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It’s been awhile since I last stocked this Culture Bodega and the reason for that is quite simple: I was hired as the Media Relations Coordinator for the 28th Chicago Latino Film Festival, a (fun) freelance gig that kept me really busy these past two months. It was the second film festival I’ve worked for in less than a year after my stint as Publications Manager for the 47th Chicago International Film Festival, where I was responsible for putting together their schedule and program books among a myriad other writing-related duties.

I have attended both festivals as a member of the paying public and later covered them in my capacity as arts and entertainment reporter for ¡Exito! and Hoy; but now, after working from the inside, I have a deeper appreciation not only of the hard work that goes into producing both events but of their unique roles in the promotion of independent and foreign language, and most specifically Latin American, cinema in this country. Especially at a time when the number of movie theaters abandoning 35mm projection in favor of digital projection is on the rise and the number of theaters dedicated to this type of adventurous cinema continues its regrettable decline. I strongly believe that, when it comes to Iberoamerican cinema, both festivals complement each other.

The Chicago Latino Film Festival offers film aficionados a comprehensive, inclusive overview at the current state of filmmaking in Latin America, Spain, Portugal and even the United States. It showcases different styles, approaches and languages, embracing both box-office successes in those countries and more daringly experimental work. And regardless of Time Out Chicago’s recent snub (“It’s a bit of crapshoot, as most of the selections are from filmmakers without international reps”), the 28th Chicago Latino Film Festival this year featured the work of such festival circuit darlings as Argentina’s Eliseo Subiela (whose work has been shown in the past at both the Chicago Latino Film Festival AND the Chicago International Film Festival), Mexico’s María Novaro and Spain’s Ventura Pons (the subject this year of a conference at the University of Colorado-Denver and the only filmmaker whose films have been chosen to compete five years in a row at the Berlinale) and Montxo Armendariz alongside the work of first-time filmmakers.

The Chicago International Film Festival’s “Cinema of the Americas” program is far more selective. It’s more about context. Some of its selections cross over into the Festival’s other programs such as their “Main Competition” and “After Dark.” By showcasing these films next to films from Africa, Europe, Asia and North America, the Chicago International Film Festival shows how World Cinema has influenced Latin American Cinema and vice versa. It reveals a continuing dialogue between styles, genres, and even ideas that enriches the moviegoing experience for those willing to take the plunge. Most importantly, the “Cinema of the Americas” program gives local Latino audiences an entryway into world cinema that they would not otherwise have.

Working for both festivals, I felt like a kid in the proverbial candy shop. Not only did I get to write and edit in a variety of formats –analytical essays, press releases, scripts, etc.– but also got to watch as many movies as time would allow. Granted, given that both festivals this past year programmed more than 140 films each, there was no way in heaven that I could watch them all. But I saw enough to know that the art of the moving image is alive and well, even with all the changes taking place in the world of filmmaking. On the down side, most of the films I saw will never, ever receive mass distribution in the United States, outside of their eventually being released in DVD or, maybe, through video-on-demand.

And that’s another thing the Iberoamerican selection in both festivals have in common: about 90% of them will never be screened again in this country after their brief festival runs. Fortunately, both festivals have year-round programs that give these films another chance to find an audience: the Chicago Latino Film Festivals’ Film in the Park and Reel Club series and the Chicago International Film Festival’s International Screenings Program.

I am most certainly curious as to what films the 48th Chicago International Film Festival will book this year. I will write about them when the time comes. But for now, I want to share with you my top five picks from the recently concluded 28th Chicago Latino Film Festival (some of the clips following my selections are without English subtitles):

1. “Un cuento chino” (Argentina, directed by Sebastián Borenzstein): a wonderful, heartbreaking comedy about language barriers, solitude and flying cows starring the great Argentinean actor Ricardo Darín. If you live in Chicago, you will have another chance to see “Un cuento chino” when it screens June 1st-7th at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., and on Wednesday, September 26 at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday, September 29 at 2 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., as part of the Chicago International Film Festival’s International Screenings Program.

2. “Lobos de Arga” (Spain, directed by Juan Martínez Moreno): Galicia’s answer to “Shaun of the Dead”…but with werewolves. This riotous old school horror comedy deserves to be a cult classic.

3. “23-F” (Spain, directed by Chema de la Peña): Gripping thriller about the failed 1981 failed coup d’etat orchestrated by forces loyal to Spain’s ruthless dictator Francisco Franco.

4. “Martí: The Eye of the Canary” (Cuba, directed by Fernando Pérez): From the director of “Suite Habana” comes this straightforward and dramatically compelling portrait of Cuban patriot José Martí as a young man.

5. “Under My Nails” (Puerto Rico, directed by Ari Maniel Cruz): No film proved as divisive and controversial during the 28th Chicago Latino Film Festival as Cruz’s psychosexual thriller about a woman who feels a rather sick attraction to the couple next door, an attraction that grows as soon as the Haitian wife disappears.

Finally, as far as this blog is concerned, I hope to post on a more frequent basis and on a wide variety of themes. Stay tuned.

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