Written by Féliz
Boston Latino International Film Festival (BLIFF) BLIFF kicked off on September 23, 2020 just in time to commemorate the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. The event was coordinated by director Sabrina Aviles with the help of volunteers who spent weeks curating a lineup of 32 films created by the Latinx film community for the Latinx community and the world. BLIFF, in light of the unprecedented global situation due to the pandemic, went streaming to accommodate audiences at home. Along with feature documentaries and narratives, the entirely online event showcased a plethora of short film programs, each included four short films in the lineup which were all paid for with a “what you can” fee. These programs were strategically curated, as each had a core message and theme which BLIFF utilized to presented the Latinx community through a wholesome, real, and human lens.
On opening night, the program“El Pueblo Unido” (“The United Town”) became available for viewing. The central theme in this program of films is “People coming together to support each other with a common goal of improving their communities.” The first film in the roster, Boston’s Latin Quarter directed by Monica Cohen encapsulates the core meaning of “El Pueblo Unido.” The documentary focuses on the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain and we meet folks who have been part of the community for decades: Eduardo Vasallo, a Cuban immigrant and owner of the MR. V Auto Parts, and Damaris Pimentel, an immigrant hair salon owner. “For more than 40 years the Latin community has come together to plant a seed of unity in Jamaica Plain. It’s a community that is setting an example of co-living,” Pimentel explains. Co-living is the core of this Latin hub in Boston, as immigrants from all over Latin America cultivated the seed that eventually grew into the resilient community that it is today.
The documentary also highlights the works of Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF), an organization whose mission is to “connect to create a more diverse and equitable Boston.” Celina Miranda, the executive director of HSTF, explains that the program “encourages Latin youth to tap into the Latino music origins and to dive into the history.” The organization creates projects such as the Latin Quarter Fiesta, a celebration of Latin and Afro Latino culture for the Latino youth. Ken Tangvik the Director of Organizing and Engagement at HSTF, explains how he, a white man joined the organization because of the Latin Quarter’s vibe, and culture; growing fond of the community, he actively participates in preserving it.
However, just as it touches up on the vibrant side of its history, the documentary show audiences much darker realities. Tangvik talks about the drug crisis that arose in the 1980s, and recalls witnessing dangerous drug dealers infesting the community. Eduardo Vasallo adds onto this tale, explaining though the Latin Quarter “became more diverse” many Americans fled from the region, and “[I]t got to the point that Americans didn’t want to live in Jamaican Plain.” Nevertheless, the residents unified and made it a mission to overcome their hardships and become the clean and prosperous community it once was. The documentary ends on a high note, amplifying what the Latin Quarter means to its residents, as expressed by Celina Miranda: “We’re progressing as a community, having a location is so important for the community because it means being seen.”
Navigating from the themes of keeping the community alive, and advocating for the rights de la gente we dive into more harsher themes with the "Social Justice" program. This program is divided in two: reality and fiction, but these are unified with the theme of showing “just how difficult it can be to get out, or change the circumstances one is born into.” One of the most impactful pieces is the documentary A la Deriva (Adrift) directed by Paula Cury Melo. This documentary touches on teen pregnancy in the Dominican Republic.
It’s a grim topic, as it shows the raw and dreadful side of one of the most prevailing issues of the island. With hard hitting facts such as “22 percent of women in Dominican Republic became mothers by the age of 19,” the audiences are shaken into a rude awakening. We meet young teenage mothers-to-be like Selena, who at only 14 years old is already six months pregnant, and Viazlin, a 12-year-old pregnant from a 21-year-old man. In this documentary, we learn how so many young girls wind up in such heart-wrenching situations: children don’t receive proper sexual education. Selena was a prime example of this, as she struggled to answer the question “Did you use protection?” to which she replied not knowing what that meant.
Dr. Lillian Fondeur an OBGYN and women’s rights advocate, actively advocates for children’s right to receive proper sex education. She preaches about the correlation between proper sex education and many young girls falling victims of teen pregnancies. Dr. Victor Calderon the General Director of Los Mina Maternity Hospital explains “27 percent of maternity wards are occupied by women younger than 18 years old.” He further reveals that the youngest impatient in the maternity ward was just 11 years old. And as the audience begin to wonder the “why?” to this upsetting situation, the documentary lays down the hard fact: religion. The Catholic Church in Dominican Republic has a very strong presence within congress, and abortions are illegal under any circumstance. Despite the plea of many pro-choice advocates, congress and the church maintain an iron clad on their opposition to the legalization of abortion despite illegal abortions being the third leading cause of death among maternal deaths. From another teenage mom, Mabel, we learn how easily girls start to gamble with their own lives. Mabel became pregnant at 16 with twins and practiced an illegal abortion. At 17 she gave birth to a girl, and shockingly admitted to performing 10 more illegal abortions since. Moment by moment, the documentary echoes the theme of the film program: these young girls are born and live in an inescapable circumstance. Audiences see reflected on the faces of young mothers-to-be such as Viazlin’s, the loss of hope and despair as she expresses that she feels like she failed at life. By the end of the film, audiences are left with a sense of helplessness leaving room for only one feeling, bitterness.
