NALIP Celebrates a Decade of Influence
"If you are Latino you are American. You are 10-15,000 years of America!" said legendary playwright and filmmaker Luis Valdez in his opening keynote address at "NALIP 10: A Decade of Influence," the National Association of Latino Independent Producers 10th annual conference. Just as Newport Beach draped its manicured downtown with banners for the Newport Beach Film Festival, over 600 Latino filmmakers, writers, actors and industry executives gathered from April 16 to 19 in the heart of Fashion Island to celebrate a conclave of Hispanic film wizards. Attendance ranged from acclaimed Hollywood figures such as writer Peter Murrieta (The Wizards of Waverly Place) and director/choreographer Kenny Ortega (High School Musical), to less known independent filmmakers, some of whom are starting to make headlines, such as documentary filmmaker Hugo Perez (Summer Sun Winter Moon) and the new promise in Latino sci-fi, Alex Rivera (Sleep Dealer).
NALIP founder and board member Moctezuma Esparza (Walkout) reminded the audience that in the US, 28 percent of people under 30, as well as 25 percent of kindergarten children, are Latino, as he presented the "Dedication to Diversity and Commitment to Latino Media" award to Home Box Office, Inc. "HBO, unlike the rest of Hollywood," said Esparza, "has an authentic will to listen and act and create representations of all US people. HBO has reached out to our community!"
His words were backed by the announcement of the new 2009 HBO/NALIP Documentary Filmmaker Cash Award, a grant that will give one Latino doc maker $10,000 for a work-in-progress. Through this cash award, HBO wants to focus on the Latino experience, and support the growth of social commentary by Latino documentarians. The award information will be published early May on NALIP's site (www.nalip.org); application deadline is June 19.
Esparza then introduced Luis Valdez, founder of the modern Chicano theater El Teatro Campesino and writer/director of Zoot Suit and La Bamba, as "a visionary who lived his ideas." Valdez' keynote address was a eulogy to the Hispanic heritage reminiscent of the civil rights era speeches. He captured the audience's sentiment that a decade of influence has not been enough for the Latino filmmaking community to establish solid roots in the media landscape in the US, in terms of both holding key executive positions and succeeding in disseminating tailored media content.
In the best spirit of oral storytelling, Valdez told the Latino equivalent of Rosa Parks' story. "I was born on a migrant labor camp. When I was a teenager, my cousin had a friend, Cessi, who went to the Navy during World War II. One day Cessi came back home to Delano on leave and went to the Delano Theater to watch a movie. He sat in the middle section, in the orchestra. Soon he was asked to leave the orchestra. The manager called the cops and had them take him to the police station." After two hours of intimidation, they had to let him go, because there was no law in California that said you could not sit in the middle in a theater. And all the pachucos-the ones who probably inspired his Zoot Suit play and film-gathered at the police station were delighted. "Next weekend, guess what? Everybody sat in the middle!" he said. Years later, Valdez found out that "the dude who desegregated the theater in Delano had become the apostle of non-violence." His name was Cesar Chavez.
Valdez became an organizer with Chavez. "I was arrested, jailed, and all this made me a Hollywood director." But he reserved the producer credit for Chavez. "Cesar Chavez was a producer. As makers of films, we're no different than the farmers picking up the fruit that God creates!"
Claiming back the term "Hispanic-American"-"What does Latino mean?" he questioned. "Should we be an adjective?"-Valdez encouraged the audience to document their Hispanic-American heritage. "We need to tell the American story, we need to recapture our own history, on PBS and elsewhere, on HBO." He then told in detail the story of Juan de Oñate, the founder of New Mexico. "This story beats Pocahontas! It is an amazing story; think of the sexual scenes we can have, the bloodshed!" In a note of humor, Valdez admitted that one of the problems when attempting to tell Chavez' story is, "The man was a saint! There were no microphones under the bed, nothing squeaky, not as appealing, no violence! But Juan de Oñate? That [film] should have been made a long time ago!"
Supporting Valdez' take on the need for widening the Latino presence in media, Juan Gonzalez, New York Daily News columnist and co-host of Pacifica Radio's "Democracy Now" show, in leading the panel "Conversations with PBS President & CEO Paula Kerger," questioned the PBS head boldly about some crude facts: Only five percent of PBS staff is Latino, and while Los Angeles-based PBS Station KCET's audience is 60 percent Latino, only one of its 30 board members is Latino. Kerger admitted this is a challenge, and said that PBS is making an effort in widening their employee diversity, and that last year 48 percent of the new employees hired were people of color.
