Strictly speaking I am, what some might call, a complete and total movie-nut. Film has been my solace since I was barely old enough to understand that the characters inside the big magic box, which shocked you when you touched it, weren’t real. Whether it was a documentary on the discovery channel or Spielberg’s latest masterpiece, it was engraved into my heart and soul the importance of movies in the American society. But the importance of storytelling behind a camera is a treasured part of human lives across oceans and boarders. This is an artform that speaks to people from every nation and this is the message of San Diego’s Latino Film Festival.
The Latino Film Festival is held once a year in this gorgeous city to celebrate not only the art of film with San Diegans who love it so, but also to give spotlight to Latino filmmakers who create incredible movies with amazing stories to tell. Last weekend, I had the privilege to attend the last day of the festival which was being hosted at Fashion Valley Mall and film screenings were held at the mall’s AMC 18.
Bright orange film festival posters were raised proudly on lamp posts throughout the outdoor mall and a live band filled the air with cultural music. The lead singer would motion to guests passing by to come, dance and enjoy the music. While young people clapped and smiled, watching through the screens of their recording phones, older audiences coupled up, shuffled onto the dance floor, spinning and side-stepping to the drum beats and guitar strums. This you could even hear, and feel, from inside the AMC.
The Digital Gym at San Diego’s Media Arts Center was also premiering screenings for the festival. This I found out as I had to exchange my Hija de la Laguna ticket for another. A young, dark haired woman brought me to a ticket booth, handed me the film catalogue and said, “Here, pick one.” My confused and slightly panicked expression must have said it all because she quickly took the catalogue from me, quickly scanned it with her eyes, and handed it back to me pointing to a box at the bottom reading, “Jules and Dolores.”
“You’ll like this one,” she said.
Not daring to argue with an expert, I exchanged my ticket and was ushered into a waiting line with other people anxious to see a movie I knew nothing about.
When the theater attendants removed the front strap from our sectioned off waiting areas, telling us we were free to enter the theater and take our seats, no one headed for the snack bar first. No one went to stock-up on diet coke, twizzlers or popcorn. Every single person headed strait towards the movie theater. I found this odd until I entered the screening room. Every person in the audience was talking, not just to the people they came with, but to other attendants in the seats around them. No one was on their phones and everyone was talking about either other movies they had seen, their excitement to see this current film, or catching up with old friends they had met at last years festival. For them, this wasn’t about going into a dark room and shutting their brains off for an hour or two. This, I learned, was a sacred space. While I felt like an outsider, possibly being the only person in the audience who didn’t speak Spanish, I could still tell I was about to be a part of something special.
The lights dimmed, voiced silenced and music began to play as credits faded in and out on the screen. The movie had begun, but so had something else. Movie-magic is a phrase tossed around by film-lovers but few have experienced it in full. Movie magic is not just the tricks and illusions filmmakers use to bring a story to live from script to screen. Movie magic also refers to the unique moment when a movie enchants the entire audience, drawing them emotionally into the story they are watching play out before their eyes. When movie-magic latches on, a viewer has two options: stay silent or engage. That evening, in the premier screening of Jules and Dolores, the entire audience decided to engage.
Normally in theaters you will see audiences cry or the occasional one-person gasp when something unexpected happens in the movie. But rarely does one have a chance to be a pert of the audience that begs and pleads with the characters to change their minds, or cheer when the character gets their big break. True movie magic makes you feel like you are actually there, as an extra in the film. You are a part of the journey.
There was a variety of film genres showing at the film festival, from documentaries to comedies, from romantic dramas to historical fictions, they had it all. There were films about bands trying to make it big, a young girl trying to protect a river she sees as her mother from being destroyed and, of course, two men who steal Rio’s prized world cup hoping to make a million to save their in-debt skins. This festival had a film for everyone, but that is not the point. I could spend time reviewing Jules and Dolores and explaining the plot but that would be missing the point of the experience. The point of the Latino Film Festival is not to go see a great movie, but to see what these movies mean to the Latino people.
Watching a film in theaters is a religious experience for this community. It’s an intentional part of their lifestyle. As someone who considers herself a movie-nut, I was moved by the people I sat in the audience with that evening and by the way they unapologetically expressed their love for film. San Diego’s Latino Film Festival gives attendants not only a look at worlds outside their own, worlds just fifteen minutes away like Tijuana, or gives people a chance to celebrate the world they come from. But it also gives you a chance to see what happens when you let movie-magic take you over. When you give in to your love of storytelling and let yourself be unapologetically passionate without worrying what the person next to you thinks. Love for movies runs deep outside our own boarders.
At this film festival, where movie magic is allowed to thrive without walls or fences, the characters inside that magic box become very, very real.