The most memorable and valuable part of South of the Border, Oliver Stone's recent, little-seen documentary about Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and other South American heads of state, was the damning array of ignorant and slanted reports culled from U.S. newscasts. Challenging the mainstream media's simplistic and homogenous portrayal of Hispanic culture here and abroad is an ongoing effort, and one of the most valuable functions of the annual San Francisco Latino Film Festival.
A sampling of the fest's nine narratives and 10 documentaries finds a few, including Ricardo Martinez's border-furor survey, The Wall, pushing back against stereotypes, misinformation and misconceptions. The Wall conveys the perspective of landowners, sheriffs and mayors in southern Arizona and Texas opposed to the Bush Admministration's expensive, invasive and imperfect solution -- a long wall, or fence, if you prefer -- to stopping the wave of illegal immigration. Although slightly scattershot in focus and a tad dated (it ends with Obama's '08 victory), the documentary provides a useful, reasoned antidote to the election-year hysteria and knee-jerk racism common on cable news channels.
Most of the filmmakers, however, are more focused on addressing their own communities, and tackling such issues as the treatment of women, economic opportunity and the scourges of drugs, violence and crime. The straight-shooting opening-night film, La Yuma from Nicaragua, gives us a central character to root for all the way down the line -- a poor, honest teenage boxer aching to find a way out of her Managua barrio. She gets a taste of how the other half lives when she hooks up with a clean-cut university student, a dreamy escape from her daily reality of lowlife hustlers, druggies and petty crooks. Director Florence Jaugey keeps the clichés in check, delivering a satisfying and ultimately inspiring film whose mild excursions into fantasy we're perfectly happy to accept.
San Francisco writer-director Jose Montesinos's Owned unfolds in a generally similar setting, albeit much closer to home. A new parolee, determined to go straight, is hamstrung by a lack of money, options and alternatives but given plenty of access to drugs and guns. Montesinos plays this well-meaning man, and he knows both his character and the milieu. Owned is a compelling, empathetic yarn that resists rubbing our face in some truly sordid situations, but is unexpectedly tough-minded about its main character's prospects. It has some of the usual limitations and flaws of low-budget indies, but unlike most of those films, it succeeds in galvanizing our rooting interest.
The last feature I previewed, Heart of Time (Corazon del Tiempo ) from Mexico, is particularly recommended for fans of Ken Loach's dramas of political struggle and personal conflict. This slimly plotted but visually enthralling tale unfolds in the mountains, where the rebel Zapatistas play hide-and-seek with the army and peasants sympathetic to the rebels are caught in the middle. Sonia's father arranges her marriage to an old childhood friend -- with a cow given as the dowry -- but the very next day (or so it seems) her knees get weak when she makes eye contact with a handsome Zapatista. Oh, fickle heart! Alas, the nascent relationship kindles potentially dangerous tensions and mistrust among committed allies. The high-country setting and rebel-peasant dynamics are fascinating; if only the young lovers weren't so bland, and saddled with pallid dialogue. In other words, the background is of far greater interest than the foreground in Heart of Time. For viewers with a political bent, that should serve as an enticement.
"Heart of Time"
A couple of quick hits: Thursday's pre-opening film, the Peruvian drama Undertow, received excellent notices when it played the S.F. International LGBT Film Festival in June. Also, I recommend you avail yourself of the opportunity to see Ray Telles's eagerly awaited history of the Mexican Revolution, The Storm That Swept Mexico, in its first local screening before it airs next year on PBS. Viva la revolucion, indeed.
The San Francisco Latino Film Festival runs September 16-26, 2010 at the Roxie Cinema and the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco, and at venues in Berkeley, Kentfield, San Jose and Redwood City. For tickets and information visit sflatinofilmfestival.com.