Philadelphia — Identifying as Latinx in a big city is an isolating experience; while the majority of the city fights to fit you into one box, the communities that already exist want so desperately to make themselves known and struggle to appreciate different Hispanic cultures in the process. Cultural comfortability whittles down to unfortunate priorities and self-questioning: if I speak English in this environment, are they going to think I’m whitewashed? Do I have to pretend to be heterosexual so I can be my most authentic self? If I was born in the States, am I even a valid member of the community?
This summer, I discovered the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival (PHLAFF), a diverse organization I wish I found sooner that emulates the essence of found family and encourages the display of creative ambitious work from dozens of emerging Latinx filmmakers — many of which are still college students.
The Philadelphia Latino Film Festival is the only festival in Philadelphia that spotlights Latinx film creatives. Since its creation in 2012, it has evolved into an international showcasing that reaches a diverse audience of varying ages, cultures and languages. Its use of film as a bridge of cross-cultural conversation creates a platform that withstands language or age barriers, encouraging the appreciation of all genres for all viewers. This summer, PHLAFF celebrates its 12th film festival with six weeks of hybrid programming split into two blocks of virtual programming and three days of in-person events a week. With over 200 films in representation of 25 countries, PHLAFF emphasizes the importance of found family and found culture through artistic experience.
This week, PHLAFF enters its third segment of showings with a multitude of shorts varying in genre. Each film slips elegantly into the other, curated with the same precision and flow of a DJ set. Marángeli Mejía-Rabell, the Festival Director and Chief Curator, describes her block curations as a diverse and purposeful collection of films, whether it be a student film or a film that’s been previously submitted for consideration for an Academy Award.
“If they go together, they fall into one block,” she said. “It isn’t random or sectioned by country. It’s a journey that can be crushing at times, heartbreaking at times, scary at times. It’s a flowing thread that overall fights erasure and gives a voice to those who have been silenced. It’s a thread that makes you feel something when you’re done with it.”
In its first two weeks, the festival premiered films so evocative and timeless, I spent the majority of showings wiping my tears. On its third in-person day, a 40-minute film titled “La Comuna” debuted. Written and directed by 23-year-old filmmaker Linda Maymí-Rivas, the short film depicts a group of circus performers who are forced to leave their headquarters after years of making art for the community. A year after their last performance, when the building has been officially sold to new tenants, they gather to pick up the remaining pieces of their home and discuss what the future holds in store for each of them. Following the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the pandemic, the Puerto Rican creatives need to figure out their new narrative and push past their struggles — an unfortunate but evermore common theme on the island.
Maymí-Rivas and the film’s 25-year-old producer, Adrián Borges, founded their own media collective Monovisión during the pandemic which allowed them to collaborate with other filmmakers and build a family of creatives they now call home. On an island where artists aren’t just the writers but the promoters, the casting directors and the on-screen talent, the duo handles their many responsibilities with grace. Though it’s difficult to even discuss their futures without acknowledging how the struggling political and socio-economic climate in Puerto Rico has impacted them, they talk about their goals with pride. Borges said, “We want to be represented as real puertorriqueños. We want to make a voice for both the people in Puerto Rico and people everywhere else in the world.”
Borges and Maymí-Rivas created a one-day film festival to raise money for the production of “La Comuna” and successfully made $4,000 — allowing it to be their most ambitious and bright project yet. With only three days to rehearse, they learned to depend on their friends and colleagues, forging a family in their story and a family behind the scenes. To Maymí-Rivas, their network was a growing process that allowed them to reflect on the trials and tribulations of building an artistic family. The perspective of navigating connections that imitated home while trying to emulate the exact same experience on screen strengthened their abilities in storytelling and in self-perseverance.
For young creatives, organizations like PHLAFF allow them to navigate their creative journeys with a helping hand and unlimited support. Communities that embrace diversity and encourage artistic freedom without judgment are the backbone for artists to not only take their work seriously but to have an extended family that does the same. For Festival Director Mejía-Rabell, “familia is at the core of our values. If we’re the Latino Film Festival, then we are going to be Latino about it and that means we’re going to be hospitalario and engage with every single person, both creatives and audiences.”
The Philadelphia Latino Film Festival runs through July 9.
Rosie Marie Hendricks (they/them) is from New York City, but is a Philly-based journalist who covers entertainment and culture. You can find them on Instagram @rosiehndrcks and on LinkedIn @rosiehendricks.
Edited by Nykeya Woods