Mar 20, 2012

Latino Directors Redefine Texas Films

Director Pablo Veliz instructs actors Manny Garcia and Danny Trejo on scene 65 of the script "The Boys of Ghost Town." Veliz is part of a new wave of Latino filmmakers dotting the Texan cinematic landscape. Photo by The CineVeliz Film Company.

By Melissa Macaya
For Reporting Texas

Filmmaker Pablo Veliz has screened his work at the Sundance Film Festival and gotten “the call” from Hollywood. But his heart and, more important, the stories he wants to tell remain in South Texas.

At age 22, with nothing but a digital camera and his imagination, Veliz wrote, produced, edited and directed his first feature film, “La Tragedia de Macario,” about a Mexican peasant named Macario and his struggle to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. In Spanish, and based on a true story, the film captures one of the worst immigrant tragedies in U.S. history. On May 13, 2003, 73 people boarded a sealed trailer truck that was to take them from Harlingen to Houston, but it never arrived. All the passengers suffocated.

The film was screened at Sundance in 2006 and distributed in North and South America.

“People think I am silly and ask me why I don’t go find opportunities in Hollywood,” said Veliz, who started his own production company in 2004 in San Antonio. “Honestly, that doesn’t make me happy. That is not what I was meant to do.”

Veliz is part of a new wave of Latino filmmakers emerging in Texas. The number of aspiring Latino directors reflects not only the fact that Hispanics now account for 38 percent of the population but also a desire among Latinos to tell their own story.

“There have always been Latinos in film – portrayed on the screen, acting, and as part of the crew,” said Charles Ramirez Berg, a University of Texas at Austin film professor who teaches and writes about Latinos in films. “But in general, Latinos had no control of the films, the making of the films or the representation of Latinos in film. Now, Latinos are everywhere – in film classes, directing, in movies and in Hollywood.”

Austin-based filmmaker Robert Rodriguez helped start that trend in 1992 when he directed the Spanish-language film, “The Mariachi,” that was distributed by Columbia Pictures. “Robert began making genre films that injected the Latino culture beneath the surface,” said Ramirez Berg, who taught Rodriguez at UT in the 1980s. “He opened the door for many Latinos who said, if he can do it, I can too.”

More than 20 years later, Rodriguez’s impact is seen in the classrooms of Austin’s film program. Hispanics now make up about 25 percent of the graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in the program. Most were born and raised in Texas, but others come from a variety of Latin American countries.

No surprise, then, that a promising batch of Latino filmmakers are helping make Texas a mecca for Latino productions. After being selected to participate at Sundance, Veliz expanded his film production company, CineVeliz. The young director has now produced six feature films exploring topics such as immigration, education and crime. All of the lead actors are Latino.

Veliz’s most recent film, “Cartoneo and Napolitos” (Cardboard Dreams), was inspired by the experience of his undocumented sister and her dreams of one day becoming a lawyer. The film examines the permanent U.S. subculture of the children of undocumented workers.

“Now that we see Latinos and other cultures as part of the story-making machines, we can make stories that matter,” Veliz said. “As Latinos continue to grow, we are preserving our culture and through films, [and] having a louder voice than we traditionally had.”

Like Veliz, Miguel Alvarez, who graduated from UT Austin’s MFA program two years ago, decided to stay in Texas after graduation. He has produced films in both English and Spanish and has won prestigious state and national awards. His short film “Mnemosyne Rising” secured a Texas Filmmaker Production Fund grant, and Alvarez won an award at the 2010 Cine Las Americas Film Festival. He is working on his first feature film, “Atlantic City.”

While Alvarez’s films are not always focused on Latino topics, they do present Latino characters and themes. His short film “Kid,” produced in 2007, narrates the story of a young Latino boy growing up in South Texas and his strained relationship with his father. Alvarez said he wanted to create characters like the people surrounding him growing up in San Antonio.

“My main goal is to make stories that highlight my cultural upbringing without being Latino-centric,” Alvarez said. “The story lines are universal but have characters that look like the people I grew up with.”

Ramirez Berg said a major obstacle for Latino directors is finding outlets to showcase their work and distribute their stories. Cine las Americas, founded in 1998 as the only Latino and indigenous film festival in Austin, aims to increase the exposure of Latino and Latin American films. At last year’s festival, 2,700 people attended a total of 66 feature films and 64 short films representing 26 countries.

The festival’s popular Hecho en Tejas (Made in Texas) program showcases the variety of work being produced in the state by filmmakers with Latino or indigenous backgrounds.

“People want to see themselves on the screen and [see] their cultural and ethnic backgrounds represented,” said Eugenio del Bosque, executive director of Cine las Americas. “Cine las Americas exists to serve the underrepresented and we always want to support [Latino] work.”

Veliz plans to shift his focus to shorter films that can be produced more affordably and quickly than feature films – and he’ll do so in his home state.

“I’d rather be here with my folks,” Veliz said. “I am on a mission to tell stories that matter and in Texas. I may not be making as much money, but I am touching people’s lives.”