Reel Arizona: Arizona International Film Festival celebrates 30 years with a larger focus on border collaboration

click to enlarge Behind the scenes of the Sonoran film El Pozo (The Well), which will screen at the festival’s Cine Sonora event. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SANTIAGO MANRIQUEZ
Photo courtesy of Santiago Manriquez
Behind the scenes of the Sonoran film El Pozo (The Well), which will screen at the festival’s Cine Sonora event.

The Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said, “The artist exists because the world is not perfect.” In turn, the Arizona International Film Festival returns this year with a renewed effort on connection and collaboration, perhaps making the world a bit better through art.

Over its three decades, the Arizona International Film Festival has balanced its focus on films both local and throughout the world. This effort has never been stronger, as it features movies filmed right here in Tucson, as well as from more than a dozen countries. Over the next week and a half, the film festival brings comedy, drama and documentary films to the Old Pueblo, as well as special highlights on cross-border creation.

Participating venues include downtown’s Screening Room and Fox Theatre, the festival grounds at the MSA Annex, The Loft Cinema, Etherton Gallery, the Cactus Carpool Drive-in Cinema, and Main Gate Plaza at University Blvd.

New to the festival this year is “Cine Sonora,” a special showcase of independent films from the Mexican state of Sonora. In addition to film screenings, Cine Sonora will also examine similarities between filmmakers on both sides of the border with a special panel discussion with writers, directors and producers.

“It’s pointing us to a new direction that we’re going to take next year as well, which has more work with Mexico. This is just the start to get people aware,” said festival director Giulio Scalinger.

One film featured in Cine Sonora is El Pozo (The Well). The short film, which takes place in 1920s Mexico during a Civil War, follows a young girl who must recover a bucket from a well. It balances fantasy, drama, and suspense, while maintaining inspiration from classic Tucson films.

“It’s a melting pot of ideas. A lot of the background comes from the stories of my family and my wife’s family, and some of the historical research from the area,” said filmmaker Santiago Manriquez. “Tucson has been a hub for filmmaking, especially during the Western period, and that continues to have inspiration. For example, El Pozo was made with the intention of evoking a Western feel and look. It’s not a pure Western, but it does borrow from the look and the nature of those conflicts.”

Although the film is set nearly 100 years ago, Manriquez says many of its themes reflect the modern day, such as power dynamics — one of the reasons it is set during a Civil War.

“It’s a very interesting period, but also a very violent period. But it’s not often touched in many modern films,” Manriquez said. “I think there’s a lot of correlation to the modern time when it comes to violence, especially violence directed toward unprotected people. Violence tends to trickle down from positions of power and tends to affect unequally.”

The film is screened in Spanish with English subtitles, and the filmmaker will be in attendance.

“Culture doesn’t really have a border. Any kind of cultural connection that gets established acts as a bridge,” Manriquez said. “Because Arizona and Sonora are so closely intertwined, our cultures reflect and impact each other. And I’m not just talking about the economic connection, but also the culture and the people.”

The film festival opens with a special screening of Canyon Del Muerto at downtown’s Fox Theatre. The film tells the story of one of America’s first female archaeologists, Ann Axtell Morris, who worked with the Navajo in the 1920s to uncover information about one of North America’s earliest civilizations, the Anasazi.

Scalinger says this film was selected as the opener due to its focus on culture, and its involvement with Indigenous filmmakers. In fact, the film was produced in the Navajo Nation and even features never-before-filmed locations.

“We have an umbrella that we program under called ‘bridging cultures’ and we feel that cinema can play a role in making people feel and understand each other in a unique way,” Scalinger said. “There’s a lot of education that can come out of it.”

Coerte Voorhees, who directed “Canyon del Muerto,” says he was captivated by an old photograph of Morris’ Model T Ford filled with archaeological equipment making its way through Arizona. From then on, he wanted to tell the story of Morris and her work with the Navajo Nation.

In total, more than 70 filmmakers are expected to attend the festival. While there are multiple Native American and Mexican filmmakers, other submissions come from Ireland, South Korea, Israel, Germany, Argentina and more. The Arizona International Film Festival accepts submissions from October through January before selecting finalists. More than 120 films will be shown this year, marking the largest festival since the pandemic.

“We receive submissions from all over the world, but of course we always try to have a focus on Arizona films. Usually we have at least 10% of the films shown to be from Arizona,” Scalinger said. “For styles, this year is especially a mixed bag. Everyone is doing everything: documentary, narratives, experimental, animation. So I wouldn’t say that Arizona filmmakers only do border films, even though we do have one of those this year.”

The festival includes multiple panel discussions from members of the industry. Topics include “The Trials and Tribulations of Filming in Arizona,” Indigenous voices in filmmaking, insights gained in the production of documentaries, and the process of shooting a film entirely on Mount Lemmon.

This year also includes multiple blocks of short films, from animated shorts to dramatic shorts to Indigenous shorts.

“This year, there’s really a strong contingency of international shorts,” Scalinger said. “And what’s interesting is that in the United States, when a filmmaker makes a short, it’s usually a stepping stone for a feature. But in Europe and other countries, the short film is an artform all its own.”

Other film highlights include:

One Road to Quartzsite. This feature-length documentary film follows the diverse groups who participate in the great Quartzsite, Arizona, RV gathering: snowbirds, retirees, punks, loners, campers and more. According to director Ryan Maxey, “They set up camps, intermingle, and an unlikely community is formed. Some of them bought into the dream and lost everything in the Great Recession. Others dropped out long ago. Now they’re all neighbors on the same piece of dirt.”

Heirloom is a short film about a mother and daughter who set out to discover “why Italian Americans still love to garden.” It’s a story about personal roots, the role of a mother and motherland, and crosses paths with notable Italians.

A Bird Flew In. A production from the United Kingdom, this film examines “what happens when we are freed from external distractions and forced to find a meaning in our loves and lives.” It follows the cast and crew of a fictional film who are sent home at the onset of the pandemic. With no script, audience or actors, they must find a way to restructure the meaning in their lives.

American Wall. Although this is an Austria-produced film, it takes viewers on a journey across America’s Southern border. The documentary captures the lives of people who live and work in the borderlands, as well as those looking to cross by any means necessary. At the same time, multiple groups, including gangs and government agencies, cross through the fray.

Musher. This U.S. production follows four women as they prepare for the Copperdog annual race. It examines the bond that racers have with their sled-dogs. According to directors Anuradha Rana and Laurie Little, “As each musher prepares for the race, we reveal their community, devotion to the lifestyle, and how women influence the sport.”

Inhabitants. This documentary examines five Native American tribes throughout the deserts, coastlines, forests, mountains and prairies. Not only does it examine their daily lives, but also their traditional land management practices that may become increasingly critical in the face of climate change.

“I think there’s a really good diversity of filmmakers and teams, and I hope people appreciate that diversity. I think it’s going to be interesting to see the diversity of Sonoran filmmakers compared to the greater diversity of filmmakers throughout the festival,” Manriquez said. “Because one of the beautiful things about film and filmmaking is that there’s a place in it for everybody, and for different ways of expressing viewpoints and storytelling.”

30th Annual Arizona International Film Festival

Wednesday, April 20 through Saturday, April 30

Multiple screenings and panel discussions across town and online

filmfestivalarizona.com

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