Culture Circuit: Latinos & Film – A Sundance Film Festival Perspective

The Sundance Film Festival is known for championing eclectic, independent work from artists around the world. Given their specific diversity-driven initiatives of years past, the 2019 edition of the festival was no exception, particularly with respect to cinema of interest to the Latino community. To the contrary, if you spent any time in the last few days in the snowy, mountainous air of Park City, you saw that this year showcases an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quality cinema from Latin America.

But, like all things involving Latino culture, Latino-related films at Sundance defy reductive simplifications. The picture that emerges is of a vibrant, diverse, and complex community of films and filmmakers. As told through the eyes of these artists, Latinos experience much of the same angsts as all other members of society. At the same time, we have a unique set of anxieties—and a beautiful, distinctive perspective—that makes Latin American cinema rewarding.

A Tale of Two Mexicos

Xabiani Ponce de León and José Antonio Toledano appear in This is not Berlin by Hari Sama, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Alfredo Altamirano.
All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

In a year of superb success for Mexican cinema given the industry’s embrace of “Roma,” it could be tempting to overlook other entries in the modern renaissance of Mexican Cinema. And while we in the United States worry about walls, our brethren south of the border face different but equally pervasive, and intractable issues of their own. The Sundance curators expertly covered the gamut of the problems with their inclusion of “This Is Not Berlin” by Mexican director Hari Sama and of the documentary “Midnight Family” by Luke Lorentzen.

At first glance, these two movies could not be more diametrically opposed if they sat across the aisle on Capitol Hill. “Berlin” is set in the 1980s and autobiographically examines the punk rock, sex and drug-fueled counter culture of upper-middle-class teens in Mexico City at that time. The youth, traumatized by Mexico’s recent student protests and government-sanctioned killings in 1968, seeks to break free of the conservative chains that bind the country and prevent it from moving into modernity. “Midnight Family,” meanwhile, trails a present-day family in Colonia Roma as they drive an ambulance around town in hopes of carting accident victims to hospitals in exchange for fees. The family has to face a bevy of hurdles, including reticent or non-paying patients, and corrupt, bribe-demanding cops.

While these two appear to have little to nothing in common, there is an underlying and unifying thread: an uneasy, persistent quest for the political and socioeconomic future of the country in transition. In 1986, Mexico’s authoritarian regime was in decay and its democracy gestating. Today, democracy in Mexico is in its adolescence. What persists between the two periods is intractable income and wealth inequality. While the well-to-do teenagers of “Berlin” can afford to get wasted and stage naked protests doused in fake blood, the blood that stains the hands of the “Midnight Family” members is all too real. The first group is worried about repeating the sins of the father and conforming; the second with putting food on the table. Both want out of this frustrating dead-end of divisions that stifle progress and make it all harder for everyone.

Neither of these films has an answer beyond suggesting that there are forces at work within Mexican society that really want out of the impasse. The point is not to solve the problem but to crystallize it so that society begins to engage with and resolve it. In placing these two wildly divergent films side by side, Sundance exhibited a refreshingly nuanced understanding of the fault-lines that define Mexico today, their origins, and the wandering nature of its people as they search for a solution.

Colombia’s Magical Realism Remains Haunted by Violence

Sundance also treated us to two films from further south, the Colombian pictures “Birds of Passage” and “Monos” (“Monkeys’”. The former, which debuted at film festivals last year, follows a group of indigenous people beset by violence in the Colombian countryside as both families jockey for position in the drug-dealing underbelly of the nation. Though the families are governed in part by thoughtful and restraining mothers, and by an indigenous code of morality that is meant to restrain their baser instincts, the descent into brutality is inevitable, swift, and pugnacious.

The latter film just picked up for distribution, focuses on a guerilla group in the remote Colombian mountains, composed almost entirely of children. They hold an unnamed American woman hostage while engaging in ritualistic dances and exercises—some for training, others for childish fun—as unseen government forces close in on them. Eventually, too, the titular group is overcome by predictable but no less shocking violence.

The parallels between these two films are striking and undeniable. Both project a country still deeply scarred by past and profoundly anxious about future drug crime. And, stylistically, both reflect Colombia’s cultural adherence to the magical realism to which its artists gave birth. Both films boast sweeping cinematography and bombastic, daring scores to do the rest of the work for the already arresting visual imagery. Colombian film, as seen through these two movies, remains both profoundly beautiful and disturbing.

Brazil Looks Into the Abyss

Next is the largest Latin American country: Brazil. For that country, Sundance also served up a pair of distinct but interrelated offerings that give an accurate snapshot of the cultural ethos of the country and of its filmmakers. These pieces, the documentary “The Edge of Democracy” and the movie “Divine Love,” betray a country on the brink of self-inflicted collapse.

Where Mexican film reflects the country’s endless optimism, and where Colombian movies resort to symbolic allegory as a means of capturing beauty amongst despair, Brazil and its films evoke a desperate situation for which absolute escapism may be the only solution.

