Filmmakers test waters on Spanish-language films

South Side resident Juan Zavaleta wanted his first full length film to succeed, so he decided to film it in Spanish.

"There's so many great and well-produced English films," Zavaleta said. "I thought it might be easier to get into the festivals if I produced a foreign film. Ever since 'The Passion of the Christ,' which was done in [Aramaic], a dead language, and it still didn't matter to the audience, I've thought making a film in a different language is more accepted."

There is no doubt that "The Evangelist," a dark comedy about a Chicago hitman, will not go on to match the $370 million made by Mel Gibson's film. But Zavaleta's movie has been accepted to premiere at the 22nd Annual Chicago Latino Film Festival which begins Thursday.

The festival will feature 112 films and includes full-length movies, shorts and animation and the works of both established and first time filmmakers. More than 70 filmmakers and many actors will discuss their work and answer questions after the showings, which will take place at five theaters around Chicago.

"A lot of these films have been shown in Latin America, Spain or Portugal ... but this is their first time coming to Chicago," said Leylha Ahuile, acting executive director of the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago, which organized the festival. "Most of these films aren't readily available at the local video rental store."

While Zavaleta, a first generation Mexican-American and Chicago native, and his lead actors speak Spanish fluently, English is their first language and filming a Spanish movie proved to be a challenge to their linguistics.

"There's a lot of words we chop up into Spanglish," Zavaleta said. "A lot of times we had actors, even extras, and people's family members correcting us as we were shooting it."

But with the help Zavaleta said they did such a good job that when he was interviewed about the film people thought Spanish was his first language. He said he's still undecided what language he'll film his next movie in.

The festival will also recognize established Latino movie makers, including a lifetime achievement award which will be presented at the opening reception to actress China Zorrilla. While it's main goal is to display the work to Chicago residents, Ahuile said the festival also allows filmmakers to network and learn from one another.

Lincoln Square resident Ben-Hur Uribe participated in the festival two years ago and said it helped give him the respect he needed to find the actors for his new short, "Por Amor," which was picked as one of six best featured shorts by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers.

"I hope that in Chicago it does bring me exposure and helps me be able to meet other film makers and people involved in film that might help me make another film," Uribe said. "Chicago is my base and I want to build that up."

He said he hopes exposure from this year's festival helps him raise money for his next project, a low budget horror movie with a Latino slant.

The Chicago Latino Film Festival runs until May 3 at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave.; the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.; AMC River East, 322 E. Illinois St. and Pipers Alley, 1608 N. Wells. Ticket prices vary depending on location and night. A full schedule is available the festival website. For more information call 312-431-1330.