The Women Who Are Bringing Gael and Diego’s Ambulante Film Fest to the U.S.
BY Vanessa Erazo
A few months back, we told you that Ambulante — the traveling documentary film festival founded by Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, Elena Fortes, and Pablo Cruz — is crossing the border into the U.S. Well, now they need your help with the move to Los Angeles.
Raising money for a new non-profit isn’t easy and the fest is only a few months away. The team working to organize the SoCal stop on the documentary tour is taking to kickstarter and hoping that Gael and Diego fans will join forces with film aficionados to dig into their pockets and lend their support to Ambulante California.
Headed up by Sundance Film Festival Programming Associate Christine Davila, the Cali version of the fest will involve films that highlight Mexico’s political and social realities along with underrepresented voices from around the world. There will also be an open call for entries for a special section highlighting short docs produced in California.
Each day the documentaries will tour different universities, highs schools, museums, community centers, outdoor venues, and makeshift spaces. Californians will even get a chance to vote on locations for the screenings. Keeping with their mission of connecting underserved audiences with films they may not normally see, all screenings are free.
We caught up with Christine and Elena Fortes, Director of Ambulante, to get the lowdown on the kickstarter campaign. We got them to dish about the exclusive rewards for backers of the campaign, what Ambulante California has in store for audiences, and who would win in a tequila drink-off.
Elena, Why was it important to create a festival in Mexico that specifically showcased documentaries?
Elena: When the festival started in 2006, there were barely any outlets for documentaries in Mexico. If they even found an avenue to get to audiences it was usually through one of the public television channels, which occupy minimum broadcast space. We were convinced that there was an audience out there for documentaries and that we needed to set out and actively search for it. A mobile festival became an answer to that. In the past nine years we’ve managed to grow our exhibition circuit to over 150 venues in 12 regions in Mexico. Our audience has increased by over 640% since 2006 and we’ve also traveled to 20 countries with the festival. A fundamental aspect of the festival has been to never take the films alone, but to always generate encounters with the audience, give rise to discussion around the films, confront the filmmakers with real audiences that they wouldn’t usually encounter in other film festivals, and celebrate one of festival’s most important aspects: bringing together the community in face-to-face encounters.
Christine, Can you explain how you first became aware of Ambulante and became involved?
Christine: I heard about Ambulante in 2007, the year I attended the amazing Morelia International Film Festival, which is actually a partner organization of Ambulante. Like many people, I was immediately attracted to the Ambulante movement both in the figurative and literal sense. Like Elena has said before, it’s romantic, this rock tour of documentary films and filmmakers. I like the cause but I also really dig the rebellious aspect of it. It is so determined to carve out spaces for cinema all around us and the fact that it is collectively fueled and that it’s a diverse, multi-tier audience builder makes it all the more potent. I became part of the programming team shortly after Morelia, becoming friends with Elena and Meghan Monsour, Director of Programming. Then, last year when Elena called me to ask if I was interested in being part of this next step in Ambulante Global, I jumped at being part of bringing and adapting it within the U.S.
Elena, How did you go about choosing who would head up Ambulante California?
Elena: It was not a difficult decision at all. We had been working with Christine closely since she worked with one of our partners, the Morelia Film Festival, and was also a programming advisor to us. In addition to her extensive experience in programming and film festivals, she can also understand the complexities of the Latino identity in the U.S, which was extremely important to us when planning a festival that was born in Mexico for the U.S. In the same way that in Mexico we were very cautious when bringing the festival to different states in order to make sure it doesn’t feel like some sort of imposition from outside, it was also important that the project in California could integrate with the community and make people feel part of it. Christine is also extremely driven so we knew that she would be willing to take a huge challenge and carry it through.
The Ambulante Film Festival has been around for several years now. Why did you decide to bring it to the U.S.?
Elena: We had been discussing the importance of replicating the model of the festival in other countries since 2009 but particularly of strengthening ties among the Spanish-speaking world across America. Initially, we wanted to only target the Latino population living in the U.S., the younger generations of Latinos and to offer content that would counteract all the stereotypes that have traditionally come from Hollywood about Latinos. But, when we thought about our primary mission, about bringing films to audiences that don’t regularly have access to documentaries and celebrating diversity, we decided we needed to focus on multicultural audiences and reach out to them directly by traveling around the city to different neighborhoods.
How are Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal involved in the California version of Ambulante?
Elena: They are founding partners of Ambulante and are part of our Board of Directors, so they oversee all of our projects and participate in the strategic planning of the organization.
Christine: Their involvement is genuine. They inspire me in the way they articulate the vision of Ambulante. It comes from such a personal, spiritual, and activist desire to foster unity. This is an invaluable guide for me when making decisions on how to adapt a living breathing organism in a new social and geographical context. It was so much fun shooting our kickstarter video together.
Why did you decide to launch a kickstarter campaign versus more traditional funding sources? What will the money be used for?
Elena: We want to engage our audience in the creation of the festival and place a lot of value on their input on venues, programming, and fundraising. Ambulante is a collective endeavor. The structure of the festival is very horizontal and we spend a lot of time training all our collaborators and volunteers so that they are capable of replicating the festival in case we run out of funds. So in a way, crowdfunding seems quite natural to us. We are empowering our audience to become part of the festival.
