As a film fan, self-professed cinenerd, and an ex-film programmer at the New York International Latino Film Festival, the closure of the long-running fest last year was soul crushing. There are very few spaces dedicated to exhibiting Latino cinema and a lot of the remaining ones are on shaky ground.
Simultaneously though — as many U.S. Latino film institutions are on their last legs — movies directed by Latin American-born filmmakers are circling the globe at prestigious film festivals, winning awards, and garnering praise from critics. Production numbers, south of our border, have risen astronomically. It’s a renewal, renaissance, new wave — whatever you want to call it — that began in the mid-nineties. The Film Society of Lincoln Center, with its eye on this rebirth, founded a film series in 1997. A yearly showcase of the newest voices in Latin American cinema, it would eventually be called Latinbeat.
This year’s Latinbeat, running July 11 – 20, carries on with its mission of presenting emerging directors and film trends from across Latin America with movies from powerhouses like Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil plus countries with smaller film industries like Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. From films about a Mexican garage band (We Are Mari Pepa) to heavy metal in the Andes (Holiday) and from first-time directors as well as established ones, this year’s lineup is centered on young protagonists.
In advance of the series’ opening night, I got the chance to chat with Marcela Goglio — Latinbeat’s film programmer since 1999 — about the origins of the longstanding showcase, how she ended up at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the constant rebirth of Latin American cinema. Plus, there are some good stories about the struggles of getting filmmakers to their screenings on time. Spoiler alert: if something can go wrong, it will.
When did the Latinbeat series start? Was there something specific that motivated the creation of the series?
Latinbeat started in 1997, conceived by Richard Peña, the Programming Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center at the time (and until the end of 2012.) He actually programmed that first edition. I came in as an intern that year and helped with the marketing, outreach, and with Q&As. He came up with the idea mainly because at the time there was a very evident explosion or renaissance of film in Latin America, mainly Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico (the so called “New Argentine Cinema” started in the mid 90s). By explosion I mean not only a spike in quantity but mainly there was some really interesting formal exploration going on and new kinds of films emerging as a reaction to drastically changing socio-political realities — end of dictatorships in some countries, devastating economic crises that changed the social landscape in others — in a film landscape that, up until then, had become rather stale. It was the perfect time and there was a real need, as no other venues existed that were showcasing that cinema in New York. Latinbeat was the very first to showcase these new emerging filmmakers that later became such symbols of their time.
Where did the name Latinbeat come from?
Richard Peña chose the name. I think it was a reference to precisely an urgent, watershed moment, urgent films, something palpitating in the air that the festival wanted to capture. Also, it was a reference to a new rhythm or language that was being created.
How did you end up programming the series?
Newly arrived in New York City in 1997, after having lived in Costa Rica for four years where I worked as a journalist and programmed a series of Latin American cinema at the Spanish Cultural Center, I heard that Richard Peña, whom I had studied under at Columbia University before moving to Costa Rica, was organizing a Latin American film festival. (At the time it was called “Latin American Cinema Now.”) I called him up and volunteered to help on that festival that he programmed. So I became an intern at the Film Society helping with Latin American outreach and other stuff. In 1998, he asked me and a fellow colleague, Cord Dueppe, to program the following edition in 1999 (it was biannual back then) and we programmed the subsequent editions together. Ines Aslan, from the Public Relations department, joined our team around 2003 under Richard’s guidance. In 2007, I became the sole programmer (Ines and Cord left the Film Society) and have programmed it since.
Can you describe the process of discovering and selecting the films each year? How is the process different now than when you first started?
I take submissions — and I watch everything that is sent to me — but I don’t do an open call for entries. Up until recently, I had traveled to the Havana Film Festival almost every year since 1996 and to every BAFICI (Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival) since its first edition 12 years ago and I go to a few other festivals. Distribution companies send me titles and screeners but mostly the process involves keeping up to date with productions in the region through connections with film schools, institutes, filmmakers, and producers with whom I have developed a relationship with over the years. Also, of course, I follow the programming at all the other festivals.
The process now is different in that there are many more films to watch because, amongst other things, of an explosion in production in other countries in the region (and more production too in the aforementioned strongest countries: Argentina, Mexico, Brazil). The programming, necessarily, must become more complex because there is more to choose from and more variety but also more festivals that compete for the same films. There are more films to watch but because of technology it is also easier, in a sense, since viewing links get sent quickly instead of having to wait for screeners or videos via mail.
What was the biggest challenge in the first year of the series?
Getting a crossover audience, in terms of nationality.
What years do you feel were the heyday of the series? What are some of your favorite memories of that time?
Definitely 2003 – 2004, when the festival was hugely successful — we had sold out screenings back to back — and longer, it ran for three weeks. We had a lot of Cuban cinema and my very favorite sidebar (in 2003) was these fabulous archival Cuban music documentaries (from the 50s, 60s, 70s) that we brought back from Havana and were never again shown in the city, or the U.S. The theater was packed and now, looking back, I realize we should have repeated that program. It was also the first year that I started to notice some crossover amongst audiences — Mexicans coming to see Chilean films, Argentineans to see Cuban, etc — and that was thrilling.
One of my favorite memories is recognizing a Mexican bus boy from a neighborhood restaurant who came to see Carlos Sorin’s Minimal Stories (a small independent film from Argentina). He was standing in the back — there were no empty seats in the theater — laughing like crazy. One of the great things of those years too was that this “renaissance of Latin American cinema” that had started in the early/mid 90s was starting to come into its own and become more well known and popular abroad. Seeing such a new independent cinema gain popularity and fill the theaters — at least in NY, it definitely was not happening in Latin America, which made it even more exciting and special — was very gratifying. It felt like we were really a part of that big change that Latin America was experiencing cinematically.
