One night in mid-April I was confronted with my own self-doubt and the impending deadline for a program to which I wasn’t sure I belonged. Though I had been aware of its existence for several weeks, I had decided out right that it probably wasn’t for me and I should forget about it. For its eighth edition, the Hola Mexico Film Festival had partnered up with UNAM Los Angeles to launch its first-ever talent development initiative, “Tomorrow’s Filmmakers Today,” a 10-day program for aspiring Latino filmmakers in Los Angeles, which would allow its participants to interact with professional from all facets of the industry and create a community of likeminded artists to further the creation of content by alternative and diverse voices. It sounded like an unprecedented opportunity, one that I greatly needed.
Undoubtedly, my work as a film journalist and critic has brought me immense satisfaction and has become an instrumental part of my relationship to the world of cinema. But those close to me have always known that my aspiration in life is to become a filmmaker, despite the fact that financial circumstances didn’t allow me to be formally trained in the craft. Well-aware that in a couple of hours my chances of finding out whether I was right for the program or not would fade away, I dug up a feature screenplay I had written several moons ago, short films from my days in community college, a sampling of some of my best journalistic works, and then confected a personal statement as bare and honest as one could write on a tired Friday night.
With a few a minutes to spare the application was submitted. Soon after, an in-person interview gave me the chance to convey my desire to participate. Days later an email from Diana Luna, who graciously managed the program, let me know that I was one of the lucky ones. For the next week an a half I, Carlos Aguilar, the film journalist with directorial dreams, would be able to not only be part of a pioneering program and hear from unimaginably successful figures, but also to meet a group of people that represents the undiscovered storytelling talent this community has to offer.
Here is what took place during several long days of movie-watching, question-asking, film-bonding, and dream-searching in Downtown LA.
May 13: Finding the Next Cuarón is Hollywood’s Mission
Just like that fateful morning as a kid, when one feels simultaneously excited and terrified by meeting new classmates and teachers, 21 strangers walked into a room at UNAM’s offices in Downtown LA. Backpacks, breakfast, and the task of choosing a seat were all included. Following a quick round of introductions in which the varied backgrounds and interests of the participants became evident, Hola Mexico’s director Samuel Douek kicked off the program by introducing the first speaker, Axel Caballero, who is the executive director of the National Association of Latino Producers (NALIP).
As someone with insider knowledge about the presence of Latino content creators in the industry, Caballero explained that given the recent prominence of Mexican directors in the limelight everyone is eager to discover “the next Cuarón.” Later in the afternoon Jacqueline Jimenez, Operations Director at Pantelion, discussed the company’s mission to transform the image of US Latinos through inspirational stories and comedies that stray away from highlighting the problems afflicting the community both here and in Latin America. Eugenio Derbez’s Instructions Not Included was often mentioned as a turning point in the business of making movies targeting Spanish-speaking audiences.
May 14: Guillermo Del Toro Keeps His Promise to a Young Director
Black films rarely lose money at the box-office, something that hasn’t yet happened in the Latino market.
This morning we met, fittingly, inside a movie theater to hear director Celso Garcia tell us about how Guillermo Del Toro came to be a producer on his debut film La Delgada Linea Amarilla (The Thin Yellow Line). Celso submitted a short to a contest organized by Radioactivo, an alternative radio station that was popular in Mexico in the 90s and early 2000s. On the judging panel were Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and del Toro. Celso narrated that after receiving an email from Guillermo telling him that he was a fan of his work, the two of them developed an email friendship.
Del Toro eventually invited Celso to the Hollywood premier of Hellboy. At that event the famous director told the young filmmaker that he would produce his first film. Although it took Celso several years to get the project off the ground, when the time came del Toro kept his promise and became Celso’s ally as a producer. Right after this conversation, we sat down to enjoy The Adventures of Itzel and Sonia, a series of stop-motion animated films handcrafted by 10 indigenous communities across Mexico in which their individual tongues are spoken. This charming work tackles water preservation with a fun spin by encouraging young children to actively become “guardians of the water” and prevent wasteful usage.
