Ten years ago, a small group of people gathered at the Henry J. Mello Center in Watsonville to watch movies, promote filmmakers and celebrate the local arts community.
The first annual Watsonville Film Festival (WFF) was meant to be a one-time event. But its success sparked interest from organizers and South County residents who attended.
“Our motivation then was to celebrate local stories, the creativity of our community, and to bring people together – once,” says WFF CEO Consuelo Alba. “We all realized, ‘There’s something here. We must continue. And we repeat it every year. There is something very powerful and magical about bringing people together through cinema.
The reach of the festival has grown steadily every year; a single festival has grown into a year-round non-profit organization that hosts events and works closely with other organizations, schools, and businesses.
“I’m incredibly proud and grateful to our team,” Alba says, “and to everyone who’s been involved with this organization all this time, but also all the new faces. It’s just a really, really wonderful feeling to get to this point.
The 8th Annual WFF Festival was one of the first in-person events in Santa Cruz County to be canceled when Covid-19 hit in March 2020. So the group focused on virtual events, eventually creating its own streaming channel in 2021.
“[Going virtual] was very difficult, we had never done it before,” says Alba. “In 2020, we experimented with different formats, then we started working with our own platform. We learned a lot during the process.
The shift to the web has resulted in an exponential increase in WFF’s viewership.
“We’re reaching more people than ever before,” Alba says. “Beyond Santa Cruz County, beyond Monterey Bay, even beyond California. Our program is attracting a lot of attention.
Virtual screenings continue to be part of this year’s festival, which kicked off on Friday and will run until March 20.
Brenda Avila-Hanna, who works for WFF’s Artist Development and is a member of the programming team, says she’s glad some of the programming is available online for free.
“We got a lot of feedback that by doing this we solved other problems,” says Avila-Hanna. “Like mobility: sometimes people can’t attend for different reasons. They might be working, or maybe there’s no bus line that can take them there.
Additionally, going virtual has allowed WFF to make its Q&A sessions and other materials fully bilingual.
“We’ve heard of people watching movies with different generations within their families,” says Avila-Hanna. “We are delighted to continue this tradition. To get a bit of what the festival was like before and what looks like its future.
More than 30 feature films and short films are now available online for free at watsonvillefilmfest.org. Many are made locally, through places such as Digital NEST, and a handful take place in Watsonville.
One of these movies fruits of laborfollows a Watsonville teenager named Ashley who balances school, applying for college and personal life while also working in the local farm fields and factories to help support her family.
Directed by Emily Cohen Ibañez, the 2021 documentary had its world premiere at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, TX last year, and wowed audiences and critics across the United States.
“I love coming-of-age stories, but I haven’t seen the ones offered to women of color, especially working women of color,” Ibañez says. “I wanted Ashley to be herself as a full-fledged teenager. It’s an atypical film about farm labor. People are used to seeing historical icons or very problem-oriented films that focus on social ills.Sometimes what can happen is that people of color can become substitutes for social problems.
Ibañez called it “compelling” to work with Ashley and her family.
“The love between them just jumps off the screen,” she says. “She does farm and factory work, but she’s also a teenager with a sense of humor, falling in love for the first time, going through teenage angst as well as those huge burdens she has to deal with that no teenager should.”
Ibañez said Ashley and her family were thrilled to have the film premiered at the WFF.
“She’s ecstatic, it’s really exciting. The WFF is a wonderful festival, but it’s also the hometown of film,” says Ibañez. “There is so much hometown pride with this festival, and we are honored and thrilled to be a part of it.”
Other movies include The Mole Agent, an Oscar-winning Chilean documentary about an elderly person who works as a detective in an assisted living facility; and treasuresa film from Mexico about a family moving from the city to a small fishing village, where they connect more closely to each other, the community and the environment.
Shorts include the world premiere of Watsonville filmmaker Gabriel J. Medina Disposablewhich tells the story of two undocumented workers fleeing a civil war in Mexico, who find work in the United States during a global pandemic, only to find they’ve been lured into a frightening situation.
“We have an amazing lineup, the movie selection is very strong this year,” says Alba. “And most of the films are directed by women, which is really exciting because these are important stories that we rarely see.”
Having an in-person element at the event was also important to organizers, especially after three years without one. On March 12 at 6 p.m., WFF will hold an opening night at the Mello Center, screening the award-winning film Real women have curvesdirected by Patricia Cardoso, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
The story follows a young Mexican-American woman (America Ferrera) on the cusp of adulthood.
“It’s a very important independent American film,” says Alba. “It was very influential. It broke new ground in 2002 by focusing on a young Latina immigrant in Los Angeles, her dreams, her inspirations and her self-esteem. It defied all Hollywood conventions at the time. Our hope is to introduce this film to a new generation of Latinas.
The screening will include a special appearance by playwright and screenwriter Josefina López.
WFF will also introduce its first cohort of Cine Se Puede Fellows at the event. Cine Se Puede, launched last year, is a grant aimed at supporting emerging local filmmakers, helping fund up to $1,000 per project. Participants will learn how to present stories, improve proposals, budgets, marketing and distribution plans and more.
Fellows will have the chance to present projects to experts during the festival.
“There’s an amazing educational pipeline here – Digital NEST, Cabrillo, local universities,” says Avila-Hanna. “But once filmmakers try to turn professional, they either have to leave our region and we lose all that talent or that opportunity. Or they stay, but it can feel very isolating. We are trying to change that.
Avila-Hanna says she was “very excited” about the first cohort.
“They’re all incredibly talented and resilient,” she says. “Many have worked here for years, some have screened their work at the festival. We have seen them grow from students to this professional stage. They are very determined to work in the region. They really represent the essence of our festival.
Alba said the seven filmmakers will work closely with WFF and each other over the next 13 months.
“We will have more opportunities to support these filmmakers after the festival,” she said. “But that way people can recognize them as the first fellows.”
Avila-Hanna says Cine Se Puede, along with the fact that WFF is free and easily accessible to everyone, sets it apart.
“Our hope is to continue to change the culture around film festivals,” she says. “Reimagining what they could be, with a different audience not traditionally served by these events. Reimagining who is going to walk the red carpet, who can connect with other filmmakers, experts.
The festival is also collaborating with PBS’ award-winning documentary series, POV, which Alba says will help promote the festival within her networks.
“It’s really exciting,” Alba said. “It takes our work and our exhibition to another level.”
Alba said she was grateful to be back in person, at least for part of the festival, to celebrate 10 years.
“We invite people to come to the [March 12] event early to reconnect,” she said. “We haven’t been able to see people in this setting for so long!”
Alba added that the WFF will be applying a number of Covid safety protocols at the event.
“We take the safety of our audience very seriously,” she said. “We have a team dedicated to making sure we know where we are with Covid and what the health department recommends.”
Looking ahead, Alba said she hopes the WFF will help make Watsonville a filmmaking hub, encouraging both seasoned filmmakers and new filmmakers and allowing Latino artists to feel supported and inspired.
“I hope we continue our program, that we can celebrate the great stories and artistry of Latino filmmakers for years to come,” she said. “And that our festival brings people to Watsonville. We have always aimed to promote the talent, the potential, the economic development of Watsonville. We want to put it on the map as a place to watch amazing movies.
The Watsonville Film Festival will be held March 11-20. To register for the March 12 event, find a full schedule, or donate to the organization, visit watsonvillefilmfestival.org.