Production still from the film "Fugly." Courtesy image.
Production still from the film "Fugly." Courtesy image.

Latina voiceover actresses who dub “Desperate Housewives” into Spanish. Students seeking out a fabled Mexican folk singer. An account of a massacre of Comanche Indians by the Texas Rangers in 1840. A comedian coming of age in 1970s New York City.

These and other stories are brought to life on the big screen in this year’s CineFestival, presented by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Now in its 37th year, the eight-day event provides world, regional, and U.S. premieres of documentary and feature films produced by and about U.S. and international Latinos.

CineFestival was born during the Chicano movement, as films about Mexican American culture, by Mexican Americans, found traction with wider audiences. The festival includes question-and-answer sessions, panel discussions, receptions and even special parties – all open to the public. There are 22 films on this year’s docket.

“The festival explores many cultural issues relevant to the community,” said Sandra Garcia, director of marketing and communications for the Guadalupe Center. The center, in the 1300 block of Guadalupe Street, lies across from the venerable Guadalupe Theater, where all CineFestival screenings and events will take place, starting Feb. 21.

“It’s a vibrant community where audience members see films about them or people like them on the screen,” Garcia added.

Actually, you don’t need to be like the people in any given film. Come enter a world other than your own through the creative work of others. It’s one of San Antonio’s most under-appreciated cultural events

local filmmaker Jim Mendiola
Local filmmaker Jim Mendiola.

Jim Mendiola, the talented writer, filmmaker and mentor, is in his fifth year as director of CineFestival. The San Antonio native been programming film festivals since the late 1990s.

“I am aware of what’s out there. The festival is meant to show the best and most interesting of new Latino American film,” Mendiola said. “We have narrative/historical documentaries that reflect different points of history. There are contemporary films that reflect what’s happening today.”

According to Mendiola, CineFestival appeared to have hit its stride in the ’80s and ’90s, as similar film festivals were popping up in New York, Los Angeles and other cities. Others Latino-themed film fests have struggled, or disappeared altogether.

“CineFestival was first produced in the Chicano movement and it has stood the test of time,” Mendiola said. “It may look small, but my goal has been to make the festival bigger and more dynamic.”

There is a certain amount of star power in the films to be shown at this year’s CineFestival. Most notably, John Leguizamo stars in one such selection, “Fugly.” Leguizamo portrays Jesse Sanchez, an up-and-coming comic in a story loosely based on the artist’s life. “Fugly” blends narrative, live stand-up and animation to show Sanchez’s struggles as a young actor – and struggles with women – in the Bronx of the ’70s. “Fugly” co-stars Rosie Perez, Ally Sheedy, Griffin Dunne and Radha Mitchell (see top photo).

Leguizamo, whose television and film resume ranges from “Carlito’s Way” and “House of Buggin” to “Moulin Rouge,” was originally scheduled to appear at the screening of “Fugly” with director Alfredo de Villa. But a scheduling conflict means Leguizamo won’t be coming to San Antonio after all. The screening of “Fugly” has been reset for Feb. 28, the festival’s final day, but de Villa will still lead a Q&A session.

De Villa will also be part of a panel involving a handful of other peers in a special CineFestival event, the Latino Screenwriting Project, in which he and other Latino writers and filmmakers will advise four up-and-coming screenwriters in an intensive four-day workshop.

The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center lit up at night. Courtesy Photo.
The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center theater lit up at night. Courtesy Photo.

The Sundance Institute, a principal sponsor of CineFestival, is also supporting the screenwriting project, to which more than 100 emerging Latino writers nationwide submitted their application.

“We feel a responsibility to find and develop our own talent in writing and filmmaking,” Mendiola said of the project.

A partial list of other select works at CineFestival this year includes:

  • “Now en Español,” a documentary about the trials and travails of Latina voiceover actresses dubbing episodes of the now-canceled dramedy, “Desperate Housewives” for Spanish-speaking audiences. The film documents the struggles these performers face in the larger realm of Latino representation in American medium.
  • Güeros” is a black-and-white film set during the 1999 student strike at UNAM, the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. Some bored, listless students drive around the nation’s capital in search of a legendary rock musician whose music is said to have “once made Bob Dylan cry.”
Screen shot from "Güeros." Courtesy photo.
Screen shot from “Güeros.” Courtesy photo.
  • The Betrayal” is a docudrama based on a massacre of Comanches by Texas Rangers at San Antonio’s old Council House on Main Plaza in 1840. Local director Efrain Gutierrez will appear at the screening and lead a discussion afterward.
  • Squeezebox” is local filmmaker/teacher Sam Lerma’s feature short about Manuel Casillas, a South Texas musical legend who has re-emerged on the local music scene following a hiatus of nearly 20 years. Casillas prepares for a comeback only to stumble upon a collection of strange dreams, a pack of feral cats and a mysterious box with an appetite.
  • Recommended by Enrique” is a feature about a young Hollywood actress who travels to Del Rio to star in a low-budget horror movie, but instead finds mayhem after she discovers the director is missing amid her own chance encounter with a group of border teenagers.
Sarah Swinwood co-stars in "Recommended by Enrique." Courtesy photo.
Sarah Swinwood co-stars in “Recommended by Enrique.” Courtesy photo.
  • “Book of Ruth” is local filmmaker Pablo Veliz’s feature about a young woman who goes on a journey of self-discovery across the desolate U.S.-Mexican border, only to become lost in the desert. The film was shot in the Big Bend area with a crew of only five.
Casandra Canales stars in "Book of Ruth." Courtesy image.
Casandra Canales stars in “Book of Ruth.” Courtesy image.
  • Children of ‘Giant’” is a documentary about the lasting human impact that the famed 1956 film “Giant” had on Mexican and Mexican-American culture. The film was shot in and around Marfa. Performers who were part of the filming, as well as their children, share anecdotes and impressions of the movie. Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros provides narration.

Other new additions at CineFestival include the free-admission Sundance Film Forward program, a menu of screenings and conversations meant to enhance cross-cultural understanding and collaboration. The annual youth program, featuring work produced by teens and screened for local students, and the Senior Cinema program – a series of morning screenings of films from Mexico’s golden cinematic era, also are free.

More information about CineFestival and its offerings can be found at Ticket prices vary, as passes are available for all-access or day screenings, among other event offerings.

“The popularity of each CineFestival depends on the programming of screenings and activities, so the level of expected attendance varies,” Garcia said.

Mendiola said CineFestival has much to offer to different movie-going audiences in an intimate setting.

“What makes this so unique is that people will get to see movies that are relevant to them and the community,” said Mendiola. “People will get to see stars and up-and-coming actors.”

Gina Rodriguez is one of the more notable young stars to be featured at CineFestival in recent years. She starred in the 2012 feature drama, “Filly Brown,” first screened at the festival. She recently won a Golden Globe award for her lead performance in the freshman TV series “Jane the Virgin.”

*Featured/top image: Production still from the film “Fugly.” Courtesy image.

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36th Annual CineFestival: Art, Activism, and Storytelling

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.