The Only Browns in Town

Denver's El Centro Su Teatro has always striven to be more than a theater. It's a grassroots arts resource, and everyone connected with it seems to extend a metaphorical hand to the neighborhood. When a play premieres there, it's a fundraising party; when it throws a film festival, as it will this weekend, it's a Chicano Independent Filmmakers Festival, shedding light on a little-known sector of the region's arts community.

"It's important for Denver's Chicano community to have a place where they can come home," says Angela Manzanares, the guiding light behind the festival, as well as a participant. "Hopefully, that place is El Centro Su Teatro. Or we at least hope that El Centro meets part of that need." Manzanares is excited about the lineup of filmmakers involved--three men and three women--and thinks their respective works span a lot of creative territory. There's a thread of community that holds them all together, she notes, but they're also individually strong works, able to stand alone in the prevailing independent filmmakers' arena.

The group's grand old man, Daniel Salazar, perhaps embodies best the role of Chicano filmmaker. Manzanares admiringly calls him a visionary. His contribution to the festival constitutes a twenty-year retrospective, including public-television documentaries and animation projects produced with help from schoolchildren, along with more experimental works such as New World Border, a film interweaving old Mexican santos movies with a theater piece by performance artists Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco.

Salazar thinks the common thread of Chicano experience is what makes the work accessible. "It means you have a rich cultural legacy to draw from," he says. "And it means there's a certain freshness, because those voices have been so under-represented. But it's also something that has the potential for attracting not just crossover audiences, but universal audiences. After all, we're all dealing with issues of identity and straddling cultures."

As an adamant supporter of the independent filmmaking community in general, Salazar also feels the festival's impact is twofold. "More and more, we're provided with the illusion of there being more choices, particularly in the media, until you realize there's less alternatives available as our culture becomes more corporate," he maintains. "Public television doesn't broadcast half-hour documentaries anymore. The short or the half-hour documentary is really an art form in itself," he continues, comparing them in artistic stature to the short story in literature. "Short, independent films are really the way we cultivate emerging talent and hear new voices. When we're left without access to that, whether we realize it or not, we all suffer."

Berthoud filmmaker Caryn Sanchez is one of those voices. Her short film Passing Berthoud, a coming-of-age story about a young girl preparing to leave a small town for writing school in New York, comes to El Centro directly from Chicago, where it was chosen to screen at that city's prestigious Latino film fest. "Around here, it was called the Hispanic Titanic, which is really true--it was a very ambitious project," Sanchez says of the film. "All the money for it was raised in Berthoud, and it was shot in Berthoud over a period of two and a half days, using four people from L.A.--one actor and three crew members--who were housed here in Berthoud." Her greatest challenge, she adds, was in finding enough trained local Latino talent to shoot a family dinner scene with ten actors sitting around a table. Sanchez credits El Centro with providing that talent.

It wasn't so much different from growing up in Berthoud. "I was almost the only brown in town; there was only a small handful of us," she recalls. But she never saw it as a liability. Referencing pop singer k.d. lang, she notes, "Small towns are unique in that they embrace eccentrics. I was able to be very much my own person and have big dreams."

Other filmmakers included are Gwylym Cano, a Yale graduate Manzanares calls "kooky and brilliant"; Cori Chavez, a Boulder grad student in film, whose two pieces The Gist and Dissolution explore experimental techniques in rephotography and hand-processing, as well as the use of narrative; and another Boulder filmmaker, Freddy Escalante, who'll be represented by his animated and narrative films Esperanza and Tecolote.

Manzanares will screen her own "Lost in Paradise," a three-minute short about the complicated relationships between man and woman and the physical and spiritual worlds. "I got it from an old Mexican song, 'Me Cai de la Nube'--'I Fell Off a Cloud'--an old ranchero-style song by Cornelio Rena that goes, 'I fell off a cloud and fell to earth into the arms of a beautiful angel.'" That's not much of an inspirational stretch for Manzanares, who grew up in the San Luis Valley in a family of musicians, and plays violin and sings. "Everything I do comes to me first through my music," she says. "My first language is music." And who she is remains her foremost inspiration: "I grew up in a real community. My family was close to life and nature and also very close to death. I had none of the city distractions. I don't want to romanticize--but it's where I live. What I have today as a filmmaker has everything to do with where I grew up."

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