I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Maria Lopez, programmer of The Chicago Latino Film Festival, after the festival’s wrap this April, about her program The Joy of Sound / La Felicidad De Sonido (2016) and her current place in the film world.
Wednesday’s program features two submissions to the Chicago Latino Film Festival, Palenque (2018) and the La Felecidad del Sonido (2016) that were never included in the festival programming. Both are experimental documentaries taking place in small Latin American towns.
M: I think most people, when they think about Latin American cinema, they think about showing Argentinian and Mexican films, and it turns out that the films that do really well during the festival are those (films). When I have the opportunity to program these screenings, my own screenings, when I don’t have to keep the film festival on mind, I want to show people something that they’re not familiar with. Documentaries are a little hard to sell... so we don’t program too many of them (at the festival), but I’m a huge fan of them.
Palenque is a Colombian Film, about an Afrolatinx town, the first to be liberated from European rule. Though that is the subject, this is not an interrogatory piece, rather, modern life in Palenque is witnessed.
M: It’s becomes really hard to program a 25 minute film... I wrote the director (of Palenque) back when we were making decisions to let him know that I had his film in mind if any other opportunity come along. When asked (by Comfort film) to program something I immediately knew I wanted to program this short film.
Following Palenque is the titular presentation, The Joy of Sound. Similarly, the audience is thrust into the environment by way of music. The eccentricity of the Panamanian town is animated by its relationship to noise, including the softly played classical music played through a car stereo. On a mission to spread classical music, he hands free CDs out through his car window to anyone who wants one.
M: I immediately thought about The Joy of Sound, which is from Panama which is another place people don’t know much about - Panama and their film industry.
Ana Endara Mislov, the director, was a participant in the Chicago Latino film festival in 2014 with her film Reinas, about the Panamanian beauty pageant circuit.
M: The similarity in both of these films is that both of them are kind of snapshots into the lives of the inhabitants of these particular towns and cities. You never really gets clear sense of who these people who are you just get a snapshot of everyday life in these towns... I like to use the word “symphony”, and in the end you get to see these characters interact with each other. It reminds me of the anthropological films I used to watch in college.
Both films use sound as a language, to tell the story of a place and it’s as much about its audience as its inhabitants. Palenque brings the camera into the lives of these residents by gently keeping pace with them. There is no all seeing camera, no questions being asked, instead it chooses to be an observation of their everyday lives.
M: Both of these films make you start thinking about everyday sounds and the beauty in them... that’s a word that comes to mind because there’s a very magical aspect to them. When you think of a documentary you think of someone sitting in front of a screen talking, and it cuts to somebody else - there’s really none of that in either of these documentaries. They’re both very dreamlike, surreal films... The whole theme of this series is sound and how powerful sound is... there’s also beauty in silence as well .
I asked Maria about the difference in programming in these two vastly different worlds. It’s impossible to ignore the compromise that commercial filmmaking requires, and that applies to programming as well. It’s always struck me that Chicago’s larger film festivals include very little work out of Chicago.
M: At the end of the day, we’re trying to make a profit and we have to provide programming that will help. We have to put our own tastes aside and to really program what benefits the festival financially and what audiences will ultimately like.
I always like to ask curators about their impression of Chicago’s film scene and where they feel they fit within it. Their responses have ranged from inspired to disheartened. Maria sees herself an audience member, and an eager one.
M: I am absolutely grateful to be able to program for such a big festival as the Chicago Latino Film Festival but I’m also extremely grateful for organizations like Comfort Film that provide me that platform and that creative outlet to program films that I’m more passionate about. Sometimes I get to share things with audiences that don’t make it to the film festival or can’t.
An annual festival that happens over 3 weeks downtown, the audience the Chicago Latino Film Festival generates is vast and growing. 2018 marked its 34th anniversary.
M: I think it’s amazing that Chicago has such a diverse film scene, I think every year I discover a new film festival or a new film organization, I just recently discovered Southside Projections, which sounds absolutely incredible. It’s crazy to think that last year I had no idea. I’ve also started looking into filmfront in Pilsen which is not far from where I live. I had no idea that it existed! I’m grateful that Chicago has both sides of the coin... you have your really independent film venues and film organizations where you can catch free or experimental screenings of things you’ve never seen before.
I asked Maria about her current inspirations and what she’s been watching. Although she’s been taking a bit of a break since watching all of the festival programming, she mentioned a few memorable things she’s seen recently. This past weekend she watched the HBO documentary Being Serena (2017) as well as I am Evidence (2017) , a documentary about thousands of untested rape kits that go ignored in the US criminal justice system. Maria mentioned the act of sharing movies, specifically documentaries, as an immediate and beautiful way to communicate.
M: Right now I’m really inspired by documentaries, and have been watching as many as I can. I’ve always been a fan of documentary filmmaking since taking a documentary filmmaking class in college, I don’t necessarily want to make them... but in this class I learned to appreciate the genre and it made me realize how powerful documentary films can be.
Another film Maria mentioned was Haiti, My Love (2016) a part of the 2017 festival, and one she wanted to program again, here at Comfort Film.
M: The term I would use is magical realism to describe what it looked like and felt like. It wasn’t a a documentary but it felt like it - it looked like real people in a real town and the camera follows their everyday life... you don’t get to see a lot of films out of Haiti.
The film had low turnout at its screening as part of the Chicago Latino film festival. Maria expects this was due to a lack of audience familiarity with Haitian cinema.
Maria’s optimism and faith in cinema came from her childhood - which sparked an interest that never faded.
M: I got into film when I was a kid, I had a big family, 4 other sisters - so it wasn’t possible to take us all to the movies. We went to a small mom and pop video store that was a couple blocks from my house where we’d walk over and rent a movie each. Growing up, my dad was always watching films and it was due to him that I was exposed to black and white Mexican golden age films of the 40s and 50s.
Just wanting to spend time with him, I would sit and watch them and I began to appreciate the photography. I have a very early memory of watching one of those movies with him, it was María Félix, and thinking she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen! I think that’s what sparked my appreciation for film, having this weekend tradition with my dad. As I got older, I started going into the other sections of the video store... looking up directors, using the library to do more research. I knew in high school that I wanted to study film, I tried filmmaking and in college and I’m glad I did... I realized pretty early on that I enjoyed watching films more than making them and that’s one of the things that drove me to volunteer for the Chicago Latino film festival. That’s one thing I always knew I wanted to be involved in. I’m very proud of being Mexican and Latina and I always want to share my culture and Latin American cinema with people. I started volunteering in 2008, and interning 2009... it became a joke that I was a forever intern because I wouldn’t stop coming in.
In 2012 Maria started working officially working for the festival in an official capacity.
Catch Maria’s program for free (as always) this Wednesday May 23, at 8pm at 2579 N Milwaukee Ave, Comfort Station.