Cine Las Americas turns 20

The international film festival has helped boost diverse movie offerings in Austin for two decades.


The 20th annual Cine Las Americas will have an emphasis on Mexican films.

Before Netflix or high-speed internet, an ambitious team of cinephiles set out to create a way for Austinites to enjoy hard-to-find Latin American films while building community along the way.

Austin has seen plenty of festivals pop up and disappear over the years, but for the past two decades Austinites have counted on the Cine Las Americas International Film Festival to offer thought-provoking and entertaining films with a much-needed Latino perspective.

Cine Las Americas, which turns 20 this year, returns May 3-7 to multiple venues including the Blanton Museum of Art, the Santa Cruz Theater and the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. “We were here before the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and will be here long after,” says festival director Jean Lauer. Although the festival has evolved over the years with the addition of music videos, indigenous film programming and now the screening of a virtual reality film, Lauer says “cross-cultural understanding is still front and center in our mission.”

It was during a pivotal trip to Cuba in 1997 when former Austin resident Lara Coger realized that more Austinites needed to see the poignant stories coming out of the island. After a three-week documentary production workshop in Havana, Coger returned to Austin armed with several films produced by students at Havana’s international film and television school. “Austin had a terrific film community even back then,” Coger says. “But none of the local festivals were catering in any way to Latin American films.”

Cine Las Americas now counts an initial Cuban film retrospective at the Mexic-Arte Museum in 1997 as the beginning of the festival’s history. Coger says a return visit to Cuba later that year for the Havana Film Festival offered more inspiration to launch something unique to Austin.

Related: Cine Las Americas Film Festival boosts attendance, awards top films

She teamed up with event producer and creative director Celeste Quesada to found what was originally called the Cine Las Americas Festival of New Latin American Cinema. The festival, in its first year at the now-defunct Dobie Theatre on Guadalupe Street, went beyond a Cuban film celebration and featured six movies from all over Latin America.

“As a Latina, native Austinite and very much a cinephile, I felt the lack of Latino, as in the media, cultural arts and film,” Quesada says.

In an effort to change things, she remembers knocking on doors of potential festival sponsors such as the Austin Chronicle and leaning on the elders in the community for support. Cine Las Americas also partnered with the Chicano/Latino Film Forum at the University of Texas.

“(The first festival) was so much fun and such a success in our hearts and minds that we went for it again,” Quesada says. After the second annual festival, Coger moved to Miami, and Quesada took the reins as executive director.

Under her leadership, Cine Las Americas eventually became its own nonprofit organization and expanded to include year-round programming focused on youth. At one point, the organization was housed in Johnston High School and known as the Cine Las Americas Media Arts Center.

Quesada moved to New York after the festival’s fifth year, but subsequent directors including longtime former executive director Eugenio del Bosque led the organization through more periods of growth as the city’s Latino community began growing as well.

“It was great to be a part of the birth of Cine Las Americas,” Quesada says. “It’s remarkable for anything in this fast-moving, ever-changing town to last 20 years. It goes to show that there’s been remarkable people behind it through the years, and that the work still needs to be done.”

Related: Cine Las Americas brings diverse voices to big screen

Lauer agrees that the festival’s work remains important and relevant today. At this year’s festival, she says, audiences can expect to see an emphasis on Mexican films in the backdrop of current immigration and border issues.

“There is so much misunderstanding in contemporary discourse that there’s a lot that still needs to be done to address these issues,” Lauer says. Both of the festival’s opening and closing films are from Mexico, and all films are presented in English or with English subtitles.

The opening night film, “Me estás matando Susana (You’re Killing Me Susana),” is a romantic comedy/drama from Mexican director Roberto Sneider and features Gael García Bernal and Veronica Echegui. Closing the festival will be “Sueño en otro idioma (I Dream in Another Language),” a Sundance Audience Award-winner directed by Ernesto Contreras. It tells the story of a young linguist who travels to the Mexican jungle to research a language on the verge of extinction. Festivalgoers can also expect other themes ranging from Venezuela’s economic crisis to issues facing today’s youth. On May 4, the festival will present the Austin premiere of the documentary “Dolores” on the life and work of United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta.

After 20 years in Austin, the festival’s Film Program Associate Elena Bessire says audiences trust the programming. She recognizes people who return annually and attend the year-round screenings as well. “Austin is a special, special place for film watching,” Lauer says. “Austin cultivates that feeling of community.”

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