Latinos from the Fields to the Film Industry

Latinas such as Lissette Feliciano and Romina Schwedler are part of the few but talented minorities currently involved in North American cinema. Photo Credits: Lissette Feliciano and Alain J. Carmona (Romina Schwedler)

Jose Posadas

Special to El Observador

Friday, March 31 marked the birthday and holiday of Cesar Chavez who began organizing the Mexican American community in the 1950s and in 1962 launched the National Farm Workers Association (later to become the United Farm Workers) which would be his legacy. While the rights and dignity of migrant farm laborers was his message for the next 30 years until his death in 1993 the Civil Rights leader believed his message transcended that one issue.

In a 1984 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco he described his movement as a people’s cause. He concluded his speech by saying, “You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.”

Moving beyond the agricultural fields of the Central Valley and across America, Latinos today have seized upon that social change by taking on roles once considered inaccessible in all facets of society. From the political arena to the corporate boardroom, from the Silicon Valley startups to science and technology Latinos are making great strides.

However, in one industry, film, Latinos still trail behind other minorities. In 2015 Latinos got only 5% of speaking roles in the top 100 films that year. In TV Latinos got only 2% of roles according to a UCLA study. Yet, ironically, Latinos account for 1 out of every 4 movie tickets purchased, are the largest ethnic group in California and make up 1 out of 5 Americans. While Latinos are woefully underrepresented in Hollywood as a whole there are some, including Latina film directors, who are making strides to close that Latino gap in media.

Lissette Feliciano

One such trendsetter is Lissette Feliciano, a native of San Francisco whose short film, “With Children”, recently premiered at the Cinequest Film & Virtual Reality Festival in San Jose. Lissette was born to a musician father and an entrepreneur mother. Her film, “With Children”, is based on the story of her pregnant mother and the hardship she encountered looking for housing while with a child on the way.

This film was very personal for you. What was your mom’s initial reaction when she learned you would be telling her story?

She was very supportive. Her entire thing in life is about inspiring people to set high goals and reach them. She came from a very impoverished background and had everything against her but with hard work and sacrifice she’s been able to make something of herself. She always said, “Look mija, if I could do it with nothing, you who were born here, have the language, have the education, what can you not do?”

Hearing something like that just gives you a sense of accountability for your actions and the mark you want to leave in this world. And it’s a message kids don’t hear that often and she really instilled in me the passion to spread that message to as many kids as possible. Especially Latino kids who don’t always get told that they’re important, that they can make a difference, and that they have an accountability to change the script around the world’s perception of their potential.

As a Bay Area-raised Latina what has been the audience response to your film from non-Latino audiences?

I wrote the script color blind. There’s really nothing in the script that signals “this is a Latino story”. Even the names, there’s a dad character that’s named Matthew in the script but in the scene while we were acting it I told the actor the incredible Gabriel Sloyer, you know what I think I’m going to call you Teo which is what my mom would have called you. And he was like “yeah!”

The finished product obviously has a Latin flavor in the music, motifs, etc. but nothing about her struggle is centered only about Latinos. This is the story of any woman struggling to be taken seriously which is what we’re still fighting for in 2017, she just happens to have olive skin in this film. If it happens to look Latino and have a little bit of Spanish in that’s because of me and my influences but the story is universal. Have you ever had a dream? Have you ever been kept from it for reasons that were barely reasons? Has the perception around you and what you can achieve kept you somehow from living up to your god given potential? Those are universal struggles. So I’ve had a great response from non-Latino audiences because the film is for anyone who’s had a dream and had to struggle for that dream.

That as a filmmaker is what my mission is: to blur the divides between race, gender, etc. and help the world connect again to a truth I think we know as kids but lose as adults: Our circumstances might be different but our souls are the same. That’s a message we need now more than ever. 

What is next for you after completing your short film?

I’m working to make “With Children” into a feature film. It’s going to be an Erin Brockovich meets Rocky story. Where it’s just obstacle after obstacle and the resilience of this woman that says, “come at me, I don’t care what you do to me, I’m going to stay in the ring”. That’s something my mom told me growing up:  sacrifice, work hard, you don’t have to win right away but you better believe you have to stay in the ring.

Romina Schwedler

Another Latina film director on the rise, this time from New York but originally Argentina, is Romina Schwedler. Her short film, “The Visit”, has already received awards for best short film by a woman at film festivals. In “The Visit” not all is as it first appears and tells the story of mental health issues played out through an encounter between a man and his aging mother. The man’s interactions with his mother while at a hospital are juxtaposed against a series of flashbacks he has experienced. Romina’s film also premiered at the Cinequest Film and Virtual Realtity Festival and is currently making the film festival circuit.

You directed two micro-short films already. What are the challenges making this recent short film?

“The Visit” was definitely my most demanding production yet. In many ways I feel like this was my first film. With “The Visit” I was definitely challenged as a director, as a writer, and as a producer. Once I knew that June Squibb and Sean Maher (the actors in the film) were on board, I wanted to make sure that they would have a positive experience working on the film, especially since they were both working for scale!

As a director, I think my biggest challenge was the last day of shooting because that day I had my full cast, my full crew, accumulated sleep deprivation, a last minute head concussion, and the added obstacle of filming in a hospital that’s in operation.

Originally from Buenos Aires, have your films been shown there? How would you describe the film viewing audience in Argentina compared to the audiences in the USA?

I’m grateful and lucky to say that I have very loyal fans back home, and I feel bad sometimes because everything I’ve directed so far has been in English.”The Visit” I have not taken to Argentina yet. Several people have asked me when the film will be playing there and I truly can’t wait for that to happen so now I’m getting ready to submit to festivals there.

How does being a woman filmmaker influence your style of telling stories?

I think everyone’s way of telling stories is different, whether you’re a man or a woman. I do believe that as a woman I might have an easier time envisioning a woman as a protagonist for a role that might otherwise be thought of for a man. Also, shining a light on women in key roles throughout history and in today’s society has a certain appeal to me and most women directors.

You have had an interesting journey in the arts and seem to have “accidentally” gotten into the film making business. What do you find most appealing about making films and telling stories?

I enjoy filmmaking so much because it’s the one discipline where I get to use everything I’ve ever  learned throughout my career, as a musician, as an artist, as an actress. This is where it all comes together. I love the magical process of turning an idea into a tangible piece of work that then gets shared with an audience who will have diverse experiences and reactions to it. I also love the powerful medium of film and how we as filmmakers are able to make a difference, to change someone’s life, to make someone think about something they wouldn’t have thought of had they not watched your film.

What is next for you after completing your short film?

My team and I are having an amazing time accompanying the film throughout its festival circuit but I might not be able to be present at all of our upcoming screenings because I’m about to begin pre-production for my first feature film. I’m very excited about this because this is an Argentinean film. It’s not my script. I was hired to direct it but this is a special project to say the least because not only do I love the script and the team I’ll be working with but I also get to work where I grew up and make my first film in Spanish so I can’t wait.

Arts & CultureFeatured