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Adventures in the Cultural Divide

At Sundance's Latin American screenwriters' workshops, national differences can separate veterans and novices as much as artistic choices.

September 24, 2000|LORENZA MUNOZ | Lorenza Munoz is a Times staff writer

OAXACA, Mexico — Under normal circumstances they never would have met. Yet a group of screenwriters--10 veterans and 10 novices--gathered here, talking about their movies in an unlikely setting--a pre-colonial city deep in southern Mexico.

Some came from Mexico City, others from the U.S. Some work in Hollywood studios, others in their native Spanish-speaking countries. Gen-Xers mixed with baby boomers. Some wrote dramas, others comedies.

What brought them together in Oaxaca, a city that is arguably the cultural heart of Mexico, was the sixth annual Sundance Institute's Latin American Screenwriter Workshop. The international programs were born of Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford's travels to Cuba for the Havana Film Festival. In Cuba, Redford would hear a common refrain from Latin American filmmakers--the need to develop the crafts of screenwriting and producing. And so Sundance has tried to do for Latin American film what it did for American independent film--nurture and support it.

Mexico seemed the logical first choice to establish the workshops, which are run in conjunction with a nonprofit Mexican organization called the Toscano Foundation. Many of Mexico's recent critically acclaimed hits such as "Sex, Shame and Tears," "Santitos" and "Under a Spell" have come out of these workshops. Modeled after the Utah screenwriter labs for American writers, the Latin American workshops evolved into much more than just writing seminars. They became cross-cultural exchanges, where screenwriting is seen as a vehicle to learning how culture affects the nuances of storytelling.

Earlier this year, The Times was invited to attend and observe the workshops. The following is a rare inside look at how the process worked for the aspiring screenwriters, who were chosen after submitting scripts to Sundance, and their mentors. We chose to write about three of the 10 students who came to the workshops with completed scripts and possible production deals. Each had specific script problems that were detected at the workshops and worked on by the writers and their advisors.

* First-time writer Hector Hernandez, 32, would need to make his script relate more to U.S. audiences if he wanted to sell his border-town black comedy, "Los Pajarracos de Tijuana" (The Scavengers of Tijuana) to Hollywood.

* Marcela Fuentes Berain, 42, needed to decide how much historical context to provide in her script, "The Thunder of August," about a power-hungry general climbing his way up the political ladder in post-revolutionary Mexico. Otherwise, many non-Mexicans--and most Mexicans not intimately familiar with their history--would have a difficult time understanding it.

* Juan Carlos Valdivia, 38, needed to determine if the protagonist of his story, "American Visa," should be more heroic, as his American advisors suggested, or more ambiguous, as his Mexican mentors advised.

Oaxaca's intense indigenous heartbeat alongside the heavy Spanish colonial influence created a uniquely inspirational environment. The advisors from the U.S. and Mexico and the students from Mexico and other Latin American countries would meet in restaurants, cathedrals and convents. They gathered in 19th century textile mills, in the city's vibrant parks or in contemporary art galleries and their cafes, soaking in Oaxaca's art scene.

It was not until the second day of their three-day workshop that the work began. In the morning, veteran screenwriters such as Zach Sklar ("JFK"), L.M. Kit Carson ("Paris, Texas"), Laura Esquivel ("Like Water for Chocolate") and seven others began dissecting the scripts written by the novices.

In these private sessions among the advisors--away from their students' ears--the veteran writers could talk about their impressions. Sometimes, the discussions would reveal the script's gaps in narration or lack of character development. Other times, they would reveal cultural misunderstandings created by nationality, particularly between the American advisors and their Latin American students.

One of the key goals of Sundance's international programs--expanded now to Japan, Europe and South America--is to have writers tell stories that are authentic to their countries. The idea behind the Latin American writers' workshops is not to impose a Hollywood view of movie-making, noted Sundance's international programs director, Patricia Boero. Rather, they are workshops where the novices sit one-on-one with a veteran and learn the techniques of writing for the screen. The young writers are encouraged to retain their voices and culture in their scripts, Boero said.

The art of screenwriting has its own format, style and set of rules that make it different from writing a novel or a short story. As Carson explained: "Screenplays are like a telegram and a poem. It's highly selective and each page has a rhythm to it. What we are doing here is not business. It's more like organic growth. [In the end] the movie should be about that release of emotion."

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