Christine: Initially, doing a kickstarter campaign was a way to introduce Ambulante to a new public and invite the public to join us in developing it on all levels. But now, we are less than four months away from our launch and we have not met our funding goals and deadlines, so the stakes are honestly high and urgent. It is a bit of bridge financing until we get our footing and realize the first festival tour. Our goal, beyond the money is that our backers community will prove to potential funders that Ambulante is a necessary cultural exchange that they should invest in so we can sustain year round programming and bring this to as many communities as possible. Ambulante has had a successful and reputable track record in Mexico but we are still considered a new festival here. Additionally, we are just establishing our U.S. non-profit. Traditional funders and sponsors don’t tend to give to start-ups.
Why should people donate to your campaign?
Christine: I think most people, myself included, donate to kickstarter because either they believe in the creators’ previous work, new idea, or connect to the concept. Donating a few bucks can give one a surprising sense of personal satisfaction.
Finding sponsorship is challenging, let alone finding the right sponsors/funders who get the mission and whose brand aligns with the organization’s goals. I’ve been thinking lately that perhaps the bright spot of not having one monolithic corporate sponsor this first year — and instead be supported by the general public we wish to serve — will be letting us launch this with the integrity of Ambulante intact, as a free for all space without conditions, restrictions, or imposition. And I love that!
Elena: It’s always very difficult to keep cultural projects going and to maintain our independence from the government. We offer most of our programs for free and considering the proliferation of digital platforms which have indeed become a powerful tool for all of us, there are also fewer opportunities for people to come together to watch a film. We believe in creating different cinema experiences that we feel passionate about. This may sound like a cliche but it is truly magical when screening films to an audience for the first time, to watch their reaction, how the film directly affects them, and what happens when people come together. This is an experience that will never be replicated by a virtual platform. It is also a way of engaging people in the discussion of relevant and important issues that aren’t necessarily part of the mainstream media’s agenda or a political agenda. Films can change attitudes, people’s perception and can therefore influence action and transform society.
Christine: Also, we believe this project has a long life ahead of it as one of the most ambitious satellites of the Ambulante Global network. So, I think that people who believe in us and the impact social cinema intervention has, can take away the long-term reward of having been the first to have supported us in the United States.
Can you tell us about the rewards people get for donating? I personally would pay a lot of money just to get a hug from either Gael or Diego. Are there any hugs for sale?
Christine: Ha! No, but I will give hugs for free to the folks who share the link the most! We want to reward everyone who donates no matter what level, so we are using the campaign updates as appealing incentives to join. We made about 10 original short videos that are exclusive to backers. They include personal moments with Gael and Diego where they share their passion for storytelling, inviting the public to vote on which venue we should do screenings, and submitting their short films. There are testimonials of filmmakers and staff about their experience of being part of this ecosystem. Then, there is the whole process of building this thing from the ground up which Elena and I plan on capturing on our iPhones throughout and after the campaign.
Can you talk about the spotlight on California-produced films and how the films will be selected?
Christine: Yes, we are announcing a call for short documentary films. We’d like to show mini-docs, so under 10 minutes, that show a slice of life or subculture unique to California. We have assembled a programming committee who will be watching and discussing these films all summer long and will select films in August.
You had a kick-off screening on May Day. How did that go?
Christine: Given that it was our very first screening and it was really a grassroots effort, it was beyond expectations. Everything was programmed in perfect harmony. We showed Cesar’s Last Fast on International Workers Day in one of the most historic and multicultural landmarks, MacArthur Park. Plus, we had a terrific music set by Las Cafeteras. Around 400 people showed up. Our goal is to replicate that special screening each night during our festival dates: September 21 – October 4!
How will Ambulante California be different than the festival in Mexico?
Christine: We want to see how well it takes root this first year so we are starting with a two week tour across the Greater LA area. The long-term objective is to activate a national tour of documentaries across different cities similar to the original Mexico tour. Los Angeles is a microcosm of cultures so in many ways the landscape lends itself to do a micro-scale version.
We won’t be announcing our film lineup until the end of July, but I can tell you that the overall programming vision remains the same: discover, share, transform. Essentially the idea is that you can watch a film about someone completely different than you and find out, wow, you can relate and something resonates with that stranger or a culture seemingly foreign to you, leaving you transformed.
That said, in the U.S. and in California in particular, there is also a great opportunity for Ambulante to bridge the gap of supporting and linking Spanish-language stories and American multicultural films with their audiences, which is also a compelling experience.
We are so happy to have the support of Mayor Garcetti’s office and look forward to working with different district and neighborhood councils throughout Los Angeles. The more outreach I do the more excited I am about integrating Ambulante with the vibrant, engaging sector of dedicated civic leaders, community centers, urban community and development non-profits who are all about empowering, enriching, and democratizing the arts as part of an overall holistic approach to improving all our lives. We are allies with the International Documentary Association and the Sundance Institute. We are working with the The LA River Revitalization Corporation, Central Library of Los Angeles, School of Cinematic Arts at USC, and every day we are talking to more organizations on how to partner up.
Between Christine, Elena, Gael, and Diego — who can drink the most tequila?
Christine: Elena can outdrink all of us.
Head over to kickstarter to become a backer and help bring Ambulante to California.