L.A. audiences would seem to need no introduction to Mexican cinema. The city has the nation's largest Mexican American population, it's the adopted home of many of Mexico's leading actors, directors, cinematographers and designers, and there are numerous venues and festivals here that regularly screen Mexican films.
But in bringing his Hola Mexico Film Festival to Los Angeles for the first time, Samuel Douek wants to show U.S. audiences that Mexican cinema continues to thrive, several years after international breakout hits such as "Amores Perros" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien" ushered in a new wave of Mexican movie creativity.
The cross-section of festival movies that will be screened this week at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, including dramas, comedies, art-house films and documentaries, reflects "a Mexico that's more modern, more cosmopolitan," said Douek, a native of Mexico, in a phone interview last week. It also reflects a culture that's much too varied and rich to be reduced to a monolithic entity. "There is not one Mexican culture, there are many, like in the United States," Douek said.
The festival opens tonight with a red-carpet soiree and a screening of "Arrancame la Vida" (Tear This Heart Out), director Roberto Sneider's sweeping, "Gone With the Wind"-like saga of a young woman who's wooed and wed by an older, cruelly magnetic general. Set during Mexico's turbulent post-revolutionary era of the 1920s and '30s, the movie was Mexico's official Academy Award entry for this year's best foreign-language film.
Based on the novel by Angeles Mastretta, it's built around the compelling performances of its two leads, former telenovela star Ana Claudia Talancon (who appeared in "The Crime of Padre Amaro" with Gael Garcia Bernal), and the veteran performer Daniel Gimenez Cacho, persuasively brutish and charismatic as the autocratic army commander, who are locked in an intellectual and erotic jousting match.
Other movies being screened include "Desierto Adentro" (The Desert Within), Rodrigo Pla's haunting saga of a patriarch's spiritual and familial struggles, set during Mexico's Cristero War of 1926-29; "El Viaje de Teo" (Teo's Journey), Walter Doehner's drama about a 9-year-old boy's attempt to illegally cross into the United States; and "Lake Tahoe," about a teenager's comic-absurdist journey into the self, director Fernando Eimbcke's follow-up to his very successful "Duck Season."
"I think the most important thing about the festival is the balance," said Alejando Pelayo, a filmmaker and the Mexican consul for cultural affairs in Los Angeles, who has been working with Douek.
Organized in conjunction with the Mexican Consul, this inaugural edition of the festival runs through Sunday. After playing Los Angeles, the festival will pack up and move on to Chicago (June 19-24) and New York (June 23-28).
Douek said that the idea of creating a Mexican film festival occurred to him a few years ago while he was living in Australia, where few Mexican movies other than major international hits ever were shown. But Australians have very eclectic tastes, Douek said, regularly sampling movies from China, India and Southeast Asia. That encouraged him in thinking it would be possible to put together a Mexican film festival in Sydney. Working with the Mexican embassy there, he succeeded.
Pelayo said that when he first arrived in Los Angeles in 2001 he decided that the best way to promote Mexican films would be to try to place them in L.A.'s other existing festivals, such as the Los Angeles Film Festival, which this year will be showing a selection of Mexican documentary and feature films. But over time he came to believe there was room for a festival devoted purely to Mexican film.
In other parts of the United States, he said, Americans are mainly exposed to negative images of Mexico: drug-related violence, swine-flu outbreaks. But as cultural and political dialogue between them increases, the two countries' images of each other are growing more nuanced, he thinks.
"There is going to be a great opportunity for Mexico to show the world that we don't just generate problems and conflicts," he said, "but that we also generate riches of culture -- past, present and future."