May 15: The Twilight Zone a la Mexicana Means Genre En Español
Two films in today’s program really stood out for me. El Bosque de Karadima by Matías Lira is one of two films from Chile screening at the festival as the first-ever guest country. This searing drama based on real events touches on one of the greatest evils within the Catholic Church: sexual abuse perpetrated against minors. At night we were transported to October 2nd, 1968 in Mexico via Isaac Ezban’s The Similars (Los Parecidos). Taking this dark date in the country’s history, in which the tyrannical government savagely murdered numerous students, the film constructs an otherworldly tale inspired by The Twilight Zone. Set entirely in lonely bus station, the film follows a group of people desperately trying to get to Mexico City during a massive storm. Ominous narration, striking cinematography, and a shape-shifting plot make for a cleverly executed genre work unlike anything we are used to seeing from Latin America.
May 16: Telenovelas Are Becoming Hipper Than What Grandma Watched
Bridging the worlds of episodic content and film, this morning the speaker was director Moises Ortiz Urquidi, who presented his film, Las Aparicio, at the festival. While this is his first feature film, Ortiz Urquidi has extensive experience working in televonelas, TV series, and commercials. The seasoned creator talked about the arduous process of directing 120 episodes for a telenovela — an insane amount on work when considering that he had to deliver an episode per day. While that’s the traditional format at companies like Televisa, he explained that networks in Latin America are looking to adapt that model of production into what they call “teleseries,” which resemble American episodic narratives divided in seasons but still carrying some of the elements and flavor that have made melodramatic telenovelas so enduring.
Richard Walter, a screenwriting professor at UCLA who among his achievements worked with George Lucas on the American Graffiti script. According to him the only story one can write is a personal one, even if this is disguised under a heavy curtain of fantasy. He used Lucas’ Star Wars as an example, citing that the creator of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time did not have a great relationship with his father, which gave birth to Dart Vader – who is only most iconic villain ever.
May 17: An Academy Award-Nominated Career Begins with Animation
Everyone was nervous and excited this morning as we devoured pastries and coffee before heading into the theater/classroom where acclaimed Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto would share some of his invaluable knowledge with us. The man is a legend as he has worked with some of the most revered directors including Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, and Iñarritu. Prieto candidly shared what he considers to be the inciting incident in his curiosity for visual storytelling. He recalled that as young boy he and his family would transform their home into a haunted mansion for Halloween. On one particular occasion a family member brought a 8mm camera and showed Rodrigo how to create stop-motion horror shorts with his toys, which were then projected outside of the makeshift haunted house. The magic of this experience marked the artist for years to come and send him on a path that would eventually take him to receive an Oscar nomination for his work in Brokeback Mountain.
May 18: The “You Are Only Here Because of Your Last Name” Treatment
Showrunners often think of their diverse writer as a “free writer” since the studio pays for them separately, which diminishes the value that writer is given.
Tery Lopez, Director of Diversity at the WGA, gave us a basic rundown of what the organization does for its members, such as enforcing minimum pay and advocating for studios and networks to hire diverse staffers. She mentioned the struggles that non-white writers have faced within the system. Showrunners often think of their diverse writer as a “free writer” since the studio pays for them separately, which diminishes the value that writer is given. Lopez specifically mentioned a case in which a showrunner offensively told a non-white female writer, “You are only because of your last name,” as a justification for her ideas not being considered. To counterbalance the bad taste that such a harsh reality left in all of us, writer Ligiah Villalobos jovially joined the conversation by opening up about her eclectic path to a prolific writing career.
Lobos’ most successful project to date is La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon), which began as a commissioned screenplay but became a labor of love dealing the abandonment she had as a child. Her decision to hold onto the rights of that La Misma Luna, even when it seem it would never get to the screen, eventually paid off when it became the most successful Spanish-language film in the US at the time. Most recently Villalobos has served as a consultant for Disney’s Planes and Pixar’s upcoming Día de Muertos film Coco.
Later, a group of Latino DGA (Director’s Guild of America) directors dished out about what being on their guild is all about and how they got they got inducted into the big leagues. Filly Brown co-director Michael D. Olmos, whose upcoming project Green Ghost is about a Latino superhero, told us how he had to briefly resign from the DGA in order to make the film that launched Gina Rodriguez’ career because his co-director Youssef Delara was not yet a member.
