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Reel-Life Portrayals

The San Diego-Baja California Latino Film Festival strives to bring a more accurate representation of Latinos to the big screen.

March 01, 1998|Kevin Baxter | Kevin Baxter is a Times staff writer

As a child growing up in Mexico City, Jorge Cervera Jr. was forever traveling to and from the movie theater with his mother and grandparents.

"They were really fanatics about the movies," he remembers.

And there was a lot to be fanatical about. It was the golden age of the Mexican cinema, a time when directors such as Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez, cinematographers such as Gabriel Figueroa and actors such as Maria Felix, Dolores del Rio, Pedro Armendariz and Mario Moreno were turning out classic films by the dozens.

But what Cervera remembers more than the films themselves were the roles the actors played. There, up on the big screen, were Mexicans playing doctors and lawyers, politicians and poets, lawmen and lawless men.

"They represented us fairly," he says.

That was a sharp contrast with the way Hispanics were typically depicted in U.S. movies. Here, they were pushed around by John Wayne, shot at by Gary Cooper or cast as simpletons and ne'er-do-wells. And those were considered the better roles.

"As an actor I was always confronted with all the stereotypes that Hollywood has bombarded us with over the years," says Cervera, who has appeared in more than 100 U.S. film and television projects in the last 30 years. "For some reason, we are always portrayed as drug dealers, bandits, murderers or what have you.

"Hollywood does not show us as human beings with all the good and bad and with feelings. If they are only showing one kind of image, [kids] are going to believe that about themselves."

Motivated by that fear and inspired by the belief that "if we don't do it, nobody will," Cervera mortgaged his house, sold his collection of classic cars and unloaded a family business he'd run for 18 years to fund a $1-million-plus project his wife scripted and he produced, directed and starred in. The result, "Julio y Su Angel," is among the featured attractions at the San Diego-Baja California Latino Film Festival, one of a growing number of festivals that have sprung up in recent years to celebrate the Latino film experience.

The festival--which will screen films Tuesday through Saturday, at 7 and 9 p.m., at San Diego's Horton Plaza--will present eight other features, including films from Brazil, the U.S., Colombia, Mexico and Cuba, as well as 30 shorts ranging from three to 49 minutes in length. The films are not premieres; in fact, most have been out for years. But the goal has never been to debut movies, says Ethan van Thillo, the 5-year-old festival's founder and director. Rather the aim is to show pictures that "depict not only a positive portrayal of Latinos but also a more accurate portrayal."

"The festival screens works that tell histories and stories never published in school books and never before displayed on the big screen. The festival shows young Latinos and the general public . . . that there are Latinos in the community doing exciting and important things."

In years past, the festival, one of 10 major Latino film festivals in the United States, was held at San Diego-area universities and focused mainly on student work and short films. And, in fact, the festival's free nightly themed program of short films will be held at San Diego State University. But by moving the main venue to the city's historic Gaslamp District and expanding the list of features to include well-known works such as 1988's "The Milagro Beanfield War" and the 1943 Mexican classic "Maria Candelaria," which won an award at the first Cannes Film Festival, Van Thillo is hoping to expand both the size and diversity of the festival's audience.

An opening-night tribute to activist-filmmaker Moctezuma Esparza, producer of "Selena," has also been added, emphasizing another of the festival's goals: to recognize emerging Latino filmmakers.

"For me, it's an important thing that our community gets to honor our own," says Esparza. "And while it is a wonderful feeling to be honored, I also see it is as an important thing for me to do to give back to the community, to accept these invitations and to make the time to be with the people who are feeling honored themselves because they have been given a movie and programming that makes them feel good and that honors them.

"Which is really what my goal is. My goal in life is to create three-dimensional human images of Latinos in the United States for the world."

That was Cervera's goal as well when he set out to make his first film. Shot on location in Veracruz, "Julio y Su Angel," which screens Friday, is an emotional, Dickensian tale of an orphaned boy and the curmudgeonly old recluse he mistakes for his guardian angel. And while two of the film's heroes are Mexican--a third, ironically, is from San Diego--so are its many villains, imbuing the movie with a portrayal of Latinos that critics say is more honest than most mainstream Hollywood pictures.

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