An In-Depth Look at NALIP 2012: Diverse Voices, Universal Content

By Chelo Alvarez-Stehle, for Documentary Online Magazine

"I came to hate my olive skin and curly hair," actress Rita Moreno candidly confessed. Moreno was recalling her early film career upon receiving NALIP's Lifetime Achievement Award during the National Association of Latino Independent Producers Annual Conference that took place April 13-15 in Universal City, California.

Moreno, who co-starred in the 1961 film West Side Story, could not have foreseen that five decades later Latinos would watch more television, buy more movie tickets and consume more media than any other ethnicity in the US, yet would comprise less than 1 percent of Hollywood executives. Or that olive-skinned young girls and boys in some parts of the US would still be having a hard time integrating in their country as they dealt with issues of color, language and identity. This is the topic of NALIP's 2012 Estela Documentary Award, Precious Knowledge, a film produced by Ari Palos and Eren McGinnis, in which disenfranchised high school seniors become academic warriors and community leaders in Tucson's embattled Ethnic Studies classes while state lawmakers attempt to eliminate the program.

This fight for identity rages on despite the fact that there are 50.5 million Latinos in the US, who spend an estimated $1 billion on US filmed entertainment and command $1 trillion in general-market buying power.

Intent on redressing this disparity, among other topics, over 550 independent Latino fiction and nonfiction producers, directors, writers, performers and advocates met at a gathering that spanned three days of workshops, plenaries and case studies on film, television and documentaries.

Consultant Fernanda Rossi presented her "Packaging Your Documentary for Success" workshop. The self-anointed "Documentary Doctor" discussed the differences in financing sources between "the cultural model," where creators are king-especially in Latin American countries and Europe--and where films are financed by government subsidies, as opposed to "the market model" in the US, where creators are--or are often forced to be--the producers. Rossi encouraged attendants to use aposiopesis (leave action unfinished) as a closing technique in their trailers. And in her typically witty and engaging style, she highlighted the importance of the ‘Holy Trinity' of packaging-- treatment/pitch/proposal, warning attendees that not believing in that triumvirate could land them in the Bermuda Triangle.

Another popular panel was "Anatomy of a Hit YouTube Channel." Producer Michael Torres, whose latest project is Who Is Albizu Campos?, said, "The panel answered a lot of my questions about monetizing content from my documentary. I was pleased to learn that YouTube will change how it pays, from a pay-per-click model to a view-based model--i.e., how much time is spent watching the video, which really puts the emphasis on content."

At the heart of the conference were issues such as how to balance the need for producing content that reflects the culture and responds to the needs of Latinos as a collective body, and how to increase Latino representation in the pool of creators of universal content for universal audiences.

The fact that Natalie Wood played the lead role of Maria in West Side Story did not surprise many at the time, but the fact that that tradition is still going on today is in part the subject of Bandidos Never Die, a new documentary that was presented, along with other 33 fiction and nonfiction projects, in the conference's Latino Media MarketTM. The film, produced by Miguel Picker and Chyng Sun, explores "how Latinos are marginalized and vilified in the US media--with grave consequences." In the film, Moctesuma Esparza, the legendary producer and founder of Maya Pictures, describes how his father told him that the Hollywood depiction of Pancho Villa played by Wallace Beery in Viva Villa! (1934) "was poison. That it was poisoning my mind, distorting the image of what it was to be a Mexicano."

With the exception of Esparza, who obtained funding from McGraw-Hill in the 1970s for the La Raza series on PBS, efforts to amend that distortion and return dignity to the perception of the Latino identity through a documentary series have often failed to get funding. Jesus Salvador Treviño, of the DGA National Board, set up to do a series in the '70s about a comprehensive Latino history. He produced a one-hour pilot of La Historia that was broadcast by former LA-based PBS affiliate KCET, "but when Reagan came to power," Treviño recalled, "he placed people at the NEA, NEH and CPB that did not fund a lot of projects that were considered to be too controversial." In the '90s, Ray Telles and Rick Tejada Flores tried to produce a six-part documentary series entitled El Movimiento; funders, however, were already financing the Chicano series that was being produced by Treviño, and, as Telles puts it, "It was much narrower in focus, but funders felt they were already doing something Latino.

