By Dennis Taylor
In the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, when much of the world began to cloister, architects of the Watsonville Film Festival abruptly shelved a year’s worth of relentless planning and called off their March 2020 event.
Forty days later, they began innovating their entire business model to adjust to the circumstances of our strange new world.
“We had to cancel 48 hours before our opening night,” remembered WFF executive director Consuelo Alba, who co-founded the festival a decade ago. “Yes, I cried, because we had worked all year to put together that program. It was a very hard decision.
“But a month and a half later, we began experimenting with the idea of putting our films online, testing multiple different platforms. That’s just how creative and persistent we are.”
A drastically remodeled version of that crowd-pleasing community jamboree will begin with a 10th anniversary celebration beginning March 11, launching a 10-day program featuring 32 Latino-themed films, all at no charge.
All but one will be offered through March 20 via the festival’s virtual theater, an online platform that can be accessed at watsonvillefilmfest.org.
The exception, “Real Women Have Curves,” a 2002 film starring America Ferrera, will be screened before a live audience at Watsonville’s 700-seat Henry J. Mello Center for the Performing Arts at 6 p.m. March 12. That showing is also free and will feature a personal appearance by the film’s screenwriter, Josefina Lopez.
One other in-person film, “Tesoros” (“Treasures”), will be shown outdoors — also free — at 7 p.m. March 13 at Palenke Arts, 1713 Broadway Ave. in Seaside. The movie also can be enjoyed via the Virtual Cinema.
Other highlights of this year’s Virtual Cinema include Oscar-nominated “The Mole Agent,” double-Sundance winner “Identifying Features,” and Mexican Ariel Award nominee “Things We Dare Not Do.”
Determination and passion
The metamorphosis of the festival amid the two-year pandemic is attributable to the dogged determination and passion of a selfless executive director, according to community leaders in Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley.
“I consider Consuelo Alba to be a community treasure,” said Shirley Flores-Munoz, a professor of Women’s Studies and History at Cabrillo College.
“Over the years, she has brought so much education, political awareness, and cultural sensitivity to our community,” said the professor, whose students receive extra credit for attending WFF events. “Consuelo is a person who has built a cultural bridge, weaving all of the disparate parts of Watsonville together under one umbrella. I know very few people who are capable of doing that.”
Truth be told, Alba initially envisioned WFF as a one-year offering when she co-founded the festival in 2012 with her husband, John Speyer, and their friend Jacob Martinez. Martinez is executive director of Digital NEST, a technology workforce development hub for rural youth. The 2012 event featured almost exclusively student-made films that told stories about the local Latino community.
“We realized from the beginning that creating a film festival in Watsonville was a very ambitious idea,” Alba said. “When we started, we couldn’t possibly have imagined that we would still be here today, sharing empowering narratives, celebrating the talent of our filmmakers.
“But when we saw it all on the big screen at the Mello Center — which we sold out — we realized there was something really powerful here.”
Latino film festivals are staged in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, but WFF is the only one of its kind outside of a major California city.
Pre-pandemic, WFF was a three- to four-day celebration, showing films to live audiences at various Watsonville venues. That same format was in place in March 2020, until organizers decided to cancel even before local authorities issued shelter-in-place recommendations.
‘It was heartbreaking’
“The first call I had to make was to the filmmaker who was scheduled to be our special guest that year,” Alba remembered. “She was literally packing her suitcases in Mexico City, ready to fly here. It was heartbreaking, because we had an incredible program lined up that year.”
Six weeks later, the executive director and her all-volunteer team were brainstorming ways to share their program to an even broader audience by streaming the films online, and adding interviews and audience Q&A opportunities with the filmmakers using Zoom, an Internet-based video conferencing platform typically used for meetings, chats, and webinars.
The new Virtual Cinema enabled WFF to offer 16 films from its 2020 lineup, and its entire 2021 program, directly from its website, all year long, always free.
The result, said Alba, has been a 300 percent increase in the festival’s audience, with viewers accessing the movies from as far away as Mexico, Central America and Japan.
That triumph softened the blow of having to cancel WFF’s live events, which often attracted crowds of 2,500 to Watsonville, routinely filling film venues to capacity.
Those in-person crowds provided a significant boost to the local economy.
“The festival definitely has been an economic boom for our community over the years,” said Rebecca Garcia, who served as Watsonville mayor in 2020 and is now in her eighth year as a member of the City Council. “I’m not sure how many visitors are using our hotels, but I can tell you for sure that our restaurant industry has benefited. I’m always approached at the festival by people asking, ‘Where’s a good place to eat?’”
The economic impact of WFF on Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley is only part of the contribution. Even greater value has been gleaned in the form of cultural pride.
“When I lived in Mexico City, we had a very famous theater, Cinteca National, where we could watch the kind of films Consuelo brings in for the Watsonville Film Festival,” said Victoria Bañales, a professor of English at Cabrillo College. “I cannot believe I get to see these kinds of films in Watsonville. They’re very difficult to come by, and we are so privileged that WFF brings them here for us.”
Garcia says access to those films and the festival as a whole has provided a significant lift to Latino pride within the community, which is 86 percent Hispanic.
“I’m a Watsonville native, and I used to go watch (Spanish-language) movies at the State Theater,” she said of her hometown. “That theater no longer exists, and until Watsonville Film Festival came along, there wasn’t a single place in town that offered those movies.”
Through techniques such as subtitles or dubbing, Alba ensures that every film at WFF can be enjoyed by people who speak only Spanish as well as those who only speak English.
“The festival not only is a resource for Latino pride, for cultural diversity, and for our art community,” said Flores-Munoz. “I’m used to watching films like these at universities, but now we get to see them here in Watsonville.”
Young and bold
Locally-produced student films also have been a traditional part of the program, spawning a growing subculture of young filmmakers locally.
“We don’t shy away from thought-provoking films — we want films that show the complexity and richness of the Latino community. We want to have those conversations,” Alba said.
“We’ve received a lot of love for what we do,” she said. “We all feel very proud when people tell us how they were touched by the films we’ve offered through the years, and how their kids and grandkids were touched. A lot of those kids come out of the theater saying, ‘I want to be a filmmaker!’”
One of the WFF’s original youth filmmakers, UCLA alumnus Gabriel Medina, is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Film Production at the University of Southern California. Medina is part of WFF’s production and administration team, and is senior manager at Digital NEST, working with young adults on film production in the Watsonville area.
“A lot of what Gabe has accomplished is thanks to the support and encouragement he’s received over the years from Consuelo,” Garcia said. “And now there are a whole bunch of young people at Digital NEST who are going in the same direction.”
“What Consuelo really needs is a permanent home for the festival — a physical building where she can do these things 365 days a year, rather than always having to rent her venues from the city, or Cabrillo, or wherever. If I could wave a magic wand, that’s what I’d give her,” Flores-Munoz said.
“I worry that we could lose her someday … that the festival could move somewhere like San José. That would be so sad,” she said. “This isn’t just a film festival – it sustains joy, culture, and spirit for our community. It’s a life source for Watsonville.”
Additional information about the festival, including the 10-day schedule of online films, can be found at watsonvillefilmfest.org.
Featured image: The Watsonville Film Festival began 10 years ago to showcase student films. A crew of young filmmakers is pictured here during the 2014 festival | Credit: WFF
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