Art Works Blog

Screening Diversity with Cine Las Americas

Twenty years ago, when movie-viewing options were limited to theaters and Blockbuster, there was a questionable gap between the substantial Latino population in Austin, Texas, and the scarcity of Spanish-language movies available. In response, the film festival Cine Las Americas was founded in 1998 to showcase Latino and indigenous films from both North and South America.

Today, the five-day festival has become a frequent NEA grantee, and screens roughly 150 features, shorts, music videos, and youth-produced films, drawing 2,500 people every year. And while the internet has drastically changed the availability of films, festival director Jean Anne Lauer said Cine Las Americas remains as relevant as ever. “There are still so few films from Latin America,” she said of streaming sites and multiplexes. “And good luck finding more than a couple American Indian films.” We recently spoke with Lauer about the festival, the importance of seeing diversity on screen, and why subtitles are worth the effort.

NEA: What was the motivation for establishing Cine Las Americas?

JEAN ANNE LAUER: It was inspired by Lara Coger, who had studied in Cuba and had come back realizing how little of what was being made in Cuba and the rest of Latin America was getting to the United States. [She and other founders] realized there was a hunger for Latin American films in Austin. This is long before there were eight ways to watch movies on your phone, and limited distribution for titles. They put on a small festival the first year, and the reception was so great that it kept going.

The spirit of the festival hasn’t changed since that beginning. It’s maintained a continuity of working to bring Latino and indigenous films to Austin that otherwise wouldn’t get here. The festival incorporates pretty much top to bottom of the Americas and indigenous representations; people are often surprised that we have films from Canada or films from American Indian filmmakers.

NEA: You had mentioned that there was an untapped hunger for these films. What was driving that hunger?

LAUER: What’s offered in the multiplex is not diverse. In some ways it’s getting better and there’s attention on it, but there’s just not a lot of diversity at the box office in terms of genre, region, gender. We have diverse community members and we have people who want to see themselves represented on screen, or are interested in seeing other stories that aren’t typically represented on screen. I hear from people that it makes them feel like they don’t matter when their stories aren’t being told. So if we can demonstrate that stories are being told and these stories matter, it helps people feel like they matter.

NEA: Can you talk more about the importance of seeing diversity on the screen?

LAUER: I’m an academic and I’m a film festival director. The research is out there that shows how people are affected by seeing representations on screen. They can open up their eyes to the fact that other possibilities in the world are available to them; that if someone else can do it, why can’t I?

But there are also histories and empathy that can be cultivated by diversity in film. Just learning about other places is a value of a diverse film festival. Film is a way to open up windows into other places, and learn about other people, other histories, and other ways of doing things. Sometimes seeing things that are different helps you understand yourself, and it also helps you understand others.

NEA: Can you elaborate on what you hope the festival’s impact will be on non-Latino audiences?

LAUER: I want people from whatever walk of life to come and see the 39 to 49 features, and the shorts, and the music videos. I want them to come and see as many as possible. Why? Because Latin America is not one thing, and Latinos are not one thing, and Indians are not one thing. Maybe you will learn that there are other ways to talk about [different communities]: there’s American Indian, and First Nation, and there’s indigenous peoples and there’s First Peoples and there’s all different ways that we should be learning about and talking about communities and representing ourselves and honoring them.

So I hope people come away from it and say, “Oh my God, that was amazing.” [I hope] they come away from it knowing that Latin America is not a monolith. Mexico isn’t a monolith. There’s more than one perspective to it and there’s more than one part of Mexico. When I tell people to come to Cine Las Americas, it’s “Come to Cine Las Americas.” It’s the Americas. And there are a lot of us. There’s not just one U.S.—why would there just be one any other place? So I hope that you take away that there are many, many, many voices—lots of voices, lots of genres, lots of languages, lots of film styles, lots of traditions.

NEA: What do you look for when selecting films for the festival?

LAUER: We try to cast as wide a net as we can manage. There are also limitations. How many people do you have on your team and how many films can you watch and then how are you going to make selections? You have to be mindful of all of that, because you can kill yourself trying to program a film festival.

So what we aim for is to try to find the best of the best across established artists. Then we also went out and found films by new and emerging talents working on their first or second feature films. You try to balance that. You also try to find a good representation of gender identities and voices and region and you also look for styles. We don’t really look for themes, but sometimes there are themes that emerge in a year—that’s just the nature of filmmaking and zeitgeist.

Sometimes there will be a film that maybe isn’t the best-made film and we might still include it, because the issue is important. It’s always a balance, because sometimes voices need to be heard, even if they’re not the best filmmakers. And sometimes amazing, beautiful films say nothing at all.

NEA: In my own discussions, I frequently hear, “I don’t want to watch a film with subtitles. Too much work.” What’s your response to that?

LAUER: It is work. It gets easier with time. Anything that’s a challenging narrative or experimental film can also sometimes turn people away, because they’re just not interested. It’s tricky to try to get people over some of their preconceived notions, in part because they want to be entertained. I get that, but that isn’t all that film can do and it isn’t all that can be rewarding about the film experience. Maybe you try [subtitles] with a genre that you often like and maybe that’ll get you engaged. I’ve actually bought people tickets before, to just be like, “Oh, you’re not sure? This one’s on me. You can walk out if you don’t like it.” And sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re like, “I’m really glad you made me do that. I don’t know when I’ll watch the next film with subtitles, but thanks.” It does take work, it does take dedication, it does take interest to overcome some of those hurdles. I just try to be positive about it. It’s worth it! I swear.

NEA: You mentioned earlier that film can be a powerful window into other cultures. What is it about film that you think makes it a particularly effective tool in this regard?

LAUER: There is something that happens cognitively when you are immersed in a movie theater engaged in watching a film—films are usually designed to engage you visually and engage you with the audio. So you are expected to be there for the hour and a half or whatever the program is, and you have the opportunity to be immersed in that world and maybe even be moved by it—to laughter, to tears, to anger, to all of the above. So there is the viewing experience that’s powerful.

But there is also the experience after. Film festivals are a good place for both of these things. You watch the movie, and then you go out in the audience. Whether you’ve hated it or you’ve loved it or anywhere in between, you’ve got a group of people right there who are there to talk about movies and their experience with others.

In some ways, film festivals are becoming obsolete—we’re having to adjust to the fact that you don’t have to come to the festival to see movies. But film festivals are still a place where you’re immersed in the experience and you’re talking with other people about it. You’re not just getting your perspective on the film. Ideally, you’re getting other people’s perspectives that also enrich your experience. That’s why I think art, film, and film festivals are really powerful. They connect us.

NEA: We’ve spoken a lot about diversity. When talking about films specifically, what do you think we can do as a field, as a country, as ordinary people to help diversify the film industry?

LAUER: It comes down to a decision to recognize that the world is diverse, and to make a point of doing wide searches for whatever you’re working on. If you’re trying to curate a program, if you’re trying to hire a staff, whatever it is, you can’t cut corners on your searches. You can’t turn blind eyes during the curatorial or hiring processes. You have to constantly be looking at what’s on the table and making informed and fair decisions about it.

We tend as human beings to be the most comfortable with people that have similar experiences and backgrounds as us. So let’s acknowledge that and then not accept that about ourselves or our practices. If we really want things to be diverse, then we have an obligation to act on it. That’s what I think. You can work really hard at every stage of every selection process to identify your blind spots, identify your missing links, and try to find them. Try to find that complement, and try to bring that into the group as quickly as you can, as responsibly as you can, as respectfully as you can. But it honestly comes down to each and every one of us, looking around and saying, “How can I make this room more diverse? How can I make these film selections more representative?”

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