Diversity Key to L.A. Film Festival

The Los Angeles Film Festival showcases an eclectic mix of documentaries and narratives — diverse fare for film lovers, but works that need some "buzz" to really break out to a larger audience. Inspired by the festival's host city, filmmakers of color are sharing their stories, and the limelight.

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The Los Angeles Film Festival isn't where you'll find summer blockbusters. But it is where you'll find an eclectic mix of documentaries and narratives. One of the underlying themes of this year's festival is diversity. NPR's Tarice Sims reports.

(Soundbite of "Up River")

Group of Boys: (Singing) ...you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why, Santa's too scared to come to Compton.

TARICE SIMS reporting:

In the film "Up River," it's Christmastime and an 11-year-old boy from Compton is traveling up the Los Angeles River with his friends to return a stolen gift.

(Soundbite of "Up River")

Unidentified Boy #1: My grandfather used to fish up this river.

Unidentified Boy #2: Yeah, right.

Unidentified Boy #1: I seen the pictures. But it got flooded and the city got scared. Threw down all this cement.

Unidentified Boy #2: You think people drink that?

Unidentified Boy #3: Don't drink that one. That smells.

Unidentified Boy #2: No, that's me.

Unidentified Boy #3: Gross.

SIMS: "Up River's" co-writer, Antonio Macia, successfully screened another film at a previous Los Angeles Film Festival. That helped him put "Up River" on the festival's so-called `fast track' this year. It's designed to give films extra access to industry insiders. Macia says that's just one way the film's helped him make movies about people and situations he can relate to.

Mr. ANTONIO MACIA (Co-Writer, "Up River"): I remember at a very young age being influenced by, you know, some mainstream movies like "Juice," which was a movie about, you know, deejays and underground music, but that's something I was into. And I remember first time seeing kids talk like me, you know, kids that had their pants sagging and, you know, worrying about the Timberlands that they were wearing. And that was the first time that I saw myself on screen.

SIMS: Two big roles in "Up River" are filled by the city of Compton and the Los Angeles River. Co-writer and director Scott Hamilton Kennedy says he hopes that won't stop the story from resonating with audiences across the country.

Mr. SCOTT HAMILTON KENNEDY (Co-Writer, Director, "Up River"): A river adventure is--it can be seen as a great American story, and a lot of times cities like Compton and inner-city stories are sometimes not seen as being great American stories, and, of course, they are. There isn't anything more American to me than people struggling in a difficult situation trying to prove themselves and do the best by themselves and their family.

SIMS: Rachel Rosen programs the Los Angeles Film Festival and is trying hard to showcase stories that speak to diverse audiences. Rosen says she also wants to increase diversity in the industry as a whole.

Ms. RACHEL ROSEN (Programs the Los Angeles Film Festival): And I think the festival's a really great tool to promote that. Meaning, it's a really great way for us to show that there's great work out there, but also to show that there are audiences for great work out there.

SIMS: Another film that could benefit from the exposure the festival offers is "Maid in America." The documentary chronicles the lives of domestic workers in Los Angeles. A Latina nanny, Thelma, is one of the film's subjects.

(Soundbite of "Maid in America")

THELMA: (Through Translator) Want to know something? All of my employers have been black. I never work for any other people. Never, ever. And they were all good people.

SIMS: Thelma's employer, Mr. Mayberry, explains where his understanding of domestic work comes from.

(Soundbite of "Maid in America")

Mr. MAYBERRY: As a black family, having come from where we've come from--I'm from the South. And I know that my folks, my "people," did a lot of domestic work and that they were the previous domestic workers.

Ms. ANAYANSI PRADO (Director, "Maid in America"): The first women who did this work were African-American women.

SIMS: Anayansi Prado directed "Maid in America."

Ms. PRADO: Eventually, as time went by, in the '70s, they started being replaced by Latina immigrant and undocumented Latina domestic workers. Actually, 70 percent of the domestic workers in LA today are from Latin America, and I think it's a very interesting dynamic.

SIMS: Prado hopes to invoke empathy for all workers through her film.

Ms. PRADO: Not just domestic workers, but the guys who clean your yard, that are working in the back of restaurants, and the people really start to think that these are human beings with families, with children, just like yours.

SIMS: Scott Foundas is with the LA Weekly, the city's leading alternative paper. He says despite the broad reach of the festival, it's still hard to get the entire Los Angeles film community involved.

Mr. SCOTT FOUNDAS (LA Weekly): You have a multitude of film festivals from various ethnic film festivals to the AFI Fest and they've sort of all been vying with each other, jockeying for position, all these years, and not really wanting to work together to try to create any kind of unity.

SIMS: So the Los Angeles Film Festival is trying different ways to bring folks together: last year, it partnered with the Hollywood Black Film Festival, and corporate sponsors, like Target and LA Weekly, are on board this year to help with funding and creating a much-needed buzz. Also this year the festival's working with the Black Hollywood Education & Resource Center, which is sponsoring some films in the festival's Cinema Soul category. The LA Film Festival continues through this Sunday. Tarice Sims, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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