Arts and Entertainment: After Virtual Move, Philadelphia Latino Film Festival Brings Marginalized Stories to Its Largest Audience Ever

A still from the film “Màs Sabe El Diablo.” Left to right: Martin Cook as "Gabe," David Sanchez as "Ernesto," and Carlos Medina as "Casey." (Photograph courtesy PHLAFF).

For the second year in a row, the festival has been held as a streaming event, leading to its highest ticket sales ever.

Production staff on the set of “Màs Sabe El Diablo” (Photograph courtesy PHLAFF). Left to right: Jordan Hoffman, director of photography and co-producer, Antonio Márquez, writer/co-director, and Max Dickter, producer/co-director.

The 10th annual Philadelphia Latino Film Festival has come and gone, and for the second year in a row, it looked a bit different.

“The pandemic affected the festival immensely because it is an event that is typically held in person,” Gabriela Luz Sierra, the public relations and communications coordinator for the festival, said.

Instead of in-person viewings at theaters, the festival screened over 150 films from 25 countries virtually through its web portal from May 30 through June 6. This eight-day fest celebrated Latino and Latinx film and media arts, and attendees could purchase access to individual films or thematic bundles.

With the festival online, viewership expanded. Audiences could stream the festival from anywhere, meaning many of the films have had a larger audience than directors may have expected, Sierra said.

This year is the festival’s second virtual edition, and its largest number of ticket sales, Sierra said. The COVID-19 pandemic meant staff had to make a lot of changes quickly last year.

“It forced the festival to grow in ways that were unforeseen,” she said. “Instead of having this isolated event in Philadelphia, you can now broadcast these films all over.”

The festival has also doubled the number of days it runs, from four to eight. 

“In a way, the pandemic helped the festival grow and expand,” Sierra said. 

In 2020, Artblog awarded its Quick Pivot Award to PHLAFF, recognizing how quickly organizers moved the festival online in the early days of the coronavirus. 

“They gave it to us for being able to do a quick turnaround to do a virtual festival,” programming director Kristal Sotomayor said.

PHLAFF was the first festival in the city originally scheduled to be in-person that transitioned to virtual, according to Sierra, moving everything online in a matter of weeks once social distancing and quarantine restrictions were announced.

For some filmmakers featured in the festival, the pandemic allowed them to focus on their art in ways they hadn’t been able to before. 

“In a strange way, the pandemic helped us finish this film,” Antonio Márquez, director of “Más Sabe El Diablo/The Devil Knows More,” said. “This was a passion project and we all have other jobs, so under quarantine we were able to all Skype together and edit the whole thing and finish the film.”

PHLAFF featured a range of films, from documentaries to animation, on a variety of topic areas. Many perspectives explored by films in the festival may not be as prevalent in other festivals, Sotomayor said.

“I think we have a really great lineup of films that are really timely that talk about many of the issues that Latinos may be facing at the moment like queerness, Blackness, and indigenuity,” they said.

The festival also features the annual LOLA Award, which is given to a film deemed exemplary in both its filmmaking and topical area. The LOLA award is a thematic award and the category rotates each year. This year, the award focused on films about women.

This year, for the first time, the festival also awarded a Legacy Award which went to “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It,” a documentary about actress and activist Rita Moreno. 

“Rita has been an icon fighting for the rights of Latinos, people of color in this country, and women’s rights,” Sotomayor said. “I think the film does a lot of work in terms of showcasing her and her humanitarian and civil rights work. She exemplifies so much of what we value in terms of civil rights, human rights, and women’s rights.”

Many of the films PHLAFF featured aim to stir emotions and deeper social engagement among viewers, Sierra said.

“They really tug at emotions in a way that American cinema just doesn’t have the ability to sometimes,” Sierra said. “That’s what keeps me always engaged and enthralled in these movies and these stories that are being told.”

One of Sotomayor’s favorite films from the festival this year is Raquel Cepeda’s “La Madrina: The [Savage] Life of Lorine Padilla,” a film about Lorine Padilla’s life as the “first lady” of the Savage Skulls gang in New York City during the 1970s. 

“I feel that there’s this overarching feeling of humanity in our communities that are somehow translated into these pieces of art on the screen,” Sierra said.

She is also excited about Alexis Gamis’s “Son of Monarchs,” which tells the story of Mendel, who dedicates his career as a scientist studying the monarch butterflies of Michoacán, Mexico.

Although this virtual festival can be watched from all over the world, there is a specific connection to the city of Philadelphia. The fest’s creators believe Philadelphia represents all the Latino community stands for, such as community, diversity, and intersectionality.

“Latinos are many things,” Sotomayor said. “We’re Black, we’re Indigenous, we’re Asian, and disabled, and queer.”

For Sotomayor, Philadelphia’s diverse communities make it the perfect place for the festival.

“It’s been really important being in Philly because Philadelphia represents so many of those intersections,” they said. “Philly is a big inspiration for us, and we take cues from this city as to what our programming will look like every year. Philly is at the heart of everything that we do.”

Many of the filmmakers featured in the festival have ties to Philadelphia themselves.

“I love Philly,” Márquez said. “I had grandparents who lived in Devon, Pennsylvania for many years, so I grew up visiting Philly a lot. My co-director Max Dickter’s family is from in Philly, so we are both tremendously happy to have our East Coast premiere here.” 

As a community-centered festival, the organizers of PHLAFF believe the city allows them to have relationships with the individuals who are impacted by the topics in the films, something very important to them. 

“There’s definitely a need for continued programming that speaks to the community and unites it,” Sierra said. “I think that this is one of those events that has the capacity to do that. It basically is a festival that works to spark dialogue amongst people on pressing social issues. It has the ability and the power to impact and organize the Latino community in Philadelphia.”

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