September 15, if you didn't know, marked the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month. That can only mean one thing: The elected officials of Arizona are taking a 30-day break from demonizing and disenfranchising the state's Latinos. Really? Well, no. The thing most closely identified with mid-September is, in fact, the San Francisco Latino Film Festival.
My stab at political humor is prompted by Ari Luis Palos and Eric Isabel McGinnis's deeply sympathetic and righteously indignant documentary Precious Knowledge (Sept. 17 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in SF and Sept. 20 at MACLA in San Jose). The film contrasts the palpable value of Ethnic (also known as Raza) Studies classes in Tucson high schools with the devious, calculated efforts of Arizona lawmakers to eliminate the curriculum.
It's patently clear that the politicians suffer from an irrational fear of a brown planet. What's open to debate is whether these carefully soft-spoken, middle-aged white folks sincerely believe that Raza Studies is a dangerous fount of Leninism (what else could a Che poster represent?) and hatred, or if they are exceedingly skilled at concealing their function as puppets for unseen -- and genuinely anti-democratic -- forces. It's often difficult to ascribe motives to strangers glimpsed in a film, but you'll find it hard to resist in this case, whether you catch Precious Knowledge at the festival or on PBS at some point down the road.
Reading people's faces provides a good deal of the pleasure, as well as the melancholy undertow, of another worthy documentary, The Chilean Building (Sept. 18 at the Opera Plaza). Filmmaker Macarena Aguilo was one of 60 or so small children whose parents returned to Chile from exile in Europe to fight the Pinochet dictatorship in the late '70s. The kids were left behind, for their safety, in the care of other Chileans, first in a house outside Paris and then in an apartment building in Havana.
The Chilean Building sails along on high spirits for a long while, with the filmmaker as well as the many childhood friends she located recalling the great fun they had living in a house full of playmates. But the tone gradually darkens as Aguilo turns the conversation to the confusion and insecurity of being cut adrift from one's parents as an adolescent, and the lingering ambivalence that so clearly affects these now-thirtysomethings.
In the movie's last section, Aguilo confronts her parents, gently but firmly pushing them to revisit their fateful decision. Their pained faces reminded me of the aging radicals in The Weather Underground, Sam Green's great 2002 study of equally idealistic and gutsy activists who made huge sacrifices and decisions that they were certain of at the time but -- having failed to achieve the goal of creating a new society -- subsequently had to deal with the cost to their closest relationships. The Chilean Building seems curiously restrained, until you grasp that it's an accurate reflection of a clinical condition (depression, I submit).
The sun-soaked last stop on our arbitrary tour of the S.F. Latino Film Festival program eschews regrets for a defiant cheerfulness. Fina Torres's Habana Eva gives us a young Cuban woman ripe for romantic, personal and political awakening, then buffets her with a cascade of rapid-fire developments that veer from the shamelessly contrived to the genuinely poignant.
As the film begins, Eva is a would-be designer stuck in a by-the-numbers dress factory. Her fiancé is nice enough, but he's in no hurry to finish building their future domicile (and, therefore, to get married). Then a drop-dead handsome Venezuelan tourist claiming to be a photographer espies Eva, and nothing will be the same again.
Habana Eva is, at one time or another, a romantic melodrama, a screwball comedy, a female empowerment fable, a colonial exploitation conspiracy and a sex farce. Only a curmudgeon could be disappointed with such a bounty, especially during National Hispanic Heritage Month.
The San Francisco Latino Film Festival runs September 16-25, 2011 at venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose and Marin County. For tickets and information visit sflatinofilmfestival.com.