Boston/ NE Filmmakers, Features, Film, Interview

CineFest Latino Boston director Sabrina Aviles on Representation and Diversity

"We want to present much more nuanced and complicated stories that won’t necessarily make audiences comfortable.

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Sabrina Aviles, the Founder and Executive Director of Cinefest Latino Boston and an independent filmmaker, spoke with me this week about this year’s festival, the importance of representation and diversity, and the potpourri of festival programming this year.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

BOSTON HASSLE: How did Cinefest Latino Boston start?
SABRINE AVILES: I was the director for 6 years of the Boston Latino International Film Festival (BLIFF), but after 6 years I decided that I wanted to part with that and build my own film festival. It’s based on a lot of the things that I implemented and a lot of the relationships that I cultivated while I was at BLIFF. But I just decided to forge my own path and I had my supporters, my sponsors, my audience, and colleagues of mine supporting that decision. We officially became an LLC last year, and we’re a fiscally sponsored LLC, so that’s how that came about.

BH: Why is this festival important to the Boston community?
SA: You know, it’s funny, I was thinking about that yesterday. I think first of all, when you think of Boston, and New England in general, you don’t think of Latinos. People don’t normally associate Latinos with New England or even Boston. And yet, we are a vibrant community, we are a large but very quiet community. And to overuse a phrase that’s been used throughout the pandemic, we’re mostly a community where a lot of us are essential workers, so we are the backbone of this economy. And we’re starting to grow in numbers and “infiltrate” the areas of business and medicine and education. It’s been happening for years and years and years, but I think our presence is growing. So I think that having a Latino film festival, which has really been around since the BLIFF days, since 2001, is a way to sort of bring that front and center and say we’re not about the stories you read in the newspaper.

Unfortunately, there’s so many negative stereotypes and unfortunate stories that you hear about us and who we are, and they’re basically sound bites. We’re much more complex, we’re incredibly diverse; just because we were all colonies of Spain doesn’t mean that we don’t each have our own traditions and cuisines and art and history. And so I think that film, and having the film festival, is one way to highlight that. When we curate it, we don’t want to see that narrative of the stereotype. We want to show much more complex nuance. Even if we have to bring up things around challenges we face every day, like immigration, like inequities, like racism. But we want to do it through a different lens and one of the ways we do it is through film, and I hope that the festival itself provides a platform in which we can, I always say it’s like a springboard, where we can continue to initiate and continue those conversations about who we are. And also that we’re not all about all these terrible issues. Overusing a phrase, we are resilient, we are really celebratory and like many cultures we’re really about family and building and lifting each other.

BH: What’s the impact of diversity in film?
SA: The impact is that– again, using an overused phrase, but it’s really important– representation does matter. We’ve always told our stories, but I think there is even more of a need for us to be out there front and center telling our stories, because I think that we present– I’ll speak for myself as a Latina filmmaker, whose recent films and ongoing films are focused on Latina stories– there is a nuance that I know that exists in those communities that I feel that I understand, and it’s my responsibility to bring that to light to non-Latino audiences. I always point out the story where I first started to film what is now a feature film, still ongoing, on Chelsea, Massachusetts. I present as a white woman, as a white Latina, but when I would walk the streets of Chelsea and start talking to people to find out their stories, you could tell by looking at me that they assumed one thing, but as soon as they heard my Puerto Rican/Dominican dialect– you can tell in just the way I express myself, I’m very passionate with the way I talk and my hands– so you could tell immediately their shoulders relaxed, their face relaxed, and that if I could guess what was on their mind it would be, “She’s one of us, she understands us.” So I think that that’s important. It’s not to say that non-Latinos cannot tell our stories, but if you’re gonna go out there to tell a Latino story there should be a collective of voices that would include Latino voices, because you always run the risk of maybe making a story too one-sided. I believe in a collective of voices, but I believe it’s important for us to tell our stories because we are living that reality every single day. If I’m here to tell a story about Chelsea and what it suffered through the pandemic, it’s because I saw my parents in the lives of these people who were suffering during that. So that is my story and that enabled me and empowered me to illustrate what was going on in Chelsea and the challenges that they continue to face to this day.

BH: In what ways does this local film community need to change or improve?
SA: It’s two-sided, I know, especially from the documentary side, that my colleagues want to give opportunities to diverse voices, but I also know that we are not a market where– we are few and far between in Boston. There’s not a lot of us, and I’m not only talking about Latina filmmakers, I’m just talking in general. But I think that in general we need BIPOC filmmakers. I think there are groups now that represent kind of a conduit between the industry and filmmakers of color. There’s certain groups that are doing that – the Secret Society of Black Creatives, Brown Girls Doc Mafia– and for me personally, as a producer, I’m always looking for young Latino talent to mentor them if i can. I have a couple of young women that are working with me that are cracker-jack. I just have this vision of what they’re gonna be like in 10 or 15 or 20 years, and I see it as my responsibility to connect them with local filmmakers who don’t know that they exist. Because one, we come from a culture where a lot of us are first generation, we tend to not be that pushy, we don’t boast [about] who we are and how great we are, and this whole networking thing is uncomfortable for everyone. So I feel that my role is to be that conduit and say, “Look, so and so is amazing, you need to hire her or try her out or at least interview her,” because I didn’t have that. When I came up in the industry, I didn’t have that at all. I didn’t have mentors, I had some people who would advise me but I didn’t have that, I didn’t have anybody connecting me, and so I feel I’m in the position to do that. So the little that I can do, I hope that that little effort is something.

