OC Film Fiesta Celebrates 10 Years While Looking Ahead to 10 More

Jack Black is . . . Nacho Libre! Photo courtesy OC Film Fiesta

Look around all corners of Santa Ana, and you will see signs of a strong DIY spirit, a sensibility that also permeates the film festival that began there 10 years ago and, according to its co-founder, will still be going strong 10 years from now. 

OC Film Fiesta has expanded so much in a decade that its run Oct. 18-Nov. 3 will include screenings not only in its city of origin, but also in Orange, Anaheim and Buena Park. Documentaries, narrative features and short films are coming from moviemakers who range from the newbie to the grizzled, from those based locally to those in points all over the world. 

Seeking to expand the annual Fiestas Patrias street festival a little more than 10 years ago, Santa Ana city officials issued requests for proposals for the addition of a film component. Local community-art advocates Sandra “Pocha” Peña and her husband Victor Payan, who had previously helped to program the San Diego Latino Film Festival and CineFestival in San Antonio, Texas, were among those who submitted. “Since Sandra is from here, we were excited about the opportunity,” Payan recalls. 

The couple were ultimately selected to organize the first event, which was to be free and held in downtown Santa Ana’s Old County Courthouse in conjunction with 2010’s centennial of the Mexican Revolution and the bicentennial of the Mexican War of Independence. “I think we’ve always had an international focus,” Payan says. “One of the first things we did was a Mexican Revolution series of films from Mexico and . . . from all over the world. We started looking at Orange County culture from an international perspective.”

OC Film Fiesta “grew from there,” Payan says, with art galleries and storefront spaces utilized for screenings in the early years. “We’ve always had good relations with filmmakers, and we have been able to show so many great films, so I think the main challenge we’ve experienced was just the cost of venues,” he says. “They are so expensive in Orange County.”

As a free festival, no earned income was rolling in, yet the cost of securing places to screen films ate up at least 60 percent of the yearly budget. After five years as a free event confined to Santa Ana, OC Film Fiesta came under the umbrella of the Media Arts Santa Ana (MASA) nonprofit that Peña and Payan started. Year six is when sponsors and ticketed events were added to the mix. “We were able to write [proposals for] grants,” Payan says. “By then, we had a good, five-year track record of programming. We were able to be pretty successful at that.” 

Sponsorships and ticket sales allowed for the staging of larger cinematic events not only in Santa Ana, but also throughout Orange County, including in mainstream movie theaters. Meanwhile, MASA expanded beyond the yearly festival to also present OC Cinema Camp, the Youth Murals and Media Class, the Millennial Producers Academy, and the Philip K. Dick Multicultural Sci-Fi/Dystopian Short Film Challenge. The latter is affiliated with the New York-based Philip K. Dick Film Festival, which this past spring started its run by showing films in the Big Apple, moved across the country to do the same in Los Angeles, then ended in Santa Ana, where free tours of the late science-fiction novelist’s onetime home were included with the screenings, which were two blocks away. 

One thing Pocha and Payan have strived to do since year one of OC Film Fiesta is to build and nurture cinema culture in Orange County by bringing movie-lovers and budding moviemakers together. “That’s really on Sandra’s radar,” Payan says. “We’ve been trying to encourage independent or short-film makers and other kinds of people in the digital industry—graphics, animation and post-production who are not actually filming, but are part of the filmmaking process. We are trying to reach more filmmakers, younger filmmakers, about our great locations, great stories, great climate—let’s go make a movie. Orange County is perfect for that.”

Another mission is exposing audiences to cinema legends with Santa Ana ties, including silent-film star Bebe Daniels, who was arrested for speeding in Santa Ana in 1921, when her five-day stint in the county lockup turned into a publicity stunt, complete with jailer Theo Lacy Jr. re-creating booking her for news cameras; Omaha, Nebraska-born Marlon Brando, who spent a couple of his childhood years in Santa Ana with his two sisters and mother, who had separated from her husband before they reconciled and the family reunified in the Midwest; and Hollywood pinup Rita Hayworth, whose high life and sad end were reflected in key Santa Ana moments. During the 1930s and ’40s, Hayworth joined Jack Benny, Lucille Ball and Rosalind Russell among the Hollywood stars who would routinely pop into Daniger’s Tea Room, which was on the second floor of the Santora Building. In 1977, while Hayworth was holed up in a posh private suite at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, the staff psychiatrist had requested the Orange County counsel’s office in Santa Ana petition the Superior Court to appoint a temporary conservator of the “person and estate of Margarita Cansino, a.k.a. Rita Hayworth.”

Screenings of movies from Santa Ana-tinged Hollywood stars, which you can see on Turner Classic Movies and many streaming services, take a back seat to lauded new films. “We have had some success getting films other people can’t,” Payan says, mentioning last year’s festival coup: becoming one of the first events outside the Toronto International Film Festival, where Roma had premiered, to screen Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white drama that follows a year in the life of a middle-class Mexico City family in the early 1970s and honors women from the director’s childhood. 

