Stepping out of her office in the Hollywood & Highland complex for a late (make that very late) lunch, Marlene Dermer was taking a break from what she laughingly calls la lucha -- the struggle.
Specifically, she meant the last-minute challenges of putting together the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, now in its 13th year. Comprising features, documentaries and short films from across the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking diaspora, the six-day festival will open with Sunday night's gala screening at Grauman's Chinese Theatre of "Los Abrazos Rotos" (Broken Embraces), a bittersweet existential comedy from Pedro Almodóvar that stars Penélope Cruz.
The Spanish director is this year's recipient of the festival's Gabi Lifetime Achievement Award.
But Dermer, who co-founded the festival with Edward James Olmos and the late George Hernández, also was alluding to the festival's larger, long-term objectives: providing opportunities for young filmmakers, creating a forum for Latin America's disparate talent and nudging Hollywood toward a deeper understanding of Latinos, now the United States' largest ethnic "minority" group.
"We want to impact the industry; we want to build bridges," said Dermer, a native of Peru, mixing English and Spanish. "We want to expose them to us so they can market to us."
But in a year in which the festival, like so many other cultural entities, has witnessed a steep drop-off in patron donations, simple survival counts as no mean feat. "It's a miracle to be here," Dermer said. "Despite the problems of the world, despite the economic crisis, the filmmakers continue to make art."
Since its 1997 inception, the festival has grown from a handful of movies, drawing about 5,000 people, to slates of scores of films with attendance climbing toward 30,000 in fat years.
Although this year's lineup of about 75 films is somewhat leaner, it's stocked with some of the most anticipated, and controversial, Latin American and Latino films of recent months. Josh Crook's “La Soga,” set in an embattled neighborhood in the Dominican Republic capital of Santiago, has attracted praise from The Times’ Patrick Goldstein as "a taut crime thriller" and heated reactions from others who claim that it overstates the island nation's corruption.
The documentary "La Vida Loca," an unflinching look at El Salvador's violent gang warfare, will be making its L.A. premiere just weeks after its French director, Christian Poveda, was murdered in El Salvador.
A police officer and four suspected gang members were arrested in the slaying. Poveda had spent years interacting with members of the Mara 18 street gang, which first took root in Los Angeles(gang) and later became a lethal export to Central America.
Another festival film with a strong L.A. pedigree is Alan Jacobs' "Down for Life" (Por Vida), which was inspired by a New York Times article. It features Danny Glover and Kate del Castillo in the story of a 15-year-old Latina gang leader, compellingly portrayed by first-time actress Jessica Romero. Much of the film was shot on location in South Los Angeles, with several of the scenes occurring at Locke High School.
Not all festival films strike such unsettling sociological notes. "Santos," a Spanish-Chilean offering directed by Nicolas Lopez Salvador, has as its unlikely protagonist an overweight, balding man who fancies himself to be a superhero -- the kind who thwarts evil villains and saves the universe.
The festival will close with Friday's screening of Venezuelan writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez's "Women in Trouble," a genre-twisting comedy about one day in the oddly overlapping lives of a flight attendant, a psychiatrist, a masseuse and a porn star, among others.
One of the festival's signatures is its large selection of short films, a genre that plays an especially critical role in countries where the cost of making feature films is often prohibitive. Rather than by country, as in the past, this year's shorts have been grouped for screening by themes, such as "drama/ family," "love stories" and "border stories."
Although the festival is Latino-centric, its organizers want that term to signal inclusiveness rather than restrictiveness. Occasionally, the festival even has programmed non-Latino movies. When people ask why, Dermer, replies, "Why not?" Just as many Latino and Latin American actors and filmmakers have migrated into non-Latino movies, she reasons, the reverse also can be true.
"Why should it be limited?" Dermer said. "The world is open."
Screenings at the Mann Chinese 6 Cinemas, Grauman's Chinese Theatre and Paramount Theatre at the Paramount Studios lot. Tickets $10 each. More information is available at (323) 469-9066 or www.latinofilm.org/festival/.