The other side to it is, I feel that I always give this spiel during the festival. I think that film communities of color don’t necessarily grow up with our parents– and I think this is true with art in general– saying, “You can always explore going into art or film.” My parents, this wasn’t even on their radar. I was a straight-A student, and they thought, well, you could be a doctor or a lawyer, because that’s all they knew. And then when I said I was gonna be a filmmaker, for very long, [and] to this day, my mom knows I work in the industry but she’s not sure what I do. So one of the things that I and the other filmmakers of color talk about is letting people know that this could be a viable career. You don’t necessarily have to be a producer or director, there’s so many other things you could do in the industry. And then going back to representation matters, the more that we infiltrate the industry with more diverse voices, the more we get to see our stories told. So when I say infiltrate, I mean not only from the bottom, but in positions where deals are being made. If I was running a studio, I would be much more open to hear stories about my life and my culture than just the basic narrative that we’ve had for many years. Which had its place, but now I think there’s a reckoning. And also, time and time again, diversity is a good thing. I just think diversity leads to more nuanced discussions around the stories that you want to present. If you only have one way of seeing things and you’re opening yourself up to the grays of that argument, then it makes for, one, it could be dangerous, and two, it negates all the other stories or all the other possibilities of what you’re trying to present. I always talk about history never being black and white; history usually is very gray, and gray usually means very uncomfortable. So it means that you have to listen to something that you don’t necessarily agree with, but just because you don’t necessarily agree with it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. So gray is really uncomfortable, but I think if you’re willing to listen to it, it makes you a much more compassionate and sensitive person to know “This is another person’s reality, and I have to respect that.” And some people don’t want to, because it’s just so much easier to see it in black and white.

BH: What does this year’s festival programming look like? What are you really proud of/excited for?
SA: Well, I’m proud that we’re doing it in person. The last time we did it full-on in person was in 2019, so it was like riding a bike, but there was a lot of “Oh my god I forgot about this, oh my god I forgot about this, oh my god we have to take care of this!” I’m really proud of the diversity of stories that we have. Somebody asked me yesterday if there was a theme. The themes of the festival come up organically. We see things time and time again. We don’t go to curate the festival thinking, “This year we’re going to do a festival that’s [about] this!” One of the bigger themes around the festival is about tolerance, and again, going back to what I just said, tolerance and listening to people’s stories, with a more compassionate ear. So, a lot of times when we curate the festival we want to debunk stereotypes, we want to present much more nuanced and complicated stories that won’t necessarily make audiences comfortable. There are a few films that are going to make audiences comfortable, but you can’t walk away and not be impacted one way or another. You can’t leave the theater after watching any of these films and feel like “That did nothing for me.” So I think in terms of the themes, it’s that.

I also like to think that we are presenting, using a word I’ve been using a lot the past few days, a potpourri. I like to inject the program with one or two films around art. Sometimes it’s about musicians, sometimes it’s about painters, and to me it’s important because [of] the impact that Latinos and Latin America have had on the world through its art, through its filmmakers, through its painters, through its writers, through its music. And for me, for many people, they first discover a country’s culture through that specific artist. It could be anybody from as commercial as Bad Bunny to somebody to the “three musketeers” from Mexico: Cuarón, Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro. But even lesser-known people, that’s how you first discover, “Wow what’s that’s all about.” We have a beautiful film, which again is not a fast-food type of story, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, blah blah blah. No, it’s a much more nuanced story, it’s shot in black and white from Peru, it’s called Diógenes, and it’s a challenging film to watch, but every frame is like a work of art. It’s about an Indigenous family who is composed of a father and two children, and then the father dies, and what does that mean for the young girl who is maybe 12 or 13, and how does she take care of her little brother. It’s shot in such a beautiful quiet way; there’s hardly any dialogue, but all the dialogue that there is intentional. But for me, it just opened my eyes to something that I wanted to know more about. And actually, we were talking to the Peruvian consulate and she mentioned that the art that they produce is something that Peru is known for. But I didn’t even know that. It’s a beautiful film, and there’s an aspect of magic realism to it, and I’m finding that Latin America does magic realism better than a lot of places, this is one of those where there’s this element of magic realism, and you’re just sort of captivated by the film. But it’s very quiet, and if you expect a big payoff at the end, you’re not gonna get it, but it’s just beautifully done and really respectfully done. Here is a filmmaker who really, also because the actors were not actors, they were actual Indigenous people, so how he took that subject matter and treated it with such love and respect, it’s gorgeous. And it’s winning all sorts of awards in Peru, so I’m really thrilled that we’re presenting it.

CineFest Latino Boston continues through Thursday, 10/5. For full schedule and ticket info, click here.

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