Keep in mind Roma played in Santa Ana two months before it would be shown in select theaters (briefly, for Academy Awards consideration), then on Netflix. The modern masterpiece won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, Best Achievement in Directing (Cuarón) and Best Achievement in Cinematography (Cuarón again). 

So how the hell did little ol’ OC Film Fiesta become one of the first places in the U.S. to publicly show Roma? “Well, it’s a lot of relationships,” Payan says matter-of-factly. “It’s years in this community. . . . When it comes to timing, you have to know what’s out there.”

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Among the films screening at the festival are: The Infiltrators, Meow Wolf, Carlos Almaraz: Playing With Fire, ¡Gaytino!, Be Natural, and Una Última y Nos Vamos. Photos courtesy OC Film Fiesta. Background image by Federico Medina

Even though Payan knows what’s out there, he concedes that bringing much of it to Orange County has grown more difficult. What used to be an eight-month window between the time a film premieres at its first festival and when it is picked up for exclusive distribution in theaters and/or on streaming services is now as short as two weeks. That shrinking window is why, despite Payan’s tireless behind-the-scenes efforts, this year’s OC Film Fiesta was locked out of the musical documentaries Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, which is in theaters now, and Los Tigres del Norte at Folsom Prison, which Netflix dropped on Sept. 15 in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

But near-misses have not dissuaded Payan. “We keep trying to find films by really amazing people you may not have heard of,” he says. “We want to let people know they can come here and have a really great time. People thank us for the amazing work we are able to showcase.”

Admiration for the festival also comes from participating talent, whose sincerest form of flattery is displayed by attending multiple OC Film Fiestas. Actor Pepe Serna appeared at festivals at which three of his film screened: in 2013 with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, in which he plays Team Banzai member Reno Nevada; in 2015 with Man From Reno, in which he was cast as a small Bay Area town’s sheriff; and in 2018 with Flavor of Life, which features him in the leading role of a Latino chef.

Among the returning filmmakers at this year’s festival are Katherine Bowers, whose The Cypress Street Mural Restoration Project played at the 2016 OC Film Fiesta. That documentary short was about her husband, artist Higgy Vasquez, restoring a mural in Orange that was painted by his late father, legendary Chicano painter Emigdio Vasquez, in 1979. Bowers is back with the 13-minute Visions of Chapman: Education, Diversity, and Community, which is also the title of Higgy Vasquez’s creation from the 2017-18 exhibit “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA” that the Getty Museum singled out for recognition. 

Also returning with a new project this year is director Alex Rivera, whose inventive marriage of futuristic sci-fi and immigration issues, Sleep Dealer, rolled during the 2014 OC Film Fiesta. He is back with The Infiltrators, a “hybrid” documentary he co-directed with Cristina Ibarra that won the Audience Award and the NEXT Innovator Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The Infiltrators follows a ragtag group of undocumented youths that deliberately gets corralled by the U.S. Border Patrol so they can infiltrate a shadowy, for-profit detention center.

Activist/performer/television producer Dan Guererro has said a friend’s prodding convinced him to co-produce the feature-length documentary Lalo Guerrero: The Original Chicano, which is about his famous singer/songwriter father and was part of the 2014 OC Film Fiesta lineup. Guererro is back this year with the Orange County premiere of ¡Gaytino!: Made In America, a performance film of his award-winning one-man show. The doc, which was also shown at the Q Films Long Beach festival earlier this month, chronicles his journey from East LA in the 1950s to Broadway in the 1970s. 

Escondido-born actor and director Randy Vasquez credits his third return to OC Film Fiesta to a relationship with Payan that dates back to at least 2002 and the San Diego Latino Film Festival. Vasquez had appeared mostly on television in such shows as Knots Landing, Love Boat: The Next Wave and JAG, but that year, he was making his directing debut with Testimony, a documentary about Salvadoran activist Maria Guardado. Payan championed Testimony’s inclusion in the San Diego fest, and “he was very supportive about it to a very conservative crowd that attended the screening,” Vasquez says. 

Payan went on to program Vasquez’s next documentary, The Thick Dark Fog, for the 2013 OC Film Fiesta. That film chronicled Walter Littlemoon’s attempt to reclaim his Lakota identity, which had been suppressed since he was a child attending a government boarding school. Vasquez was back the following year as an actor in Beto Gomez’s Volando Bajo, a musical dramedy about the reunification of a duo that was hugely successful in Mexican pop music and cinema in the 1980s and ’90s.

The director and co-star of all nine episodes of the dramatic web mini-series Quest that debuted in May, Vasquez had no expectation of returning to OC Film Fiesta this year with his most recent documentary. “I just sent Victor Badger Creek to watch to keep him updated on my work,” the director says, “and he decided to put it in the festival.” Badger Creek explores Native resilience by chronicling a year in the lives of three generations of a Blackfoot family living on the rez in Montana.

“I really like my relationship with Victor and the audience he’s created down there,” Vasquez says.

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Photo courtesy OC Film Fiesta

“What really excites me the most about this 10th-anniversary OC Film Fiesta is the quality and diversity of films we will present,” Payan says. “It’s kind of a perfect storm of what we wanted and what we were able to get.”