May 19: The Wizard Knows Everything That’s Happening in the Kingdom
Serving up the first batch of knowledge today, CSUN professor Nate Thomas, who directed the Latino-centered indie drama East of Hope Street, discussed the truths behind making a profit out of your content by selling it to the right audiences. He noted that Black films rarely lose money at the box-office because that segment of the population is eager to see themselves on screen, something that hasn’t yet happened in the Latino market. We then grabbed our bags and hopped on a bus for our first field trip to CAA, the famed talent agency that handles the majority of the biggest names in mainstream entertainment.
There we met with Jelani Johnson, a young African American agent with a unique background. Prior to his current position Johnson studied in Mexico City and lived in Brazil, he came into the business after graduating college with a degree in an unrelated field. He compares his job to a “polyamorous relationship” as he has to be able to work and fight for the interests of a diverse group of clients. Johnson expressed that what he considers one of the most important aspects of his profession is being aware of everything that’s happening on the sidelines, what’s trending, and how can that be beneficial for the artists he represents. “The wizard knows everything that’s happening in the kingdom,” he added, which is perhaps how he makes the magic happen.
May 20: From Working for Salma Hayek to Reading Blockbusters
Tomorrow’s Filmmakers, Today is in its final stretch, and this morning we traveled across town to Fox Studios to learn about the Fox Global Director’s Initiative from Gina Reyes, an experience and utterly dedicated executive that understands the need for inclusion at the studio level. Reyes previously worked closely with A-list talent such as Salma Hayek. Today, she is in charge of Fox’s program to help diverse directors from independent cinema make the jump into network television.
For its inaugural class, the Global Director’s Initiative focused on women filmmakers, this year the program will be open to all other underrepresented groups. Working as an executive for a major studio, Reyes is tasked with reading numerous screenplays, mostly for high-earning tentpoles, and her opinion is incredibly valuable within the system due to her eye for both commercially viable and innovative content. Back at LA Live we enjoyed an intimate conversation with Mexican auteur Michel Franco (After Lucia, Chronic). Franco, a Cannes favorite, assured us that he is happy making moderately successful films as long as he is able to maintain absolute freedom over his projects.
May 21: Scandinavians Are the New Mexicans
Coming straight from Cannes, director Patricia Riggen joined us for a cheeky and honest talk about how she became the only Mexican female director working in Hollywood today. Unsurprisingly, there were a handful of terrible moments that she now considers valuable situations. Riggen mentioned that one of the worst experiences in her professional life came when she had to legally face off with the producer of her short La Milpa, after he stripped her of the film’s rights and shamelessly made money from her work.
She is a firm believer that the more women directors are out there; the more work there will be for women in other positions on set. Her biggest financial success, La Misma Luna, was an improbable and unprecedented occurrence that came to fruition thanks to her partnership with writer Ligiah Villalobos, who followed Riggen even after the production changed companies and seemed impossible to produce. Patricia Riggen appeared hopeful about what’s to come for Latinos working in film and mentioned that she recently overheard an executive referring to Scandinavian filmmakers as “the new Mexicans,” using Mexican talent as a reference for high quality and award-winning work.
May 22: Enjoying Musical Panoramas as the Future Challenges Sink In
The monumental task of continuing the work lies ahead, but now we don’t have to go it alone.
This dreamlike experience has come to an end. While finding a seat to enjoy the last film of the festival, Panoramas, which follows the band Zoé as they tour the world and record their latest album, it was difficult not to feel instantly nostalgic about the chapter that had reached its conclusion. We laughed, celebrated, and made plans this afternoon while drinking bottomless mimosas. We made it through the end of ten intense days, which served as brutally honest and effective stepping stone in whatever filmmaking endeavors we all pursue in the weeks and months to come.
The promise of a writers’ group is in the air, professional relationships have been sparked, and more than one friendship has blossomed along the way, as is bound to happen when you spend 12 to 14 hours a day with the same people for over a week. With this program, Hola Mexico and UNAM-LA have served as catalysts for a community that will live beyond these ten unforgettable days. We were only the guinea pigs for this great idea, one that promises to become an annual platform to connect Latino filmmakers, but I think we did well testing it out. The mimosas fade away, the festival is done, and everyone is going back to their real world tomorrow. The monumental task of continuing the work lies ahead, but now we don’t have to go it alone.