For 25 years, the Latin American Film Festival was an annual event at the High Museum, bringing new films from South America, Cuba, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean to often sell-out crowds. After media arts curator Linda Dubler died in 2011, the High’s film program was abandoned and the Latin American Film Festival was orphaned. Thanks to the Atlanta Film Society, under the leadership of executive director Christopher Escobar, the popular series was revived last year on a smaller scale as the CineMás Film Series. The organization launches its second annual series at the Plaza Theatre this month where the films, all Atlanta premieres, will play on consecutive Friday nights at 7 p.m.
The three-film lineup includes Ixcanul (Volcano) from Guatemala, directed by Jayro Bustamante on November 4, Espejuelos Oscuros (Dark Glasses), a Cuban film from Jessica Rodríguez on November 11 and Un Tango Más (Our Last Tango) from Argentina, directed by German Kral, on November 18.
Gayla Jamison, co-founder of CineMás with Julie Chautin, acknowledges the challenges of trying to revive the series but says the experience of seeing the films on a big screen rewards the audience. “People have so many different ways to see media that it almost seems a bit out of date to see a film in a movie theater,” she says. “But experiencing a film with an audience is really important. What was so wonderful about the series at the High Museum was that many of the same people attended every year and more and more people joined that group. A lot of friendships were formed through people coming together who had an interest in Latin America, whether they were born there or not. It was just a very rich experience.”
Ixcanul, the opening film, is set against the stunning natural beauty of a mountainous region of Guatemala and tells the story of María, a 17-year-old girl who works with her family harvesting coffee beans for a plantation owner. Following the traditions of the Kaqchikel people, one of the indigenous Mayan groups in the country, María is expected to accept her life of servitude as a wife and mother when she is promised to a plantation foreman via an arranged marriage. Her attempts to rebel against her fate creates unforeseen problems, but the one person who is sympathetic to her plight and tries to intervene is her mother Juana.
“All of the actors are non-actors [with the exception of Juana played by María Telón] and the performances are fantastic,” says Jamison. “It’s a very beautiful film about an indigenous community that’s living with one foot in contemporary Guatemala and the other foot planted firmly in their Mayan tradition. It’s really about the problems and advantages of both cultures.”
Ixcanul not only won awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Montreal Festival of New Cinema, but was also submitted as Guatemala’s entry for Oscar consideration as the Best Foreign Language Film.
In Espejuelos Oscuros (Dark Glasses), we are introduced to Esperanza, a woman who appears to be blind and is soon held captive in her home by Mario, an ex-con on the run who threatens to rape her. In an effort to distract him, she persuades the intruder to read her three stories which take place in Cuba during different historic periods. This subterfuge, which is like a modern-day variation on The Arabian Nights, heroine Scheherazade helps humanize Esperanza in the eyes of Mario while also advancing the captive’s own secret agenda. Two of Cuba’s most famous actors, Laura De la Uz and Luis Alberto García, play the two leads as well as the main protagonists in each of the stories.
Shot in four weeks on a limited budget in the lush valley town of Pinar del Río in Cuba, Dark Glasses marks the film debut of Jessica Rodriguez, who is one of the few women directors working in her country’s film industry (she has since relocated to Spain). Part of her determination to make the film was in reaction to her experiences as a female director in Cuba. In an interview with Miami New Times, she said, “We’re expected to behave in a certain way and act a certain way. So I wanted to tell stories of women who have acted differently, who have gone against what is expected of them because of passion or love or bravery.” Dark Glasses also shares some similarities with Humberto Solás’ landmark 1968 drama, Lucía, which also featured an episodic three-story structure set in different time periods with strong female role models.
The final film in the series, Un Tango Más (Our Last Tango), is an unconventional documentary portrait of two legendary tango dance partners and lovers, María Nieves Rego and Juan Carlos Copes, who are best known in the United States for the Broadway show, Tango Argentino. Weaving together archival footage of the two subjects, dramatic re-enactments, dazzling choreography and current interviews with Rego and Copes (now in their 80s), the film becomes not just a 50-year portrait of the duo’s career but also a meditation on the tango as an integral part of Argentina’s history and culture. Jamison adds that the festival hopes to bring the filmmaker to town for this event and there may even be a tango dancing exhibition in the Plaza lobby after the film’s screening.