East Bay Filmmakers Fight for Latinx Representation 

More diversity in roles, staff, and stories are all needed, say local filmmakers.

click to enlarge Diana Elizabeth Torres stars in the locally made film East Side Sushi.
  • Diana Elizabeth Torres stars in the locally made film East Side Sushi.

Inclusion seems to be a buzzword for Hollywood executives right now. In 2017, Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture — the first to do so with an all-Black cast centered on a LGBTQ story. Then Get Out earned more award nominations and cemented a well-deserved boost for stories told from an African-American perspective. And last month, Crazy Rich Asians topped the box office in its first weekend in theaters as the first major Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years. But the rise in diversity in media hasn't been significant for the Latinx community.

"In terms of representation, it feels like some voices have been left out of the equation," said Rob Fatal, a gender fluid experimental filmmaker based in the East Bay.

While some audiences might think Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, which also won the Oscar for Best Picture, was a big step in the right direction, it showed no Latinx people in front of the camera and only a handful behind it. According to a USC Annenberg study analyzing 1,100 Hollywood films from 2017, only 6.8 percent of speaking roles belonged to Latinx actors. Yet the Department of Finance estimates that the current Latinx population in California is well over 30 percent.

Of course, there are places to see Latinx people in films away from Hollywood, such as at the SF Latino Film Festival taking place across the Bay Area Sept. 14 through 30. And local Latinx filmmakers are also working to tell more diverse stories.

Take Fatal, for example. Originally from Sacramento, Fatal moved to the East Bay because of the radical community that exists here for both artists and the Latinx, queer community. Fatal believes that there is space for non-Latinx people to tell Latinx stories, but they also think it's problematic that most mainstream films that are considered Latinx are almost always about binary people in nuclear families, gangsters, or highly sexualized women. As a queer, Latinx, indigenous person, Fatal believes it is irresponsible not to tell stories that better represent people with other backgrounds — and they're committed to changing that narrative. Their newest feature, Technotihuacan, is made up of 16 short films by Latinx artists, edited together live on stage and accompanied by original music from a DJ. The film debuted at the 2018 National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco and is getting ready to tour the world next year.

Anthony Lucero, a writer and director born and raised in Oakland, is about to finish a two-year director's shadowing program with ABC in Los Angeles. He finds the lack of Latinx representation in media upsetting. Lucero wants to stay away from stereotypes and put Latinx actors in films as normal, everyday people — people who eat pizza and speak English. His main goal is to give Latinx actors roles portraying detectives and doctors instead of gangsters and sexy house cleaners. "The issue is that the Oscars is still Black and white," he said. Black and white voices control a lot of the media and Latinx and Asians are only given a little sliver. "If you want to have a voice, you need to have a lot of money in the industry, and if the powers making the decisions are not people that come from the community, our people will end up being solely represented by shows like Narcos."  

Dawn Valadez, a local documentary director and producer of social issue documentaries such as Going on 13 and The Pushouts, which just won the Imagen Award for best documentary, has been a longtime member of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers and the Brown Girls Doc Mafia. She is aware that despite the push to increase Latinx, people of color, and female representation in the media, there still need to be more stories about Latinx lives, communities, and families. "I feel that my work is more like a vessel creating space for the stories of the people and communities around me to shine — sharing more than negative statistics; sharing our individual and community strength, resiliency, knowledge, beauty," Valadez said.

Florencia Manovil, an East Bay writer, director, and producer originally from Argentina, tells stories about women. Instead of calling herself a Latinx filmmaker, she considers herself a queer feminist making queer feminist content from the perspective of someone who grew up in Latin America. Manovil likes to depict different kinds of Latinas and explore how their identities and perspectives can differ depending on where they are from. She just wrapped principal photography for the third part of her latest film trilogy Bridges and found that people in the East Bay were very generous with their time and skills because they want to support indie narratives. Other local Latinx filmmakers echoed Manovil's experience.

But local support hasn't made a big impact in improving Latinx representation in movies, even among local productions. Money and power remain the biggest hurdles keeping Latinx filmmakers from telling their stories. In the East Bay, many filmmakers have to associate themselves with the tech world in order to pay the bills. Often, they end up making videos that still predominantly showcase white talent and are developed by white male executives. If the decisions at the top continue to be made by the same group of people, the result is not likely to change. At least not quickly.

Lucero points to his independent feature East Side Sushi, a movie about a Mexican-American woman who wants to become a sushi chef. The film was shot in the East Bay, got released in local theaters in 2015, and found success in the indie world. But Lucero said that studios are not jumping at the opportunity to fund many projects like it. "Studios want a lot of money — not just a little bit — and it's increasingly hard to find a budget for telling these kinds of stories," he said.

Local Latinx filmmakers want access to resources that allow their films to gain the kind of support that other recent East Bay ventures have received, such as Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting. While they appreciate the community support, there ultimately needs to be support from Hollywood, too. "The change has to come from the studio," Lucero said. "They need to start casting differently and including more Latinos in front of the camera and at an executive level.

"I'm going to do my best when I'm working on TV to fight the stereotypes and not cast Latinos as the bad guy." 

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