In the documentary, we follow the startling descent of the Brazilian political system into right-wing anarchism that makes Donald Trump look like Socialist Sweden. The film follows the incompetence and corruption of now disgraced President Dilma Rousseff but, more disturbingly, the rise of the now-current president, reactionary Jair Bolsonaro. Before he was elected, Jair is depicted boasting that he will bring back state-sponsored killings to silence enemies and thrust Brazil back into the darkness of its past dictatorships.

At first glance, it may appear to you that the futuristic, psychedelic film “Divine Love” has little to do with a political procedural. In “Divine Love,” Joana, a middle age bureaucrat in the Brazil of 2027 tries to forestall couples filing for divorce in her office from going through with the procedure. Joana, who is profoundly religious and is desperate for a child, is a symbol of a Brazilian state overpowered by believers and their influences. Metal detector-like contraptions are installed at every entrance, able to detect a fetus inside a woman. “All life is protected by the state,” Joana explains.

More broadly, the people of 2027 Brazil have lost all hope in salvation other than in The Savior himself. They spend their nights dancing mindlessly at neon-covered clubs and raise their hands in praise of God and the Messiah they believe is soon to return. And divorce is really so frowned upon, that groups have propped up, non-ironically called “Divine Love,” where couples become polyamorous in hopes of saving decaying marriages.

Beyond these powerful allegories, “Divine Love” continues the powerful thematic motif of motherhood that has blanketed the landscape of Brazilian cinema of late, including with its recent Oscar nominee “Second Mother.” In this latest film, the desperation for motherhood is so potent that it results in methods as unorthodox as radiating hormones into a husband, hanging upside pendant from a Chinese-imported contraption.

Brazilian democracy may be at death’s door, but its cinema – for now – is alive and well.

Latinos in the United States: A Poorer Showing

In contrast with the exciting and robust representation of Latino stories in the documentary and world cinema sections, Latinos were almost entirely absent from the U.S. Dramatic Competition category at Sundance. I caught eleven of the sixteen films in competition in that group. Of those, only one, “Ms. Purple,” has any Latino characters at all—a decidedly supposed role.

This disappointing outcome is undoubtedly not of Sundance’s making but a sorry byproduct of the infancy of Hispanic American cinema. Hispanic stories and filmmakers are doing well in other parts of the world, but there is clearly much work left to be done stateside.

The notable exception came in the documentary section, with the docu-fiction hybrid movie “The Infiltrators.” That film, by Mexican director Alex Rivera, follows a group of young and admirably bold Dreamers as they seek to effect change one potential deportation at a time. In the heart-wrenching picture, an alliance of young individuals brought into the U.S. without documentation at a young age fight to save from removal immigrants held at a Broward County detention center—and to save themselves. To do so, they channel the forces of social media and public relations to their benefit, seemingly more motivated than the unforgiving governments who would deport them. Their predicaments require at time reckless bravery, including getting detained so that they could be placed into the detention center and work the system from the inside. Hence the movie’s title.

What is clear from the existence of this documentary (the inside portions of which are necessarily dramatized) in the Sundance lineup is that Hispanic American cinema, like the group itself, is still very much finding its voice. At a time when talks of “walls,” “dreamers,” and “border security” overwhelm the news cycle, it is hard not to feel that Latinos in the United States face a crucial moment in our history. While we gain some modicum of acceptance as other groups have done, or will the specter of hatred continue to infect our politics? The young activists of “The Infiltrators” offer a reason for hope, but there is clearly, politically and cinematically, a lot of work left to do.

What’s Next?

The foregoing is all to say that lovers of cinema should be very excited about what Latino filmmakers have to offer over the next several years. But in terms of fomenting further inclusion of different artists and varied stories, what is next? Several panels at Sundance tackled this multilayered question this weekend, including one put up by Sundance’s Latino Reel and another by The Atlantic. Speakers, including the filmmakers behind “The Infiltrators” and many others, agreed that further efforts are needed and should be forthcoming.

But a less frequently discussed yet vitally important point also emerged: audiences have a responsibility. Indeed, audiences are quick to tweet out hashtags excoriating the industry for this or that omission, for failing to recognize or reward this or that group. The Sundance Film Festival of 2019 is proof that the industry is making concerted efforts from all angles to eradicate the stains of separation. Eventually, the responsibility will land at our own feet, if it has not done so already. Vote with your feet. Pay the ticket to see that small indie film by a non-traditional artist. Go see the Marvel movie next weekend, as one panelist urged.

We cannot be heard to complain, later, that our voices are not heard, if we do not make them heard.

What are your thoughts on Latino representation at Sundance and at other film festivals? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

Check out the Oscar Predictions and see where your favorite films rank – All in THE CIRCUIT HUB

What do you think?

Written by J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam is a New York-based film critic and journalist. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and an inaugural member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

ACCA 2018 WINNERS: Netflix’s ‘Roma’ Takes Best Picture But ‘The Favourite’ Leads Wins