Latin American Film Festival seen as educational

José Torrealba sees the Providence Latin American Film Festival as much more than a venue for showing films, though it is one of the few competitive Latin film festivals in the country.

He sees it as a vehicle for educating both the Latino and non-Latino communities in the state. He also sees it as breaking stereotypes of Latin American culture, and giving the Latino community something to share and be proud of.

And, although the 15-year-old festival remains relatively small, with 29 films this year – roughly the same as last year and in years past – attendance has been growing steadily, said Torrealba, director of the festival, which runs through Sept. 29.

Last year, attendance was about 6,000; this year, Torrealba hopes to double that.

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He has been actively promoting the festival through outreach to the local Latino newspapers and large Spanish-speaking television networks such as Univision and Telemundo, and by producing a 30-second promotional commercial for corporate sponsor NBC 10 WJAR.

The goal is to attract more attendees from the Latino community in the state and surrounding regions, he said, because for the festival’s first 10 years, it was grounded mostly in academia.

Though the volunteer-run nonprofit festival was started in 1993 by a Bolivian couple who wanted to bring film to the Latino community in Providence, Torrealba said, Rhode Island School of Design saved the festival from financial uncertainty by sponsoring it and giving it a venue at the RISD Auditorium.

“It wouldn’t have survived without RISD,” he said, adding that Brown University is also a huge contributor, because this year, Torrealba was able to make a living while directing the festival by becoming the outreach coordinator for the university’s center for Latin American studies.

Though the universities are a huge boost to attendance, Torrealba said, the organizers of the festival realized about four years ago that “there was a need to bring it back to the Latin community.”

Many in the Latino community didn’t even know the film festival existed, he said, or they wouldn’t travel downtown to the RISD campus to view it because the area wasn’t in their comfort zone.

The organizers thought about bringing the festival to the community by searching for venues in Latino-concentrated areas such as South Providence and Central Falls, but there were no such venues.

This year, in addition to the RISD Auditorium, films will be shown at Cable Car Cinema downtown and the Columbus Theatre on Broadway. Torrealba said the Columbus was the closest they could find to any concentration of the Latino community.

But Torrealba has employed other tactics to make the film festival more inclusive this year.

It started with a poster contest at Firehouse No. 13, a mixed-use artist residency and experimental gallery near the Broad Street in South Providence.

About seven local artists, both Latino and non-Latino, submitted paintings for the poster competition, and Torrealba invited the community to be the judge and vote on which they thought should represent the film festival this year.

“It was risky because you don’t want a poster you don’t like to promote the film festival,” he said. “But it was a very organic and entertaining evening.”

And in the end, Torrealba was pleased with the elected poster design, by local artist Angel Quinonez, whose paintings are also on display at the Cuban Revolution restaurant downtown.

This year, to broaden the festival’s scope, Torrealba also incorporated a photography exhibit at the Gail Cahalan Gallery at 200 Allens Ave. The exhibit features photographers Aislinn Leggett’s and Babak Salari’s documentation of life in Cuba.

Again, in hopes of bringing the festival to the Latino community, Torrealba wanted to provide an additional feature at a venue closer to the community.

Lynne McCormack, director of the Providence Department of Art, Culture and Tourism, said the growing festival “really has the potential to be one of our hallmark events in the city.”

“We’re looking to really see this festival grow,” she said, “and become more of a staple in the arts and culture community.” •