Aaref Rodriguez, Director of 'Avenues' On Why Audiences Favor Latin American Films Over U.S. Latino Ones

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Twitter: @BarbotRobot

Aaref Rodriguez is new to the scene but his feature film Avenues is making waves, taking home the U.S. Latino Award for Best Narrative feature at the San Diego Latino Film Festival and playing as an official selection at the recent Hispanicize conference in Miami. Avenues tells the story of Saul (Hector Atreyu Ruiz), a recently released former gang member trying to connect with a daughter he’s never met. We caught up with Rodriguez about his film, his name, his influences, and what it’s like to meet Edward James Olmos.

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How was Hispanicize?

You know I went into Hispanicize kind of like a blank slate because it’s not a film festival but I thought it was just amazing. I thought it was absolutely inspiring.

Did you get a chance to meet anybody particularly impressive?

I actually got to meet two people that I’ve looked up to for a long time. One was Maria Hinojosa and we had a really wonderful conversation about consumerism. The other was Edward James Olmos. He was really nurturing and asked to see my movie, so I was like, “What?” [laughs] So I sent him a screener. It was really cool seeing those people because I’ve only heard of them, or read about them, or seen their work, so It was really great to see them on a human level… but other people, who really weren’t on my radar that I met throughout the week were just great people. It was fascinating.

Tell us where you got your first name?

I’m half Venezuelan and half Mexican. My mom came from Venezuela in 1980 to study English and improve her skills, and try something new in life… you know, the whole student thing. She met this Chicano biker and fell in love with him and she got pregnant – which was me – and once he found out I was on my way, he was a bit immature and left. In school, at UC Davis, was a refugee from Afghanistan – he came over to the United States when the Russians invaded – and [he and my mother] became romantically involved and he became my stepfather. So, he gave me my first name and my mom gave me her last name. My first name is Aaref, it’s Arabic for knowledgeable. It’s actually this unorthodox upbringing that I had — which I actually didn’t like growing up — but now that I’m older, I’m quite enjoying it.

So that’s where you got the name of your production company, Bad Man’s Son?

A little bit. [Laughs.] A little bit. There’s some angst involved, but not really. I did meet my biological father once in high school. I was unimpressed with him. I thought he would be something else. When the time came to start a production company, I really wanted to have a strong identity with the work we tended to do. I was at a concert, and I heard this lyric, “I was born a bad man’s son” and it sort of hit me like a train.

Avenues will obviously draw parallels to films like Blood In, Blood Out and others that depict Chicano gang life. How does Avenues interact with those movies?

I think Avenues is authentic. Like those movies are authentic about the culture, but I think what’s different is that we wanted to show that what has become a stereotype – and it wasn’t a stereotype when those movies were produced – we wanted to show the onion layer of that stereotype, and as quickly as possible peel that off and show a real relatable human being with a universal dilemma. […] I’ve had people tell me they don’t see this as a gang movie, which I’m happy about. It’s a movie about being a dad. That, to me, was the goal. But it does live in this cultural lexicon, which is LA gang life, Latino gang affiliations, the streets impoverished Latinos live in today. So I’m glad it lives in that very specific world. And to be mentioned in relation to Blood In, Blood Out – which, I mean is just a great movie for it’s time, I mean we watched it just a few nights ago, my wife and I – is amazing. It means a lot.

Drug use in film has really been done expertly and we’re going to let the experts who’ve done that in the past have that. It’s clearly an issue that’s still important to our neighborhoods and it’s something other films have dealt with really well but we decided to tackle other themes. And the other was… other films, also, have tackled how gangs work really well. Clearly American Me, a seminal film about how gangs work, recruitment, all of that…we decided, you know what, “You did that really well, that’s yours. We’re gonna let you have that one, and we’re not gonna approach it. We’re gonna let the audience fill in their own gaps based on what they’ve seen. We’re going to focus on the stuff we really wanna focus on: redemption, fatherhood, the need to survive…”

There’s been much made about the place of Latino artists in Hollywood and a lack of Latino stories being told. How much does your heritage influence your work? How much do you think it will affect your career going forward?

You know, I’m very proud of being Latino. […] But I’m also very proud of being what I consider “New American.” I was raised by a stepfather who was an Afghan refugee, so I learned a lot about his culture, and a lot about Venezuelan culture, and the neighborhoods I was raised in I learned a lot about Mexican and Salvadorian culture. And so in choosing projects I want to pick films that reflect my upbringing, which is about what it means to be this new wave of American. I think movies like Mi Familia that were done in the 90’s, Selena, of course American Me, like, they tackled this Chicano element really well and these were done by Chicano artists that have been here for a long time. I’m a little different. I’m first generation, so all of those stories I have to be educated on. I don’t have family that was here in the 50’s, I don’t have family that was here in the 60’s, during the movements. I think great filmmakers choose films that are relevant to them, so I want to pick things that are relevant to me, that way they have an aura of authenticity around them. So, for me, being a Latino, I do want to pick stories that highlight our culture in ways we haven’t seen before. I’m dying for someone to make the Latino The Best Man. It’s tough to be us in the United States and I think the solution is for our artists to just get our work out there.

