HOLA MEXICO FILM FESTIVAL 2010: Interview With Samuel Douek

Though the touring Hola Mexico Film Festival (HMFF) was woefully under-attended during its San Francisco stint at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema, it nonetheless provided a welcome program of both arthouse and popular films representing Mexico's cinematic output in the past year or so. The festival received some assistance from the Mexican Consulate, and near-to-negligible support from Landmark's publicist Steve Indig (an e-mail blast in the middle of the festival? A "you're on your own" attitude? C'mon, Steve!). Hopefully next year HMFF will hire a publicist and not rely exclusively on either the Mexican Consulate or Landmark to generate buzz on the event and, hopefully, they time the festival to not run the day after the San Francisco International wraps, by which time even the most resilient cinephiles are exhausted. I know I was. I would hate to think that--in a community that boasts such a large Latino demographic--support for HMFF will not increase in the years to come.

HMFF is continuing its national tour, currently screening in Miami at the Tower Theater through May 16, next in Chicago at Landmark's Century Centre Cinemas (May 20-25), then Washington, D.C. at Landmark's E Street Cinemas (May 27-June 1), wrapping up in New York at the Quad Cinema (June 2-June 6). Keep abreast of developments at HMFF's Facebook page.

As Festival Director Samuel Douek states in his introduction to HMFF's souvenir program: "Film has always been an important part of [Mexico's] culture and heritage, but we are now beginning to form a new chapter in Mexico's film history. More than 80 films have been produced this last year in Mexico, the government is giving filmmakers incentives, and numerous private production companies are emerging. Even more exciting, film festivals around the world are continuing to award Mexican films and the new wave of brilliant talent is beginning to emerge. Some would call this the modern day Golden Age of Mexican Cinema."

The proof's in the pudding. No less than a few days before HMFF launched at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema, Alamar--Pedro González-Rubio's sophomore feature--won the New Directors Award at the 53rd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Alamar was just one of the excellent films hand-picked by Douek for his festival.

Australia's strategic concept of touring festivals that spotlight national cinemas and the communities imagined as their respective audiences have been interestingly discussed by Adrian Martin and Dina Iordanova in the recently-published Film Festival Yearbook 2: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities. At her site DinaView, Iordanova has offered up their exchange. How this strategy applies in the United States is just one of the many topics touched upon in my conversation with HMFF Director Samuel Douek.

Samuel Douek is a man who appreciates film, international travel and--above all--his heritage. Combining his three favorite things, Douek founded HMFF in 2006 with the goal of exposing the international community to the creativity, ingenuity and charm of Mexican culture through film. Douek was raised in Mexico City and at age 23 moved to Sydney, Australia where he received a Marketing degree from Mcquarie University in 2002 and a Masters degree in Event Management from UTS. Once in Sydney, Douek began to visit local festivals in the Sydney area and noticed the lack of Mexican influence in cinema. From that point on, he became inspired to create an international Mexican film festival and HMFF was eventually born. Douek's festival brings misunderstood Mexican culture to educate the entire world, one film at a time. His diverse but well-edited selection of 20+ films allows viewers to experience the unique walks of life that characterize Mexican identity and culture. Over the past four years, the festival has extended its reach to the United States, providing an opportunity for American citizens to experience the beauty, creativity and talent in Mexican film. Currently, Douek splits his time between Australia and Mexico, while also taking advantage of travel opportunities that send him across the globe. Inbetween afternoon screenings, we sat down to talk.

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Michael Guillén: Samuel, what motivated you to create a traveling film festival of Mexican cinema?

Samuel Douek: I didn't know I was doing a traveling film festival at the beginning. I was just following the trend in Australia, which was that all these different film festivals were organized to be ready to travel. They would screen in Sydney, then the next week they would be in Melbourne, then Brisbane, then Adelaide, then to Perth. Two or three of these festivals would run in those cities. For example, they would buy the rights for all these Italian films and screen them. Then the Goethe Institut did the same in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane. And then there was a Spanish Film Festival and a French Film Festival and all of them used the same strategy. I decided I wanted to do a Mexican Film Festival using the same idea. My first year (2006) I did it only in Sydney and Melbourne and we did really well so the year afterwards we added Brisbane and Perth. In our fourth year, last year, we went to six cities: Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra and Perth.

During the second year of my festival, I came to the U.S. on holiday. I saw that there wasn't a Mexican Film Festival at all: not in New York, not in L.A., not anywhere! I thought about doing the same festival I was doing in cities in Australia, only here in cities in the U.S. Although it's not the same because in Australia the festival has the same sponsors everywhere. In the U.S. every city has its own sponsors.

Guillén: Who is sponsoring you in San Francisco?

Douek: La Kalle 105.7-100.7 FM, Estéreo Sol 98.9-99.1 FM, and Recuerdo 100.3 FM [all under the aegis of Univision 14], Telefutura, and Associated Trucking, Inc. Mexicana, Dos Equis, Cine Latino and Labodigital are our national sponsors.

Also, in Australia HMFF plays in the same chain of cinemas, whereas in the U.S. I work with Landmark, the independent Quad Cinema in New York, the independent Tower Theater in Miami, and the Arclight Cinema in L.A. So it's different in every city with marketing. The U.S. is much bigger and it's harder to do everything. The news spreads faster in Australia. If there's news in Sydney, it will go everywhere; if there's news in Melourne, as well--it's a 22-million people country--whereas in the U.S., if things are going on in L.A., people in San Francisco won't know. Same with New York. Every city is their own, so marketing is much more difficult than I thought it was going to be at the beginning when I was trying to replicate in the U.S.A. what I was doing in Australia.

Guillén: In Australia, what's your estimate of the Latino population? Are they coming to see your festival? Who comprises your audience?

