Cinema is the big star at the 24th San Diego Latino Film Festival, but cuisine, culture and music are also in the spotlight. The 11-day event, beginning Thursday, March 16, will feature 160 documentaries, shorts, comedies and dramas from 20 countries. On March 18, the festival's Sabor Latino will celebrate regional food, beer and wine. And there will be free musical performances daily.
Presented by the nonprofit Media Arts Center San Diego, the selections run the gamut. Here are two movies - both with local ties - that demonstrate the festival's range.
"Ruta Madre" ("Going South")
Born and raised in South Bay, Joey Molina wrote the script for "Ruta Madre," a comic road-trip movie based on his adventures as a young Mexican-American who was at low point in his life.
"I'd gone to L.A. to be a rock star. That was disastrous," said Molina, 45, who now is based in Lemon Grove. "I was back in San Diego - young, heartbroken and stagnant. My grandma told my uncle to take me to Mexico to discover my roots. That's the premise of the film."
Molina credits the director and co-writer of "Ruta Madre," Agustin Castaneda, for helping shape the movie into a fast-paced Spanish-language comedy with English subtitles. Its international cast includes Mexican actress Paulina Gaitan, star of the Netflix series "Narcos"; David Castro, a young, seasoned American actor; Brit William Miller; and comic Paul Rodriguez.
"We wanted to find a way to bridge the language and cultural barriers," noted Molina. "It was important to keep it an American and Latino comedy. We needed to weave it together so it's both dramatic and funny.
"It's a Mexican story through American eyes. My Spanish is still muy malo (very bad)."
"Dia de Visita" ("Visitor's Day")
When Point Loma native Nicole Opper was 18, she volunteered near Puebla, Mexico, for IPODERAC, an agricultural-based, self-sustaining group home for boys. After making other successful documentaries, she returned in 2011 to film "Dia de Visita."
Opper, the movie's producer, director and cinematographer, followed several IPODERAC residents. She ultimately chose Juan Carlos, who had moved there from an abusive home.
San Diego Latino Film Festival
When: March 16-26
Where: AMC Fashion Valley 18, 7037 Friars Road, Mission Valley (main venue)
Tickets: $11.50 individual movies; $9.50 students, military, seniors. $20 to $30 opening-night party; $20 to $30 closing-night party; various VIP packages available
Phone: (619) 230-1938
Sabor Latino: Food, Beer and Wine Festival
When: 1 to 5 p.m. March 18
Where: River Plaza, Fashion Valley Mall, 7007 Friars Road, Mission Valley
Tickets: $20 to $45
Phone: (619) 230-1938
"After three months, I began to whittle it down," she said, speaking from the Bay Area, where she lives with her wife and co-producer, Kristan Cassady. "Who was charismatic and wanted to be a part of the film? Who could best illustrate the profound difference a place like this could make?
"It was clearly Juan Carlos. He'd been there a year and was at the precipice of his transformation. He was wide open to the guidance from the excellent staff. He could help tell a story that was at once personal and indicative of what a place like this can do. We also hit it off. If you're going to make an observational commitment for a year, you want to like your subject."
Molina and Opper are both delighted their films were selected to be shown at the Latino Film Festival. Among the other likely highlights of the event are Demián Bichir 's directorial debut, "Un Cuento De Circo & a Love Song," in which he stars with Eva Longoria . Another is "Beyond the Crossfire," a documentary made by students at Chula Vista's High Tech High.
San Diego Latino Film Festival founder and executive director Ethan van Thillo believes that the festival is even more important this year, in light of current events.
"SDLFF stands for all that is good with the USA and our border region," he said. "Diversity, creativity, innovation, international collaboration y más (and more)."
Wood is a San Diego freelance writer.
More from our conversation with Joey Molina of "Ruta Madre"
It sounds like you started a career as a singer. How did that come about?
I didn't start singing until I joined the Southwestern College choir. We went all over the world with Professor Terry Russell. Simultaneously, at Southwestern I started acting with William Virchis. But I wanted to be a rock 'n' roll singer. I was young and wanted to be Jim Morrison.
But I ended up going to San Jose State to study opera, because I thought there would be less competition. I went to 'La Traviata' to see what I was getting myself into. But I fell asleep during the performance and thought 'uh-oh, I'm in trouble.' I left soon after that.
What's funny is now I work in a community outreach program for the San Diego Opera!
"Ruta Madre" is autobiographical. How did you realize it should be a comedy?
It was the director, Agustin Castaneda, my friend and partner of our production company. We'd tell my story at parties and say: 'we've got to make this a movie.'
For a while, we were driving to Los Angeles, a lot of long trips. I like to say the spirit of the desert came to him. I saw this light in his eyes. He laid out the structure of the movie, the passion, comedy and drama. He was right on.
Where was it filmed?
It starts here and then we go south. The beauty is so unique in the cities of Baja. Steinbeck wrote about Baja. It's magic. It's such an alien experience for someone to go that deep and away from the border and U.S.
How does it feel to have "Ruta Madre" shown at the SDLFF?
This is our official San Diego/Tijuana/Southern California premiere. Come and see us. This is the big deal for us, showing the film at home.
Anything to add?
This film is a true story - my story - but it's only the template. It's about family, grandmas and uncles. People come up to me after and tell me about their grandmas. It's about all of us.
More from our conversation with Nicole Opper
What was IPODERAC like when you returned in 2011, compared to when you volunteered at the group home as a teenager?
In some ways, the place seemed frozen in time. I experienced the same smells, the leisurely pace and rhythms. The nostalgia was strong when I first arrived as an adult. But it also had changed considerably. When I was there as a teenager, it was one big plot of land and dirt roads. When I returned, it was a beautifully manicured campus, a playground and a basketball court were being built. It was unrecognizable, but the spirit was the same.
Your first film, "Off and Running," was about transracial adoption. You're now working on an upcoming series following you and your wife's experiences adopting from the foster care system. "Dia de Visita" is about a group home. What is it about this theme that draws you?
A lot of my interest sprang from meeting Avery (in "Off and Running") when she was 11 years old. It gave me a picture of myself as a family. I was in my early 20s and had just come out to myself. I had never seen two lesbian women with a child. Avery and I are still very connected.
It opened the door to quite an education for me about adoption and foster care. Why is our system so broken? Why, when there are so many willing parents? How can group homes function in healthy ways in other countries, but suffer across the board in the U.S.? I'm endlessly fascinated by the issues at play. And I'm inspired by the tremendous strength foster kids have against adversity. So it became part of my professional work as well.
At the SDLFF, you'll be presenting "Dia de Visita" at a high school, as well as its festival screening. Is that something you like to do?
Yes, I'll be talking about the film in the daytime (March 21) to high school youth. Working with young filmmakers is a big passion of mine. Film festival presentations to high school students are not as common as you'd think. I'm happy that the San Diego Latino Film Festival has taken it upon itself to do that.
I've taught on the college and graduate levels and youth for 10-15 years. Teaching and filmmaking: I strongly believe that one craft informs the other. I get a lot out of both.