Among those he is most tickled to be presenting are “amazing films with a Middle Eastern focus” that come from such countries as Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey. Motion pictures from that region of the world that are screening at this year’s OC Film Fiesta “challenge what our notion is of what these countries are right now based on the message coming from Washington,” Payan says. “We see a more human vision and the day-to-day lives of some of these communities that are far removed from the saber rattling we hear.”

This year’s festival kicks off Oct. 18 at 7:30 p.m. with a free celebration of not only OC Film Fiesta’s 10th anniversary, but also Santa Ana’s 150th birthday. Included is a community screening of Noé Santillán-López’s 2015 Mexican comedy Una última y nos vamos at the Ebell Club of Santa Ana. Produced by and starring Martha Higareda, the heartwarming road-trip picture is about a group of mariachi musicians invited to perform at a prestigious national competition in Mexico City 30 years after their last big outing. The screening will be accompanied by a live performance by a local mariachi band.

The musical festivities continue during the festival run with veteran documentarian Paul Espinosa and Mark Day’s Singing Our Way to Freedom, which is billed as a compelling tour of California’s Chicano experience through the life of legendary San Diego movimiento folk singer and NEA National Heritage Fellow Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez of Los Alacranes.

Another fest highlight is the documentary Meow Wolf: Origin Story, which is about the Santa Fe, New Mexico, artists’ collective that mounts large-scale exhibitions. “The way they have transformed the community is amazing,” Payan says. “We want every artist in Orange County to see it.” They (and everyone else) should also see the new documentary from co-directors Elsa Flores Almaraz and Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya, Carlos Almaraz: Playing With Fire, a cinematic portrait of the legendary Chicano Art Movement painter who receives onscreen praise from Dolores Huerta, Shepard Fairey and a former Rage Against the Machine vocalist sometimes seen knocking around Santa Ana, Zack De La Rocha. (Fun fact courtesy of Payan: Almaraz, who passed away in 1989, and Guererro were best friends.)

The Mexican Consulate is the site for the screening of Jared Hess’ 2006 comedy Nacho Libre, which stars Jack Black as a monk who moonlights as a Mexican wrestler. That showing is paired with a book signing by author and film historian Luis I. Reyes, whose new book, Made In Mexico: Hollywood South of the Border, is about American movies that were made on the other side of the southern U.S. border. Why pair them? Because Reyes argues that lucha libre, the masked-wrestler genre, is uniquely Mexican and that Nacho Libre is the closest American equivalent to more than 50 movies starring masked folk hero El Santo. “When it comes to the Film Fiesta, we have all kinds of conversations with the films we bring in,” Payan says.

The 2019 OC Film Fiesta closes with a free screening of Jorge Gutierrez’s animated Día de los Muertos classic The Book of Life in Buena Park. 

Payan aims to keep ticket prices relatively low. “We understand that if you go to the movies, it’s $11 a ticket and $20 for popcorn,” he says. “We like being a space where you can bring a family [and] friends on budget and see some amazing films and meet great filmmakers.”

Tickets are $10 per program, but it’s half-price for students, teachers, Santa Ana residents and military veterans. Given the array of attractions—besides movies, there are talks, parties and other special events—Payan says, “I would encourage everyone to buy passes; they are very affordable for what you get.” It’s $75 to get into everything, or $125 for two passes.

“We’re excited at the festival we put together this year,” Payan says. “There is something for everyone. If you haven’t come to OC Film Fiesta before, this is a great one to start with.”

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Illustration and design by Federico Medina

So, will OC Film Fiesta make it to a 20th anniversary? 

“Oh, yeah,” Payan answers without hesitation. “We’re growing so much that we have to turn away films, which is unfortunate. We get more submissions every year.”

Next on MASA’s plate is parlaying OC Film Fiesta into a year-round experience, similar to what the Newport Beach Film Festival has done through Orange County Film Society screenings. The nonprofit is also raising money to move into a workspace next year, which would allow for more workshops and production work that will be aimed at under-represented talent. Pocha aims specifically to recruit female filmmakers, according to Payan, who adds, “Multicultural voices, female voices and, obviously, Latin voices are important to this festival.”

OC Film Fiesta runs at Ebell Club of Santa Ana, 718 Mortimer St., Santa Ana; Orange County Museum of Art, 1661 Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana; AMC Orange 30 at the Outlets, 20 City Blvd. W., Orange; The Source OC, 6940 Beach Blvd., Buena Park; and the Consulado de Mexico, 2100 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana. Oct. 18-Nov. 3. Visit masamedia.org and ocfilmfiesta.org for more details.

One Reply to “OC Film Fiesta Celebrates 10 Years While Looking Ahead to 10 More”

  1. An honor to have my documentaries about Higgy Vasquez and his father, Emigdio Vasquez, selected by the OC Film Fiesta. Looking forward to seeing the amazing compilation of unique films for this year’s 10 year anniversary. Congratulations to OC Film Fiesta.

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