Sambá stars Ettore D'Alessandro and Algenis Perez Soto

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By Rita Bratovich.

Now in its twelfth year, the Sydney Latin American Film Festival (SLAFF) has grown from a handful of screenings on a weekend to a five-day cultural festival that showcases the best Latin America has to offer.

“We want to give people the experience of being in Latin America … for us everything is important. Food is important, dancing is important, connections to people are important… all of your senses are being delighted!” explains Lidia Luna, Festival Programmer.

Luna has been involved with the festival for ten years and has seen it grow steadily along with the film industry itself. Columbia and Mexico have a thriving film scene, while Peru and Bolivia are showing promising beginnings. SLAFF curates with the goal of including as diverse and expansive a collection of themes, genres and nationalities as possible. Their focus is on representation:

“We want to portray all of the stories and the diversities of these countries on screen,” explains Luna. “Many [films] involve stories of human resilience because with Latin America there’s bound to be political turmoil. And obviously redemption – which are stories that are general to all of us – but they’re a little bit different, put in a different context.”

This year the Caribbean is being spotlighted and the Dominican Republic will be represented for the first time. Not all films are in Spanish either; one film is in Creole and another comes from the Mapuche indigenous community in Chile.

Among the highlights, Luna names Elis, a bio-pic about Elis Regina, one of Brazil’s greatest ever singers; the tense Argentinian thriller, Koblic about an unwitting pilot of a ‘military murder’ plane; When The Guns Go Silent, an emotional documentary about the efforts to find peace in war fatigued Colombia; and the riveting documentary Adriana’s Pact, in which director Lissette Orozco explores the unsettling accusation that her aunt, Adriana Rivas, worked with secret police during the Pinochet dictatorship. The story is intriguingly relevant as Rivas lives in NSW and there is pressure from the local Chilean community to have her extradited to Chile.

A significant development for the festival is the establishment of the Addison Rd Picture House in Marrickville which will not only allow SLAFF to hold events throughout the year, but also enable them to feature food, music and dancing during screenings, which they could not have done in a conventional cinema. The Picture House should augment their fundraising activities. SLAFF is a not-for-profit that donates money from the festival to selected organisations each year.

“So far we’ve donated over $120,000. And many of these organisations come from different parts in Latin America,” explains Luna. Charities that work with children, education, arts and community have all benefited from donations since SLAFF began.

A quick scan over the festival program yields an interesting fact: half the directors are women. This is a natural result of SLAFF’s agenda to aim for diversity and the tendency for female directors to tackle new subject matter or styles.

Patricia Ramos is a Cuban director whose debut feature, On The Roof/ El Techo is the opening night film for the festival. The story revolves around three disenfranchised teenagers living on the rooftops of Havana, who decide to open a sky high pizzeria with little more than youthful ambition. Ramos had always been fascinated by the elevated metropolis atop Havana buildings.

“In Havana, the rooftops of the buildings and houses have a very special way of life that I wanted to tell…it’s a zone close to the sky, but still is [anchored] to the ground,” Ramos explains.

It represents a metaphor of opportunity – a visible horizon – as well as limitation through its physical lack of space and mobility. The unique setting offers the film visual distinctness with glimpses into this rare lifestyle and the Havana skyline as a backdrop.

Filming on rooftops is not without its challenges, though. The crew scoped more than 70 potential locations before finding a neighbourhood that felt right – or more importantly – a rooftop that felt safe.

To add to the challenge, a Hollywood crew was in the same neighbourhood filming Fast And Furious 8, and so they had to negotiate their shooting schedule to minimise interruption. Ramos laughingly compares the two crews:

“They had about 40 Hollywood Trucks and a 700 person crew and we were with two production cars and a 20 person crew including actors!”

And if helicopters, revving engines and local construction noise weren’t enough, Ramos’ crew also had to contend with the hot Cuban sun, brought closer by their choice of location.

The three lead actors, Enmanuel Galbán, Andrea Doimeadiós and Jonathan Navarro were selected as much for their mutual chemistry as for their talent. Their character arcs, individually and as a group, are central to the film – and they are each distinct personalities.

It’s a warm, funny, inspirational film, the proof being that a real pizzeria opened up on the very same location after the film was completed.

“It can be hard but the most important thing is don’t give up, don’t forget the dreams, in every place you live,” says Ramos.

In a very different film, documentary film maker Natalia Almada turns her hand to fiction with the poignant, intense, keenly observed Everything Else/ Todo Lo Demas. In it, Adriana Barazza plays Dona Flor, a lonely middle-aged woman whose beloved cat dies, breaking a routine that had to that point protected Dona Flor from desire and a haunting memory.

The film is measured and deliberate, very much like a documentary, yet Almada describes it as a “mediation on violence without violence.” Dona Flor is a bureaucrat in a sterile government office, dehumanised by the bureaucracy, and as such, dehumanising to others. Her respite is the public pool where, although she is afraid to swim, she seems to find freedom or temporary escape. Almada was inspired to write the story by her real experience of swimming at a pool in Mexico City that was frequented by ex-bureaucrats; and by her mother’s sudden onset of a fear of swimming years after her sister had drowned.

“I was intrigued by the possibility of a wound from a trauma long past being opened by a seemingly unrelated event,” explains Almada. In this case, the death of a pet.

With regard to the significance of a director’s gender, Almada does believe it can inform a film:

“I do think of my film as a feminist film and I can’t imagine a man would make the same film and I have noticed that men and women view and appreciate the film differently.” She does qualify this remark as a generalisation but insists that there needs to be more diversity in cinema. To that end, Almada recognises the importance of festivals such as SLAFF:

“The festivals are an antidote to commercial cinema. They are a space in which films can be appreciated for something other than their market value. They are also a space where audiences go to view films which are more challenging and require that they engage with them.”

Until Sep 11, Dendy Opera Quays & Sep 24, Casula Powerhouse. Tickets & Info:

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