Diego Luna On Why Los Angeles Needs Another Film Festival and How Documentaries Can Erase Borders

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Almost a year ago, we first told you that Ambulante — the traveling documentary film festival founded by Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, Elena Fortes, and Pablo Cruz — is crossing the border into the U.S. close to ten years after its first edition in Mexico. Now, the long-awaited rock tour of documentaries is about to land in Los Angeles.

The team behind Ambulante California, including the newly-appointed Director of Ambulante USA, Christine Davila, just announced their film lineup. On September 21, the festival kicks off at MacArthur Park with an outdoor screening of Bronx Obama. The doc follows the story of Puerto Rican single father, Louis Ortiz, whose uncanny resemblance to the President of the United States gives him a new lease on life as an Obama impersonator. Commenting on the film, Davila remarked, “The film is about identity, both personal and cultural, it has a surprising depth, humor and above all, an insightful reflection on middle class America.”

In total, 22 documentaries will screen at several venues across eight different neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The films represent a varied mix of topics, ranging from cultural identity to music, biographies, social justice, and environmental issues. Keeping with their mission to bring documentaries to underserved audiences, all events are free and most of them are outdoors.

Highlights include Las Marthas, centered on two young women as they prepare for a very peculiar celebration in their hometown of Laredo, Texas in honor of George Washington’s birthday. A month-long fiesta including reenactments and parades, the main event is an exclusive, invite-only colonial ball hosted by the Society of Martha Washington. Wearing elaborate, intricate gowns worth thousands of dollars, Mexican-American debutantes dress as figures from the American Revolution and reenact a birthday party hosted by Martha Washington.

‘Las Marthas’
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Ambulante California will also spotlight a handful of Mexican films that have participated in the festival’s previous editions: Al otro lado, by Natalia Almada, Elevador by Adrián Ortiz, and Diario a tres voces by Otilia Portillo Padua, a touching portrait of three different generations of women sharing their stories of love and romance. Rounding out the Mexican selections is Pedro Gónzlez-Rubio’s docufiction hybrid Alamar. Set in a small house on stilts that sits above the crystal clear, blue waters of the Yucatan Peninsula, it explores the bond between a father and son as they share a fishing trip together.

In advance of the festival’s programming announcement we spoke to Diego Luna in an exclusive interview. He shared why Los Angeles is in desperate need of this type of documentary festival, his favorite film from Ambulante California’s lineup, and his newest project, a film he is directing that’s about to start shooting.

Ambulante started almost 10 years ago to bring documentaries to places in Mexico where audiences didn’t normally get to see them. Now, the festival has traveled all around Mexico, from city to city. Do you think the culture in Mexico around documentaries has changed since then? Are people more likely to watch documentaries?

Definitely it has changed, the perception has changed. Young people are finding in documentaries what they’re not finding in fiction films. I remember many years ago, fiction films used to take many risks that today they are not taking. And it makes sense. It’s a very expensive industry. There’s a lot of risk and financiers have to be very careful. There’s a lot of fear involved [of losing money.] Documentaries can be more free. Documentaries are stories that are happening now, that have a clear point of view, a voice. You can see things through someone else’s eyes. The complexity that documentaries are offering today, you can’t find anywhere else.

In Mexico, the perception changed. Ambulante, in a way, helped many other festivals to start to happen in Mexico. And there are stories of commercial success, in theaters, of documentaries made in and out of Mexico. And that’s something new for sure.

And then today I think it’s not just about the documentaries, it’s about the social experience. The movies bring up new things [or issues] that probably you were not aware of, or maybe a different point of view that confronts your own point of view. And the social encounter that happens around Ambulante now lasts for more than [the festival] because there is a webpage and a festival family that is connected throughout the year, not just when the festival is happening. That feeling of belonging to a community that is asking questions and raising questions and generates debate. It’s important and necessary.

How has the festival changed in the almost 10 years that it has existed? How has your involvement with the festival changed?

When we started many, many years ago it sounded like a crazy idea, but the amazing thing to see is how much it grows from year to year. It’s unbelievable. I mean, compared to anything else, something that grows 100% every year, it’s the best experience you can ever imagine.

And a festival that started happening inside the cinemas started to go out of the cinemas. Today it happens in plazas and galleries, in schools, universities. The cinema got out of the cinema and went out and found the people. So, really, documentary films were able to find an audience [in Mexico].

And it found its own personality. Each city, each state in a way shaped the festival to their necessities. The festival is not the same in Mexico City as it is in the north, as it is in the south. It’s an interesting thing to see how people made the festival theirs. That is something unique. The participation of the volunteers and the audience in the shaping of the festival is important.

