Appetite for discovery

MSU’s Latinx Film Festival opens up a world of independent cinema


Compelling stories, gorgeous cinematography, sizzling salsa music, intimate family drama, hard-hitting politics, bone-deep horror and Spider-Man times infinity — how much can Michigan State University’s Latinx Film Festival pack into four days?

Before we find out, let’s swerve around the speed bump at the entrance: the term “Latinx.” Scott Boehm, founder and director of the festival, knows it’s impossible to squeeze the growing event’s geographical, thematic and cultural reach into one word.

“We use ‘Latinx,’ but some people, a lot of the Latino community, really don’t like the ‘x’ there,” he said. “There’s no consensus and no perfect term.”

For the record, the festival is a showcase of groundbreaking independent films from Latin America, Spain and Spanish-language films from the United States, most of which (Spidey excepted) aren’t getting the attention and the platform they deserve.

“Just look at what we’ve got and you’ll understand,” Boehm said.

Since the festival began in 2018, it has broadened its reach to multiple venues, from MSU’s Wells Hall to Celebration Cinema, the Robin Theatre, Casa de Rosado Galeria and Cultural Center and, this year, Stage One at Sycamore Creek Eastwood. The new home of Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. and Ixion Theatre Ensemble will host a unique one-man show, “Guac,” Saturday evening (Feb. 17) as part of the festival.

“A Bruddah’s Mind,” from Brazil, follows a young Black student’s evolution from shy introvert to student activist in the largely white city of Fortaleza.
“A Bruddah’s Mind,” from Brazil, follows a young Black student’s evolution from shy introvert to student activist in the largely white city …

The show is activist and artist Manuel Oliver’s tribute to his son, Joaquin, nicknamed “Guac,” who was murdered in a 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Oliver’s plea for an end to gun violence, a timely theme the week of the one-year anniversary of the 2023 MSU shooting, is echoed in one of the festival’s most high-profile films, “Oscar Arias: Without a Shot Fired.” The film follows former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias on a quixotic 50-year quest to bring peace and disarmament to Central America and the world at large.

Since the film festival started in 2018, it has grown by leaps and bounds, with a growing roster of community partners and satellite events like the “taco reception” with Oliver and his wife, Patricia, Saturday afternoon at Casa de Rosado a salsa dance party Saturday night at UrbanBeat.

Claudia Berrios-Campos, a co-founder and co-organizer of the festival, said it filled a sharpened need at a difficult time when it was founded.

In 2018, daily news of immigration crackdowns in Washington, family-destroying ICE raids, “invasion” rhetoric from the White House and a daily degradation of simple civility had changed life for the worse for the Latino and Hispanic communities. People with brown skin were dealing daily with sidelong looks in grocery stores, hostile commands to “speak English” and much worse. A deadly August 2019 shooting in El Paso, Texas, targeting Mexicans pushed community fears to a new level.

“The situation was a bit dire for members of the community, and it felt like we needed that space,” Berrios-Campos said.

She and Boehm were delighted by the community’s response in 2018 and 2020. (The 2022 festival was canceled because of the pandemic.)

“They welcomed the festival with such open arms,” Berrios-Campos said. “It became something that wasn’t just needed by the Latin American community, but also for the people who were just discovering it.”

“There was an appetite for this from the begin
ning,” Boehm said. “Since we started this in 2018, the reception from the community has been just incredible.”

“It became so much bigger than any of us could imagine at the beginning,” Berrios-Campos said. “It showed that there was so much hunger for this space where we could celebrate what it means to be Latinx, because there’s no one way. There are so many different voices.”

For many, the festival has become a home, and finding a home is something to celebrate. For Berrios-Campos, the film that best expresses this dilemma this year is “Home Is Somewhere Else,” an animated documentary that follows the lives of immigrant youth and their undocumented families.

“It’s something that touches a lot of members of our community,” Berrios-Campos said. “I know many people who share that life experience of being in between cultures. Personally, I’ve never felt like I could call the place I was born home.” She was born and grew up in Peru and came to the United States in 2012, when she was 28.

“Home is where you build community, where your chosen family is,” she said. “That’s something that’s going to touch a lot of people and lead to a lot of needed conversations, a lot of healing.”

This year’s festival entries reach beyond the familiar theme of immigration reform. In “Wings of Dust,” a Peruvian journalist risks his life to advocate for clean drinking water. “This Stolen Country of Mine” throws the viewer into the middle of a desperate fight against Chinese mining in the mountains of Ecuador. “Memories of My Father” follows doctor and human rights activist Héctor Abad Gómez in a risky and grueling struggle for public health programs in Colombia.

Two intimate dramas delve into the manifold cultural and racial divides that crisscross Latin America. The gorgeously shot “Carajita” pries open hidden class and cultural rifts in the Dominican Republic. In “A Bruddah’s Mind,” a quiet Black student in a Brazilian school is provoked into activism by racist insults.

Boehm recently heard from the film’s director, Déo Cardoso.

“He’s excited that it’s screening in Lansing particularly because Malcolm X was born and raised in Lansing, so that’s a big deal for him,” Boehm said.

Intrepid viewers will find a lot to admire in the unorthodox imagery and ultra-creepy pregnancy horror of “The Bone Woman,” the spectacular debut film of Mexican director Michelle Garza Cervera. This one is not for the squeamish. According to Boehm, MSU doctoral student Ana Ponce asked one of her professors to co-present the film with her at the festival, but the professor was too scared of the movie to participate.

Boehm and his committee have always made sure music is a key part of the festival. This year, two ambitious documentaries, “Miguelito” and “Himno,” feature wall-to-wall music, compelling storylines and archival film of great performances. “Miguelito,” a salsa variant of “Searching for Sugar Man,” tracks the search for a salsa prodigy who topped the music charts at age 11, then disappeared within a year at the height of his fame. “Himno” is a tour of the myriad ways in which the Chilean song “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” has been interpreted by musicians, activists and ordinary people around the world.

Boehm said Sunday’s (Feb. 18) screening of “Himno” at Celebration Cinema will be the film’s North American premiere.

There’s one more film Berrios-Campos is eager to see, and that’s the sole blockbuster entry in the festival, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” directed by Portuguese-born Joaquim Dos Santos. The film features a Spider-Man variant named Miguel O’Hara, described by one character as “like a ninja-vampire Spider-Man, but a good guy.”

“I’m really excited about that movie,” Berrios-Campos said. “For me, it’s important to show something for families. Kids have so much potential and can teach us so much.”

“Spider-Man” also offers irrefutable evidence of the growing presence of Latinx filmmakers in mainstream Hollywood.

“We are in a moment when there are so many Latinx creators in the film industry that for so long have been typecasted or haven’t had the opportunity to go full force,” Berrios-Campos said.

Last week, she was delighted to hear that actress America Ferrera’s directorial debut, “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” has finally been greenlit.

“I’m really, really looking forward to seeing that,” Berrios-Campos said. “Just knowing there is a Latinx immigrant, a brown woman, who’s opening those doors and breaking the glass ceiling is something to be happy about.”

See for schedule of events and locations


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