Film for Thought

April 3, 2009

According to an informal survey, everyone came for the tamales. Once they were there, I don’t think anyone was disappointed.

Alex Rivera, a young Latino filmmaker originally from New York City, was brought to Madison as part of the Nelson Institute’s Tales from Planet Earth II film festival outreach. The Wisconsin Humanities Council is supporting these efforts to build community events around provocative and thoughtful films. The idea is that many filmmakers recognize the power of their medium but want to learn from the people for whom their stories, and messages, resonate most in order to make even more powerful films. And that at the same time, without deliberately reaching out to those people, films too often simply entertain audiences and are then forgotten, loosing the potential they hold to incite thoughtful conversation, deep reflection, and potentially real social change.

Photo of filmmaker Alex Rivera from

Photo of filmmaker Alex Rivera from

When I drove up to Centro Hispano last week, a full-service community center located on the south side of Madison, the parking lot was full. People were flowing steadily through the front door. Inside, a band played background to the buzz about the tamales, which were steaming hot, made just for the event and provided by Taqueria Guanajuato. The large reception area was made even more festive by a colorful new mural of a sun-drenched scene.

After a bit of mingling, everyone squeezed themselves into a smaller room where Rivera’s film, The Sixth Section, was screened. It’s a short documentary about a group of men living and working in New York who come from the same hometown in Mexico. Their “Grupo Union” is one of at least a thousand “hometown associations” that contribute significantly to the infrastructure of their Mexican communities with their American-earned money. The film uses this particular case study, showing the town’s mayor visiting the men in New York after they’ve funded a new baseball stadium, to boldly illustrate the economic and political connections that are rarely discussed. After the film ended, hands shot up around the room and Rivera participated openly in a conversation that explored some of the heavy questions raised by his film.

It was a great discussion that could have gone on all night, perhaps, and taken various interesting turns. Rivera was generous and honest and delightful, making me very excited to see his full-length feature, The Sleep Dealer, at the Tales from Planet Earth II festival (November 6-9).

I was also reminded of how much I enjoy a good film; one that makes me want to talk about it, one that keeps me thinking, and one that opens more questions than it answers. This weekend, as the Wisconsin Film Festival rages in Madison, I look forward to some heartfelt discussions inspired by the almost-too-rich selection of films out there. I’m not above choosing based on which post-film conversation is likely to be most interesting! Or, for that matter, where the best snacks are to be found.

by Jessica Becker