Immigration stories have been a defining part of the on-screen narrative Hollywood has assigned to Latinos in the United States, one that when told by those without sufficient knowledge or interest in the community’s ample range of experiences does it a disservice in that it generalizes and furthers stereotypical portrayals.
Subverting the victimization and impotence so often prevalent in border-crossing or ICE-fearing tales is “The Infiltrators,” which intersperses raw footage with scripted sequences from U.S. Latinx filmmakers Alex Rivera (“Sleep Dealer”) and Cristina Ibarra (“Las Marthas”), The bold docufiction hybrid follows a group of Dreamers, part of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), as they organize an elaborate plan to prevent the deportation of detainees at the for-profit Broward Transitional Center in Florida.
Unsurprisingly, this rebellious ode to resistance that bridges the gap between Latin American immigrants — those brought here as children and the adults that came in search of a livable future — and their U.S.-born allies was selected as the opening-night presentation of the 2019 Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF), and will enjoy its local premiere at Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. “The Infiltrators” is being adapted as a scripted series by Blumhouse Television.
Given the U.S. government’s dehumanizing stance on immigration, specifically in regard to undocumented individuals and asylum seekers at the southern border, the way immigrants are represented in media has taken on even greater significance. Stories are undeniably powerful, and when wielded negatively their impact results in misinformation and hatred.
An empowering testament to the power of strategic organizing, Rivera and Ibarra’s latest film flips the script and introduces its protagonists not merely as a vulnerable group but as people with agency, dignity and the communal strength to resist the nefarious forces that attempt to exile them from the only country they know as home.
“This film is based on real events, making it emotional and timely, but at the same time it’s a suspenseful journey from start to finish,“ said Dilcia Barrera, director of programming of LALIFF and a programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere in January. “Cristina and Alex’s revolutionary vision is a call to arms, an inspiration, and a reminder that the best way to honor one’s community is to serve it.”
That mission of service is shared by LALIFF, the organizers believe, as a space for anyone who identifies within the concept of “Latinx” to showcase their audiovisual work. The event started in 1997, spearheaded by Oscar-nominated Chicano actor Edward James Olmos, and positioned itself as an annual staple in the city’s festival landscape until its abrupt and shaky departure from 2014 till 2018. It returned last year in a renewed incarnation that included newly implemented music and episodic sections.
“It’s been difficult to let them know we’ve returned. It will take time, but we are here to put in the work — our community deserves it,” said Rafael Agustín, LALIFF’s executive director, about the challenge of bringing back the audiences that once were loyal to the festival.
For 2019, LALIFF is adding an animation master class to tap into a medium where Latinx creators are gaining prominence, and it’s focusing its sights on Latinx works, those conceived by U.S.-born or -raised artists with Latin American roots. “The Infiltrators” will kick off a program composed of 17 feature-length films, 10 of which were directed or co-directed by women, and several shorts programs that also exalt the complex Latinx identity. Latin American productions are included (Brazil’s provocative “Divine Love,” Uruguay’s coming-of-ager “The Sharks”) but homegrown talent is the priority.
Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan’s documentary “Pahokee,” zeroing in on the lives of a diverse group of high school seniors in Florida, and Diana Peralta’s “De Lo Mio,” following two American sisters as they grapple with their conflicted relationship with the Dominican Republic, are among the Latinx features screening July 31-Aug. 4 at the TCL Chinese multiplex. The drama “I’ll See You Around,” a first feature by Daniel Fermin Pfeffer, and Rashaad Ernesto Green’s romantic vision “Premature” also are included. The world premiere of “The Devil Has a Name,” directed by Olmos, is the festival’s closing-night film.
The blanket term Latinx often is used to refer to those originally from Latin America and the U.S.-born population of Latin American descent, but though these two segments have inextricable links, their experiences are distinct; more important, they have different levels of access to sharing their stories. Latinx creators don’t have access to government funding as many of their counterparts from the rest of the Americas do, hence the fact that festivals around the world are crowded with Latin American movies, but rarely feature U.S. Latinos.
“In order to accurately address what is happening in our industry, we must distinguish the Latin American voice from the U.S. Latinx voice,” explained Barrera. “LALIFF acknowledges the structural differences between the Latin American film industry and U.S.-based productions and is actively participating in reform by introducing a space dedicated to celebrating and highlighting U.S. Latinx narratives and talent.”
Although the industry at large is beginning to show glimpses of progress as Latinx and Latin American storytellers fight to break through, for Agustín the change isn’t coming fast enough, especially to film. Conversely, television, with shows like “One Day at a Time” and “Vida,” has been more receptive to addressing the abysmal lack of inclusion.
“We aren’t advancing as much as we should be — not by how much we over-index the movie, TV, online and mobile content viewership,” Agustin noted. “But where the film industry has historically failed us, I believe TV now has an opportunity to do right by us.” A staff writer on “Jane the Virgin, “ which coincidentally aired its final episode on Tuesday, Agustín is of the view that episodic content, where writers have the biggest influence, is where emerging Latinx creators can find a platform for their stories. With that in mind, LALIFF’s episodic section has become a crucial component of the event.
Ahead of this year’s edition, Barrera is confident that LALIFF can act as a one-stop shop for the industry to engage with Latinx pioneers and one-of-a-kind visionaries. “The filmmakers we are showcasing are the next generation of Hollywood storytellers,” she ensures.
Where: TCL Chinese Theatre, TCL Chinese 6 Theaters, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Hollywood
Tickets and info: latinofilm.org