Media players from 20 US states, as well as from Puerto Rico, Canada, Dominican Republic and Mexico, converged at the conference, and about half of the filmmakers were documentarians. "Our ambition," said NALIP's executive director, Kathryn Galán, "and one in which I believe we succeeded, was to encourage a higher level of professionalism and to program panels that each had takeaways, action steps or reporting on trends." The conference program included six panels devoted to documentary filmmaking, with panelists representing Sundance Documentary Fund, Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB), HBO and others.
Saturday's keynote speaker was Herb Scannell, co-founder and president of Next New Networks, a next-generation new media company. During his tenure as president of Nickelodeon, Scannell, very keen on his Puerto Rican roots, was responsible for developing popular shows such as Dora the Explorer, The Brothers Garcia and Taina that targeted the Latino demographic and expanded the reach of the Spanish language. "Diversity is a plus," he said in closing. "My hope is that 10 years from now we move from a ‘decade of influence' to a decade of power, of real power."
One of the highlights of the conference was the screening Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer (distributed by Maya Releasing) on the same day of its national theatrical opening. In 1997, Rivera came up with a labor solution for the US: a physical wall built along the Mexican border. The migrants would come to the border towns to work as cybraceros in futuristic maquiladoras, where they would perform manual jobs through a remote-controlled system, a kind of Wii that would drain their physical energy in the same way it does now. Concluding the Q&A, Rivera declared, "This film is a documentary!"
Next day, Rivera led the panel "Fire Eaters & Pink Hair Strippers," on the new media revolution. Manuel García-Durán of mio.tv presented his three-month-old, advertising-supported, online-content company, "founded to fill the void of entertainment and digital experiences addressing the next-generation, acculturated, bilingual Latino community." In its free Web platform, mio.tv will start to air a new series, executive-produced by Antonio Banderas, based on the French hit Caméra Café: 35 three-and-a-half-minute episodes about life in an office, from the point of view of a camera hidden in the coffee machine.
Durán, former chairman of Telefónica Media, Antena 3 and founding member of terra.com, defined the term "communitainment" as "the ability for you and your friends to create your own kind of entertainment by interacting online." After Durán screened a few videoclips of mio.tv's online comedy offer, IDA Board Member Beth Bird pointed out that broadcasting the same old TV shows through the Internet will not entice younger audiences; the new generation of users needs to be able to interact with what they are watching online. Durán said that mio.tv will be signing a deal with Skype soon-so that "you can even call your friends' mobile or landlines directly through mio.tv while you're watching." Currently, registered members can vote on their favorite videos, embed them on their personal sites and in blogs, and stay connected to mio.tv with voice and messaging.
Running concurrently with the conference, the Latino Media Market provides, according to its description, "a unique venue for project writers and producers to meet targeted executives and mentors for concrete deals, options, licenses and advancements." Producer Shawna Baca, who participated in the market with her documentary project On The Pow Wow Trail, remarked, "NALIP kept me busy meeting with executives in the doc world, which is a fairly new category for me. They took good care of me and even teamed me up with a roommate who is a documentary filmmaker as well. I think my best meeting and pitch was in our room sharing our doc stories and connecting with each other."
Indeed, the conference has become like an extended family fiesta with piñatas full of surprises for Latinos in the Industry. Among the six awards granted by NALIP, the 2009 NALIP Estela Award for Documentary Filmmaking was given to filmmaker and writer Hugo Perez, whose work often focuses on his Cuban heritage. "No group has supported me as wholeheartedly in my filmmaking career as NALIP," said Perez to Documentary magazine. "I feel that, like my family, they are always shouting out, 'Ese es mi hijo!' [That's my boy!]."
In closing his inspiring address to the familia reunion, "el padrino" Valdez brought more than a few tears when he implored the audience, "Stay independent! Hollywood is a ‘temple of art' one moment, and a ‘grand casino' another. Don't sell your heart."
Chelo Alvarez-Stehle is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. A contributor to Spain's El Mundo daily, she has also published in Japan and the US. As a member of NALIP, she participated in the 2008 Latino Producers Academy with her current documentary project Sands of Silence: A Personal Journey into the Trafficking of Women. www.sosdocumentary.org