Feb. 1 2018 12:10 AM

MSU Latinx Film Fest reveals unseen lives

An untapped world of film will soon crack open for all of Lansing to see. The history of the “Jimi Hendrix of accordion,” a Spanish thriller about cult suicide and a forensic detective’s harrowing search for the missing men and women of Peru’s civil war comprise less than half of the stories that will be screened at MSU’s inaugural Latinx Film Festival, which begins Thursday.

The films represent contemporary cinema rife with world teachings and perspectives often unexplored by American mass media. For newcomers to international film, this promises to be a breakout from cultural tunnel vision.

“We want the viewers to try to understand, or at least reflect, on the human rights issues that affect not only the Latino community, but the Lansing area,” said festival organizer José Adrián Badillo Carlos.

The festival is the brainchild of Scott Boehm, an assistant professor of Spanish cultural studies and MSU’s premier Spanish film expert. Having studied screenwriting in Madrid, Boehm was an ideal candidate to undertake the daunting task of constructing an entirely new festival. In fact, one of the seven featured films, “Acantilado,” features Boehm’s work as a script consultant and translator.

Six international films, “Que Horas Ela Volta?,” “Carga Sellada,” “NN: Sin Indentidad,” “Pelo Malo,” “Acantilado,” “Tempestad,” and one from the border of Texas and Mexico, “As I Walk Through the Valley,” are scheduled.

And the term “Latinx?” It has gained traction academically as an inclusive descriptor that can mean both Hispanic and Latino. Boehm explained that he and his fellow organizers carefully debated the merits of Latinx as a catch-all, before deeming it the most inclusive term possible, thus best fit for the film festival.

Boehm earned his doctorate at the University of California, San Diego, where he and several colleagues organized the Spanish Civil War Memory Project. The work was massive in scope and breadth, leading to the single largest compilation of video testimonies from men and women who suffered under the violent Franco dictatorship.

In the American consciousness, Franco’s reign is perhaps best remembered as the backdrop for the Academy Award-winning 2006 Spanish film, “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

What truly got the cogs turning for the MSU Latinx Film Festival was Boehm’s joy of the San Diego Latino Film Festival, which he regularly attended during his time in Southern California. Considering that Lansing has already provided a home for two successful film festivals, East Lansing Film Festival and Capital City Film Festival, he knew that MSU was fertile ground.

“I saw Lansing as a good film city and MSU has a really active film studies program,” said Boehm. “The goal was to create a space for the celebration and appreciation of Latinx cinema.”

While Boehm knows the festival will highlight the artistry and craft put into the films, he also hopes they will act as a conduit to spark debate about the challenges facing the Hispanic and Latino community – not just on a national level, but right here in Lansing.

“We can use the films as a platform, and the festival as a venue, to talk about social, political and cultural issues,” Boehm said. “Many of which intersect with things happening here.”

And when it comes to galvanizing discussion, the festival couldn’t come at a better time. The xenophobic spitfire pouring out of the White House has unfairly put a target on the backs of many Hispanics and Latinos. The national surge of hate crimes -- a 5 percent spike from 2015 to 2016, according to the FBI — spilled over to Lansing last summer, when an alleged July attack on a Hispanic immigrant spawned community outrage and an FBIassisted investigation.

In a time Hispanics and Latinos are so casually stigmatized, the festival hopes to ground the sensationalism and remind people of the universal humanity found within these communities.

The festival’s loudest statement on these issues locally will come in the form of a short documentary, produced by Boehm and his colleague Peter Johnston, about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

“What Happens to a Dream Deferred,” highlights the several hundred thousand DACA recipients whose futures are suddenly in the hands of Congress and the White House. The two subjects whose interviews form the basis of the documentary, Badillo Carlos and Osvaldo Sandoval, helped organize the festival. Both are graduate students at MSU.

The two live in a state of haunting uncertainty as DACA is fiercely debated in the halls of Congress. Badillo Carlos says public opinion toward DACA recipients has been aggressive and led astray by stereotypes. He became involved with the documentary to reverse some of the more hurtful rhetoric.

“The documentary shows a day in our lives,” Badillo Carlos said. “We are not criminals, we are not drug dealers, nor any of these things that have been said about us in the news. We go to work, we study and we go home to our families.”

Badillo Carlos says that the reality of DACA requires him to live a straight and narrow life, or suffer deportation. In fact, those with criminal records never qualified for DACA to begin with.

Whether DACA will be upheld is unclear. The disagreements over DACA between Republicans and Democrats contributed to the government shutdown earlier in January.

Boehm’s vision for the Latinx Film Festival was embraced by the university and quickly attracted grants and sponsorships. “There’s a desire for this; a festival like this just hasn’t existed here,” Boehm said. “People jumped on board right away.”

The financial support afforded the festival the opportunity to fly three of the directors to Lansing. Charlie Vela and Ronnie Garza (“As I Walk Through the Valley”) and Helena Taberna (“Acantilado”) will participate in a Q&A during Saturday’s festivities. Garza and Vela hail from Southern Texas, while Taberna will travel from Spain.

“English cinema is the only European cinema that enters major American circuits. Spanish cinema finds its exhibition more limited, hence the importance of festivals such as this,” Taberna said. “They allow you to see films from other countries, which is undoubtedly very enriching for the public, especially for university students.”

Garza and Vela acted as dual directors on “As I Walk Through the Valley,” a multi-generational dive into the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas’ musical history. The two were able to interview a cavalcade of unique artists, spinning a web of stories that bring the valley to life on screen.

Due to the Rio Grande Valley’s position on the border of Texas and Mexico, its cities are often attached to narratives of drug cartel-related violence. Despite routinely decreasing crime rates, the stigma still casts an unwelcoming shadow on the valley.

“We’re primarily an overlooked region of the United States, so we’re trying to show that there’s more to life here than these media narratives about the border,” Vela said. “People here are concerned about making art and finding meaning and community through music.”

“As I Walk Through the Valley” gave the natives of the region the rare opportunity to tell their own story, free from media bias and pervasive prejudice.

“You realize that the only stories about your way of life are made by people who’ve never been to where you live,” Vela said. “Or they just flew in for a couple of weeks so they could write about cartel violence. Then they fly away, their story goes on TV and that’s all anybody thinks about when your home gets mentioned.”

Production on the documentary began in 2014, and the pair had no idea that the next president would create a caustic political environment for communities like Rio Grande Valley.

The outcome of the 2016 election gave their work a boosted value as a political document, as honest narratives about Hispanic and Latinos become increasingly necessary to dispel the prejudice, for which the current administration has been a lightning rod.

“There’s this idea that people from a place like the valley should have a louder voice about what life is like there,” Vela said. “It’s not so much about combating narratives, but showing that people are complex and there are many shades of experience.”

It is not just documentaries that are rife with political and social themes. Spanish and Latin American filmmakers frequently rely on these subtleties to tell a story, because political struggle is a much more common element in their daily lives. This sort of subtext can be found within each of the festival’s seven films.

“The wound of conquest is not something that disappeared in the 19th century with independence,” said festival organizer Claudia Berrios-Campos. “People in Latin America carry it on for all their lives. The feelings of being a minority, it goes with you everyday.”