A new lens on the American experience
The university’s film program equips the next wave of Latino filmmakers with the tools to share their world views
April 4, 2011
As a kid growing up in San Antonio, Miguel Alvarez adored comic books. His favorites included the film noir-style comic books and graphic novels by Frank Miller, Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta,” and the seminal underground cult comic book series “Love and Rockets” by Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez. These books ignited in him a passion for visual storytelling, and he dreamed of one day producing his own comic series. Because he didn’t live in New York or Los Angeles, however, he felt a career in visual story telling was beyond his reach.
Years later when deciding what line of study to pursue as an undergraduate at The University of Texas at Austin, he took the practical, sensible route and earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Despite a well-paying career designing natural gas pipelines for the energy industry, Alvarez’s passion for visual storytelling gnawed at him.
After a couple of evening courses in filmmaking, stints on a handful of film productions and some soul-searching, Alvarez applied to the Radio-TV-Film Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program and earned his MFA degree in 2009. His films, which are character dramas that delve into human nature, are in English with a Spanish word dropped in every now and then. He has won numerous filmmaking awards and his films have appeared in festivals around the country. He is teaching undergraduate courses in the Radio-Television-Film Department while he develops the script for his first feature film “Atlantic City.”
Alvarez — and many of the students he teaches — are considered by some to be the next wave of filmmakers to share their worldview and shape our view of the American experience through filmmaking.
About 25 percent of the graduate and undergraduate students enrolled in the film program at The University of Texas at Austin are Hispanic. Most hail from Texas, but many come from California and Florida, and Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.
Documentary filmmaker Paul Stekler, chairman of the Department of Radio-TV-Film, says this statistic can be attributed, in part, to the fact that the film program at The University of Texas at Austin is the most affordable top-five program in the country.
“Unlike film schools in New York and California, you don’t need to be rich to attend film school here,” said Stekler. “We’re a top-ranked film program with real economic diversity—and therefore racial diversity—among our students, many of whom are first-generation college students.”
Many of these aspiring filmmakers come to the university with an idea for the stories they want to convey on film. The film school faculty’s job is to educate students in the craft of storytelling — whether it’s a 90-minute narrative, a documentary, or a 30-second Web-based film — along with the technical aspects of filmmaking.
While many of the students’ stories convey life in South Texas along the border, some stories involve age-old tales of love, triumph, struggles and adventure made new again with a fresh perspective. Some of that perspective comes in the form of Latino actors and a mixture of Spanish and English dialogue. Still other stories have no discernable Latino theme at all.
“Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Spy Kids’ series is not a Latino film, but the family is Latino and it portrays the uncle as a main character,” said Radio-TV-Film Professor Charles Ramirez-Berg, a Latino film historian who taught Rodriguez as an undergraduate film student at the university. “The ‘uncle’ character was new to Hollywood, but if you grew up in a Latino household, chances are you had an uncle just like the one in the movie.”
This emerging wave of Latino filmmakers should come as no surprise, according to Ramirez-Berg. The film industry was awash in an Irish American wave in the Hollywood golden era with the likes of John Ford, Grace Kelly, Gene Kelly and John Wayne. Later, audiences saw the world through an Italian American lens, thanks to filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. More recently, African American director, writer, producer Spike Lee helped audiences understand the American experience from yet another perspective.
As America’s demographics continue to change and areas such as Texas become minority-majority states the film and entertainment industries will need to evolve to reflect their audiences.
“As a film historian I think it’s wonderful to see this cinematic evolution,” Ramirez-Berg continues. “These new perspectives are one of the ways American film reinvents itself. If you think back on it, this evolution is where films like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Godfather,” “Raging Bull” and “Do the Right Thing” came from. This is America and this is who we are.”
Alvarez hesitates to say he makes “Latino” films.
“People tend to think because there’s a Spanish word in the title or there’s a Latino in the film that I make ‘Latino’ films,” he said. “While my films generally feature Latino actors, the stories I write are universal.”
For example, his 2007 film “Kid” is a coming-of-age story revolving around a 13-year-old boy and his estranged father. His follow-up film “Mnemosyne Rising,” which features an African American as the lead character, tells the story of a solitary deep-space pilot who experiences unusual flashbacks upon learning he’s being sent back to Earth.
“The program is supportive in allowing you to find your own voice and help you work out how you want to tell stories on film,” Alvarez said. “It’s (the MFA program) hands-off in the sense that there’s no faculty council trying to steer you in a direction they think you should go.
“It’s not about being a director or cinematographer — it’s about telling stories,” said Alvarez. “I wanted to figure out how to visually tell the stories in my head.”
Other stories that have come out of the film program include Maru Buendia-Senties‘ “Entre Lineas,” a story about two friends that live on different sides of U.S.-Mexico border; Sergio Carvajal‘s “Quinceanera,” which explores this rite of passage for 15-year-old girls; cinematographer E.J. Enriquez‘s work on the period piece “The Pond,” a story about a young girl living among the ruins of the Dust Bowl; Ivete Lucas’ “La Lupita” about a Mexican teen falling in love in America; and David Fabelo‘s “Test Day,” which depicts a young boy of mixed heritage encountering multiple options for his identity.
According to Stekler, the civil rights movement gained traction as African Americans, such as Sydney Poitier, and television series, such as “The Cosby Show,” became more common in film and television.
“In the past, Latino filmmakers have been invisible to the wider American community,” said Stekler. “As more Latino filmmakers enter the industry behind the camera as writers, directors, cinematographers and producers, we’ll see more Latinos in front of the camera, too. I think our Radio-TV-Film students will be a big part of that coming wave.”
Whether it’s the next Ford, Scorsese, Rodriguez or Alvarez, Radio-TV-Film faculty strive to give students the support, facilities, instruction and feedback they need in an environment where they can explore, experiment and find their voice.
“The department is full of good filmmakers who are also passionate teachers,” said Ramirez-Berg. “Filmmaking is an honorable calling, and I hate to think that in Van Horn, El Paso or elsewhere there’s an undiscovered Spielberg, Scorsese or Rodriquez that’s intimidated by the thought of coming to film school or thinks their circumstances make it impossible. I want them to find us and get their hands on the equipment so we can help them tell the stories they want to tell.”
For more information, contact: Erin Geisler, KUT Radio, College of Communication, (512) 475-8071.