Have you ever had trouble getting filmmakers to New York for their screenings?
In 2011, we opened the festival with Gustavo Taretto‘s Sidewalls from Argentina. Taretto, who is of Italian descent and had a beard at the time, was coming for opening night and he almost didn’t make it because he was held up at the airport and being questioned. He claimed it was because of his “Middle Eastern” appearance. The irony is that Coca Cola was one of his clients; when the officers stopped him at the airport (because of his beard) and asked him his profession he made a joke about how he actually helped the American Empire — I’m paraphrasing — impose its products on the rest of the world.
Something similar happened to another opening night guest, Roxana Blanco, coming to introduce the Uruguayan film Kill Them All, a political thriller set in Uruguay. This time it was not because of her appearance, but because of the title of the film.
It also happened to the director and producer (Kenya Marquez and Karla Uribe) of Expiration Date, the opening night film in 2012. There was a storm so they were delayed arriving from the airport and couldn’t introduce the film. They finally showed up as the film was ending, direct from the airport and soaking wet, and practically changed in the lobby before marching into the theater to do the Q&A.
To Gustavo Taretto, it actually happened twice in that trip. After opening night (a Friday, I think) he had to travel to Mexico for a publicity gig. On his way back to New York, where he had to introduce his second screening, he was singled out in the immigration line (supposedly again because of his beard) and questioned right there.
Are there filmmakers who screened their first film at Latinbeat and are now big names? Do you feel like you took part in discovering them?
None of these are “big names” but are well known now in the Latin American film world, with a respected body of work; I feel like we took part in discovering many of them, but not all: Celina Murga, Argentina (Ana y los otros, ’04), Damian Szifron, Argentina (En el fondo del mar, ’03 ), Matias Bize, Chile (Sabado ’04), Marite Ugas and Mariana Rondon from Venezuela (A la medianoche y media, ’01), Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll from Uruguay (25 Watts, ’01), Everardo Gonzalez, Mexico (Cancion del pulque, ’04), Nicolas Pereda, Mexico (Perpetuum Mobile — his second feature film, ’09), Matias Meyer, Mexico (Wadley, ’08 ), Martin Rejtman, Argentina (Silvia Prieto — his second film, ’99), Mercedes Moncada, Mexico/Nicaragua (La pasion de Maria Elena, ’03), Pedro Gonzales Rubio and Carlos Armella, Mexico (Toro Negro, ’05), and finally Juan Jose Campanella from Argentina, we showed his El mismo amor, la misma lluvia in 1999. He went on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009 for El secreto de sus ojos.
How does film production compare now to when Latinbeat started?
Numbers of films have increased twenty fold or more, in most countries — a lot. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil continue to produce the most but the main difference is that countries like Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Venezuela — though Venezuela always had a high production — underwent their own explosion in the last years, as you might have heard. So, they are also important players. Another big difference is precisely the variety of themes, formal approaches and, storylines — political and personal, different genres — though the “independent”, low budget, formal exploration strain continues to be strong in all the countries, which is what is so fascinating. It’s as if the cinema in the region is constantly renewing itself. Also, the fact that there is this variety of genres, levels of production, styles — and the fact that there are some solid commercial films produced and consumed regularly in some of these countries — to me is an indication that there is an industry that’s getting strong. That is really great, even if we may not love everything that is being produced.
Have you ever considered including U.S. Latino films in Latinbeat?
We did include a few over the years — the Dominican-American Red Passport and the films of U.S.-based Puerto Rican director Mario Diaz. But, we focused on Latin America mostly and we understood that as separate from “Latino”. Also, the New York International Latino Film Festival seemed to have that area covered those years. [The NYILFF launched in 1999.] Now that that festival is gone [NYILFF], I would want to consider more Latino films. I also don’t see the “Latino” and “Latin American” as that separate anymore.
What is your favorite part of being a film programmer?
I love almost all aspects of it: watching the films (even when they’re not always great); choosing them and finding the best ways to make them work together; and finally, meeting the filmmakers and having conversations with them and the audience, onstage, brings everything full circle.
When you want to just sit on the couch and unwind what sort of films do you watch in your spare time?
I generally don’t watch films to unwind — I prefer to read. But these days I enjoy watching Argentine public television — many filmmakers are directing great series.
Did you ever want to be a filmmaker?
I did, a screenwriter. But wasn’t 100% sure. I went to film school briefly at the Universidad del Cine, in Buenos Aires, while I studied Journalism at Universidad de Buenos Aires.
This year, there are lots of films about young people, from Somos Mari Pepa (Mexico) to Holiday (Ecuador) and Mateo (Colombia). The opening night film Casa Grande also centers on a teenager but in Brazil. Was this on purpose? Is it a reflection of a larger trend in Latin American filmmaking?
The Militant, Root, Summer of Flying Fish and Natural Sciences are also about young people and are a variation of “coming of age” stories. So it is definitely a recurring theme in the program. Yes, it’s on purpose. Most of our past editions have had many young first-time directors; it has been like this from the start. We look to reflect the region’s new trends with the program, to highlight emerging talents always, even if they might have imperfect films. And some of these titles mentioned are definitely by filmmakers to watch.
Latinbeat runs July 11 – 20 at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.