Film

Border Stories Were Going to Take Center Stage At This Year’s Now Canceled San Diego Latino Film Festival

Lead Photo: David Illescas appears 'Sin Señas Particulares' by Fernanda Valadez. Photo by Claudia Bercerril. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
David Illescas appears 'Sin Señas Particulares' by Fernanda Valadez. Photo by Claudia Bercerril. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

There are very few film festivals around the United States that focus exclusively on Latino content. Which is why, when one of them is inching ever nearer to a thirty year anniversary, you can’t help but beam with pride. For this year’s 27th edition of the San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF), the programmers have once again curated a lineup that will give local audiences a chance to see both what’s making waves around Latin America and what exciting work is being produced in the U.S. as well. And given the political moment, the fest is well aware of how significant that kind of visibility can accomplish.

“With the ongoing political divide surrounding ‘the border wall’ and immigration, the proliferation of authentic Latino perspectives is more meaningful now than ever, and the 27th edition of the SDLFF is committed to giving filmmakers a platform to accomplish this,” stated festival founder and Executive Director, Ethan van Thillo.

While the entire program deserves your attention — particularly its Frontera Filmmakers Showcase — we’ve picked out 15 films you shouldn’t miss. Whether you’re looking to see what Gael García Bernal conjured up for his sophomore directorial effort, are in the mood for a Peruvian-flavored musical, or are eager to catch some of the most probing examinations of what’s happening at the border, you’ll find everything you want below.

San Diego Latino Film Festival runs March 12-22, 2020 UPDATE: The San Diego Latino Film Festival has been canceled in response to the growing concern over the spread of the Coronavirus.

Border South

Raúl O. Paz Pastrana

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mostly from Central America, pass through Mexico every year on their way to the U.S. southern border. To stem the immigration tide, Mexico and the U.S. collaborate to crack down on migrants. Filmmaker Raúl O. Paz Pastrana spent four years following migrant routes from southern Mexico to the Mexico-United States border. The result is a close-up, nuanced, and highly original view of the migrant experience; one fraught with risk and danger but also camaraderie, ingenuity, and humor. Also profiled is the Undocumented Migration Project, an effort to collect and catalog artifacts left behind by migrants in the Arizona desert speaking powerfully on behalf of those who seek a better life at an almost unbearable cost. Immigration Films Showcase.

Mexico, United States
Documentary
Jason De Leon, Cecilia Girón Pérez
2019
83

Bacurau

Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonça Filho

Bacurau is a wild, weird, and politically charged revisionist Western. Set in the near future, the film follows Teresa (Bárbara Colen), who comes home to Bacurau, a village in Brazil’s semiarid sertão, to attend her mother’s funeral. Upon her arrival, Teresa immediately observes signs that Bacurau is in dire straits. Basic amenities are in short supply, cellphone coverage is fading, and the truck that brings potable water arrives riddled with bullet holes. It soon becomes apparent that the government has forsaken the village completely. Not only has Bacurau been literally erased from the map, but its citizens have also been sold as prey for a safari of bloodthirsty foreign hunters. Their leader is played by cult-cinema legend Udo Kier. As the killers close in, the villagers prepare a formidable organized resistance, with a locally sourced psychotropic drug as their secret weapon.

Brazil
Western
Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonça Filho
Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt, Emilie Lesclaux
2019
132

Sin señas particulares

Fernanda Valadez

Magdalena hasn’t heard from her son in months — not since he left their town to cross the border into the United States. The authorities want her to sign her son’s death certificate, but an encounter with a bereaved parent makes Magdalena realize that she cannot live without knowing his fate. She begins an odyssey across Mexico, though areas of violence and desolation, chasing any available lead despite being warned not to publicly ask such questions. Along the way, she meets and travels with recently deported Miguel, who finds himself journeying home through a changed country. Grappling with the painful issue of migrants disappearing on their way to the U.S., writer-director Fernanda Valadez’s ambitious feature debut employs a tremendous economy of film language as it traverses across a varied contemporary Mexican landscape, expanding as our emotional experience of Magdalena’s journey swells to meet her own. The solemn Sin Señas Particulares punctuates its contemplation of family and loss with fleeting moments of human connection, allowing one woman’s aching personal story to encapsulate the weight of a tremendous real-world humanitarian crisis.

