It’s fiesta time in Sydney as Sydney’s Basement club hosts the opening night party on September 7 for the 12th Latin American Film Festival (SLAFF). The film premiering at Dendy Quays that evening is Patricia Ramos’ On the Roof (pictured), a good-looking story set in Cuba where a vibrant young cast share their dreams and aspirations.
Dendy Opera Quays will screen eight feature films, two documentaries and seven shorts over SLAFF’s five days. The curated program focuses on diversity and representation, of the vast cross-section that is Latin American culture.
We asked festival programmer Lidia Luna why SLAFF has continued to thrive over the years.
“SLAFF has built a reputation as being a festival with a strong film program that challenges stereotypes,” Luna says. “Our audiences respond to a festival that consistently surprises them. We are a year-round festival, and with all of our events there are additional opportunities for people to engage with Latin American culture outside of the films themselves. We showcase local musicians, artists and food providers from around Sydney who love Latin American culture as much as we and our audiences do. And I think people really respond to the chance to learn and discover Latin American culture on a local level.”
True to its brief of supporting Latin American communities, SLAFF is not for profit, with its proceeds going to grassroots community development. Luna described the two main projects being backed in 2017, Los Bateyes, representing the most impoverished and isolated communities of the Dominican Republic, especially targeting young kids and teenagers from the area. In Ecuador the group Redes Solidarias has their project Talita which aims to empower women who have fled to refuges with their children to escape domestic violence. The women will be trained in making artisan chocolate so they can develop their own micro business.
Charities aside, the festival is all about showcasing quality work. Film programmer Paul Struthers, producer Jonathan Page and filmmaker Daz Chandler make up the jury that will award a cash prize to the four films in competition; Everything Else, Bad Influence, El Amparo, and Sambá.
Sambá (Dominican Republic) is a sports drama that attracted a nomination at Tribeca and follows street fighter and ex-con Cisco. He pairs with former pro boxer Nichi as they set off on a gritty tale of personal redemption. Bad Influence (Chile) is a fascinating study of issues facing the indigenous Mapuche people. El Amparo is about a real-life massacre of twelve fishermen by the Venezuelan military.
El Amparo Writer and producer Karin Valecillos tells says, “as Latin Americans we suffer impunity and injustice, our political system is corrupted, so this story could happen in Argentina, México, Colombia. In that sense, it is a very Latin American story. But it is also a story of man fighting the power in every corner of the world, it’s a story of dignity, and how we find our truth and defend it.”
Valecillos highlights the crucial role film can play in giving people and countries a platform for unique and powerful narratives. “We have found a place by telling our stories, confronting our reality, and showing it to the world without fear. Our directors have assumed artistic risks not only in the stories, also in the form. The only way to make a difference is talking about yourself.”
Adriana Barraza (Babel, Amores Perros) stars as Dona Flor in the other competition entry, Everything Else, (Mexico). Described as a ‘thought-provoking examination of solitude’, Dona Flor is a reclusive bureaucrat who spends her nights watching romance films with her beloved cat Manuelito. When her pet dies, she is forced to reach out beyond her isolated world and starts to attend a swimming pool.
“I wanted to make a film about deep loneliness,” writer and director Natalia Alamada tells us. “For me the death of the cat triggers an old wound in Doña Flor that awakens her sense of desire. One source of inspiration was my mother who, years after my sister had drowned, developed a fear of swimming. I was intrigued by the possibility of a wound from a trauma long past being opened by a seemingly unrelated event.”
For Almada, the film is “a portrait of Doña Flor and it is also a portrait of Mexico City. Perhaps there are emotions which we all experience such as loneliness, longing, sadness, joy, pleasure, desire, and if we can connect with those feelings then perhaps there is a chance for empathy and compassion towards one another.”
Luna tells us the Festival’s choice of this unusual story reflects SLAFF’s aim to make daring choices for the program. “On the surface, it’s a very quiet film,” Luna says. “But underneath the surface is a strong current of political and social commentary about life in Mexico for an older ‘invisible’ woman.”
According to Amalda, the film has struck a chord all round the world. “Perhaps the most rewarding thing which has happened with Everything Else is that women have approached me after the screening in places as far away as Korea and Poland to say ‘I am Doña Flor’.”
Almada and Valecillos are among the fifty per cent – way higher than the world average – female representation in the filmmakers at SLAFF.
“I believe that being a filmmaker is both a privilege and a responsibility,” Almada tells us. “To me it is a political endeavour because it is about human interactions, relationships. I try to always be aware of my subjectivity and allow that to be part of my films so that in some way it is simply a conversation between two individuals trying to say something to one another and hoping to be understood.”
Given the diversity of Latin American communities, we asked Luna what were the common characteristics.
“We are passionate and resilient people,” she told us. “We are passionate about the music we dance to, the food we cook, eat and share, we’re passionate about love, soccer and so much more. And, of course, we are also very resilient, many of our communities have endured injustices, civil unrest and oppression but no matter what we face, we do our best to change, we become creative, unite, protest and work together to bring about change.”