10 Latino Filmmakers Who Absolutely Killed It This Year

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For those would-be directors born in Latin America finding funding for a new production involves applying for dozens of grants provided by their country’s film institute or local government money earmarked for the arts. There’s also European organizations that target filmmakers in the “developing world” and Ibermedia, a consortium of film institutes that support co-productions amongst Ibero-American countries with Spain and Portugal. These funders are rarely concerned with a film’s commercial appeal and let the director pursue their vision, no matter how wonderfully weird it may be. This new capital-raising system is a result of policy changes that began in the 90s and has served as an impetus for the filmmaking boom that most Latin American countries are experiencing. In stark contrast, for American-born Latinos raising money to make a film is fraught with difficulty.

In most cases, having American citizenship is an advantage, but for Latino filmmakers it adds a host of obstacles. Unless you happen to have a passport from the country your parents hail from, the children of Latino immigrants are left out in the cold — they are not eligible for Ibermedia grants or those for directors from developing countries. Then, there is the fact that the United States has no film institute to speak of. There are a few non-profits (including PBS) that provide money for documentaries (they usually need to social-issue based movies) but there is no U.S. equivalent to the public grants that Latin American cineastas have access to. That leaves them to fight over scraps in the private sector. Have you ever tried to convince an investor to give you money for a Latino story featuring an all-Latino cast? Try it out and tell me how that works for you. (Spoiler alert: It’s virtually impossible.)

It’s no surprise that Latin American film directors are circling the globe, showing their finished films at the top-tier film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, and Venice. When was the last time you heard of a U.S. Latino filmmaker doing the same? I’m not going to say never, but it’s been a really, really long time. Despite all the obstacles, there are lots of U.S. Latino filmmakers who are forging a new path, making movies without waiting for someone to give them money or for the industry’s OK to proceed. Here we celebrate 10 Latino directors whose films may have played a big prestigious festival, or won a ton of awards, or got rave reviews, or was broadcast on television this year (or all of the above.) It’s our own version of the American (Latino) Dream.


Rodrigo Reyes, Purgatorio

Many filmmakers in recent times have mined the subject of illegal immigration to the US, but few have captured the disparities between the dream and the reality as effectively as Reyes, a young director from Mexico City who moved to the Californian town of Merced as a child and who cites Werner Herzog as an influence. Purgatorio channels the tragic elements that flow through Herzog’s finest work, never more so than in the personal accounts of those seeking to make it to the US. An ex-alumnus of UC San Diego, having also studied in Mexico City and Madrid, with a degree in international studies, Reyes supplements his film career by working as an interpreter in the state judicial system, a role which you suspect proves influential in his ability to sympathize with those often smeared by common discourse. With Purgatorio, which gobbled up several awards this year, he has made a thoughtful, poignant and exquisitely-shot documentary that stands out from the crowd.



Cristina Ibarra, Las Marthas

Growing up between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, independent filmmaker Cristina Ibarra, a 1997 graduate from the University of Texas in Austin, has been making uniquely inspired documentaries for the last 14 years. This year, she introduced audiences to Las Marthas, a doc that highlights the young ladies who participate in a traditional (some would say bizarre) Colonial Ball and pageant in Laredo, Texas in celebration of first U.S. President George Washington’s birthday. The film, which was made by Ibarra’s own production company Undocumented Films, was the recipient of the Tribeca Institute’s Heineken VOCES Documentary Award and was broadcast on PBS’ Independent Lens series earlier this year. Las Marthas also made its debut in Los Angeles at Ambulante, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna’s traveling documentary film festival.


Daniel Armando, What It Was

Going back to New York always seems to awaken those dormant emotions. In Daniel Armando’s first feature film, What It Was, which roamed the festival circuit this year, Adina is a Hollywood actress who returns east after the death of her sister. Her trip sees her reunite with an old flame while at the same time connect with a boisterous young student. Although the genders are switched, Armando cited his own background as an influence in this treatise on sexual identity. Originally from Victorville, California, he moved to New York as an aspiring filmmaker, and has gone on to focus on LGBT people from minority communities, basing his work around those typically ignored in mainstream cinema. He has taken a non-conventional route into filmmaking, telling Remezcla in September that “I studied performance. Anything I have learned from being in front of a camera or on a stage I apply to filmmaking. The creating process is similar. And for me the strongest thing I can bring to the table as a director is a vision and a clear direction.” What It Was took Armando on a tour of festivals having screened at OutFest in Los Angeles, NewFest in New York, and LGBT film fests in Miami and North Carolina, among others.



Jose Nestor Marquez, ISA

Cuban-American filmmaker Jose Nestor Marquez put himself on the map this year with his sci-fi thriller Isa, which debuted on the SyFy channel this past June. The film follows a young Hispanic girl (Jeanette Samano) who finds out she has the ability to merge dreams with reality and is being pursued by a company who wants to take advantage of her supernatural power. Born in Havana, Cuba, Márquez graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Although he is not a stranger to the film industry, Isa is the first feature film of his career. In past interviews, Márquez has said he “would love to make emotionally powerful movies that inspire audiences to talk and think about hard questions.” That might include a future sequel to his breakout film.


