When Hebe Tabachnik explains the growing number of Latin movies in the Palm Springs International Film Festival, she reaches for a familiar Spanish proverb that translates, "Water seeps slowly through the stones."
Over time, that steady drip-drip has yielded a gusher of ambitious Latin films, including the 21 Spanish- and Portuguese-language movies in this year's festival, which runs through Monday. This year also marks the second time the festival will bestow its annual Cine Latino Award to the best of the 21 films being screened, as chosen by a jury of moviemakers, programmers and journalists.
Sponsored by Mexico's largest cinema showcase, the Guadalajara International Film Festival, and the University of Guadalajara Foundation-USA, the award carries a $7,500 cash prize. It also signals a recognition that the festival's evolving audience seeks more movies from across the hemisphere and the Iberian peninsula, said Tabachnik, who oversees Ibero-American programming for both the Palm Springs and Los Angeles film festivals.
"This is not just Latinos. We are creating a taste for these films," Tabachnik, an Argentine native who lives in Los Angeles, told The Times in an interview last year.
The Palm Springs festival's expanding interest in Latin cinema is timely. Through the 1960s and '70s, film production in many Latin countries was moribund, victim of relentless political and economic upheavals.
But recent decades have witnessed a cinematic renaissance in countries such as Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Several directors represented this year are first-timers or have made only a couple of films.
Their work covers a spectrum of genres, including Mexican director Amat Escalante's critically praised "Heli," whose protagonist goes astray in the dark labyrinth of the country's drug-related violence, and "Anina," an animated entry by Uruguayan director Alfredo Soderguit, based on a widely cherished children's book by Sergio López Suárez.
Other anticipated films include the Peruvian "El Mudo" (The Mute), a dark comedy about an incorruptible judge rendered speechless by a bullet in the neck; and the Brazilian "Reaching for the Moon," about a Rio-inspired lesbian affair between poet Elizabeth Bishop (played by Miranda Otto of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy) and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares (telenovela superstar Glória Pires), directed by Bruno Barreto ("Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands").
Also showing at Palm Springs is the tense Argentine drama "The German Doctor." The movie, which will have its L.A. premiere Tuesday as part of a Skirball Cultural Center series on Latin Jewish films, concerns a fateful encounter between a young Jewish-German emigrant woman and her Buenos Aires neighbor, the son of a former SS member. Their relationship leads them deeper into the parallel worlds of the Holocaust and Argentina's fascist Dirty War of the 1970s.
Tabachnik acknowledged that other film festivals besides Palm Springs have upped their tally of Latin movies in recent years. But she said that Southern California's huge Spanish-speaking and bilingual population makes the venue a particularly fitting location for Latin cinephiles to congregate.
"I know from the reaction that we get when we show these films, they're so thirsty for these stories," she said.
Palm Spring's partnership with the Guadalajara Film Festival and the University of Guadalajara underscores an expanding cultural dialogue between Mexico's second-largest city and Los Angeles. An estimated 1 million Mexican Americans from the state of Jalisco, of which Guadalajara is the capital, live in greater L.A, more than those from any other Mexican state.
Established in 2008, the L.A.-based University of Guadalajara Foundation has sponsored such events as a Spanish-language book fair at the L.A. Convention Center and screenings of Latino films here. The foundation hopes to eventually open a satellite university campus in Los Angeles that will serve immigrant children who can't afford U.S. college tuition.
Tabachnik sees other signs of a cultural shift at the Palm Springs festival, such as the burgeoning number of volunteers from local colleges, who've augmented the traditional corps of movie-loving retirees.
"We will notice more and more those sort of little steps forward," she said. "We haven't finished our work. Not even close."