Douek: It's 70% Australian, 30% Latino. Sometimes there's more, sometimes there's less. Mexico is seen as unique and "exotic" in Australia.

Guillén: Ah, that explains why in your press release you bill HMFF as "Your Escape to Exotic Mexico"?

Douek: In Australia they really enjoy watching Mexican stuff because they don't have that much. HMFF has built a great audience there. It works very well for us.

Guillén: At last year's Toronto International Film Festival I had the opportunity to talk to Diana Sanchez who programs most of their Latino films. After acknowledging that Toronto does not have a sizeable enough Latino demographic to target, she indicated to me that she programs films more with a non-Latino audience in mind, aware that many of these are films that Latinos themselves wouldn't go see because they're more arthouse than genre and don't have enough charge. Do you find that to be true?

Douek: A hundred percent. There are amazing Mexican films that go out into the film festival circuit and win awards all around the world but--when they open in the cinemas in Mexico--Mexicans won't go out to see them. That's due to a lot of things. A film like Silent Light by Carlos Reygadas wins awards everywhere in the world, but then he could hardly sell it in Mexico.

Guillén: He told me he initially had difficulty selling the U.S. distribution rights for $10,000.

Douek: So it's not something that just happens in Mexico. A Romanian film that wins top honors at the Cannes Film Festival doesn't know if they'll go home and make a lot of money. Usually those films--though talented and amazing, breaking through with cinematic achievements--don't translate into financial success, and vice versa. Some films like El Estudiante (The Student, 2009) or Arráncame la vida (Tear This Heart Out, 2008) that make millions of dollars in Mexican box office wouldn't go to any festivals around the world because they don't translate. Film festivals are more about the art part of cinema, whereas the box office is more about the commercial side. In saying that, HMFF is a portrait of Mexican cinema and we bring films like El Estudiante and Amor En Fin (Love On A Wknd, 2009), which are both commercial, but then we also bring films like Vaho (Becloud, 2009) or Norteado (Northless, 2009), which are more artistic. At the end, we're just trying to bring cinema that's well-produced with good sound, good acting.

Guillén: I understand that you scout for most of your films at the Guadalajara Film Festival?

Douek: That's where I've started to try and build the core of my festival for the last few years; but, this last year there weren't many good films there.

Guillén: Do you scout at the Morelia Film Festival?

Douek: I haven't been there because it's very close to the time that I'm in Australia launching the new HMFF. It's too problematic to go for a week to Morelia and then back to Australia. But this year I'm really looking forward to going to Morelia because now I think it's the festival to go to. The bulk of great Mexican films this year--Vaho, Norteado, Alamar and La Mitad Del Mundo (The Half of the World, 2009)--all came from the Morelia Film Festival. From Guadalajara this year, I only have Bala Mordida (Bitten Bullet, 2009) and Oveja Negra (Black Sheep, 2009).

Guillén: Since it narrows down to a matter of personal taste, what is it that you're looking for when you scout for films at these festivals? And how do you go about negotiating and securing these films for HMFF?

Douek: What I'm looking for is, as I said, films that are well-produced, that have something unique, that tell a story, that have something to say--not necessarily about Mexico--but a story. I want to see films that are edited well, that have good sound and lighting, and that have good acting: all in all, well done. Unfortunately, a lot of Mexican films are still being made under bad conditions. It's unbelievable that these badly-made films are being made simply because there's the production money to make them. I also look for variety in my program. I want a film like El Estudiante--which is a charming family-oriented film--and then a film like Alamar, a film festival favorite that has won awards all around the world.

To negotiate for the films, if I know the directors I will contact them. If not, I will contact the producers, the distribution company or IMCINE. By now, any film that's Mexican I have a way to get to.

Guillén: What do you offer your filmmakers? Why should they participate with HMFF?

Douek: We offer them the opportunity to screen their films in other countries. There are a lot of Mexican films that would never come to the U.S. if HMFF didn't bring them.

Guillén: I am personally grateful to HMFF for that.

Douek: Thank you. So that's one thing we offer. We also promote each film individually the best we can. At each city where HMFF plays, we invite the filmmakers to travel with us. [Laughs.] Imagine a huge touring bus with about 20 bunk beds so that the 12 filmmakers could travel with me for one month from city to city. Imagine me driving the bus with all the 35mm cannisters loaded underneath! That would be interesting to do ... once!

Guillén: Speaking of the spectacular dimension of HMFF, I'm aware that Alejandro Gerber Bicecci (Vaho) is the only director attending the San Francisco festival; but, there were several of your directors in attendance in Los Angeles?

Douek: We had a lot of talent, about 15 people. We had an opening night red carpet event for all the Hollywood media and received national coverage from Univision and Telemundo.

Guillén: Will there be talent at the remaining venues on the HMFF tour?

Douek: We always, at least, try to bring the director of the opening night film and one or two more, if possible. The important distinction is that HMFF is a festival but not a festival in the usual sense. In another way, we want to establish ourselves as a week of Mexican films in each city. For one week people can come and know that every time they go to the cinema they're going to see Mexican movies.

Guillén: I mentioned to you that one of the factors I feel is working against you this go-round is the fact that HMFF opened one day after the San Francisco International finished. What determined the timing of HMFF in San Francisco?

Douek: This year, in particular, there is the World Cup coming up on June 11 so we finish up in New York on June 6. Working back from that date, we set up the festival dates by working backwards every week. Unfortunately, San Francisco's dates were very close to the San Francisco International Film Festival. We didn't do that on purpose. Originally we were going to open in L.A., then go to Miami and then San Francisco and on to Washington D.C., but that became a bit of a logistic nightmare. Next year we would love to tour in June.

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Here is is the promotional video for HMFF USA 2010, made by Jason Archer. Archer has worked with Radiohead, Molotov and on such films as A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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