reading and writing the poetry and stories of our people and places

Monday, April 19, 2010

Irene Nexica's Interview with Peter Bratt, director of LA MISSION

From Oakland Local blog (with way more words than I expected from me at the end):

Peter Bratt, his actor brother Benjamin Bratt (Law & Order, Traffic), and a whole film promotion crew have their days cut out for them at least for the next month as their new film, La Mission opens for a small run across the country. The moment of truth is here.

Peter Bratt spells it out: “The state of independent filmmaking in general is dire. When the economy crashed, a lot of the studios cut their independent labels. Theatre owners don’t want to exhibit independent films like they used to – they’d rather show big releases on five screens. It’s getting harder and harder to find venues. It’s an even tougher scenario for minority independent films.”

Lately, the brothers have been attending question-and-answer sessions with audiences, asking people to use word-of-mouth to boost attendance the first week. Despite a strong California following, screenings at three Los Angeles’ Laemmle Theatres already risk cancellation.

Given the huge Latino population across the country and strong endorsements from people who’ve seen and heard about the film, how has it come to be in jeopardy?

Much of the issue is getting the word out, Peter Bratt explains. “We don’t have an advertising budget. We have a viral, word-of-mouth campaign, and so our work is double time. We’re encouraging people to come out and support independent film, and help La Mission stick around.”

Bratt’s film is aptly titled after a barrio, rather than a character, because it’s grounded in a social context that affects characters who come together in the city. Bratt has a long history and connection with San Francisco. Growing up, it was the site of his first job, first kiss, first dance and first political rally. Originally from South America, his mother was an activist in the Native American rights movement and, as a single mom, brought the five kids along.

It was in the context of political solidarity among communities of color that Bratt encountered social engagement linked with art: “The art, the music, the politics merged into each other and that’s still the case today.” Bratt continues this legacy, saying, “I wanna be a filmmaker and tell stories because I love movies and I love collaborating with all the different people that you meet in the film world. I’m also a product of the culture and when I look at what’s happening with my people I’m concerned and there’s this urgency to act.”

In choosing to chronicle the neighborhood through characters, Bratt chose a childhood hero as the inspiration for Che, the film’s central character, fully aware that the working class, ex-con, lowriding patriarch was an archetype that filmgoers may feel they already know well.

His challenge was to turn that portrayal on its head, veering into emotional territory where Che may actually be the weakest community link. Bratt calls the plot “a coming-of-age story, not of Che’s son [who Che discovers is gay, to explosive effect], but of the middle-aged man who is moving past the heroic state. He’s putting old attitudes in question and who knows how it will turn out?”

And just like the Mission is more than burritos, characters like the extended Rivera clan (of which Che is one member) and their neighbors form a living history with many levels. Those strata are largely untouched by mainstream portrayals, Bratt says. “In the mainstream, lowriders are associated with thugs and gangbangers. Many people don’t know that the actual lowrider car arose out of the Mexican American experience and in many ways was a political statement when it was created.”

As a counterpoint to the post-WWII consumer culture where those enjoying prosperity bought new cars off the production line and raced them as a sign of power, Bratt says, “Young Chicanos went to the junkyard, took cars that the mainstream was throwing away, dropped ‘em low, painted these incredible murals in vibrant colors to reflect their cultura, and drove ‘em as slow as they could. That was a political statement and the birth of a new art form.”

As a film that carries the weight of representing several communities that have often been given short shrift in Hollywood, La Mission also holds a vision of future portrayals that are detailed and compassionate, even toward characters like Che.

That aspect of the film makes the stakes of success high, not just for Bratt, but for many artists working toward similar goals of speaking truth to power about all kinds of community.

Critical responses to the film have been mixed, especially in mainstream outlets, which has been a disappointment for others making art in a similar vein.

Writer and educator Cathy Arellano grew up in the Mission and is editing an anthology called Homegrown: A Cultural History of Latinos in the Mission. She hopes the film will show in Albuquerque, NM, her current home and a lowrider capital in its own right.

She says: “I’m reading all the interviews, reviews, and readers’ responses to reviews I can find on the internet. The Bratts are continuing important cultural work on a larger scale that began more than 40 years ago when Latinos started to replace the Irish and Italian residents who left the neighborhood for the suburbs.

"Numerous Latino artists have come from and come to the Mission and filmed, photographed, painted, written, performed and sung about its people and history. The Bratts recognize that the Mission and its people are as creative, dynamic and complex as any other people and place.

"From the responses I’ve read, many mainstream critics have dismissed the film, but their readers seem to feel La Mission’s heart. The film is making an impact and will continue to make one even if theater owners, distributors and studio heads don’t see the dollars they want. I know here in Burque folks are hungry for it. In some circles, Albuquerque is called the new Hollywood or 'Tamalewood.' The town may have changed, but something in the film industry hasn’t: People of color’s stories aren’t being told.”

Bratt’s energy and optimism carried him through the years-long process of making the film and he said he continues to believe that, if they hear about it, audiences will come along for the cruise: “The fact that we have even limited distribution in this economy is a miracle. But in order for an independent film to stick around, the first week’s box office receipts determine whether or not that film is pulled or will continue on, and possibly even grow to other cities.”

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