Spain, Mexico
Drama
Fernanda Valadez, Astrid Rondero
Astrid Rondero, Jack Zagha, Yossy Zagha, Fernanda Valadez
2020
95

Lina de Lima

María Paz González

A delightful renovation of the musical comedy and a timely examination of the realities of migrant labor, the inventive debut fiction feature from Chilean director María Paz González tackles heavy themes with a light touch and a saucy sense of humor. It’s been 10 years since Lina left her home country of Peru to work in Chile as a housekeeper to a wealthy family. The job has provided Lina with sufficient earnings to live frugally and have enough left over to send money back home to her son Junior, who’s grown from a small child to an adolescent in her absence. Now, with Christmas just around the corner, Lina is finally preparing to return to Lima for a belated visit. The thing is, Junior seems more concerned about getting an authentic soccer jersey than reuniting with his mother. Simultaneously, Lina’s bank account is in danger of getting drained when her employer’s newly installed pool is unexpectedly damaged under her watch. As the resourceful heroine navigates a scenario full of pitfalls and disappointments, González’s largely observational approach to storytelling gives us glimpses into the daily life of this hardworking single woman abroad: her endearing camaraderie with her employer’s young daughter and her online hookups with various men.

Read Remezcla’s review.

Peru, Chile, Argentina
Musical, Comedy
María Paz González
Giancarlo Nasi, Maite Alberdi
2019
83

Building the American Dream

Chelsea Hernandez

Across Texas, an unstoppable construction boom drives urban sprawl and luxury high-rises. Its dirty secret: abuse of immigrant labor. Building the American Dream captures a turning point as a movement forms to fight widespread construction industry injustices. Grieving their son, a Mexican family campaigns for a life-or-death safety ordinance. A Salvadoran electrician couple, owed thousands in back pay, fights for their children’s future. A bereaved son battles to protect others from his family’s preventable tragedy. A story of courage, resilience and community, the film reveals shocking truths about the hardworking immigrants who build the American dream of which they are excluded.

United States
Documentary
Chelsea Hernandez, Marisol Medrano
2019
75

A vida invisível de Eurídice Gusmão

Karim Aïnouz

From prolific Brazilian auteur Karim Aïnouz and set in midcentury Rio de Janeiro, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão is a sprawling melodrama about feminine resilience. Based on Martha Batalha’s beloved novel, Aïnouz’s most accessible work retains the unfettered sensuality and sumptuous splendor that render all his films so uniquely captivating. The year is 1950. Classical piano prodigy Eurídice (Carol Duarte) dreams of studying at the Vienna Conservatory. Her sister Guida (Julia Stockler), however, is the first of the siblings to make it to Europe, albeit fleetingly. After having eloped with a Greek sailor, Guida soon returns to Rio de Janeiro pregnant and alone, unbeknown to Eurídice. Kept apart by a terrible lie, years pass as the two sisters forge their respective paths through their city’s teeming bustle, each believing the other to be half a world away. Complementing the seductively saturated hues of the cinematography by Hélène Louvart, the film’s soundtrack features a soulful score from Benedikt Schiefer coupled with a poignant voice-over duet consisting of the sisters’ misaddressed missives. Culminating in an affecting cameo from Oscar nominee Fernanda Montenegro, Aïnouz’s stirring epic of winding paths, that fail to intersect, balances cruel irony — the black sheep finds herself truly seen, while the ostensibly good daughter becomes invisible — with carnal abandon and tenacious love.

Read Remezcla’s review.

