The State of Latin American Cinema at SXSW

TropicalFRONT Talks to Residente, Leandra Leal, and More About Their New Films

By Josh Gardner

Divine Divas  by Leandra Leal

Divine Divas by Leandra Leal

Few festivals are as future focused as SXSW, a 10-day mega-event comprised of a film festival, technology conference, and a music festival. By merging disciplines, SXSW turns Austin into a melting pot of new ideas and fresh voices, all hoping to make an impression. So it only makes sense that this year’s festival showcased several emerging Latin American filmmakers, most of whom were making their directorial debuts. Together, their films speak to the current global state of affairs and reveal new modes of film funding, all with singular artistic visions.

One of the most buzzed about premieres at SXSW was the impressive self-titled feature debut of Puerto Rican rap superstar René Pérez Joglar, aka Residente. His film, also titled Residente, dovetails with his upcoming album, both of which were sparked by the results of a DNA test he took a few years ago. He explains, "When I first did those DNA tests, I was thinking of a documentary, but it wasn’t about music, it was more about going to places. Then I decided to [make a film] about music and base the whole album on the DNA test."

Residente  by Residente

Residente by Residente

Wonderfully cinematic, Residente turns the camera on his ancestral homelands, making numerous stops in Asia, Africa and Europe, to collaborate with local musicians and record the sounds and stories of disparate communities around the globe. "I’m not shy," he states, “but I didn’t want to direct something about me. The film is more about them, about the collaborators.” Cutting his teeth on his own music videos, Residente plans to continue making films and music videos. He hopes to make this work as accessible as possible through platforms like Netflix and iTunes. “This is for the people—it’s not something elite. I want everyone to be able to watch it, so that’s what I’m trying to do.” Keep an eye out for the release.

Brazilian actress Leandra Leal also brought her directorial debut, the documentary Divine Divas, to SXSW. It’s her second trip to the festival, returning after her star turn in A Wolf at the Door premiered in 2014. Leal comes from a family of artists. She grew up around the famed Rival Theater, where eight revolutionary Trans performers, called the Divine Divas, got their start during the military dictatorship. “I wanted to make my first movie as a director about something personal, something that only I could do. When I saw the Divine Divas for the first time together on the stage, as an adult, I realized this was the story I wanted to tell,” Leal explains. This realization spawned a 7-year process to go “behind the masks” of the heavily made-up performers who captivated her in her youth.

The Cloud Forest  by Mónica Álvarez Franco

The Cloud Forest by Mónica Álvarez Franco

Now in their 70s, the divas spend much time reflecting on their storied careers. The film artfully blends together behind-the-scene rehearsals, revealing interviews, and archival footage, all of which Leal was forced to hunt down in Europe as the controversial performers were not allowed on television during the dictatorship period. Leal hopes that the Trans performers, who persevered against all odds, will inspire young audiences. “Both the U.S. and Brazil are experiencing a conservative wave,” Leal remarks, “and I think that art will always find a way to express itself. I think it’s important for any audience—whether in America, Europe, or Brazil—to leave the movie with the feeling that it’s important to live your own life according to your own will.”

Filmmaker Mónica Álvarez Franco similarly hopes her film, The Cloud Forest / Bosque de niebla, will show audiences that alternative ways of life are indeed possible in these challenging times. Her stunning verité documentary explores an environmentally forward thinking co-op in the endangered cloud forest of Veracruz, Mexico. Sustainability and education are key to the 16 families who hope to imbue their children with a connection to the land and socially conscious values. Franco had just become a mother when the film started shooting and explains that this influenced her work, “the film was born out of the necessity of finding another style of life. I was very tired and overwhelmed with the situation in Mexico and I wanted to find an experience different from my own, a more dignified form of living.”

Bad Lucky Goat  by Samir Oliveros

Bad Lucky Goat by Samir Oliveros

While some filmmakers worked the system for traditional means of funding, Bad Lucky Goat filmmaker Samir Oliveros had another idea. “In Colombia people tend to wait for government supported funds, but I didn’t want to put the film in the hands of six judges. I wanted to make the film because I really believed in it,” he declares. “Through Kickstarter we raised $60,000, and then people realized we were very serious and we received more money to finish what we needed to shoot the film.” The risk of alternative funding paid off as the family adventure film played to big laughs and sold out houses in Austin.

The film tells the story of two teenage siblings at odds, who accidentally kill a goat and are forced to band together to cover up the incident. Oliveros shot the film on the Caribbean island of Old Providence, where the locals speak an English-based Creole despite being part of the Spanish-speaking Colombia. “I wanted to show another version of Colombia because, in the end, it’s a very cheerful country despite what we’ve been through. This island has been untouched by the movies.”  

Tormentero  by Rubén Ímaz

Tormentero by Rubén Ímaz

Rubén Ímaz showcased a very different tropical island in his second feature, the mesmerizing Tormentero. The film takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the true story of a fisherman who discovered Mexico’s largest oil field. The find resulted in the transformation of his tropical island into an industrial port, much to the dismay of his fellow fisherman. Now in the final stages of his life, he must face the ghosts of his past and what could have been his future. Eschewing traditional co-production funding from Europe, Ímaz instead worked with veteran filmmakers Oscar Ruiz Navia (Crab Trap, Los Hongos) and Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas (Sand Dollars, Cochochi), whose previous films share his surreal tropical sensibility. “One day I thought, if we just look toward Latin America, we can create a real co-production. We have lots of money in our countries—in Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil—to do films,” he explains.

Screening Tormentero for the first time in the US at SXSW, Ímaz relished the opportunity to have his film on the big screen. “We pushed a lot on the image, sound, and acting. [We did not want this] to be disguised as a small art house film with unknown actors. No, we wanted to do a good, big film, even if we didn’t have an enormous budget. We wanted it to be a film that could be shown in American theaters.” Producer Ruiz Navia, who just completed his latest feature Epifanía and is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of his production company, Contravía Films, relates, “We feel so proud to be here in Austin because honestly we never imagined we’d fit into this kind of festival, but we always admired it. We feel so proud that, with such a personal and auteur project, we could be here.”