El Descanso (The Resting Place) is one of three festival entries from Argentina.
El Descanso (The Resting Place) is one of three festival entries from Argentina.

Viva Vistas

Dallas gained a lot more than it lost the day civil rights lawyer Frank P. Hernandez shut down his practice and drove to New York City to talk his way into New York University's film school. He never established himself as a filmmaker, yet the experience helped inspire the area's only Latino film festival. Vistas may not be a Sundance--no participant has ever landed a Hollywood deal after premiering at the festival--but four years since its inception, the festival is gaining momentum.

El Crimen del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro), a relatively new film that has been breaking box-office records in Mexico, makes its U.S. debut Sunday at the festival's close. And this year Vistas is at the swanky Angelika Film Center, a notable change from the event's previous, original venue, the now-closed Medallion dollar movie theater. A new Web site combined with radio, television, print and outdoor advertisements resulted in the festival marking a major milestone before it even started. "When they opened the box office the first day, there were people lined up," says festival director Shanti Shahani. "We've raised the bar on a lot of things."

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, Latinos are the fastest-growing movie audience in North America, accounting for more than 15 percent of box-office sales. Despite this, Latinos are underrepresented among filmmakers and actors. Screen Actors Guild 2001 statistics put Latino representation in film and television at slightly less than 5 percent, while Latinos make up about 12 percent of the nation's population. Not surprisingly, nurturing Latino artists and educating the greater community about Latinos are a large part of the festival's mission.


Vistas Film Festival

Angelika Film Center, 5321 E. Mockingbird Lane

Thursday through Sunday. For show times, call 214-826-9560.

"[Films] just expose you to things you'd never see," Hernandez says. "I've always thought movies had an impact on the development of children and the development of adults."

To qualify for Vistas, films must either be the creation of Latino artists or have significant Latino content. "Any which way that it's connected [to Latinos], that's what we're going to showcase...The first year most of the film directors didn't speak Spanish and some people were mad. I didn't care...By doing it that way, we covered everybody," Hernandez says.

Even if distribution deals don't materialize from Vistas, filmmakers say simply participating in the event is an important step in gaining credibility for their work. "Studios won't even listen to you unless you've been in a film festival," says Dallas' Israel Luna, director of Is Anybody There?, the dark story of four friends' fateful evening with a Ouija board, and one of two feature films by local artists in the festival lineup.

At least one film bigwig is attending Vistas. Diana Bracho, the new president of Mexico's Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, will give a lecture Saturday on the state of film in Mexico. This is the first year an appearance by an industry insider has been officially included in the event.

Vistas' lineup includes almost 40 films, the vast majority from North America; more than 30 of the festival's feature films, documentaries and shorts are a product of Mexico, the United States or both. (Productions in Spanish run with English subtitles.) Among the movies are several that will have their Texas or U.S. premiere at the festival. El Crimen del Padre Amaro is based on a novel by 19th-century Portuguese writer Eca de Queiroz and tells the story of a priest who falls in love with a 16-year-old girl. Gael Garcia Bernal, star of Y Tu Mamá También and the Oscar-nominated Amores Perros, plays the 24-year-old, recently ordained priest. Angelica Aragon, who plays Sanjuanera, the teen's mother, is attending the Dallas screening.

Some members of Mexico's Roman Catholic Church have been so outraged by El Crimen, which features priests having sex and socializing with drug traffickers, they attempted to get the film banned. The protests only fueled the movie's sinful popularity.

The opening-night film, De Ida y Vuelta (Back and Forth), revolves around the struggles of Filiberto, a Mexican citizen who returns to his hometown after working in the United States for three years. Of a relatively similar vein, the documentary Escuela (School) highlights hardships faced by children of migrant farm workers in the United States.

Three festival entries are from Argentina. El Descanso (The Resting Place) is about two Buenos Aires friends whose vacation plans are interrupted by a car crash in an isolated, rural part of the country. Towed to a small town in the middle of nowhere, they stumble across an abandoned hotel with a mysterious past. Despite Osvaldito's reservations, Freddy decides to restore the hotel to its former glory, enlisting the help and inspiring the ire of various locals in the process. This is a black comedy about greed, ambition and the will to succeed, as well as a dissection of the sly side of small-town life. Vistas is El Descanso's Texas premiere; it won Best Argentine Film at the 2001 Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival.

In Vidas Privadas (Private Lives) Carmen, played by Argentine film star Cecilia Roth, rushes back to Buenos Aires after almost 20 years of exile in Europe to be with her dying father. In Buenos Aires, she lives a double life, one where she lives in the family house and another where she rents a flat and pays a couple to let her listen to them have sex. The 42-year-old hires a younger couple and soon develops a relationship with the young man, Gustavo, played by Mexico's Garcia Bernal. Argentine singer/songwriter Fito Paez directed.

Causa Efecto (Cause Effect), which makes its U.S. debut at the festival, explores the concept of destiny by looking at how individual actions impact greater communities as well as the lives of those whose paths they actually cross. The film features snippets of 20 Buenos Aires inhabitants' lives. Each one's decisions influence the lives of the others in one way or another.

The festival's remaining entries are binational in content and/or creation. Documentary Adio Kerida is a search for Cuba's few remaining Sephardic Jews, most of whom left the island and resettled in the United States after the revolution. Director Ruth Behar, whose grandparents were Jewish emigrants to the island, and who left Cuba for the United States as a child, also looks for Jewish Cubans, known as "Jubans," living in the United States.

German director Uli Gaulke takes viewers into the gritty heart of Cuba's capital in Havana Mi Amor by giving some inhabitants the opportunity to share their lives with the rest of the world. Although the film never directly criticizes Castro, the documentary has reportedly been banned in Cuba because of subtle criticism. For example, during a phone call to a love interest in Canada, an interviewee notes he has spent his entire monthly salary on the long-distance call. Vistas is the film's Texas premiere. The short German and Ukrainian documentary Introduction explores the problem of violence in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Vistas also features retrospectives on the work of Mexican film diva Maria Felix, who died last April at age 88, and Dallas native Trini Lopez, best known for his 1960s hit song If I Had a Hammer and for co-starring in The Dirty Dozen. Lopez is attending his retrospective, featuring clips from a number of his films, including The Dirty Dozen, Marriage on the Rocks and Antonio, in which he co-starred with Larry Hagman.


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