Scott Ball / Rivard Report
In preparation for the 2017 CineFestival, hosted by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Adán Medrano is reminiscing about 40 years ago, when he and a few other Westsiders and clergy members founded the local film festival.
As a young Chicano artist and filmmaker living in 1970s San Antonio, Medrano wanted to use film to share the cultural vibrancy and experiences of his Mexican-American community with a wider audience.
He never thought that the event, founded as the Chicano Film Festival, would grow into the United State's longest-running Latino film festival, inspiring similar gatherings all over the nation.
"I knew that we [Latino filmmakers] were there, but we were not being recognized by major festivals. Everyone thought to be Mexican or Latino [in the film industry], you had to be a great master of Mexican Cinema," Medrano told the Rivard Report. "I thought [the Chicano Film Festival] would be a way to bring all of these producers from all over the country together in front of the grassroots community so they could see how their work is part of a larger community."
The grassroots effort kicked off in August 1976 with a dozen films screened from a 16-mm projector against white sheets strung across the Oblate School of Theology's lawn. The sheets hung from temporary scaffolding made by a seminarian, who swatted flies and mosquitoes from his face as he held the contraption together, Medrano said.
It was truly a modest community effort, but more than 2,500 people showed up for the screenings.
"It was amazing how the response was so strong," Medrano said. "I had never had a chance to bring the community together in that way."
Although Cine was founded 40 years ago, this year's program is the 39th installment of the festival. A few CineFestivals didn't occur due to logistical changes sometime over the years, said CineFestival Director Jim Mendiola. The Guadalupe, which has hosted the event since the mid-1980s, will stage a special celebration next year marking the festival's 40th installment, Mendiola said.
The lineup for this year's nine-day event, which runs Feb. 24-March 4, features about 40 films, most of which are directed by women, many Latina. Notable films include indie offering "Bruising for Besos," directed by San Antonio native Adelina Anthony; critically acclaimed Guatemalan film "Ixcanul;" and "500 Years," a documentary about the indigenous resistance in Guatemala that just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
To purchase tickets for this year's festival and see the schedule of films, click here.
Themes of resistance, identity, and political activism mark this year's films, Mendiola said, similar to the original Chicano Film Festival which featured films born out of El Movimiento, the Chicano civil rights movement.
"It was resistance cinema," Mendiola said. "They screened movies made by people who weren't represented in the media and who were critiquing the general order of things."
Those themes informed the design of the 2017 CineFestival poster, which was inspired by the cover of The Clash's "London Calling" album featuring a photo of bassist Paul Simonon smashing his instrument. In this case, it's a camera.
"We want to leave it somewhat ambiguous," Mendiola said. "It could be someone smashing [the camera] or planting it in the ground to make movies."
This year's program will include a special opening screening of a film that has yet to be announced and a related Q&A session, as well as a closing-night screening of performances by satirical troupe Culture Clash, followed by a Q&A session with the actors. The festival also includes appearances by celebrity guests, panel discussions, community events, and the Latino Screenwriting Lab, a three-day script workshop presented in affiliation with the Sundance Institute.
Each festival is a collision of history, art, and culture with the stories projected on the big screen, and that's been Cine's focus from the start – showcasing the Latino experience through film, a medium in which brown people rarely appeared in front of the larger American audience.
For Medrano and many others, defining his cultural identity as a Chicano, not necessarily as a Mexican, was at the forefront of his mind when he started the festival. That identity had a lot to do with the politics and social climate at a time when, even in a region with a dense Latino population, educational, economic, and health opportunities for Latinos were limited, as they are today.
Medrano found media and art, film in particular, as a way to speak up against those injustices and unite Latinos in shared experiences.
"We were having a very difficult time in our community, and we had to do something about it," Medrano said.
Over the years, CineFestival has showcased the films of hundreds of Chicano filmmakers, producers, actors, and writers in San Antonio. Soon, Medrano said, various Latino cultures started showing up in the programming, prompting the festival's name change to CineFestival to encompass the variety of latinidades the event was showcasing.
Christine Ortega first started working with Medrano, her uncle, to put on CineFestival as a student intern. As a high schooler, she didn't realize the significance of participating in the program until she was much older, she said.
"Looking back, I think that [the festival] had that air of mysticism to it, that air of affirmation that people did not believe in or expect to find," said Ortega, who now works for Southwest Airlines as a senior advisor in international community affairs. "In many ways it was a celebration of culture that had just long been invisible.
"I learned how to start on the journey of self-awareness, self-discovery, and self-expression."
San Antonio has embraced CineFestival since its start, Medrano said, and has provided robust support for it. It has inspired dozens of other Latino film festivals that take place all over the nation.