Germany, Brazil
Drama
Murilo Hauser, Inés Bortagaray, Karim Ainouz
Viola Fügen, Rodrigo Teixeira
2019
139

We Are The Radical Monarchs

Linda Goldstein Knowlton

A group of tween girls chant into megaphones, marching in the San Francisco Trans March. Fists clenched high, they wear brown berets and vests showcasing colorful badges like “Black Lives Matter” and “Radical Beauty.” Meet the Radical Monarchs, a group of young girls of color at the front lines of social justice. Set in Oakland, a city with a deep history of social justice movements, the film documents the journey of the group as they earn badges for completing units including being an LGBTQ ally, preserving the environment, and disability justice. Started by two fierce, queer women of color (Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest) whom we follow as they face the challenge to grow the organization, the film tracks the moment right before and soon after the 2016 election.

Read Remezcla’s review.

United States
Documentary
Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Katie Flint
2018
97

La Llorona

Jayro Bustamante

The story of La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), concerns a Medea-like figure who drowns her children after being abandoned by her husband. She’s thereafter condemned to wander the earth, bringing misfortune to all who cross her path. A perennial myth in Latin American culture, La Llorona has appeared in countless works of music, literature, and cinema — but she’s never been re-imagined with the level of trenchancy found in the latest work from writer-director Jayro Bustamante. Transplanting the ancient tale to a contemporary Guatemala still struggling to find justice for the victims of its Civil War, La Llorona is a horror story whose deepest chills are generated by real-life atrocities. Once a fearsome commanding officer, General Enrique Monteverde is now an elderly man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Decades after the Civil War, Monteverde is belatedly brought to trial and found guilty of genocide, but his conviction is swiftly overturned on judicial technicalities. Accompanied by his wife and daughter — as well as their faithful housekeeper and her mysterious new subordinate — Monteverde is brought home. While demonstrators clamor daily for retribution outside the walls of his property, Monteverde begins to hear and see strange things transpiring within his home during the wee hours.

Guatemala, France
Drama
Lisandro Sánchez, Jayro Bustamante
Gustavo Matheu, Georges Renand, Jayro Bustamante, Marina Peralta
2019
96

Ema

Pablo Larrain

Set in the scenic seaport city of Valparaíso, the latest from Pablo Larraín reunites the visionary Chilean auteur with Mexican superstar Gael García Bernal (No, Neruda) for an incendiary drama about art, desire, and family. Ema (Mariana di Girolamo) is a talented young dancer whose roots lie in the carnal reggaeton grooves she and her friends perform to in the city streets, but she’s forged a career as part of a more cerebral modern-dance ensemble helmed by her husband, choreographer Gastón (García Bernal). As the film opens, the couple is reeling from a terrible crisis: their adopted 12-year-old son Polo has set fire to their home, severely burning the face of Ema’s sister in the process. With her child taken from her and her marriage crumbling, Ema sets out on a strange, secretive, and risky quest to reset her life.

Read Remezcla’s review.

Chile
Music, Drama
Alejandro Moreno, Pablo Larraín, Guillermo Calderón
Juan de Dios Larraín
2019
106

Seneca

Jason Chaet

Seneca follows David Seneca (played by co-writer Armando Riesco), a Puerto Rican actor in New York City, who has been struggling for years to make his acting career a success. As David’s hair grays his millennial protégé takes the acting world by storm and David teaches foreign business execs how to reduce their accents. David’s home life is not faring much better- his relationship with his wife is on the rocks, his parenting skills are not exactly up to par, his homeland of Puerto Rico is recovering from its worst natural disaster in recent history, and his childhood mentor is losing his fight to cancer. Cracking under the pressure, David finds himself in a less-than-impressive street fight that goes viral. Now an infamous internet sensation, he is kicked out of his home, and must slowly start picking up the pieces of his life to make himself whole again.

Read Remezcla’s review.