Clicking on the "Magical Realism" program, the central message for the audience is to utilize the films as a way to give room and “expand the way [they] see [themselves], and the world.” Among the short films, one that stands out is Light on a Path, Follow directed by Elliot Montague. The film tells the story of Joaquín, a transgender man who lives alone in rural 1990s New England. Joaquin is eight months pregnant and in his last trimester, he comes face to face with a mysterious spirit in the forest, an encounter that prompts Joaquín to go into labor early. The subject matter, the tone, the character himself is a true parallel to the message of Magical Realism, that which appears fantastical is normal in this world. It is truly refreshing to watch a film be truthful to the representation of the Latinx LGBTQ community by casting a transgender actor to play a transgender character. For years, members of the LGBTQ communities have voiced their yearning to see themselves portrayed on screen in a humanistic manner, far from the negative stereotypical roles. Finally seeing a film that does just that, gives everyone a sense of being heard. This film also amplifies what it means to be pregnant or, more appropriately who can be pregnant.
Pregnancy and childbirth have always been associated as a natural occurrence in life for biological women, but watching a transgendered man’s experience is how Light on a Path, Follow becomes a mold breaking phenomenon; it disrupts audiences’ preconceived notions. Lastly, the presence of spirituality and the connection to nature rings closely with many cultures from the Latinx diaspora, which hold close to heart what it means to be one with nature and letting spirits guiding one into the right pathway.
And for the closing date, on September 27th, audiences could watch the program titled “Familia” (“Family”). The short films presented touched up on the themes of “estrangement, siblings, going "home," and family secrets.”
Bibi, directed by Victor M. Dueñas, tells the story of Ben Solís, a young man of Mexican descent receiving the tragic news of his father’s passing. Upon hearing the news, Ben hesitates on returning home, but begrudgingly returns to his hometown to handle the final detailing of his father’s funeral. As audiences immerse themselves into this story, the film flashbacks to a young Ben becoming closer with his father after his mother’s death. The film tackles the themes of loss and single parenting, which plant the seed of relatability and humanity. Their close relationship is maintained through the usage of writing letters to one another. This method of communication reflects with many Latinx cultures; as verbal communication and expression of one’s feelings aren’t the norm.
As the film progresses, Ben’s beginning hesitation on coming home is explained: -with a letter, he confessed to his father that he is gay, prompting immediate rejection from him. The powerful coming-out scene is the most impactful one, as homophobia and machismo are heavily cemented into the Latinx community, especially in the Mexican culture. As Ben and his father become estranged, the viewing public is left with little hope to a good resolution for the young man. However, a refreshing twist hits everyone as Ben’s journey in the film ends as he meets another young, handsome gay man. The exchange of hellos and smiles only mean one thing, the beginning of a love story. Overall, this film was like a breath of fresh air as the main character, a gay man, isn’t shown suffering due to his homosexuality. Throughout modern cinema, gay characters were often seen as lost souls left in a pit of loneliness and despair due to their sexuality. Additionally, many gay characters have been killed on screen sometimes minutes or a few episodes of either coming out or finally being with the ones they love; a trope known as “bury your gays”. Watching a young established and successful, Hispanic gay man have a happy ending sounds almost too good to be true but Bibi is one of those films that lends a hand into painting the Latinx LGBTQ community with more vibrant, truthful, and humanistic colors.
BLIFF, and other Latino Film Festivals, are showcases that deserve more appreciation, as they hold the key to opening the doors for many Latino filmmakers into the world. Conversely, this door works both ways, as it’s a door that offers a peak into Latinx community. By attending Latino film festivals, viewers receive the honor of watching and learning how the Latinx community is doing from its own point of view. Supporting film festivals that celebrate and highlight the Latin community is integral and important because it waters the Latin roots and keeps them alive. Additionally, attending festivals such as BLIFF as members of the Latin community itself means stepping into memory lane as it serves as a tool to remind one of one’s origins. When watching documentaries such as Latin Quarter, audiences will know of how resilient and powerful la cultura can be. With films such as A La Deriva, we step back and remember that the world is still in need of repair. And films such as Light on a Pathway, follow and Bibi show that the voices of the underrepresented communities don’t just echo, they shout clearly and are heard.