Elise DuRant, Eden

Durant is the director of the Kickstarter-funded film Eden, a semi-autobiographical account of life in the picturesque city of San Miguel de Allende in Central Mexico. She was raised there by her US father until they were forced to leave the country following accusations of pre-Hispanic art smuggling, back in the States, she always felt caught between two worlds. It’s an experience U.S.-born Latinos can relate to, only in reverse. Returning several years later to her childhood home, and having graduated in philosophy and literature at New York State’s Sarah Lawrence College, Elise was captivated by San Miguel de Allende and its surrounding landscapes, making it the setting for her debut feature. Eden centers on John, an American novelist with an illicit sideline, and his nine-year old daughter Alma, before the story shifts to the grown-up Alma retracing these early steps. Having previously worked on several Woody Allen films, Durant displays a talent for character-based narrative, and Eden was well-received at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival.



Antonio Santini, Mala Mala

A co-director of the documentary film Mala Mala, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, Antonio Santini took audiences into the lives of trans people from Puerto Rico and presented the issue of gender identity in a way that is underrepresented in the mainstream media. Santini was born and grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He studied human communication and subculture at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. While in New York, he met Mala Mala co-director Dan Sickles. The two hit the festival circuit this year, showing at the Austin Gay & Lesbian Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, and at the Provincetown International Film Festival. Mala Mala debuted in Puerto Rico in November.



Daniel Garcia, Recommended by Enrique

With his Lebanese partner Rania Attieh, who he met at university in San Antonio (where Rania studied public relations and he studied philosophy), Daniel Garcia is one half of a prolific filmmaking duo. Recommended by Enrique, the second of three films they’ve co-directed since 2011, is a somewhat surreal tale of a ramshackle film project in the Lynchian town of Del Rio, Texas, which also happens to be Garcia’s home state. It was shown at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, while Attieh and Garcia’s third feature, entitled H, is already confirmed for Sundance 2015. Another film which sounds like it was conceived over a late-night bong session, H centers on two women named Helen whose lives descend into chaos following a meteor explosion over New York. You can be sure that this is a pair of names we’ll be hearing plenty more from.



Nicole Gomez Fisher, Sleeping With the Fishes

Winner of the Best New Director Award at the Brooklyn Film Festival and Best Director at the Imagen Foundation Awards, filmmaker Nicole Gomez Fisher has made a name for herself with her directorial debut Sleeping With the Fishes, a comedy which was broadcast on HBO Latino earlier this year. The film tells the story of Alexis Fish (Gina Rodriguez of TV’s Jane the Virgin fame), a young woman growing up in a Latino Jewish household in Brooklyn. Starting out as an actress and stand-up comedian, Fisher is a founding member of Hot Tamales Live!, the Latina comedy tour produced by Eva Longoria. Fisher earned her BA in journalism from the University of Albany and was born and raised in Brooklyn. Fisher has just finished up her second feature film screenplay and is hoping one of her scripts for the TV shows Big Bang Theory and Modern Family get picked up by their respected networks.



Nic Santana, Elvis

New York City-based director Nic Santana broke out in 2014 with Elvis, a short film that debuted on NUVOtv as part of their Nu Point of View summer series for aspiring filmmakers. Santana, who graduated from Loyola Marymount University, was one of only three filmmakers chosen to have their film broadcast by the media outlet. The short follows a day in the life of 17-year-old Elvis who discovers that he and his parents are undocumented immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Along with NUVOtv, Elvis was screened at the New Filmmakers Los Angeles showcase this past summer. Santana directed, wrote, produced and edited the film himself.



William Caballero, How You Doin’ Boy?

Caballero, a New York resident of Puerto Rican background, was one of four finalists in the NUVOtv’s Nu Point of View winter showcase for his short film How You Doin’ Boy? Voicemails from Gran´pa, which was a regular presence on the festival circuit. You’re unlikely to have seen as many purely uplifting films over the past twelve months. Having left the family cradle in North Carolina a decade earlier in order to study on a Bill Gates Millennium Scholarship first at the Pratt Institute (BFA in Digital Art) and then at NYU (MA the Arts and Humanities in Education), Caballero continues to receive multiple voicemails from his doting grandfather, a sprightly, outgoing fellow who nevertheless grows cross if his calls are not returned. As if the recorded messages were not a thing of beauty in their own right, Caballero created several miniature models of Gramps which he then used to illustrate his film. The result was a funny, emotional and innovative look at how family love conquers all, even among wayward grandchildren and distant abuelitos. Watch it, and then make sure you call. It means a lot to them.