"It is impossible for independent filmmakers to get funding for this type of series," adds Telles, a NALIP Founding Member. "It takes a PBS station to do that. It is too bad that it took 17 years but, finally, it is coming to light with Latino Americans." Telles is producing one of the series' episodes.

Latino Americans, a three-part, six-hour documentary series, chronicles Latinos in the US from 1800 to present day. A co-production of WETA Washington, DC, Bosch and Company, Inc., and Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB), the series was born out of a collective effort conceived a few years ago by Jeff Bieber, WETA's vice president for news and public affairs programming (who produced The Jewish American series), Patricia Boero, then LPB's executive director, and Emmy Award-winning independent producer Adriana Bosch.

The series, scheduled to air in Fall 2013, may be an indicator that the ethnic content landscape has begun to change. The Latino community welcomed this long overdue series. However, although the series includes a robust line-up of Latino talent in key producing and creative positions, many did not understand why, when the Latino director initially hired to do the series' re-enactments dropped out, they turned to UK director David Belton. "We are writing you to express our deep concern that you have chosen to hire a non-Latino to direct the re-creations in the first two hours of The Latino Americans series," wrote a group of 19 Latino filmmakers to the series' producers. "We're baffled, given that WETA produced the controversial series The War, which initially ignored the role of military men and women of Latino heritage, only to have to revise the final version to amend the error--a mistake that began with the exclusion of Latinos on the production team."

When NALIP invited the series producers, including Sandie Viquez Pedlow, executive director at LPB, to attend the conference and hold a meeting to address this issue, they responded right away. "They came and put forth what they were doing, and we put forth our concerns," says NALIP's interim executive director, Beni Matias, about the meeting. "It was a wonderful win for the community. They expressed a ‘mea culpa,' they went away and did something about it. They hired Puerto Rico-based Mexican Sonia Fritz as co-director of re-enactments, and they are open to hear our recommendations for editors, a key part of the making of a documentary."

Still, the series producers feel they were not the only ones to be scrutinized. "The whole guiding principle of this project has been not only that it would be about Latinos but created by Latinos," says series executive producer Jeff Bieber. "From the beginning WETA reached out to Adriana Bosch and LPB to be our co-producers, and collectively we hired a host of producers. At the same time, there are many productions, even LPB-funded, that do not have an all-Latino team in key positions."  Bosch adds, "I thought that my being a Latina gave me the opportunity to have a director of my choice, but NALIP did not see it that way". Bieber notes, “A lot of the colleagues in that meeting use Anglo editors, and if you look at the LPB-funded programs' production credits, I guarantee you, because I have done this, all projects have Anglos in key positions.”

No Latino producer will dispute this point, and NALIP has a number of non-Latino members who participate in key positions in numerous Latino projects, but what placed the series in the spotlight is its historical significance. Filmmaker Vangie Griego, who serves on NALIP's Board of Advisors, led the appeal to the PBS series. "I am happy that they got to come to the table and address our concerns, but they have a big responsibility to make this series right," she maintains. "I am still very concerned on how they are going to keep hiring or not hiring Latinos."

"We heard their concerns and acted on it, but we should have [enough] confidence on our own power, creativity, and the story we tell that we should be able to hire people who may not be Latinos," counters Bosch. "This should be part of our maturing; otherwise, we cast ourselves in a corner."

"I agree with that no group should micromanage the hiring of individuals by a producer; They know what they are doing, they are professionals," says Jesus Treviño. "Of course to my mind, the whole controversy [with this series] was the legacy of the terrible thing that happened with The War series, when the irony is that Latinos were the most decorated during World War II. There has to be a degree of trust and dialogue between the series producers and Latino producers. That dialogue was not there with The War. But now we have to trust them and they have a responsibility to show our community that they can be trusted by hiring Latinos and producing a quality show that has balance and is representative of the community they are purporting to depict.

"This could be a good example of how community and producers can work together," notes Treviño. "Once that series is finished they are going to want to get the word out in our communities and our community representatives should be able to go out there and say, Look, this is a great series. And this is important because this is not Latino history, it is American History!"

Chelo Alvarez-Stehle is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her current transmedia project includes the documentary SANDS OF SILENCE: A Personal Journey into the Trafficking of Women, and SOS_SLAVES social impact game.