By Rebecca Bulnes
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Not since Nuestra Cosa (Our Latin Thing) -- the 1971 film by salsa impresario Jerry Masucci that turned the world on to the Fania All-Stars -- has a movie captured the flavor of Nueva York so well as Manito. Director Erik Eason confesses he has never seen the barrio classic that starred Ray Barretto, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, Cheo Feliciano, and the domino-playing, cock-fighting, Santería-practicing, piragua-eating, salsa-dancing "people of New York," but growing up in the Dominican enclave of Washington Heights, the young Anglo got to know the sweet side of the borough's mean streets well enough to want to put that sabor on the big screen. Manito is the tragedy of a single family surviving after a less-heroic Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned out the crack cocaine trade without leaving any other economic hope in its place. But the camera takes in the whole hood, making street life a character in its own right. "The goal was to have a synthesis of all the feelings you get when you're in Washington Heights," says the 35-year-old of his first feature film. "Electricity. Vibrancy. Music blasting through doorways. "
Because nowadays that music is less likely to be salsa than merengue or hip-hop, Eason recruited the furious Nuyorminican merengue-hip-hop fivesome Fulanito to do the soundtrack and perform in a party scene. There was no money to pay the 2001 Grammy Award-nominated artists upfront, so associate producer Caspar Martinez (who also plays a supporting role in the film) used his connections as a manager at the popular Bronx hot spot Jimmyz Cuban Café (Angie Martinez's recent hit "Live at Jimmyz" is basically a slo-mo Fulanito rip-off) to convince these fellow Heights natives to work under a deferred contract -- that is, for no pay until Eason gets the film into commercial theaters.
The director and his persuasive producers cut the same deal with almost everybody from costume designers to caterers. That, and a few other low-cost aesthetic choices, gritty digital cinematography, and strictly ambient lighting, kept the budget for the enormous cast, high-profile soundtrack, and elaborate locations under $500,000. While it's hard for any unknown director to come up with cash, Eason believes Manito also is up against what he calls "economic racism." Despite special recognition at the Sundance Film Festival a few weeks ago (the jury created a special prize for Ensemble Acting just for Manito), Eason says Hollywood players are wary. "We had a lot of big stars and movie studios approach us and say, “We wish we had the guts to release this,'" he reports. "They want to put this in arthouses for white audiences because they don't trust Latinos to come out. They say “off the record' that Latinos are only interested in big action films."
Eason knows better. And, according to the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, he has numbers on his side. As local filmmaker and NALIP founder Frances Negron-Muntaner told New Times: "We've done statistical analyses that show if you make a movie for the Latino market within a certain budget -- let's say $25,000 to $6,000,000 -- unless it's a really bad movie, you're going to make that money back. And Latinos like to see other Latinos onscreen."
Manito is a very, very good film that puts excellent Latino actors onscreen -- from underappreciated veteran Manuel Cabral as the sinning father to riveting newcomer Frankie G. as the black sheep who almost makes everything all right. This is Our Latin Thing all over again: Eason and the people of Nueva York made it. Thanks to the Miami Film Festival, we don't need to wait for Hollywood to invite us to see it.
If Fulanito sold music to the movies on credit, Argentine lunatic rock star Fito Paez skipped the middleman to make his debut as a feature director/screenwriter/producer with the festival opener Vidas Privadas (Private Lives). As Paez's music always has, Vidas Privadas protests the predatory politics of his country not by solemn realism but by aspiring to same level of absurdity as rulers who murder their own citizens and then leave the survivors with an economy in ruins: Private Lives is as insane as recent Argentine history. Paez's over-the-top score intrudes at overly sentimental moments, setting up a mock melodrama in the vein of Pedro Almodovar (who featured Private Lives star and Fito's wife, Cecilia Roth, in All About My Mother) and Argentine novelist Manuel Puig (best known for Kiss of the Spider Woman). "This movie is too politically incorrect to show to the mothers [of the 30,000 people disappeared by the military regime in the Seventies]," the mop-topped loco grinned sheepishly after the screening, "but it's not just naughtiness." Vidas Privadas pretends to pluck at the heartstrings, all the while preparing to deliver an inverted Oedipal punch: It's no surprise at all that sons murder false fathers or mothers fuck unrecognized sons in a nation that eats its own young in the name of free enterprise. All Fito asks is that you notice.