‘Lucha Mexico’ Filmmaker Honors Lucha Libre’s Proud Tradition

DOC NYC 2015 Premiere Of "Lucha Mexico"Left to right: Filmmaker Alex Hammond, professional wrestlers Jose Luis Jair Soria, aka Shocker, and Jon “Strongman” Andersen, and filmmaker Ian Markiewicz attend the DOC NYC 2015 premiere of “Lucha Mexico” at SVA Theater on November 13, 2015 in New York City. (Photo/Monica Schipper / Getty Images)

For the longest time, documentary filmmaker Alex Hammond had wanted to work on a film which shed light on her Mexican heritage. The director of “Children of Haiti” and “Better Than Something,” which explored the punk underground, grew up in Connecticut but spent nearly every summer in Mexico visiting family; her mother had immigrated to the U.S. from San Luis Potosí.

The result is “Lucha Mexico,” her new film created with longtime co-director Ian Markiewicz, which explores the dynamic subculture of Lucha libre, the beloved and more than century-old Mexican professional wrestling sport.

After four years of shooting in mostly Mexico, “Lucha Mexico,” is being released in theaters and on iTunes on Friday, July 15, playing in cities across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, among others.

Lucha libre literally means “free fight,” and dates back to the Franco-Mexican War in 1863. The wrestlers are known to wear colorful masks, which hide their true identities, and some are known for their aerial maneuvers. They also characterize themselves as “good guys” (called “técnicos”) vs. the “bad guys” (called “rudos”).

“I knew the moment I saw Lucha, that this is what I wanted to make a film about,” said Hammond, 35, to NBC Latino. “The idea that these athletes put themselves in the ring and put their lives on the line is where the interest started. When we got in there, we realized this world was so big.”

Hammond said it’s a good time to shine a spotlight on this sport, since it has been growing in popularity in the U.S. as well. Lucha Underground,” a weekly hour-long TV series which premiered in the U.S. on filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’ El Rey Network in 2014, is still going strong in 2016.

“Because it’s taken us five years to make the film from start to finish, we’ve seen lots of changes,” said Hammond about the growth of Lucha libre. “‘Lucha Underground’ is getting a lot attention now —you’re starting to find them happening more often, I think because WWE is so big. They helped introduce the Mexican wrestlers. More people are exposed to it.”

Film poster for "Lucha Mexico" by Alex Hammond.
Film poster for “Lucha Mexico” by Alex Hammond. (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

One of the film’s protagonists is American Lucha wrestler John Andersen, who goes by the wrestling name, “John Strongman.”

“He came down to Mexico from San Francisco as a pro-wrestler, and we got to document his first time going to Mexico,” says Hammond. “He would live in Mexico for a month at a time — now there are more Americans moving down there to wrestle.”

Hammond says the “luchadores” (wrestlers) are like superheroes for Mexicans.

“They are very real for the people,” says Hammond. “When you go to any show, you’ll see a grandmother and a baby – it’s a family affair.”

The “luchadores” themselves also take their careers very seriously. They go to Lucha school, starting sometimes as young as 15, to learn the proper fighting techniques.

Sexy Star (left), Faby Apache (right)
Sexy Star (left), Faby Apache (right) (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

“These men and women are really athletes, and you see how hard they work,” says Hammond. “For a lot of them, their parents were wrestlers…It’s like a whole close-knit family. When you retire, you work as a wrestling coach.”

The film shows how fans idolize their superheroes, but it’s not so glamorous for the wrestlers themselves. Blue Demon, Jr., the son of the legendary Blue Demon — who was also an actor in many movies, as his wrestling persona, in the 1960’s and 1970’s — describes the way of life as “lonely.”

“Out of 24 hours, I wear my mask for 18,” says Blue Demon, Jr. in the film. “You have to be a loner and not go out too much, eat cold meals in the hotel. You can’t go out at night, or you might be recognized.”

Photo of the late Perro Aguayo Jr.
Photo of the late Perro Aguayo Jr. (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

It’s also a dangerous sport. Hammond says the famous El Hijo de Perro Aguarro died in the ring last year.

“We had to recut the movie,” said Hammond, because he was supposed to be one of the main characters. “It was a freak accident. He died wrestling.”

Hammond said that throughout the making of the film, several wrestlers died from various causes.

But ultimately, the luchadores think it’s worth the risks and the sacrifices. One of the trainers told Hammond that ‘in order to be a wrestler, you have to be hungry and want to have that triumph.’

“That’s essentially what we wanted to capture,” she said, “what drives them to constantly get back in that ring.”

Hammond doesn’t know yet where her next project will bring her, but she says she’s always been interested in exploring different environments.

“I like getting people to feel like they are there,” she says. “For ‘Lucha Mexico,’ I wanted to show also how beautiful Mexico is – not just what you see in the news — it’s not just drugs.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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Film, “Justice for My Sister,” becomes movement for eradicating violence against women

Kimberly Bautista (right) filmmaker of “Justice for My Sister.” (Courtesy Kimberly Bautista)

Kimberly Bautista (right) filmmaker of “Justice for My Sister.” (Courtesy Kimberly Bautista)

Many have heard of the mysterious killings of the women in Juarez, Mexico, but filmmaker Kimberly Bautista is traveling from country to country to spread the word about what she says is the femicide that’s also common in Guatemala and other Central American countries.

Her award-winning documentary called “Justice For My Sister” is about a 27-year-old Guatemalan mother of three who left for work one day and never returned. It was revealed shortly after that her boyfriend had beaten her to death and had left her on the side of the road. According to Bautista’s data, 580 women were murdered in Guatemala in 2007, and only one percent of those cases have been solved.

The film, which promotes awareness of violence against women, has made the rounds in film festivals in the U.S. and Central America and will screen in San Jose, Costa Rica, Wednesday. It was named the best long-form documentary in Central America as well as in the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival this past October. But most importantly, its anti-femicide message has turned into a movement.

“The goal is to replicate what we’ve done in Guatemala across Central America and to raise awareness about violence and for ways women can get help,” says Bautista, who has also started Texting Peace – a program which allows women to report threats or harassment via text message.

Another aspect of her anti-violence campaign is training youth to learn about the cycle of violence, and engaging men in the conversation.

“Most violence against women is a result of male privilege, because society is constantly justifying their actions – that contributes to more violence,” says Bautista who gets funding through different embassies. “Once they receive their training, they present events in their specific communities.”

Bautista, 28, is originally from Pasadena, Calif. and is born to a Colombian father and Irish-American mother. However, she has been an activist against the violent killing of women in Juarez since 2003.

“I think that to a certain extent domestic violence against women is so marked by silence that I wanted to offer a platform to intervene in that,” she says. “There are many facets of violence – sexual, physical, verbal – it’s just so pervasive…A key part of violence prevention is to provide people with a safe space to develop their leadership skills, so they can be active community members and call out violence when they see it.”

She says she the anti-domestic violence movement in general becomes more proactive through community building and holding people accountable.

“I want people to understand that this isn’t just an issue between two people, — it’s a societal issue,” says Bautista. “When people see the film, they tend to relate to the characters. At the screenings, we’ve heard stories of rape, economic and emotional violence.”

The filmmaker is no stranger to violence herself. During the end of the 4-year period it took to make the documentary, Bautista herself was held hostage and raped by armed assailants in the house she was staying at in Guatemala. Her camera equipment was stolen, but to this date, there’s no resolution to the case, and it’s unclear if the perpetrators had targeted her because of the work she was doing.

“We were able to identify two suspects, but they were released,” says Bautista, which is a similar occurrence that happens in other violence against women cases in Central America, according to the film.

She explains this act of violence towards her made her realize her film could be used as a prevention tool and hopefully encourage especially men to take a stand against violence.

“In the process of making this film, we were able to take justice into our own hands in a transformative way,” says Bautista.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

The Sundance Film Festival through the eyes of a juror

Filmmaker Alex Rivera (Courtesy Alex Rivera)

Filmmaker Alex Rivera (Courtesy Alex Rivera)

Now that the Sundance Festival is over, Alex Rivera gives us an inside peek to what it’s like to judge one of the most respected international film festivals. Digital media artist and filmmaker, Rivera, went from being a Sundance winner for his film “Sleep Dealer in 2008 to a juror last week.

“Being invited to be a judge is a complete honor and a privilege,” says Rivera who understands first-hand the complexity of what goes into filmmaking. “It takes about one hour and a half to watch a film, but it takes an average of six years to make. So as a filmmaker I feel very sensitive to that. It’s hard to judge, because you know how much goes into it.”

This is the second time Rivera, 38, has been chosen to serve on the Alfred P. Sloan Jury. The first time was in 2009, the year after his sci-fi thriller “Sleep Dealer,” a tale about immigration in a militarized futuristic world where borders are closed and technology takes over, won the prize of the same name. It also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and was picked up by Maya Entertainment for U.S. distribution that same year.

The Sloan Award is presented to an outstanding feature film that focuses on science or technology as a theme, or depicts a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a major character. This year, “Robot & Frank,” directed by Jake Schreier and written by Christopher Ford, and “Valley of Saints,” directed and written by Musa Syeed, tied for the win. The two films will split the $20,000 cash award by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Rivera says the two winning films couldn’t be more different stories, but they were both innovative in the way they were told.

“When I go to Sundance, I want to see people taking risks and breaking new ground,” says Rivera. That’s why there should be festivals. People can try new things and take big risks, while making sure it’s well made. I saw a lot of that this year.”

He compares being on the Sundance jury to being on a jury in a courtroom, except instead of 12 jurors, there are five.

“You travel together to screening to screening over a few days,” recalls Rivera. “You get to know each other, and then comes the moment of truth when you come to a decision.”

Sundance critically chooses individuals from a variety of backgrounds to make sure to get different points of view.

“The jury I was on was half scientists and half filmmakers,” says Rivera. “There was a guy from Berkeley who builds robots, and a woman from Rutgers who studied the brain.”

Rivera mentioned that two of his favorite Latino films that he had the opportunity to see during the festival were “Mosquita y Mari,” and “Filly Brown.”

“Gina is shining like a light right now,” he says. “’Filly Brown’ is sensational and bold and filled with contrast and drama. ‘Mosquita y Mari’ is more subtle and feels more like the kind of quiet life that most of us live, but both are really striking because they showcase Latina talent at their core.”

This is an example of how he says two films can be polar opposites but equally poignant.

“When you find that contrast, it gives me hope that we’re going to see a wide variety of Latino stories in the future,” says Rivera. “But we are still far from where we should be. We are the largest minority in the U.S., so we should have a film in the movie theater every week…We should radically be telling our stories. There is a long way to go.”

Currently, Rivera is working on a TV series and a follow-up feature film to “Sleep Dealer.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.