How Film Critics and Festival Programmers Were Left Out of the #OscarsSoWhite Conversation

Advocating for diverse representation in media has been at the center of the national conversation for some time now, but this sentiment seems to be limited to increasing the on-screen presence of people of color along with who’s working behind the scenes as directors, producers, and crew. That’s of course a crucial battle that must be fought, but one segment of this business that’s often forgotten is those who work as curators: critics and festival programmers. A positive film review or being selected for a key festival can be a launching pad for Latino filmmakers. It’s important that our voices be heard in those key roles as well.

At the NALIP Media Summit panel “The Curators,” attendees had the chance to hear first hand from Latinos in these positions who spoke about what makes a film stand out from the crowd and the importance of involving people of color at every step of the production and exhibition process.

Remezcla’s own Film Editor, Vanessa Erazo, served as the moderator and was the driving force behind the session coordinated by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. The selected speakers have all dabbled in multiple roles within the worlds of journalism and festival programming. At once tastemakers and champions of under-the-radar projects, their support can become a defining factor for films that would otherwise be buried under the marketing powers of Hollywood blockbusters.

Joining Erazo on the panel were: Alonso Duralde, Film Reviews Editor for the Wrap and Senior Programmer for Outfest; Claudia Puig, Film Critic at KPCC’s FilmWeek and former Film Critic at USA Today; Dilcia Barrera, Associate Curator of the Film Program at LACMA and Short Film Programmer for Sundance Film Festival and New York Film Festival; Christine Davila, Programming Associate for Sundance Film Festival and Blogger on Chicana from Chicago; and Moises Esparza, Programming Manager at the San Diego Latino Film Festival.

Here are some highlights from the lively discussion.

Erazo on the Importance of Curators of Color

There were a lot of conversations that happened in the past two years with the hashtag #OscarSoWhite and about diversity in media, and the focus of that conversation was on people of color being in front of and behind the camera, which is obviously very important but what was left out of that conversation is people who are curating films, people who are in positions to program a film festival, or to write a film review, to bring attention to these films. Maybe a director who is Latino or a person of color makes this film but what if a room full of programmers don’t see the value in the film or importance of this film? I think we need people like us in those positions to be able to speak up for these films.

Duralde on Why Festivals Need Diverse Films to Survive

Film festivals being non-profits make more of an effort to spread a wider net. Certainly now Outfest is probably one of the more diverse groups that I’ve worked with, but there is always room for improvement. Mainstream film festivals are looking to be diverse mainly because they have constituencies to serv and also they have grants to apply to the following year and they need to show that they’ve been diverse. When you are looking at something like Outfest or a Jewish Film Festival, that’s already covering a niche group, they want to cover as many voices within that subculture as possible.

Puig On How Being Latina Helped Her Get Her First Journalism Job

My first journalism job was actually, by virtue of being Latina, at the LA Times Minority Educational Training Program, which I believe is still there. I was talking to someone over there about how diversity goes in waves, they push for diversity and there was a big push happening at that time, which was a long time ago. Because of that program I was able to get in with the LA Times and stayed for 11 years. Then I went to USA Today from there. I watched the whole diversity thing ebb and flow in terms of interest in it. I was thinking about that because I was the lead critic, they had women before, but they had never had Latina.

Barrera on Her Role as a Short Film Programmer at Sundance

We receive about 12,000 submissions, 9,000 of those are short films. I’m part of a team that has to watch all those and choose an average of 60 to 70 shorts that we play. Instead of programming thinking, “We have to fulfill numbers or standards,” the team does value my presence as a Latina, as a female voice, as a person of color voice, and as a Mexican-American. It is a tough situation because there are a lot of debates that come up in that room. We are locked up in a room for two weeks and we have to make decisions.

Esparza on Being Undocumented and Finding Work in the Film Industry

Right after college I had a really hard time finding a job when I was in New York City, so I moved back to San Diego. I couldn’t find anything that fed my passion for cinema because of my undocumented status here in the United States. I decided to reenroll in graduate school and ride it out until some sort of immigration reform took place. Then the DACA program happened, so I applied for a job at the Media Art Center San Diego. I joined as an intern and I became good buddies with the old Director of Programming. We would just talk film all day long. Then I joined the screening committee and then I was asked if I wanted to be in charge of the shorts program. I said, “Sure, I’d love to,” and then I just grew into the position at the San Diego Latino Film Festival. Now I’m in charge of curating all the feature-length films you’ll see [at the festival.]

Davila on the Lack of Multiculturalism in Other Sectors of the Industry

There are other jobs outside the festival world where similarly there is a real lack of multiculturalism, and I’m talking about my current job on the digital short form series initiative for the television group at Warner Bros. I was sought out because of my experience in the festival world, specifically looking at US Latino films as well as Spanish language films.

