latino film festival

by jon bosworth
“Jacksonville lacks alternative cinema,” Jesse Rodriguez, Director of the Jacksonville Film Events Office, tells me from in front of one of the venues of the Chicago International Film Festival between screening films.
Chicago is Rodriguez’ hometown and the Chicago International Film Festival was his passion for many of his formative years. This year, it’s 44th year, it is the oldest competitive film festival in the US. It is also the first year of implementing the concept of a “Festival Village,” a concept Rodriguez brought the Jacksonville International Film Festival back in February of this year when he accepted the job of Director.
When he saw how spread out Jacksonville was, he immediately felt people needed the opportunity to park, get out of their cars, and enjoy a night on the town. So he arranged the majority of the venues to be located in central Downtown. But one week wasn’t enough. He and the Jacksonville Film Events office’s only other employee, Christopher Ackerman, wanted to bring that experience to Jacksonville all year. And so was born the idea of a cinematheque in Downtown Jacksonville.
“This will be someplace where people can make one stop to have dinner, see a film, have cocktails and go dancing, all within step of each other. And it’s a spectacular space with a full river view.”
The space he is referring to is the new venue in the Jacksonville Landing that the inaugural year of the Viva Cinema Latino Film Festival will officially unveil on November 15th. A small, multi-screen digital movie theater that accommodates about 80 people.
“We are trying very hard to have a theater downtown. This is something we feel very strongly about. We shared this idea with Tony Sleiman (owner of the Landing) and he was very excited about it.”
After some consternation and deliberation, they arrived at what was formerly called The Blue Room above the old Southend Brewery. The cinematheque will be a digital theatre and lounge, where visitors could have cocktails before, after and during the film.
“Our goal is to use the Latino Film Festival as a test and see if we could make it a year-round venue for alternative cinema.”
Rodriguez has already been in touch with Miramax, Weinstein Films and Film Movement about hosting exclusive premieres in the new venue and all have shown interest.
Rodriguez had been involved with the Jacksonville Film Fest since its beginning, selecting and acquiring the films for the Viva Cinema programs of the annual Jacksonville Film Fest. That limited program only allowed him to show a few films, but he was screening many high quality Latin films that he wasn’t able to show. He simultaneously noticed growing support for the Latin film selections, as well as the growing number of Latinos in Northeast Florida.
So back in February, when he accepted the position of Director, he set to programming a festival that served a wider audience than previous festivals had. He found that the patrons of the film festival were passionate about their love of film, hungry for more of it, and loyal to the festival if it was willing to deliver. Suddenly Rodriguez feels he can’t deliver the films fast enough. While in Chicago he is looking for films for the Jacksonville Film Fest in May of next year as well as for the MOCA Film Series and even next year’s Viva Cinema.
Chicago is also his home, so he is trying to squeeze in some family time between planning the Viva Cinema Latino Film Festival in Jacksonville and is screening films most of every afternoon and evening.
Viva Cinema is happening from November 14th through 16th. On opening night there will be a cocktail reception and then the first film will be presented in the auditorium at the Main Branch Library. On Saturday Because of Winn Dixie with Spanish subtitles will play as part of the Books Alive partnership. The remaining films will screen at the cinematheque in the Landing.
Rodriguez is especially excited about The Mud Boy. A film from Argentina, this dark period piece is based on a true story. Dance of My Heart is another film he highly recommends. The true story of one of the co-founders of the Cuban National Ballet, the subject of Dance, lived his last years in Gainesville teaching ballet at Sante Fe Community College. He choreographed some of the most famous ballets in the world.
Filmgoers should also look out for the directorial debut of Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal. These rising Latin stars (see Y Tu Mama Tambien) have formed their own film company in Mexico and will be showcasing their directorial debut at the Viva Cinema Latino Film Festival.
“We’re really excited Winn Dixie has come on board as a presenting sponsor. Their commitment and understanding that this is important is what is making this possible.”
Winn-Dixie is the presenting sponsor of Viva Cinema, Regions Bank and Sleiman Enterprises are also important sponsors of the first festival outside the annual JFF in May. Jacksonville Film Festival board members, Susan Duss and Susan Schantz, have also been instrumental supporters of the Viva Cinema Latin Film Festival. Unlike the May festival, the programming of Viva Latino is strictly Latin films, but they don’t want to stop there.
“I hope to also bring a gay and lesbian film festival as well as a black film festival.”
These are certainly some underserved communities in the old South, but Rodriguez says he sees the evidence that Jacksonville is ready for these evolutions.
“From what I’ve seen in my time in Jacksonville, it is certainly a reflection of any metropolitan city, there just aren’t as many people. Bigger cities have more venues showcasing a variety of films, but the people in town that do like alternative film are hungry and they’re loyal. Movies are for everybody and we feel it is a function of the Jacksonville Film Events office to bring films that are foreign, controversial or even offensive to some. We have to provide film for everyone.”
The Viva Cinema Jacksonville Latino Film Fest is starting small, but has big dreams. Every night of the festival you can also expect entertainment at the Landing. From ballet to Brazilian dancing to opera, the nights will showcase a wide spectrum of Latino talent right here in Jacksonville, while showcasing Latin films that are already making waves in the film world.
“We expect a lot of students and a wide spectrum of people. It’s about breaking stereotypes.”
While Rodriguez and Ackerman hack away at turning downtown Jacksonville into a cosmopolitan utopia, you can take advantage of their efforts by attending Viva Cinema and seeing if foreign films in a cinematheque is your thing. While many are partial to a Hollywood big-budget film at the megaplex, in a city of more than a million, there is no doubt that many are under-served. So alternative cinema may be exactly what Jacksonville needs to cultivate its film community and breath life back into our cultural scene.
“These happen to be Latin films, but they are films that anyone would enjoy.”


april, 2022