Appropriately for its host city, the 42nd annual CineFestival at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center will begin and end with San Antonio films.

The July 7 opening night feature documentary Juanito’s Lab was made by local filmmaker and artist Guillermina Zabala with spouse Enrique Lopetegui, who have followed the career of San Antonio musical prodigy Juanito Castillo for more than 15 years.

The festival will close July 11 with Love and Baseball, the first feature film by San Antonio native Steve Acevedo, who recently directed episodes of the Queen of the South television series on USA Network.

In between, CineFestival will present a slate of 76 film shorts, documentaries, narrative features, and films for youth programmed by Eugenio del Bosque Gómez, who serves as film programmer and grants manager for the Guadalupe.

Following the Wednesday opening night feature, the festival begins at 2 p.m. Thursday, with programs beginning at 10 a.m. Friday through Sunday.

Attendance will be limited to 200 for each screening in the Guadalupe Theater, with advance purchase of tickets recommended. Screenings generally run $8 to $10, with several free programs including the Texas Showcases and Youth Films from SAY Sí students. Festival passes may be purchased for $40, but tickets for each screening still must be reserved in advance.

A long time coming

Among 14 musical instruments he plays, the energetic subject of Juanito’s Lab is perhaps most proficient at the accordion, the portable air-driven keyboard traditionally at the center of San Antonio culture and the Guadalupe Center, which annually hosts the popular Tejano Conjunto Festival.

Lopetegui said Castillo is talented enough to be widely considered the heir to Esteban “Steve” Jordan, who during his lifetime was called “the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion” for his introduction of psychedelic sounds to what many consider a tradition-bound instrument.

Despite blindness resulting from premature birth and an incubator accident, Castillo showed prodigious talent early in life and had mastered several instruments by the time Lopetegui first saw him play accordion in 2005.

As a music writer new to San Antonio, Lopetegui attended a “Conjunto Shoot-out” at Market Square.

“I had never heard accordion played like that, with some dynamite solos,” Lopetegui said. “Then after two or three songs, I realized that he was blind. I started asking around and [people] told me his name is Juanito and he can play 14 instruments like that.”

For a subsequent story, Lopetegui paired the 17-year-old Castillo with Colombian master accordionist Egidio Cuadrado for a dual performance. Cuadrado was “blown away” by the youngster’s talent, Lopetegui said.

“I called my wife after I saw what he did. I told her ‘Hey, man, we need to make a movie about this guy. This guy’s incredible.’”

Sixteen years and 90 hours of footage later, the film has arrived, at a trim 110 minutes. “We never thought it was going to take so long, but we’re finally here,” Lopetegui said.

Blunt instrument

The eccentric Steve Jordan was blind in one eye, but the older musician and Castillo share more than blindness.

Castillo played drums in Jordan’s band for two years before the elder’s death in 2010. The younger musician now confronts a similar conundrum as did Jordan, fighting perceptions that he should stick to traditional accordion music rather than exploring his own wide-ranging musical tastes.

In an early promotional clip sent out as a fundraiser for Juanito’s Lab, Castillo demonstrates his eclectic approach. He also demonstrates playful impatience, now 32 years old and still awaiting the release of the documentary.

Informed that another $1,500 is needed to move the film along, Castillo says, “What do I gotta do to get these people to throw some cash our way? Do I gotta, like, play every single thing up in this mo’ fo’? What’s goin’ on over here? Cuz I’ll get down!”

He then launches into a jazzy, improvised breakdown featuring himself on accordion, bajo sexto, bass guitar, and drums, wildly rolling through a mish-mash of musical styles.

Castillo recorded a complete album but rejected it because it hewed too close to expectations that he would continue playing like Jordan.

“When we started the movie we caught Juanito at a crossroads,” Lopetegui said. “Because on the one hand, he wanted to continue Steven Jordan’s tradition. But at the same time, he wanted to do his own thing. So there was a friction going on there.”

Lopetegui remains convinced that Castillo can become one of the greats and make a living from his music. “His challenge is how to turn all those talents and all those different styles that he experiments with, how to turn that into an artistic concept. And so we’ll see, only time will tell.”

Seeing beyond sight

As the filmmakers focused on a cinema verité telling of Castillo’s life and the culture around him, some fascinating aspects of their protagonist didn’t make it into the film, Zabala said.

When young he rode a bike, Zabala said, by hearing the sounds and feeling the vibrations of the sidewalks, streets, and cars around him. He also claims to feel the colors of a room he’s in despite not being able to see them, preferring blue walls for his studio because that shade keeps him calm.

“There is all that other side of him, in terms of the blindness,” Zabala said, “which, when you are with him … you sometimes feel like we are the ones who lack one of the senses. He was able to develop almost an extra sense that it’s really hard for us to even [comprehend].”

As they followed Castillo’s “lights and shadows” through the years, Lopetegui said, they came to a realization. “We’re following a musician in Juanito Castillo who happens to be blind, but who can perceive the world more than most of us.”

The Guadalupe Theater screening will be the debut of the film, though it remains subject to a few more tweaks and finishing touches, Lopetegui said.

Juanito’s Lab screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, and the filmmakers will be present, with a reception and performance after the film.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...