How often are you in a room surrounded by Latina filmmakers? If you were to ask me last year, I’d say never – but LIFE Film Festival (Latina Independent Film Extravaganza) is changing that on a national level with roots in Los Angeles. Originally BHLIFE, (Boyle Heights Latina Independent Film Extravaganza), it was founded in 2006 by Josefina Lopez (Real Women Have Curves), Iris Almaraz (Delusions of Grandeur), and Fanny Grande (Our Quinceñera.) Occurring annually in May, this festival has always focused on Latina voices, specifically directors. As a continuation of its promise, the magic of this space has helped alums go on to build long-term working relationships with fellow Latina filmmakers.
From example, Stephanie Saint Sanchez, who’s an alum of the LIFE Film Festival’s inaugural year, founded her own film festival Señorita Cinema in Houston where she was born and raised, the following year in 2007. She told LatinaMediaCo, “That festival saved my life. I felt like I was a young punk seeing my first Ramones show at CBGB in its heyday. Like something big was happening and that we Latina filmmakers were the future architects of an important chapter in film history.” It was no surprise then, to see Stephanie, myself, and other director-alums returning to volunteer at LIFE. Together, we’re helping to cultivate this intergenerational space of increasing importance amidst the current changing Hollywood landscape.
As part of my role, I interviewed directors between screenings. I loved seeing us represented in all genres – fantasy, thriller, even “B Movie” as Festival Director Iris Almaraz categorized her own Bloody Maria, a series following two rival Catholic schoolgirl cholas. They break an enchanted mirror that curses them with demonic power and unlocks a vile spirit, the “Eve of All Cholas,” Lupe Velez.
Cecilia Romo’s short film Sueños De Mi Hija gave alternative Latinas their flowers. Viewers watch Rosa, a stoic immigrant mother who’ has held’s had various manual labor jobs and holds traditional Mexican values. She disapproves of her daughter Samantha, a strong-willed first-generation Latina who’s performing at the local Battle of the Bands. The film asks, will Rosa ultimately accept and support her daughter’s journey? Cecilia, a Sacramento-based director, told me that in making this film she wanted to “bring representation to Sacramento and punk Latinas,” which she does, bringing a rare picture to the big screen.
In my interview with Valentina Hueck, we delved into the surreal world of her captivating short film, Black Morning. On Christmas night, after discovering her mother reading her diary, Teresa runs away from home and is left with nowhere to go. Now in solitude, with her secret crush on her best friend exposed, Teresa divulges her fear and shame. Among its stunning visuals and skillful use of magical realism to convey emotions, the film embraces experimentation. Valentina revealed that the project initially began with her “trying to re-learn Spanish by writing poetry in Spanish.” Penned shortly after her graduation from film school in 2020 during a time of great disillusionment and solitude, her film soon after earned recognition as “Best Experimental Film.”
I also got to speak with Joelle Velez about her film Fairy Rice Mother which took home the “Mi Familia Award.” Fairy Rice Mother is a charming comedic short centered around family, identity, and rice. When Ruby’s attempt at making her family’s traditional dish goes terribly wrong, her late abuela sends her Francis, a hardass magical expert who’s ready to kick Ruby’s rice into shape. The witty charm of the no-nonsense Boricua Fairy Godmother never misses, making this an instant crowd favorite. A subtle yet profound theme of ancestral guidance resonates throughout the film, and it is heartwarming to learn that Joelle’s own suegra portrayed her abuela on-screen. The director told me she was inspired by vivid dreams she has of her grandmother – Joelle fondly recalled her mai yelling at her with scolding and loving advice, accompanied by a comforting hug. “I even had a dream about her last week, where we were hanging out on the beaches of Puerto Rico and she told me, ‘I’m so proud of you,’” Velez shared.
This brings me back to something Josefina said at the director’s mixer, before the festival kicked off: “Imposter syndrome is an insult to your ancestors.” This firm but loving statement restored something in me as I recall avoiding that word, succumbing to its use in the workspace only to feel wholly disempowered afterward. That phrase is too narrow, too shy of the truth for us. When a Latina makes a film, it’s a miracle. As with the birth of that creativity, there exists an undeniable force that pushes through the obstacles and statistics stacked against us before we even put pen to paper. LIFE is a celebration of the particular dance with the sublime that comes with taking an idea and materializing it through sheer dedication.
Latina bravery, artistry, and loyalty are unparalleled and when we come together, we’re unstoppable. That’s what I see at LIFE Film Festival. And that’s why I dedicate this story to all the ones who came before us, the ones coming after, and the ones gone too soon. #NiUnaMas