Puerto Rico, United States
Drama
Jason Chaet, Armando Riesco
Jason Chaet, Armando Riesco
2019
90

Chicuarotes

Gael García Bernal

Gael García Bernal’s second feature as director is a rollicking story of working-class desperation. Turning to crime as a means of fleeing their Mexico City shantytown, the antiheroes of Chicuarotes bring a wildly entertaining mix of exuberance, invention, and audacity to their lawless pursuits. Chicuarotes is a colloquial term for denizens of San Gregorio Atlapulco, a low-income neighborhood still struggling to recover from the 2017 earthquake — and a place teenage friends Cagalera (Benny Emmanuel) and Moloteco (Gabriel Carbajal) will do anything to leave. The film opens to find the boys performing a clown act on a bus. When the pancake makeup and lazzi fail to yield rewards, they resort to demanding passengers’ valuables by force, using a gun belonging to Cagalera’s mother’s abusive boyfriend. Cagalera and Moloteco thereafter are determined to seek bigger, riskier paydays, first by robbing a lingerie store — which results in a remarkable incident of police abusing their authority — and later by kidnapping the son of a butcher, a scheme that leads to them being sought out by Chillamil (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a ruthless enforcer-for-hire, newly released from prison.

Mexico
Crime
Augusto Mendoza
Marta Núñez Puerto, Thomas Benski, Gael García Bernal
2019
95

Mucho Mucho Amor

Kareem Tabsch, Cristina Costantini

Extravagant Puerto Rican astrologer, psychic, and gender nonconforming legend Walter Mercado charmed the world for over 30 years with his televised horoscopes. Equal parts Oprah, Liberace, and Mr. Rogers, Walter was a celebrated daily part of Latino culture — until one day in 2007 he mysteriously disappeared. Over a decade later, the filmmakers find Walter and invite us into his home and interior world as he prepares to restore his legacy in the public eye. The film explores Walter’s complex story from the rural sugar cane fields of Puerto Rico to international astrology superstardom, rising above homophobia and the heteronormative beliefs of Latino society with a message of love and hope. From Latinx co-directors Kareem Tabsch and Cristina Costantini, Mucho Mucho Amor is a love letter to Walter Mercado. The filmmakers, who grew up watching him with their abuelos, craft a film with levity and a playful spirit. Light-years ahead of his time, Walter has become a nostalgic cult icon of self-expression and positivity for the gender-fluid youth of today.

Read Remezcla’s review.

United States
Documentary
Kareem Tabsch, Alex Fumero, Cristina Costantini
2020
96

Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage

Ben DeJesus

Raúl Juliá: The World’s a Stage examines the life and career of the inspiring entertainer, Raúl Juliá. The feature documentary is a revealing portrait of the charismatic actor, who earned recognition across the world for his versatility on stage and on screen before his life was tragically cut short. From his early days on local stages in Puerto Rico to stardom on Broadway (Nine and Man of la Mancha) and in Hollywood films (The Addams Family, Kiss of the Spider Woman), Raúl’s story is one of passion, determination, and a bit of magic — all qualities for which his performances were known for.

Read Remezcla’s review.

United States
Documentary
2019
82

Yo, imposible

Patricia Ortega

Ariel is a young religious dressmaker who, after a failed sexual encounter, discovers a secret her family has tried to hide all of her life: she was born intersex but, after corrective surgery, raised as a girl. A decision is now on her horizon: she can either keep living as a socially accepted but oppressed woman or live her life as an intersexual person and face the judgement of society. Venezuelan director Patricia Ortega turns Being Impossible into a careful examination of the tricky territory that comes with figuring out one’s gender identity belatedly.

Read Remezcla’s review.

Venezuela, Colombia
Drama
Patricia Ortega, Enmanuel Chávez
Patricia Ortega, Jhony Hendrix, Laura Barbosa
2018
85

Dear Homeland

Claudia Escobar

Dear Homeland tells the story of Mexican singer/songwriter Diana Gameros coming of age in the United States while finding her voice as an artist. Told in large part through her hauntingly beautiful music, her 20-year journey takes her from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to San Francisco, California, where we watch Diana assert herself as not only a musician but as an immigrant and an advocate for immigrant rights. Through music, she finds the courage to share her own story of being undocumented — channeling her fears and the weight of her separation from her family into powerful songs.

United States
Music, Documentary
Kelly Whalen
2020
57