Forging Connections Through Film

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Andrea Velasco and Eric Robeldo in “Desde el principio.”

By Emily Weitz

When the Latin American Film Festival started, its intent was to connect people across cultures. But it wasn’t focused on the Anglo-Latino relations. It tapped into the depths of the Latino community: people from many different countries with vastly different cultures, coming together at the cinema. The festival has always been open to the English-speaking community, with English subtitles on every film, but the focus on forging connections within the Latino community is integral, say organizers.

“The intent was to share stories, not stereotypical stories, from other countries,” explained Minerva Perez, Executive Director of OLA (Organizacion de Latino Americanos). “A story where someone from Ecuador would learn Chile, to learn the rick traditions within the Latino community, and not have the assumptions be the only thing we’ve got for each other.”

Since its inception around 2002, the film festival has grown. This year, for the first time, the Board of Directors put out a call for brand new independent films.

“We are searching for brand new voices from Latin American filmmakers,” said Perez.

One such voice is Miguel Soliman, who was born in New Jersey to an Ecuadorian mother and a Honduran-Palestinian father. In his short film, “Desde El Principio,” Soliman dives deep into the relationship of two people who have kept secrets from one another for years. He believes that the key to connecting to the humanity in all of us is through compelling, individual stories.

“The more specific you are about a character’s emotional situation, that connects with anybody universally,” he said. “It’s about the story, the emotional journey, and how specific you can get with that.”

For Soliman, filmmaking offers an opportunity to express the things that he rarely gets to articulate in real life.

“Making a film is precious,” he said. “With stage and cinema you are able to do things without consequence. You can say the things you wish you said and not have to worry about getting your heart broken.”

Leonard Zelig’ film “Translucido” was made in a unique, innovative way. There was no written dialogue at the beginning — just a story line and characters. The main character, Ruben, is played by Roberto Manrique, who is a huge star in Ecuador. Manrique and Zelig worked closely to develop the character of Ruben, who is facing a terminal illness.

“All the dialogues were improvised,” said Zelig. “You have to be sharp and quick, and Roberto took the film to a whole new level.”

What is so powerful about Ruben’s story is it transcends every cultural barrier, and it gets to the deepest questions of being human.

“If you’re a conservative or a hardcore Christian or an anarchist, everyone relates to the idea of not having control over your own death,” said Zelig.

When Perez heard the plot of “Translucido,” she wasn’t sure it would resonate.

“So many filmmakers get that wrong,” she said. “This question of the value of the moment you have on the earth, they get reduced to this trickle and you don’t even care. But I watched this film, and I was riveted.”

Zelig attributes this success to the cohesiveness of the cast and the process they used in making the film.

“Our policy is we don’t work with assholes,” he said. “A movie is a project in which you’ll be tied with people for years. You better team up with people you love. I truly believe you can see that in the film.”

Of the five films being screened through the Latin American Film Festival, Perez found a common thread.

“There’s a center of love in each film,” she said. “These are character driven, human stories. They’re not political stories. They’re chosen specifically so we can take a look at each of these people, to get into the shoes of the character.”

She believes that’s a crucial thing for our world right now, to be able to feel for other people. Through her work, she sees people in the Latino community as well as the Anglo community pulling in to their own bubbles, and it’s creating division and isolation between many different groups.

“The more we can have people sitting in a dark room together, studying the life and feeling the humanity of someone else, regardless of origin, that’s an important exercise to do right now.”

For a full schedule of the Latin American Film Festival, which will take place from November 17-19 at various venues including the Parrish Art Museum, Guild Hall, and the Vail Levitt Music Hall, go to olaofeasternlongisland.org. Check out the special event for teens, which includes live music by Carolina Fuentes, on Sunday.

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