Christian Sida-Valenzuela is throwing down the gauntlet, goddammit. The shaggy, Mexican-born 31-year-old says he’s putting his personal guarantee on every last short, documentary, and feature movie that screens at this year’s Vancouver Latin American Film Festival—his first as director after working for four years as a programmer. “There’s not one film I wasn’t fully convinced should be in the festival,” Sida-Valenzuela asserts to the Straight inside VLAFF’s cramped office in the Woodward’s Building. “We were very careful this year.”
Not, it should be noted, that the folks behind the annual VLAFF were sloppy in the past. But any festival that isn’t Cannes-size is sometimes forced to make some compromises. “The years before,” he says, “I have to admit there were some films that weren’t the best. But we would say, ‘Oh, this comes from Venezuela, we never have films from Venezuela, let’s give a chance to this film.’ Or, ‘This director’s very nice, he’s gonna be here, let’s show his film.’ I’m sure it happens in every festival.”
Equally, Sida-Valenzuela explains that sponsors and governments will often push to get a favoured movie into the program, regardless of quality or lack thereof. VLAFF also has to compete with Toronto and Vancouver film festivals for exclusive product, while a distributor’s prohibitive screening costs can put another desirable feature or two out of reach. But even with all of that, Sida-Valenzuela still feels confident enough to “plunge his hands into fire” if anyone feels like disputing the quality of the 11 days of cinema whipped up by the VLAFF crew.
And if that somewhat dangerous-sounding challenge happens to play to certain notions we might entertain up here regarding the fierce Latin temperament, Sida-Valenzuela’s got something to say about that, too. “I want to change perceptions,” he says, stating that this year’s VLAFF is committed to a broad range of subjects, not just operatically gritty crime dramas that present the world from Mexico on down to Patagonia as a wild frontier of drug trafficking and poverty. Or “those kinds of films”, as Sida-Valenzuela puts it, “those kinds of films” being what North American audiences evidently tend to expect from Latin-American cinema. “I go to a lot of Latin festivals,” he says, “and what they select for Latin festivals in France, for instance, is very artsy. Very different from the ones we have here.”
This year’s VLAFF, consequently, runs the gamut, neatly deking around any cultural bias with selections from the Sundance, Venice, Berlin, Cannes, and Los Angeles film festivals. Gala opener The Man Next Door is a black comedy from Argentina that “breaks with all the clichés”, according to Sida-Valenzuela, and the closer is a stately western from legendary Mexican director Felipe Cazals called Chicogrande. Other notable works include Abel, the highly praised directorial debut by actor Diego Luna; Brother, the most successful film in Venezuela’s history; and even an acrobatic blockbuster called Besouro built around the capoeira fighting style. (Wesley Snipes is apparently a practitioner.)
And for the hell of it, literally, there is at least one of those kinds of films playing at VLAFF this year. Hell, about a man who enters the drug trade to protect his family, was another enormous hit in Mexico. Again, Sida-Valenzuela promises a twist. “It’s a film about drug dealers, but they make fun of them,” he says. “It’s kind of a political film, but in a funny way.”
Smaller, insurgent film communities are also well-represented with entries from Peru, Guatemala, and Colombia. “Uruguay, even though it’s a very small country, they have a very strong film industry,” Sida-Valenzuela notes, referring to a melancholy love letter to aging cinephiles called A Useful Life. Cuba’s less-than-prosperous arts community is equally robust, he says, “even with the lack of technical resources. It actually brings up better films, because the lack of resources makes people think more and have better ideas. But Cuba is special because it’s a Communist country and because of the blockade.”
Sida-Valenzuela says he has a soft spot for the Cuban documentary I Am Free, while the popular drama Old House, based on a famous Cuban play, took top honours at the excellently named Low-Budget Film Festival in Cuba last year. Out of the 26 fiction and nonfiction features getting their Vancouver debut at VLAFF, however, Sida-Valenzuela gets most excited about a creepy and political quasi-horror movie from Chile called Post Mortem.
“It’s a film that takes place in Chile in 1973, during the coup d’état,” he explains, adding with a sly grin, “the real September 11. This person happens to work in the morgue where they keep bringing all the dead bodies, and he happens to do the autopsy of President Salvador Allende. It’s a great film. That’s my favourite film, probably.”
The other big change at VLAFF this year is the introduction of three competitive categories: the Youth Choice Award, the Short Film Award, and—perhaps most intriguing—the Al Jazeera Documentary Award, which comes with a cash prize of $3,500. Sida-Valenzuela is equally proud of the six movies he has celebrating Latin-American culture in Vancouver under the banner ¡Fiesta 125!, corresponding with a day of short films by B.C. First Nations youth.
And he’s especially stoked to present four films—including Post Mortem—at the SFU Woodward’s Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema, which he maintains has “the best sound system on the West Coast”. Clearly, VLAFF is bent on capitalizing on the momentum that brought in 10,000 festivalgoers last year. Vancouver’s Latin-American community is roughly 30,000 strong, but that’s not the point. As Sida-Valenzuela says, “I always make a note that we are a Canadian festival which showcases Latin films. It’s a festival for everyone, not just the Latin community.”
To that end, Sida-Valenzuela’s pitch is about as succinct as it is attractive. “Getting a Latin-American film in a theatre here is nearly impossible,” he says with a shrug. “It’s 11 days of cinema that’s never going to be seen in Vancouver again.”