Local Latino filmmakers share their inspiration, struggles

  • Ben Lumpkin

    Ben Lumpkin

  • Felicia Danisor in

    Felicia Danisor in "Death Do Us Part"

  • Esau Melendez

    Esau Melendez

  • Gizella Meneses

    Gizella Meneses

  • Children participate in a 2006 immigration march in Washington, D.C., in

    Children participate in a 2006 immigration march in Washington, D.C., in "Immigrant Nation! The Battle for the Dream."

  • Rafael Gasper, from left, Alexis Mendez and Kelvin Felix in

    Rafael Gasper, from left, Alexis Mendez and Kelvin Felix in "Little Village."

  • Alexis Mendez, left, and Kelvin Felix in

    Alexis Mendez, left, and Kelvin Felix in "Little Village."

  • Teacher Naomi Medina in the documentary

    Teacher Naomi Medina in the documentary "Second Generation: Growing up Latino/a in Chicago."

  • Juan Daniel Zavaleta

    Juan Daniel Zavaleta

Published: 4/15/2010 12:05 AM

The Chicago Latino Film Festival, now in its 26th year, features more than 120 films from the United States, Latin America, Portugal and Spain.

Local entries in the fest, which starts Friday and runs through April 29, include the feature "Death Do Us Part" and the documentaries "Immigrant Nation! The Battle for the Dream" and "Six Weeks of Change." There are also several local short films.

"Every year it's pretty much the same, the local films are very limited," said longtime festival director Pepe Vargas. "Six years ago we had six local feature films, that was historical."

Often made with small budgets, local films are usually selected on the basis of the quality of their stories and less on their technical merits, although some can be very well-made, he said.

Here are some of the local films that will be featured at the festival.

"Death Do Us Part"

For the part of the protagonist in "Death Do Us Part," screenwriter and director Juan Daniel Zavaleta had in mind a Latina because he usually writes about what he knows, he said. The movie tells of a jilted wife who resorts to extreme measures.

"I grew up with a lot of strong women in my life: my mom, her sisters, my father's sisters, and my sisters," said Zavaleta, who lives on the south side of Chicago.

But during casting, Zavaleta was impressed by Romanian-born Felicia Danisor.

"I really enjoyed the passion she was bringing to the character, which was not too far from someone with a Latino background," he said. "I had to go back and erase a lot of Spanish."

Zavaleta is a self-taught filmmaker. Technological advances have made it possible for people like him to create films with few resources, he said.

Zavaleta was in charge of most aspects of the film, including shooting, editing and even doing the vocals and instrumentals for the soundtrack. The movie cost about $3,500.

"Some people talk about a shoestring budget, I like to say I didn't even have a shoe and a string," said Zavaleta.

"Second Generation: Growing up Latino/a in Chicago"

Over the years as an assistant professor of Spanish at Lake Forest College, Gizella Meneses, who filmed this documentary, has been a frequent witness and occasional participant in plenty of classroom discussions about identity, ethnicity and race.

Now more than ever, with the 2010 U.S. Census in full swing, many are grappling with the difficulty of fully identifying themselves with one of the boxes of the Census form, said Meneses, who lives in Highland Park.

"It's more complex than that, it's not either this or that," she said.

The documentary features about a dozen people, all between the ages of 18 and 48, who talk about what it was like to grow up as a Latino in Chicago. One person had a teacher who told her to "go home" because she didn't speak English; another one jokes her Spanish could be better.

Although Meneses studied film as the subfield for her Ph.D. in Spanish language and literature, she knew nothing about filmmaking. For the project, she borrowed a microphone from a student, a video camera from a colleague and editing equipment from a friend, who hooked her up with free use of the Lyons Township cable station facility in Western Springs.

Meneses said that her taste of filmmaking has given her "the itch" to continue.

"Immigrant Nation! The Battle for the Dream"

Director and producer Esau Melendez knew he wanted to document history in the making during the immigration marches that took place in Chicago in 2006.

But it wasn't until undocumented immigrant Elvira Arellano and her young son took sanctuary in a church in Chicago in August 2006 that Melendez decided he wanted to make a film. Arellano was deported a year later.

"Story-wise, the last scene is Elvira going back to Mexico after 13 years of not seeing her parents, and meeting them again," he said.

The full-length documentary consists of footage shot on location and interviews with participants, including immigration activists and members of the Illinois Minuteman Project, an organization that opposes illegal immigration.

"I don't care about what people thought, but instead I focused on what people did, on their actions," said Melendez, who lives in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.

"Little Village"

One could say that it took screenwriter and executive producer Ben Lumpkin a lifetime of experience before he could write his 10-minute short.

At the age of 18, Lumpkin, who now lives in Chicago, had major back surgery and, during his two-month recovery, he shared a hospital room with a gang member named Alonso. Later, as a reporter in National City, Calif., near the border with Mexico, he covered gang-related crime, making use of the Spanish he learned while working in Chile.

Then, in the summer of 2008, Lumpkin was shooting another film in Chicago.

"That summer there were a lot of shootings," he said. "It seemed like it was almost every week while we were working on the film, and it was always either a gang member, or someone getting caught in between (gang warfare) and getting shot accidentally."

Out of all this came his short film, under the direction of Spanish-born David Priego, a graduate of Columbia College.

The film is about a young boy, Alonso, who is lured into the world of gangs, a choice that will have tragic consequences.

It has an all-local cast, including actors who came to open casting calls held at churches in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. The film was shot on location with a $15,000 budget, although the crew was "scrimping all the way," Lumpkin said.

"I didn't realize that making a 10-minute film would be a two-year plus process, from making it to getting distributed to festivals," he said.

Lumpkin said that he and Priego hope to convert the short into a full-length feature film.