he relished the chance to be welcomed into this idyllic support network. “It’s just you and your story. They help you return to that old storytelling spirit, where people are just hanging around the campfire.”

Cervantes didn’t really see himself growing up to be a filmmaker. He first envisioned himself as an animator. As a kid, seeing those behind the scenes interviews with Disney animators that showed him that those classic movies were made frame by frame inspired him to try and make lo-fi animated films with Post-It notes. He later upgraded to making them stop-motion style with his dad’s old VHS cam. As he got older, he grew out of his desire to become an animator. Not that you could keep him away from filmmaking for too long. Having become the designated videographer among his skater friends and slowly getting inspired by Spike Jonze, who had turned his passion for skateboarding videos into a film career, he set out to make his first short film. “Hey, if Spike can do it…” While still in high school Cervantes directed How to Disappear Completely which ended up being accepted at the Harvard-Westlake Film Festival where Cervantes met a producer he’d long admired. In recounting the chance encounter, Cervantes has a hard time putting into words exactly what happened but what’s clear is how he left feeling. He was both disheartened by the assumptions made about him and his background, and emboldened to prove himself. “It made me feel like, ‘I’m gonna make it’ because I don’t like people telling me you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Or just assume that I wouldn’t be able to do it given the background that I have, which is Chicano first generation.”

After going to college he set his sights on turning his personal experiences into a feature film. That’s how Hot Clip, about a pair of friends who find a gun in a skate park and “kind of become cop killers by the end of the day,” was born. He’s quick to point out that it’s not entirely based on his life, just informed by it. With his friend Vince Reyna, he set out to produce the project himself. Funnily enough, they had already begun shooting the film when the fateful conversation with Guerrero ended up setting him up for the Sundance Lab opportunity. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

That Cervantes heard about the opportunity from a Sundance alum (Mosquita y Mari premiered at the Park City festival in 2012) speaks precisely to the type of effect McKimmie hopes to harness. She looks at the Fellowship as having long term effects, building a broader outreach program that will hopefully signal to Latino artists and filmmakers that their stories are welcome here. As Cervantes puts it, “It’s a great experience. I can’t recommend it enough. Especially for Mexican-Americans who maybe haven’t heard about it. It’s very inclusive, and they really listen to people. And they make it about their stories.”

Applications for the 2017 Sundance Institute Feature Film Program Latino Fellowship are open March 15 — May 2, 2016.