Erazo on Giving Yourself a Crash Course in Film Before Starting Your New Project

If you are going to tell a specific story, I think it’s important to give yourself a crash course in film on that topic. The only way you can avoid repeating a story that’s been told over and over is to watch those films. I know sometimes people don’t want to corrupt their idea and don’t want to steal from other things, but you also don’t want to repeat something that’s been done. Maybe you think it’s really original but five years ago there was a movie that did that same thing. I have a friend who had just graduated film school and she made a short film about her family and it had to do with immigration, and not till later when she started watching a bunch of films she said to me, “My story is a story that’s been done, but I didn’t know that when I was making it.”

Duralde on the Search for Unique LGBT Stories

At Outfest this summer we are premiering a new documentary about being undocumented and queer in the Deep South, so for us that is a new topic. The thing that we get a lot of is the coming-out story. What’s been interesting to watch is getting those movies from parts of the world that we wouldn’t have expected it. I remember a few years ago we got a coming-out story from Bermuda. When you are dealing with countries that are still making a slow march towards LGBT equality, they have an interesting spin on it or a new way to tell it. For us, we are looking for movies where the coming-out part is a given, and it’s about what happens after. What other stories are out there about that experience? This year we have an entire section focused on Latin America because there are so many great ones that are coming out of Central and South America. Our international centerpiece this year is an Argentine film called, Esteros, which is about two guys reuniting in their 20s. They have been very close friends, tittering on a romance, as they were adolescents. One of them moved away and he’s come back. They are much older at a different place in their lives and figuring out if they can pick up where they left off. That’s a movie where the gay part isn’t the story. It’s only part of the story, but it’s really about this friendship. Generally speaking we are looking for stories where gay, lesbian, or trans is in there, but it’s not what it’s about.

Puig on Going to Bat for Films With Latino Storylines Like Sugar

I was on the AFI group that picks the Top Ten movies of that year that go down in the AFI annals. Back when I first started doing it we would all sit in a room and hash it out. It was a combination of filmmakers, critics, writers, and professors. It was a group of maybe a dozen or 15 people. We would throw out our top movies. One of the movies for the year that I was doing that, I think it was 2008, was a film that I really thought should be there, Sugar, about Dominican baseball players who are recruited to play in minor leagues here. It was not by a Latino filmmaker, it was by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, but I thought it depicted the experience really well. It was not on anybody else’s radar except for one other person in the room, and that other person was Sean Astin, who is a white guy, but obviously felt that this was an important film. We lobbied the rest of that group and we got it on the Top Ten for that year.

Barrera on Making Immigration Stories with an Edge

Immigration is very key to our story [as Latinos.] Therefore if you are going to make that your project then you really have to go all out and it has to be really good. We have a history of these stories and they have won Oscars. Sometimes I feel we are caught up in the idea that, “Oh a white person made that story, so I have to tell that story right,” but then there is the fact that we have hundreds and hundreds of submissions of the same thing. That’s fine, but stories with new approaches is what we are looking for, people that push that boundary and tell familiar stories in different ways. One of my favorite contemporary movies with a Latinas in the US is Mosquita y Mari by Aurora Guerrero. I have not seen anything like that again, and it’s not my story but I feel so connected to it. It’s just two girls growing up, feeling things, and being themselves. When writing stories be true to yourself and to who you are, as opposed to trying to make something you think people will accept into a film festival.

Esparza on the Lack of Latinos in Leadership Positions Even at a Latino Film Festival

When I first started working at the San Diego Latino Film Festival there were actually no people of color in leadership positions. You don’t have to be Latino to program films, just like you don’t have to be queer to work at Outfest, but my co-worker Juan and I, when we first got there were two of the few Latinos at this Latino Film Festival. We thought, “This is kind of hilarious, but we also have to make sure that we make our voices and perspectives heard because someone Latino needs to be leading.“

Davila on Looking for Directors Who Push the Boundaries of the Medium

As a storyteller you do want to get your most authentic story down, but then the approach film-wise is just as important because it is a visual language. You should feel very liberated about this and like breaking the rules with genre and the approach such as the doc-drama hybrid, or films that play with the narrative structure. Rick Perez who directed the documentary Cesar’s Last Fast knew that this was a story that perhaps a lot of people knew about the civil rights leader and he got that opportunity to make it. It took him quite a number of years to make but he knew that he needed to really good. For him that meant using all the tools of the cinematic language in order to make it feel different. One thing that I really appreciate about that movie is that something as simple as counting the number of days of his fast creates tension, a ticking timeline, or a sense of urgency. That was something brilliant. That was something that completely made that film stand out among many other documentaries that have tackled that story. He also focused on a very specific timeline of his [Cesar Chavez’s] life. It wasn’t a broad trajectory of this man. It’s about thinking what risks you could take in the visual language because there are really no rules. I think that’s a way to stand out, when you try something different.