OC Film Fiesta marks first decade with mariachi, Mexican film history and a Middle Eastern spotlight

The 2019 OC Film Fiesta will open with a free community screening of "Una Ultima y Nos Vamos," a Mexican comedy about band competing in a national mariachi competition.
(Courtesy of OC Film Fiesta)

This year’s OC Film Fiesta, the 10th edition, kicks off Oct. 18 with a free screening of Noe Santillan-Lopez’s 2015 comedy “Una Última y Nos Vamos” at the Ebell Club in Santa Ana.

“We’re always trying to make sure [our opening nights] are a good fit for the local narratives going on in the community,” says Sandra “Pocha” Peña, who co-founded the OC Film Fiesta, a festival of Media Arts Santa Ana (MASA), with her husband and fellow artist/activist Victor Payan in 2010.

Last month saw not only the Santa Ana Mariachi Festival and the Anaheim Mariachi Festival, but also South Coast Repertory’s production of José Cruz González’s “American Mariachi.”

“We love mariachi here,” says Peña. “That’s why we have so many successful mariachi events, and this is a family-friendly film with a good message about an amazing mariachi competition in Mexico City.”

Payan adds that the reason the opening night screening is free is because they wanted to harken back to the first five years of their festival, where screenings were free.

“There’s something really special about throwing a free party for the community,” he says. “We want to bring people together to laugh and enjoy and celebrate.”

“Leave the theater feeling good,” says Peña.

At the first OC Film Fiesta in 2010, founders Sandra “Pocha” Peña and Victor Payan (center) invited veteran filmmaker Sylvia Morales, left, and Maria Elena Chavez, daughter of activist Dolores Huerta, to a screening at the old Breath of Fire theater in Santa Ana. Their poster featured an illustration of Bebe Daniels, a silent movie star famously jailed in Santa Ana in 1921.
(Courtesy of Victor Payan)

The first OC Film Fiesta took place in downtown Santa Ana, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution and the 200th of the Mexican War of Independence.

Ten years later, it’s expanded from Santa Ana to Orange, Anaheim and Buena Park. This time around organizers are also celebrating the 150th anniversary of the city of Santa Ana, as well as the 250th anniversary of the Spanish Portolá expedition naming the Valle de Santa Ana.

“We look at history a lot, and how it relates to the present,” says Payan.

OC Film Fiesta’s films highlight the Latino and greater immigrant community, with this year’s spotlight focusing on the Middle East, including “Kilikis … The Town of Owls” from Morocco, a narrative feature about a political prison camp told from the guards’ point of view; “Bozkir Looks at Birds” from Turkey, a drama about two friends and a moral dilemma; and the documentary “Fading Portraits,” about an Iranian photographer fighting against censorship to publish her photos of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Farhad Mohammadi's 2019 documentary "Fading Portraits," about Maryam Zandi's attempt to publish her photos of the 1979 Revolution despite the government's censorship demands, is part of the OC Film Fiesta's showcase on Middle Eastern films.
(Courtesy of OC Film Fiesta)

“People don’t think about how diverse O.C. is,” says Peña. “And cinema is a great cultural communicator to get to know different cultures, lives and philosophies.”

Short films in this spotlight include stories about a Jordanian woman’s difficulties trying to get a visa so she can visit her daughter (“Nadia’s Visa”); a transgender actor who’s fallen in love with her director (“Short Bodies”); an old man on a bus who’s just trying to bring a turkey to his grandson when he runs into bandits (“Elephant Burn”); and a reporter in Orange County who’s been covering parking stories and wants to do more serious journalism (“Non-Crimes of Orange County”).

Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra's award-winning "The Infiltrators" is playing at the OC Film Fiesta on Oct. 26 at the AMC Orange 30.
Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra’s award-winning “The Infiltrators” is playing at the OC Film Fiesta on Oct. 26 at the AMC Orange 30.

A highlight is a screening of Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra’s “The Infiltrators,” which won the Audience Award and the NEXT Innovator Award this year at Sundance Film Festival. It’s a hybrid documentary about a group of undocumented youth who deliberately get detained by Border Patrol in order to infiltrate a detention center, organize and get other detainees out.

“It takes place in 2012 in Florida, but it looks like O.C. today,” says Payan.

Oct. 26 will bring a documentary double feature highlighting performer Dan Guerrero and the late artist Carlos Almaraz, who were childhood friends. “¡GAYTINO! — Made in America,” an adaptation of Guerrero’s one-man show, will play before “Carlos Almaraz: Playing with Fire,” made by the late Almaraz’s wife Elsa Flores Almaraz and Richard J. Montoya from the famed performance troupe, Culture Clash.

On Oct. 27, those interested in civil rights documentaries can also watch the back-to-back screenings of Paul Espinoza’s “Singing Our Way to Freedom,” about musician/activist Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez (known as Cesar Chavez’s favorite musician) and Ray Santisteban’s “The First Rainbow Coalition,” about Chicago’s multi-ethnic alliance of community groups in the 1960s that included the Black Panthers, Puerto Rican Young Lords and Appalachian Young Patriots.

And on Oct. 30, a free Taco Truck Cinema screening of the 2006 Jack Black comedy “Nacho Libre” will follow a talk by film historian Luis I. Reyes, who wrote “Made in Mexico: Hollywood South of the Border,” a book about the ways that Hollywood filmmakers and Mexican filmmakers have influenced each other for more than 100 years.

“It’s actually a triple whammy,” says Payan, “because there’s an exhibit of contemporary artists in Oaxaca at the Mexican Consulate in O.C., where we’re screening ‘Nacho Libre,’ which was filmed in Oaxaca. So along with Luis’ book about Hollywood filmmaking in Mexico, it’s a multidimensional experience.”

'Nacho Libre'
2016’s “Nacho Libre,” starring Jack Black, will screen at 2019 OC Film Fiesta, along with a talk by Luis Reyes about his book “Made in Mexico: Hollywood South of the Border.”
(File photo)

Films by Orange County filmmakers include Eli Reyna’s short documentary “Drawing Out Stigma: My Story, My Journey,” produced by OC MECCA (Multi-Ethnic Collaborative of Community Agencies), which highlights mental illness; and “Home for Mom,” a short musical directed by Emiliana Ammirata and written by San Clemente writer Eloise Coopersmith that takes place in an elder care home.

And there will be a showcase of short films made by high school students from Edward James Olmos School of Film and Cinematic Arts in Santa Ana.

Looking forward, Payan and Pocha plan to kick off a schedule of yearlong screenings and move MASA into a new space in 2020 where they can host their youth cinema camp, murals and media program, a Millennial producer’s academy, and Cine Comadres, a female filmmaker circle Peña started that regularly meets to support each other’s projects.

Proceeds of the OC Film Fiesta go to support this work.

“More revenue helps us do more programs,” says Payan.


What: 10th annual OC Film Fiesta

Where: Locations in Santa Ana, Orange, Anaheim and Buena Park

When: Oct. 18 to Nov. 3

Cost: $10 a screening; $5 for student, teachers, Santa Ana residents, military and veterans

Information: 888-906-0340;

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