Repertoire theaters, star-studded evenings, plenty of multiplexes and art houses theaters, as well as a never-ending stream of festivals make Los Angeles a perpetually engaging town for cinema lovers.
But even with that knowledge in mind, June is an extraordinarily busy time of the year, so much so that in one single weekend three festivals, each with their respective alluring attendees and events, collide. The second weekend of this packed movie month saw the conclusion of the 9th Hola Mexico Film Festival hosted in the Regal L.A. LIVE in Downtown, the 11th Los Angeles Greek Film Festival at the iconic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and the 20th Dances With Films at the TCL Chinese 6 Theatres, also in Hollywood. More than just offering spaces for national cinemas and independent artists to find visibility in the L.A. area, organizers are pushing for their festivals to become talent and development hubs. Here are some highlights from a busy week in film.
Hola Mexico Film Festival (June 7-11)
The largest film festival exclusively dedicated to Mexican cinema outside of Mexico has been showcasing a synthesis of the most current works out of the country for the past 9 years. Festival director Samuel Douek and his small, but dedicated, staff tirelessly work to innovate with each edition whether in the form of free panels on genre projects or a closing night event dedicated to a music-themed film. Hosted in Downtown L.A. and the neighborhood of Pico Rivera, Hola Mexico caters to the massive Mexican community in the city, while encouraging adventurous viewers to get a taste of the eclectic variety of stories being told there that often play exclusively at the festival. Following its initial presentation here, select films travel to multiple cities stateside, and eventually make their way to Australia—a country where this festival has found success.
Audiences will quickly discover a wide array of options catering to different individual tastes. Romantic comedies with recognizable stars, historical dramas, documentaries, and even transgressive fare made appearances this year. Provocative debut, We Are the Flesh by Emiliano Rocha Minter, endorsed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu and co-produced Carlos Reygadas, pushes the boundaries of what’s morally acceptable by observing existentialism through gruesome episodes between three characters in a post-apocalyptic setting. Unpalatable for some, this audacious and mesmerizing vision was the most taxing piece on display. Almost as controversial and with similar metaphysical ideas was Amat Escalante’s The Untamed about a group of rural people entangled in an otherworldly dilemma. Science fiction meets social realism for an unexpected outcome. Two documentaries were part of the lineup, with Tatiana Huezo’s award-winning Tempestad being the most evocative as it looks through the despair and anger felt by innocent victims of Mexico’s colluded authorities and brutal cartels.
A remarkable initiative that sets Hola Mexico Film Festival apart is the Tomorrow’s Filmmakers, Today program, which is made possible through a partnership with The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the support of multiple organizations including The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). This venture took place for the first time in 2016 and aims to support a new generation of Mexican and Latino moviemakers in the United States. 20 aspiring artists in different cinematic crafts are selected from an open application. Those chosen get to attend the festival and experience an intense program that exposes them to world-class directors, screenwriters, festival programmers, agents and even studio executives.
Participants learn from Mexican filmmakers presenting the films at the festival and form a community of likeminded collaborators for years to come. I was part of the inaugural class last year, of which two of many standout speakers featured were Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and Cannes-winning auteur Michel Franco, and the opportunity was invaluable. Qualifying Mexican and Latino filmmakers: Pay close attention to the festival’s social media in order to know when to apply for this priceless opportunity in 2018.
Los Angeles Greek Film Festival (June 7-11)
“10 +1” was the mantra of the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival as it entered its second decade once again at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater. Beyond the screenings of acclaimed features and shorts from Greece, Cyrus and by Greeks abroad, the event celebrated the 5th year of the International Project Discovery Forum (IPDF) in which works in progress are presented to industry professionals that can be beneficial at different stages in their path to completion and distribution. Selected filmmakers enjoy a development lab, as well as roundtables and masterclasses specifically designed for Greek and Balkan storytellers. This year, projects from Greece, Albania, Turkey and even a co-production with Brazil comprised the forum.
Chosen as the film to cap off the festivities, Elina Psikou’s Son of Sofia had its West Coast Premiere at LAGFF following a triumphant presentation at Tribeca where it won the The Best International Narrative Feature. This exquisitely visualized dark fairytale examines the immigrant experience, the nature of legacy and moral ambiguity through the eyes of an 11-year-old Russian boy, Misha, who moves to Greece in 2004 just as the Athens Olympics are underway. Olympic mascots and their role as cuddly symbols of a nation enjoying one of its proudest moments take on new meaning in Psikou’s thoroughly original, magical realist drama.
Cypriot small-town mystery, Boy on the Bridge by Petros Charalambouswas another highly rewarding feature that revels on its intelligent plot twists and naturalistic performances. A crime shakes the foundations of a seemingly peaceful community and uncovers long-ignored resentments. Young lead Constantinos Farmakas received the Best Performance Orpheus Award from the jury. Continuing its festival run, Sofia Exarchou’s Park also had its West Coast Premiere after debuting in the US at the Minneapolis Saint Paul International Film Festival back in April. Actor Dimitris Kitsos was on hand for a Q&A after the screening.
The Orpheus Awards ceremony was the highest profile affair at the festival to date. Comedian, actor and recent first-time director (with CBS Films’ Dean), Demetri Martin served as MC and joked about his credentials as a Greek-American very much in touch with his heritage. When all the competitive awards were handed out, Oscar-winner Alexander Payne took the stage to accept an award as the LAGFF 2017 Honoree. The director spoke about being the grandson of Greek immigrants and how that culture has influenced the characters in his relatable comedic dramas. Payne shared his hope for the future emergence of a international Greek star that can bring the country into the global forefront and then shared a clip from his upcoming film Downsizing. The moving tribute video that preceded his speech included touching remarks from many actors he’s directed including Bruce Dern, Kristen Wiig, June Squibb and Virginia Madsen.
Dances With Films (June 1-11)
Out of the many hyper-indie or micro-budget features and shorts at the 20th anniversary edition of Dances With Films, Richard Schenkman’s The Man from Earth: Holocene, a sequel to his 2007 cult classic The Man from Earth, was one of the most anticipated titles. While the original film was created from a screenplay by late sci-fi eminence Jerome Bixby, his son, Emerson Bixby, who also produced, penned the follow-up.
Actor David Lee Smith returned to the story ten years after the previous installment to play John Oldman, the mysterious professor who once claimed to have lived 14,000 years and who seems to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ himself. Ideas remain as large as in the first film, although this time the tale centers on a group of young students that slowly discover their beloved mentor might actually be the most influential person in human history. Fans will rejoice to know that this might only be the beginning of a series of films that will expand on Bixby’s premise.
This year’s biggest winner was supernatural flick Devil’s Whisper by Adam Ripp, which secured North American distribution through Vega Baby Releasing ahead of its Dances With Films premiere. MM