What Makes a Latino Film Latino?

By Vaness Erazo, LatinoBuzz

Towards the end of every year film blogs start overflowing with lists: the top ten films of the year, the worst box office bombs of the year, the best acting performances of the year, and anything else you can imagine. Last year one particular post really bugged me. Jack Rico, NBC Latino contributor, put together a list of the, “Best Hispanic movies of 2012” that included films like Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall (a James Bond movie), and End of Watch. Were these really the best Latino films of the year? I was dumbfounded. Not one of these movies was written or directed by a Latino. I kept wondering, what makes these films Latino?

Rico explains the criteria he used to compile his list, “But in order to develop a list like this, we must first define what a Hispanic movie is. The conventional answer is a film that has a Latino story, a Latino cast, and ideally, a Latino director, with language being irrelevant. But since Hollywood does not green-light enough Hispanic scripts, that answer needs to be broadened to also include any actor/actress or director who has a prominent role in a mainstream film.” Something about his definition just didn’t sit right with me. I agree with the assertion that, “Hollywood does not green-light enough Hispanic scripts” but do we have to resort to including films with no Latino content or Latino crew but just happen to have one Latino actor in a supporting role? No way! The opportunity was missed to highlight the achievements of Latino filmmakers outside of the Hollywood system. It is a huge disservice to ignore independently-produced Latino movies particularly in a year like 2012 when these films won awards at Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, and garnered Chile its first foreign language film Oscar nomination. So the question remains if you are a programmer, writer, academic or anyone else looking to champion Latino filmmakers and their projects what criteria should be used to qualify a film as Latino?

In my personal experience, these measures can change depending on the context. At the New York International Latino Film Festival, where I have programmed documentaries for the last couple of years, we show films, “made by, featuring, about and/or for the Latino community.” We take into consideration who is in front of the camera, who is behind the camera, and what the story is about. These criteria are purposely broad; we want to be as inclusive as possible. (It’s worth noting that we occasionally show films from Spain as well.)

As a writer I tend to use these same benchmarks and aim to strike a balance of diverse stories, perspectives, and countries while taking into consideration the gender, orientation, and racial makeup of the filmmakers I choose to spotlight. Last year I put together my own top ten list for ReMezcla. I took advantage of the burgeoning indie film scene in Latin America and the U.S. and purposely chose to focus solely on independent Latino films. These indies are mostly ignored by the mainstream media. I called my post, “10 Latino Films You Probably Didn’t See in 2012 And Should.” I included films directed by women and men, LGBT stories, films that took place in Latin America and the U.S., and where the dialogue is spoken in English or Spanish. I also included two documentaries directed by non-Latinos but on Latino subjects. But, in an effort to be as inclusive as possible sometimes things start to enter a grey area. 

There has to be a balance. Is Silver Linings Playbook a Latino film? Even on an intuitive level that’s an easy question to answer. I am sure I’m not in the minority in saying no, it is not a Latino film. Personally, when I am considering whether a film is Latino I ask myself a series of questions:

·       Is the writer Latino?

·       Is the director Latino?

·       Is the film crew Latino?

·       Is the majority of the cast Latino?

·       Does the story have Latino content?

·       Was the film shot in the U.S. and/or Latin America?

·       Is the production company from Latin America, the U.S., and/or Spain? (to account for co-productions)

·       Is the film in English, Spanish, Portuguese, or an indigenous language?

The more times you answer yes to these questions to closer you get to the answer you are looking for. And yes it can be subjective. In which case I find it important to define exactly what you mean by a Latino film just like Jack Rico did in his piece. Although I still take issue with his list of the, “Best Hispanic movies of 2012” I appreciate his transparency. 

I also know that I have completely ignored the issues that come with using the term “Latino” in the first place. Who exactly is Latino? Does it depend on where you were born, where your parents are from? Should we distinguish between American-born Latinos and Latin Americans? Are Brazilians Latino? Well, I will leave that for another post.

But, I am interested to know what other people think.

Written by Juan Caceres and Vanessa Erazo, LatinoBuzz is a weekly feature on SydneysBuzzthat highlights Latino indie talent and upcoming trends in Latino film with the specific objective of presenting a broad range of Latino voices. Follow @LatinoBuzz on Twitter and Facebook.