Latino Touch: LAM’s Guide to the San Francisco International Film Festival

The 57th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival is right around the corner with the first film hitting the big screens of S.F. on April 24th.

Regarded as one of the premiere festivals on the circuit and founded in 1957, the San Francisco International Film Festival is the longest-running film festival in the Americas. Held each spring for two weeks, the International is an extraordinary showcase of cinematic discovery and innovation in the country’s most beautiful city, featuring some 150 films and live events with more than 100 filmmakers in attendance and nearly two dozen awards presented for cinematic excellence. The Festival attracts an annual audience of more than 70,000.

And as it is accustomed, the SFIFF has the Latino community well represented. In 2014, seven different Latin-American countries will feature films at the International. What follows is LAM’s four recommendations for a great time at the SFIFF.

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BAD HAIR (PELO MALO):
In a Caracas tenement high-rise, Marta (Samantha Castillo) is raising two children alone, their father long gone and her security-job employment recently terminated. Broke and desperate, her frustrations find a focal point: 10-year-old elder son Junior’s (Samuel Lange) curious new determination to straighten his frizzy interracial hair. He wants to look like the people he watches on TV–not actually be a beauty contestant or singer, but simply resemble one. It’s a harmless enough pursuit, one would think. But Marta worries it’s a sign of femininity that underscores her failings as a parent and provider. The resulting conflict between them shouldn’t turn serious—and yet somehow it keeps pressing all the wrong buttons until mother and son may not be able to repair the damage. Without ever spelling anything out, Mariana Rondón’s prize-winning feature addresses potent issues of economic pressure and homophobia within the family unit. She displays a fine understanding of the unspoken tensions that can create a divide—and the occasional words said in anger that can seal it. Bad Hair is a finely acted, deceptively small-scaled drama that subtly works its way toward a big impact.

A native of Barquisimeto, Mariana Rondón studied filmmaking in France and Cuba before returning to Venezuela for her first feature At Midnight and a Half, co-directed with Marité Ugás. In addition to work on several TV projects, she subsequently wrote the screenplay for Ugás’s The Kid Who Lies (2010), and wrote/directed Postcards from Leningrad (2007). Bad Hair, her latest, has won top awards at the Havana, San Sebastian, Thessaloniki and other festivals.

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CLUB SANDWICH:
Chubby, subdued 15-year-old Hector and his doting single mother Paloma seem to be in a deep tropical torpor at their low-budget, Mexican resort hotel. In the tender bubble of their relationship, they pass the idle hours lounging by the empty pool, mindlessly watching TV in their room over the hypnotic hum of the air conditioner, playing simple games and teasing each other out of boredom. Ordering food from room service is the only event that breaks the day’s monotony. But when the odd, even less talkative young Jazmin arrives with her strange and distant parents, a delicate and amusing romance begins to stir between the teens. Director Fernando Eimbcke’s comic minimalism captures a level of intimacy that is rare, painfully realistic and movingly funny. Both Lucio Giménez Cacho and María Renée Prudencio humorously convey the fragility and awkwardness of adolescence, the weird and terse conversations, the clumsy nascent sexuality and the sudden shifts from apathy to engagement. In a touching performance as Hector’s mother, Danae Reynaud softly reveals her conflicted emotions. Paloma seeks to ease Hector’s discomfort with Jazmin, but she sometimes trips on her own possessive love for her son. In limning what may be the least verbal romance in cinema history, director Fernando Eimbcke employs a delightful restraint that brings forth an intimacy, acuity and comic release that few films can match.

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ALL ABOUT THE FEATHERS (POR LAS PLUMAS):
In Neto Villalobos’ first feature film All About the Feathers, an impoverished security guard Chalo (Allan Cascante) acquires the fighting cock of his dreams, without any notion of how to actually care for it. He quickly discovers that a man with few resources is not welcome in his usual haunts—cheap hotels, city busses, at the workplace—when he’s carrying around a noisy, albeit handsome, rooster. Despite his struggles to find a place to shelter himself and his new acquisition, his unconditional admiration for his difficult companion, whom he names “Rocky,” only grows, and his devotion to his well-being attracts a circle of new human friends as well, who rally to help him succeed. This subtle, absurdist comedy hinges on the stellar performances of the cast, from the deadpan vulnerability of Casacante’s Chalo to the nurturing warmth of his new pal Candy (Sylvia Sossa), the eager cheerleading of youthful Erlan (Erlan Vasquez), and the frenetic solidarity displayed by his fellow security guard Jason (Marvin Acosta). Sedately paced, yet quietly observational, the near-documentary feel of this quixotic fiction is enhanced by the mostly non-professional cast and astute cinematography.

Native Costa Rican Neto Villalobos studied sociology at the University of Costa Rica before heading to Barcelona to study cinema at the Centre d’Estudis Cinematografics de Catalunya. He previously directed several short films including Jason (2011), which also featured a security guard searching for a seller of gamecocks. All About the Feathers, which received over $16,000 in crowd-sourced funds, as well as an Encuentros prize at the Miami International Film Festival, is his debut feature film.

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DIRTY HANDS (MANOS SUCIAS):
Estranged brothers Jacobo (Jarlin Martinez) and Delio (Cristian Advincula) have little in common but a shared desire to escape Buenaventura, the violent epicenter of Colombia’s drug trade. When they’re reunited to transport a massive load of cocaine up the country’s perilous coastal waters to Panama, Jacobo’s disappointment in his younger brother’s choices is palpable, but to wide-eyed Delio, an aspiring rapper and newly minted father, the rules seem simple enough: no stopping, no whoring and especially no talking about their cargo. Along the dense jungle coastline, simple is anything but safe, and a sudden, brutal act of violence finds the brothers adrift and alone, left to renew their allegiance over half-remembered Afro-Colombian songs and a mutual love of Brazilian soccer god Pelé. In his debut feature, director Joseph Kubota Wladyka evinces a realism like that found in the early films of his mentor, the film’s executive producer Spike Lee. Working with a non-professional cast in the local Buenaventuran dialect, oblique to even Spanish speakers, Wladyka captures the menacing beauty of Colombia’s coast, its waters as murky as the moral truth the brothers navigate: When life’s value is so little, everyone is fair game.

Film synopsis provided by Gustavus Kundahl, Dennis Harvey, Nicole Gluckstern and Jackson Scarlett of the SFIFF. For showtimes and more information on the festival, please visit http://www.sffs.org/festival-home