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Festival Focus: NALIP Conference

By Tom White

From Marilyn Agrelo’s 'Mad Hot Ballroom,' which was the subject of a case study presented and moderated by former P.O.V. executive producer Cara Mertez. Photo: Celeste Casas. Courtesy of Paramount Classics

When the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) first convened in 1999 in San Francisco, 50 people showed up for what was a promising debut. Seven years later, despite competition from SXSW, Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival and Miami International Film Festival, the 2006 NALIP Conference attracted 500 filmmakers, producers and executives to Long Beach, California this past March. And with P.O.V. vice president Cynthia Lopez co-chairing the event, the offerings for docmakers were in abundance. In addition, Margarita De la Vega-Hurtado, executive director of the Flaherty Film Seminar, announced a partnership that would enable NALIP's student members to attend the seminar at a significantly reduced rate.

"Storytelling for Docs: Turning News and History into Great Narrative" broke down the process of creating a narrative, with each participantPaul Taylor (War Letters), Danny Haro (Pancho Gonzalez) and Laurie Kahn-Leavitt (Tupperware!) showing clips from their respective films and deconstructing their storytelling strategies.

"The Documentary Broadcaster: Strategies for Approach" offered attendees a glimpse into the programming processes of a range of outlets, with representatives from CNN, WGBH, National Geographic and The History Channel offering their words of wisdom, and independent producers St. Clair Bourne and Ciara Byrne weighing in with their war stories from the other side. Bourne advised Latino filmmakers to not be defensive about their culture. "You are the future," he declared. "You are empowered by your people and your audience." Moderator/filmmaker John Valadez advised, "Take the Latino experience in multiple ways, saying, 'I'm not just a Latino; I'm an American.' And see yourself for all your facets and build on all of those."

NALIP offered two documentary forums for evaluating both sample tapes and pitches. The panelists advised not to submit slick trailers, but to include as much information as you can convey, or select a scene that would effectively tell the story. Consulant Fernanda Rossi stressed the importance of being aware of other work on the same subject, while Richard Saiz of ITVS urged filmmakers to ask themselves, "How is a general audience going to relate to your story?" Ralf-Peter Piechowiak of the German channel ZDF advised filmmakers to be clear about their message and to "know who you're pitching to and know how the film will resonate with a general audience."

The true highlight of the weekend was a case study presentation of the hit 2005 film Mad Hot Ballroom, led by director Marilyn Agrelo and then-P.O.V. executive producer Cara Mertes. After presenting a few clips from the film, Agrelo related the story of the making of the filmfrom its genesis as a magazine article by the film's producer/writer, Amy Sewell, to its much-coveted status as a bona fide documentary hit. But the journey from anonymityit was a first film for both of themto fame would prove to be a bittersweet one, with its rewards and lessons. It's a cautionary tale about what happens when Big Hollywood comes knocking at your door.

After researching the many public schools in New York City that participate in a ballroom dancing competition, Agrelo and Sewell selected three schools in regions distinguished by their respective cultural and class compositions, dynamics and rhythms. In addition, the filmmakers set a production timeline of ten weeks, before which they would also need to raise the budget. After 200 solicitations that failed to yield much funding, the filmmakers formed an LLC and financed the film through their respective families and through investors. They also hired an editor at the beginning of the process, to create the film as they went along.

"I wasn't interested in the competitive aspect of this story," Agrelo said. "This was a story about a journey the kids were takingthe desire to rise above from different realities."

After submitting Mad Hot Ballroom as a work-in-progress at the 2004 IFP Market, the film caught the attention of attorney/sales rep John Sloss at Cinetic Media, who advised Sewell and Agrelo to submit the film to Sundance, which turned them down. Mad Hot Ballroom was accepted into Slamdance, so the filmmakers had the Park City audience of studios, distributors and presswhich came out in full force for the final screening. "The funny thing about it was, when we were ten minutes from the end of the film, everyone was on their Blackberrys e-mailing each other," Agrelo recalled. "I'm thinking to myself, 'These Hollywood people are so rude!' When the credits came up they all ran out of the room! There were ten people left! I had five kids from the film for a Q&A for ten people!"

Sewell and Agrelo had entered a territory that few documentarians have had the opportunity to explore: the domain of the feeding frenzy of majors and mini-majors, ratcheting up their acquisition prices to un-doclike levels. Paramount Classics ended up distributing the film."They did really well in many respects, but the concept of having a hit documentary was something they were not really prepared to market in the same way as they could have," Agrelo noted. "There were so many things that we were interested in doing. I had so many interesting excerpts that I wanted to put on the DVD. They said, 'We're not really marketing this to people who go to the art house or people who go to film festivals. We're not marketing to people who are interested in director's commentary. We're marketing to people who shop at Wal-Mart.' So there were no extras on the DVD."

"As much as I'm thrilled with what happened, I also feel that there was something more that could have happened," Agrelo continued. "This film explored some themes that I was hoping would be more talked about, like the different ways in which these kids see the world. There were some issues in the film that the studio chose not to highlight."

Overall, the Mad Hot Ballroom experience has opened doors and created opportunities for Agrelo. She, Sewell and their investors have started a foundation, and among its possible areas of support include arts programs in the New York City public schools. Agrelo has also been meeting with studio executives and fielding scripts. She also intends to return to her ongoing documentary-in-progress, Us and Them, which contrasts the culture and perspectives of her family in Cuba and her family in the United States. "This is a story common to all Cubans," she explained. "All families are divided by politicssomething completely outside of ourselves, and yet it makes us have very different points of view. The points of view of those who left Cuba are different from the points of view of those who stayed."

Agrelo was feted with an ESTELA Award at the NALIP Gala Awards Dinner that concluded the conference. The award, according to the conference program, "honors talented Latino/Latina filmmakers who, either through a stunning debut or a steady rise in a relatively short period of time, have distinguished themselves through their work to date."