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Oaxaca Film Fest: International Films, Sundance and Mezcal in the Colonial City

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 20/10/2015 Karin Badt

I happened to learn about the Oaxaca Film Festival by the luck of coincidence. While surfing in Puerto Escondido, I met its charismatic director, Ramiz Adeeb Azar, an Egyptian American, based in the city of Oaxaca, on the beach. Over a margarita, while night darkened the ocean, the lively man explained to me how it was that he, a former copywriter, came to create an international festival.

"I was walking one day in the zocalo of this gorgeous colonial town, and suddenly thought, what is missing in this town is a film festival! Oaxaca is a world-renowned destination, rich in culture. How could there not be an international film festival here? So I decided to start one myself. I wanted it to be a non-elitist festival that showcased original films, including entertaining genre flicks, to a wide public."
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Once Ramiz got the idea, a serendipitous meeting soon followed with the Oaxacan Secretary of Finance who backed the idea. Now, six years later, Oaxaca Film Fest screens in thirteen venues, has 75 sponsors and is considered (by MovieMaker magazine) one of the 50 festivals in the world worth the entry fee. The festival offers six categories, including two devoted to Mexican films, and a global competition, for which it receives over 3000 submissions from over 98 countries. Unusual for a festival, it also features an international screenplay competition, with 109 screenwriters coming this year from all over the world.
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Intrigued, I took a small 10 seater plane to visit the festival for a weekend, flying over the forested hills of Oxacaca next to the pilot, and upon landing, I immediately happened upon one of these 109 screenplay writers in the airport, a warm-spirited woman from Colombia, excited to have her work valorized. Throughout the weekend, I continued to meet one writer after another, from Spain, Canada, Argentina, Chile. Each writer, with a markedly more introverted air than the filmmakers strolling about the cobblestoned lanes, seemed grateful to be here at Oaxaxa Fest. "Every encounter leads to a new opportunity," said one committed banker-cum-writer, hopeful that one day his script will be a film.
A highlight for me was lunch with New Yorker Jacob Krueger, the invited lecturer on screenplay writing, who agreed to give me a personal preview on his lecture. We sipped Oaxacan hot chocolate in the second story of a colonial bar while he told me about the principles he uses in his teaching, from his concept of four different kinds of drafts to "excavating hooks". He kindly gave me an example of his approach by offering me feedback on a chapter I myself had written. "Cut that line," Jacob said with a big smile. "Too much speaking to the auidience! Just write for the character and nobody else." I cut that line.
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Jacob Krueger (screenwriting lecturer) and Ron Leach (casting director)
Another highlight was the presence of the Sundance Festival, recently allied with Oaxaca Film Fest, which ran workshops throughout the week on subjects ranging from digital distribution to project marketing. I, ignorant on the subject of film financing, sat in on an animated lecture on Kickstarter followed by an equally passionate lecture on Indiegogo, both of which took place in the elegant hall of an 18th century colonial palace. The speakers, representing their companies, raved about the hundreds of films and 2 billion dollars of funds that had been achieved because of crowdfunding. Their enthusiastic pitch, which included a crowd-pleasing videoclip of a successful Indiegogo campaign, almost made me want to take the gamble and invent a project right then.
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I had a more nuanced introduction to the industry, however, while exploring the Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban with Sundance Director of Digital Initiatives Joseph Beyer. As we climbed the ancient stairs to the temples and stood before danzante stone monuments of sacrificed prisoners, the earnest forty-year old director told about how the digital age has changed the industry so rapidly that it requires young people to keep up with it. The digital fad of the future, he told me, is Virtual Reality.
To be honest, I preferred, to Virtual Reality, the reproduction of a cornhusk statue used in Zapotec fertility rituals, which--a man showed me-- had a baby issuing from the stem.
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The festival is amazing for its intimate feel, the constant encounters with directors, writers and producers around the stunning Santo Domingo Church, the lunches of soup boiled with a hot rock, and the conversations over mezcal in this traditional town. (Even though I could do without the requisite grilled cricket). One evening, I walked along with Canadian television and film director Patricia Chica, once a refugee from El Salvador, as she told me about her training in chakra energy. She demonstratred right then and there, with a joyful smile, how she could "play with the energy" in the chakras of my back, and spun me around on the sidewalk. I don´t know what she did but it worked.
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Patricia and I then sat down for a midnight dinner of tlayudas and stuffed mushrooms, with her cherished writer-partner Kamal John Iskander, winner of last year´s screenplay writing competition, along with a Swedish couple and a Brazilian screenwriter. Here, the glowing woman told me about her 17 short films, most of which are geared to elevate consciousness in the underprivileged. She confided that much of her work is feminist, and she devotes time to lecturing in universities to young Latina girls to remind them to fight for their identity. "I say don't listen to your parents, if it goes against your dreams." She herself did everything to achieve her dreams, including selling her house to fund a short film on AIDs, entitled Ceramic Tango.
What I most loved about this intimate festival: the opportunity to watch contemporary Mexican films with a primarily Mexican audience, and chat with the audience afterwards. The films in the Mexican division were refreshingly different from any films I have seen before in Europe or the United States. One film, La delgada línea amarilla, directed by Celso Garcia, was about the journey of five workers who paint the yellow line of a road. The protagonist of the film, a downed man who has long ago lost contact with his family, finds, through this journey, his own "road".
When the lights came on, an elder Mexican man rose to thank the director, present in the moviehouse: "Your film shows the compassion that we need to see today."
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One cryptic Mexican entry was particularly suitable for a film festival: Joshua Gil's Maldad about a lonely elderly peasant who lives in the sierras, who decides that his sad life--including abandonment by his wife-- should be made into a film. The eccentric man goes so far as to take a bus to the national cinematagraphic institute in Mexico City, sure that the directors will want to hear his story. The film concludes with a strange non sequitur: a video clip featuring protests in Mexico City about corrupt politicans.
"Does this film carry a political message? I asked three Mexican young people walking out of the theater.
"Yes," they said unanimously. "This man who does not have a voice represents the rural community that has been left out of the political debate in Mexico, and forgotten by politicans."
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Oaxaca Fest concluded yesterday evening with the top prize of the global division awarded to Nick Sandos's The Wannabe (USA: produced by Martin Scorsese) and the top prize in the "Made in Mexico" división to Delgada Linea amarilla. It will soon be traveling abroad, to the cities of New York, New Orleans, Madrid, London, Mexico City, Concepción, Madrid and Tokyo.

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