And today the festival is bigger than any of us. It has its own life. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of, but it doesn’t depend on any of us anymore. And when I say “any,” I mean all of us who were there when it was founded. Today there are other people devoted to the festival, that believe in the festival, that are making the festival what it is today.

And it’s very important to make sure the life of the festival is long. It’s more than one or two people. It’s more than one point of view. It’s something that belongs to many. So, the great thing and why I’ve been able to be there over the years is because if one year I need to go do my film and disappear for a year, the festival doesn’t need me [to survive]. I help with the next one if I can, and that’s important.

You said that each city and state in Mexico gave the festival its own personality. What do you think about Los Angeles is going to make this edition different?

I believe that an effort like this is really needed in California. Hopefully one day in all the States, but today I can just say California. I’ve lived here in California — not permanently but sporadically — for the last 10 years. I’ve spent a lot of time here. This city, which is quite spread out and segmented — there’s a need for things like this to bring people together.

I also believe that our stories need to be told. There’s connections that we don’t always see and documentaries are a great tool for that. I travel a lot through Latin America and the States and I believe we’ve allowed borders to separate us. And documentaries are a good way to build a bridge between these borders and to make sure we don’t forget about each other.

You said that you haven’t lived permanently in L.A. but over the past 10 years you’ve lived there sporadically. I’m guessing you go back and forth between Mexico and L.A. Do you feel a personal connection to the city of Los Angeles?

I do have a home here, so it is like my second home. The idea of Ambulante happening in the States — well, the idea, it’s been around for quite a long time. But when we shot the film Cesar Chávez, we moved to the States, we moved to California. Since day one of that trip to the States me and my partners were talking about the importance of making sure that Ambulante keeps helping to make these connections [between people] happen.

And it’s quite amazing to be in a city so rich and diverse like L.A. and at the same time with a lack of information on what’s going on today in Latin America. Again, we’ve allowed that border to separate us in many ways and we have to make sure we work against that.

Los Angeles is kind of a microcosm of the United States in that there’s generations of people that were born in the U.S. that are of Mexican descent living there and at the same time there’s people that are very recent arrivals. You recently directed the movie Cesar Chavez about a very important historical figure for Mexican-Americans, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, César Chávez. Did the experience of living in L.A. during the filming of Cesar Chavez make you more aware of the differences and the similarities amongst recent Mexican immigrants and U.S.-born Mexicans?

I guess what I realized was the amount of layers. We tend to put labels on things. There’s one thing that we call the “Mexican-Americans,” there’s one thing they call the “Latino population,” the “Hispanic.” The amount of layers, of richness, of diversity used to define that complexity, it’s unbelievable. It’s almost as if you were traveling through Latin America. Then, you go to Europe and they think Chile is the same as Mexico. I’m like, “No! Oh my God! In fact, sometimes we need subtitles to see each other’s films!”

So hopefully, I do think documentaries can bring awareness of this complexity, and celebrating differences and understanding these differences. I do believe that documentaries are a tool of change because they confront you instantly with who you are by listening to the stories of others. So it’s important we all make documentaries that challenge people.

What are some of your favorite documentaries?

I’ll tell you that from the [Ambulante California] selection, Al Otro Lado by Natalia Almada. It’s not new at all. In fact, many years ago it played at Ambulante [in Mexico], but she’s a fantastic, fantastic filmmaker. I really recommend people to go see it. I loved it and I really got excited when I saw that they selected it for the festival because every time they show it to a bigger audience, it’s good for the film. I really like her and I think she’s very talented.

You mentioned that the plan for Ambulante California is to try to go to other states. When do you think the festival will start traveling throughout the U.S.?

I think it’s more like, it’s not a set plan, but more like a dream. I wish one day we can have festivals that simulate what happens in Mexico. But we have to go one step at a time. It’s important we consolidate it in California. A few years ago, we did a very interesting program in Tijuana and San Diego, on both sides of the border, called Ambulante Border, where we were showing the same documentaries in each city and creating a debate on things that mattered on both sides of the border. And the result was quite unique, you know? And it’s exactly what I was talking about before, how do we make sure that we don’t allow borders to define us?

I know that you did voice acting for the Dia de Muertos-themed, animated movie The Book of Life, which will be in theaters next month. Do you have any other projects you are working on? Do you plan on directing another film any time soon?

Yeah, I’m about to jump into that, into shooting my film. So that is going to take like half a year of my life, as the process of directing is way more intense than acting. I’ve been preparing a project called Mr. Pig for quite a long time and we’re finally about to start shooting.

Ambulante California runs September 21 – October 4. For more information visit the website and follow on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr.