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L.A. Film Festival spotlights human stories from Latin America

June 15, 2012 |  1:26 pm


After a string of movies about narco gang wars and desperate migrants, the Los Angeles Film Festival is presenting a different side of Latin American cinema: Cuban zombies, Chilean family road trips, Buenos Aires Elvis impersonators and the flying bird men of Veracruz.

That’s not to downplay the direness of the problems sweeping Mexico and neighboring countries, said Hebe Tabachnik, Latin American programmer for the festival, which is sponsored by The Times. But while those epic tragedies dominate newscasts, she said, this year’s slate of about a dozen features and 16 shorts should put audiences “more in contact with the stories of people.”

“When we read so much about the violence, we start forgetting about the human beings. Everybody becomes just a statistic,” said Tabachnik, a native of Argentina. “It’s a different perspective.”

INTERACTIVE: Cheat Sheet - Los Angeles Film Festival

Exhibit A is the allegorical zombie movie “Juan of the Dead,” scheduled to screen Friday night and Monday evening. Written and directed by Alejandro Brugués, the Cuban-Spanish coproduction blends all the de rigueur elements of the flesh-chomping genre with a biting critique of the everyday horrors of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

Fantasy also body-slams gritty reality in “The Last Elvis,” the tale of a Buenos Aires factory worker who escapes his boring job and busted home life only when he dresses up as the King. Similarly, ordinary lives have extraordinary resonance in “Thursday til Sunday,” Dominga Sotomayor’s feature about a Chilean family’s domestic dramas during a weekend car trip, which gradually attain an emotional scale as vast as the parched landscape engulfing them.

Surrealism trumps mundane realism in “The Compass Is Carried by the Dead Man.” In Arturo Pons’ picaresque satire, a Chaucerian microcosm of Mexican society — a soldier, three female mourners, a runaway boy — find themselves literally going around in circles as they try to escape the desert borderlands on a rickety donkey cart.

“It is a subtle reflection of a sort of hopelessness that the country’s going through,” Tabachnik said. “I see that film a little bit as ‘Waiting for Godot.’” Or perhaps as a sort of blue-collar version of “The Exterminating Angel,” Luis Buñuel’s 1962 classic about the paralyzing ennui of upper-class Mexicans.

Charles Ramirez Berg, a professor of film and media studies at the University of Texas, said in an interview that Mexico has a long, venerable history of using cinema as a self-critical mirror. He cited such landmark films as “Vámonos con Pancho Villa!” (1936), “Herod’s Law” (1999), “El Infierno” (2010) and last year’s “Miss Bala,” in which a Tijuana woman’s dreams of beauty-queen stardom lay bare her country’s drug-fueled corruption.

“Mexican filmmaking itself has always been a mix of escapism and confronting contemporary issues,” Ramirez Berg said. “These films are pretty frank assessments of the current state of affairs.”

Among the most explicit critiques in the festival’s lineup is “Reportero.” Bernardo Ruiz’s documentary chronicles the exploits of Sergio Haro, a journalist for Zeta Weekly, a Tijuana newspaper that has fearlessly shed light on political malfeasance and narco crimes, and paid the price in the constant harassment and even murder of its staffers.

Yet another documentary, José Alvarez’s “Canícula,” presents a gentler face of Mexico. Filmed in rural Veracruz state, near the pre-Columbian sacred city of El Tajín, it depicts the simple, tradition-steeped lives and rituals of the mainly indigenous inhabitants. Among the most haunting and revered of the ancient local customs is teaching young boys to “fly” using a traditional wooden pole-and-rope contraption.

By illuminating the way in which humble materials can be elevated to mystic stature, “Canícula” becomes a hushed and beautiful contemplation of timelessness and transformation. So, in a very different way, does Everardo González’s documentary “Drought,” in which a northeast Mexican cattle-ranching community’s weather-related travails could serve as a prophesy for all mankind.

“It connects you to things that are more long-lasting than just the passing of headlines on a newspapers,” Tabachnik said. “That’s the other Mexico, and that’s the real Mexico for me. That’s the one we need to remember all the time.”


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Photo: A scene from "Juan of the Dead." Credit: Los Angeles Film Festival