How Latin American Directors Are Changing What We Expect From Latino Immigrant Stories

Guillermo Pfening and Julia Solomonoff on the set of 'Nobody's Watching', Photo by John Harris

When we think of U.S. immigrant stories, filmmakers have trained us to think of perilous border crossings, of rebellious and sometimes ungrateful second-generation teens, and of hard-working migrant laborers. These are often stories of struggle, framed by issues of economic class and cultural assimilation. You could make an entire festival out of screening films like La Mission, Selena, Born in East LA, Quinceañera and My Family (Mi Familia)These are stories that speak to the very specific experience of U.S. Latinos, in particular those whose families hail from elsewhere but whose lives have always been lived in between these disparate cultures. A new crop of films though – all helmed by directors who were born and raised in South America, but who came to New York as artists – are looking to widen what it means when we talk about Latino immigrant stories in the U.S. They’re not quite weaving narratives about diasporic culture, but nevertheless point to the pains of being caught between two worlds.

Matías Piñeiro‘s Hermia & Helena is a curious film. A playful adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in modern-day New York City, it is also a meditation on what it means to be away from home in one of the most exciting cities in the world. The romantic comedy of twinned identities captures Piñeiro’s own experience visiting the U.S. on an arts fellowship. Camila (Agustina Muñoz) arrives in New York after her friend Carmen (Maria Villar) suggests she attend the same creative residency program. Camila is hoping to translate the Bard’s famed fairy-tinged play but spends most of her days ambling around snowy Manhattan and connecting with some of Carmen’s old flames. Her initial homesickness soon gives way to a kind of infatuation with the bustling city, one that gives her the chance to leave behind the person she was in Buenos Aires.

The film toys with what it feels like to wander aimlessly around this picturesque urban metropolis while yearning for the warmer and sunnier elsewheres of home. It makes you feel that Camila – like Carmen before her – was on borrowed time, as in a dream that has to come to an end all too soon. At its heart, this is a movie about what it means to be an interloper eager to make the most out of a foreign city that wishes to welcome and inspire in equal measure. With its focus on penniless artists trying to make the most out of a nevertheless a prestigious fellowship that lends them a certain amount of privilege, Hermia & Helena points to a kind of immigrant story that feels all too slight to be even labeled as one. But in its interest in translation and cultural exchange, Piñeiro is pointing to a new kind of transnational movie only made possible by new modes of film funding and production – this isn’t quite an American film, and not quite a Latin American film, but something, somewhere in between.

Hermia & Helena is but the latest in a string of movies from Latin American directors that have turned their attention to New York as a backdrop for tales of artistic ambition. Released in 2015, Sebastián Silva‘s Nasty Baby pitched itself as an NYC-set indie comedy about a same-sex couple helping their friend conceive. Attentive to the changing nature of its Brooklyn surroundings, Silva’s project felt like an extension of the Chilean auteur’s own life. The character he played – Freddy, a gay artist trying to create an art installation titled “Nasty Baby” – seemed modeled on himself. Here was a young Chilean man whose progressive friends make his immigration status feel immaterial. While the third act of the keenly observed drama (which also co-stars Kristen Wiig) veers into the kind of darkly cruel territory that’s made Silva an indie festival darling, its focus on a Latin American artist trying to make it in New York City feels like a rarely told story. Here was a project whose conflict didn’t hinge on his green card (though it comes up, obviously) but which clearly felt indebted to Silva’s Chilean sensibility.

‘Nasty Baby’ still courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
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This isn’t quite an American film, and not quite a Latin American film, but something, somewhere in between.

The subtle privilege that Silva’s Freddy gets to wield throughout Nasty Baby is something that the leading character in Julia Solomonoff‘s Nobody’s Watching experiences on a day-to-day basis. Argentine actor Nico (Guillermo Pfening) has left a successful job in a TV series at home to try his luck at an indie project that’ll shoot in New York. But when funding and production issues delay the film, he has to scramble not only to make enough money to afford living in Brooklyn, but remain inconspicuous since he’s overstayed his visa. His blond hair and blue eyes help him navigate spaces around the city even as his thick accent and lack of papers keep him from others. Solomonoff even stages several scenes where Nico, who babysits for his friend, interacts with a number of Latin American nannies at a nearby park who initially mistake him for a father – speaking loudly about him in Spanish assuming he doesn’t speak the language – and who know better than to stick around when someone calls the police after an altercation, lest they risk their own immigration status.

Together, these movies, all of which are filled with autobiographical elements, broaden what it means to tell a contemporary story about Latin Americans in the United States. It’s no coincidence that they all speak to what it means to create art while in a foreign land, with issues of homesickness, language barriers, and varying degrees of prejudice seeping into everyday interactions. Piñeiro, Silva, and Solomonoff represent (on and off-screen) a new generation of filmmakers eager to take on transnational stories rooted in the cosmopolitan world of New York City.

They also point to a new model of cross-cultural film production, finding ways of telling Latin American stories that organically take place across national borders. During the final credits of Nobody’s Watching, every name of the main crew and cast assembled sits next to a small flag that identifies where they’re from. To see those credits roll by, with mini Colombian, Mexican, American, and Argentinian flags (among many others) you get the sense that it is the kind of project that, by design, defies borders. To call it a Latin American film (or a Latino film) feels inadequate yet entirely appropriate. Yet it’s also a truly United States story, with the ever-fleeting American Dream of possibility hovering over every scene involving Nico. It forces audiences to dream up a new kind of genre, one we could call, the American Latin film.

Nobody’s Watching opened September 8 at Film Forum in New York for a two-week run.