A Festival of Films
Cine Las Americas turns 25
By Carmen Gray
There have been several iterations of Austin, Texas in the last 25 years. As more and more of the landscape changes with the influx of people, traditional programs that kept the city culturally unique have gone by the wayside. The Austin Film Festival and South By Southwest have remained intact (and grown exponentially) and so has a distinctively special showcase of Latinx and indigenous films: Cine Las Americas.
Like Austin itself, the festival has its own labyrinthine history. It all began 1997, when Laura Coger gathered with three like-minded friends who were hungry for Latin American film. They organized supporters and sponsors to create Cine las Americas, then known as the Festival of Latin American Cinema, in the spring of 1998. Six years prior, Coger (who had lived and studied in Costa Rica and Mexico) made her first trip to Cuba and it had a profound impact on her. Charles Nafus, a professor of Radio-Television-Film (RTF) at Austin Community College and a board member of the Austin Film Society, stepped into the role as advisor of the nascent festival. He, too, had taken notice that there was a lack of films from Mexico and other Latin American countries in Austin. By then Dell, 3M, Motorola and several other corporations had landed here and brought with them Latin American divisions. Nafus knew there was a diverse Latinx community that would support it.
When Cine Las Americas emerged, there were several other Latin American film festivals. Laura with her friends Sandra Guardado, René Renteria and Celeste Serna Williams researched them to help shape Cine Las Americas. Internationally there was the Muestra de Cine Mexicano, which took place in Guadalajara, but the granddaddy of all was held in Havana. It was the longest running Latin American film festival in the world and named the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cinema Latino Americano. There were also several Latinx and Latin American film festivals in the US as well, such as Cine Acción in San Francisco, the Cine Festival at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio and the most prominent one in Chicago. It was the Chicago Latino Film Festival that supplied Cine Las Americas with its first offerings shown at the Dobie Theater near the University of Texas campus from April 29th-May 2nd in 1998.
Through the years, Cine Las Americas has expanded to become an international festival. Jean Lauer told LATINO Magazine she first got involved while working on her doctorate in Radio/TV/Film at the University of Austin. She was in Guanajuato doing summer research when she ran into Eugenio Del Bosque, who was himself visiting from Austin. This accidental meeting led to a conversation about their mutual interest in Cine Las Americas. At the time, Eugenio was the programmer, but when he stepped into the executive director role soon thereafter, he wanted to assemble a team. It seemed like fate had put the two together and he asked Jean to become the lead programmer for the 12th festival in 2009.
Jean eventually became the festival director in 2015, moving into the executive director role a few years later. She worked on revitalizing the youth program and pushed for cash awards for the filmmakers. Jean also extended the range of films offered to include more indigenous works throughout the Americas. “My goal was to highlight and give voice to the Latinx and indigenous filmmakers and/or the stories about them, as well,” she said.
Jean’s impact in the expansion of Cine Las Americas continues to be felt to this day. After securing a position at Austin Community College, she decided to step down in the spring of 2020, but then COVID hit. She kept Cine Las Americas alive during this critical time by helping it pivot to an online showcase before she handed the reins over to Gabriel Ornelas.
Over coffee during the hectic South by Southwest Festival, Gabriel recalled that Cine Las Americas evolved to become a 501(c)3, which has helped the program immensely. This made the organization more viable, and provided it with paid positions (originally it was made up mostly of volunteers.) A film buff, Gabriel found his way into volunteering for Cine Las Americas back in 2011. Originally from El Paso, he began as a screener on the team that would watch all of the movie submissions and weed through the films, sharing notes and ideas. He joined the board in 2014, when Jean was transitioning from lead programmer to festival director and stayed on four years, but this was still a volunteer position. When the pandemic hit, Jean was leaving Cine Las Americas, and it worked out perfectly to have Gabriel become executive director.
During his tenure, Cine Las Americas has been awarded more grants, like the National Endowment for the Arts one secured two years ago. Gabriel was especially excited about the recent Thrive grant awarded via the City of Austin, saying, “It will provide Cine Las Americas with $150,000 each year for the next two years and it wasn’t easy to be selected.”
There were over 150 applicants vying for the funding and only 36 were allocated the money, Cine Las Americas being one of them. The idea behind this grant is that the city wants to invest in cultural arts programs with a targeted outreach. With this funding, Cine Las Americas will continue to expand, moving in the direction of inclusivity and access by investing in a development coordinator, and more paid positions. He mentioned that by “re-investing in the staff, Cine Las Americas will continue to secure its viability.”
Although Gabriel is transitioning from executive director into a position at the Texas Film Commission, he is staying on as a board member as they seek the next executive director to lead Cine Las Americas.
This year, it’s Cine Las Americas’ 25th anniversary coming up on June 7-11th. The festival will take place at the Austin Film Society (AFS) Cinema, located at 6259 Middle Fiskville Rd. in Central Austin. There may also be showings at the PBS studios at Austin Community College and the Galaxy Theater, both of which are within walking distance to AFS. This will condense the area where the festival takes place, making it convenient to move from event to event. In years past, the festival has used the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) in conjunction with AFS, but the MACC is currently closed for renovation.
The 2023 festival will include a variety of programs with over 100 films at 4 venues in 5 days with representation from the Americas, Portugal and Spain. The goal is to offer a vibrant and inclusive environment and provide accessibility to BIPOC films. Sections will include: The Emergencia Youth Program, short films by filmmakers 19 years or younger; Hecho en Tejas, short films/videos shot and/or produced in Texas; and $7500 in cash awards for jury and audience selections. There will be special guests, parties and cash awards for filmmakers. The call for entries is still ongoing, but as it gets closer to the dates of the festival, you can check to see the line up on their website here: cinelasamericas.org.
What began as a homegrown idea with curated Cuban film screenings in a living room has blossomed and evolved to become an authentic cultural program that has persevered through the years. Cine Las Americas is a treasure that works to survive in the changing cultural Austin landscape that has displaced some of our key communities.