But there are barriers in getting their work out there.

I mean, a lot of mainstream festivals or mainstream distributors will tell you, “We have a lot of Latino work that we promote,” but they actually promote a lot of foreign work, films from Argentina, Mexico, Spain. That’s not the same thing. They’re not promoting U.S. Latino work. It’s a totally different animal. […] We’re not “cool” yet. They like our money, they like that we’re the number one box office draw, but we’re not cool yet.

First of all, I think in order to get the mainstream media to embrace our work, I think we need to embrace our own work. I bring up Cesar Chavez because if 80% of Latino moviegoers in this country had bought a ticket, it would have been number one at the box office. It would have been a smash hit. But that didn’t happen. That’s a problem. So before we can, like, put blame on other people, we need to kinda check ourselves a little bit. I bought a ticket twice! A lot of people didn’t even buy a ticket once! If we’re not gonna see our own movies, why would other people see work with us.

Why do you think they don’t?

I don’t know. Well, Captain America came out. I’m sure the numbers are gonna come out soon, broken down by ethnicity, and I’m gonna bet Latinos are heavily represented in that. With Latinos some of it is because our budgets are limited – Cesar Chavez was very limited. U.S. Latinos, yeah, we’re really proud of our culture, but they don’t want to go see something about, you know, the struggle…they want escapism just like everyone else. That’s why I’m dying to….and maybe I should make it, I don’t know if I have the skill to … I’m dying for the Latino The Best Man to come out. The Best Man, for me, is one of those great American films that just happens to have an all African American cast. Latinos would go watch that.

Do you think the mainstream is more willing to accept films from Latin America than from the U.S.?

Of course! The attraction of the other is always gonna be there. That’s always been attractive, for all time. Those are foreign movies. They have a prestige because they’re from somewhere else. That’s the difference between Neiman Marcus and Ross. That’s not something I blame anybody for – I love foreign movies! If someone says to me, “Have you seen the new movie from Amsterdam?” “Ooh, from Amsterdam! Need to see that!” Now whether they’re actually better…

I also think there’s probably an element of mainstream American audiences not wanting to hear about the problems they’re able to turn a blind eye to. “I don’t want to watch the poverty in El Barrio, but I will watch the poverty in Mexico City for a while.”

Yeah, because then there’s an accountability element. “Oh, wait, I’m partially responsible for this. I’m partly responsible for fixing this.” Calls to action are tough. We can see things…like City of God! Poverty in Rio de Janeiro! What a great movie! And a lot of people watched it and were like, “Oh, doesn’t that suck? Okay, let’s go get dinner.” And here, in Los Angeles, oh my God, Los Angeles is this opulent city – really, it’s a wealthy city – but there’s this underclass… I didn’t even want to bring it up, but yeah, I agree with you.

Who are some of the artists and films you’re most excited about this year?

My buddy Henry just made a movie called The House That Jack Built. That movie just blew me away – in a positive way. I’ve heard bad things about the movie, that it portrays Latinos as stereotypes, drug dealers, over sexualized, so I’d heard all the bad things and when I went in I was expecting not to like it but I loved it. Richard Montoya… he’s an exciting writer. He has a different take on things. Water & Power was flawed because it didn’t have money. I think if it had a studio behind it, that would have been amazing.

What’s your next project?

My next project actually is another Latino film but it’d be hard to say if you’ve ever seen this Latino film before – it goes back to what I was saying about telling stories we don’t get to see. Here in Los Angeles there’s this great Latino subculture movement around rockabilly. […] It was at risk of dying in the 90s, and if it wasn’t for L.A. Chicanos taking rockabilly music, the music would have died out. So the film is about a group of rockabilly enthusiasts going to a concert one night in Vegas and it’s about all their stories – how they get there, their relationships while they’re there, the time they have while they’re there at this concert. It’s very different from Avenues but I’m on a quest to show Latinos in a light that people have never seen before. This is a mostly Latino cast, featuring great modern rock and roll music, contemporary rockabilly music from today. I’m really excited about it, it’s an experiment in storytelling and we start shooting later this year.

Where can we see Avenues?

It’s still a work in progress but if you keep up with us on Facebook we’ll be screening in a city near you very soon.