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Political themes abound in Latino film fest

Early in the movie "Vote for Me!" a Puerto Rican superintendent in East Harlem's El Barrio (portrayed hilariously by veteran Cuban actor Ricardo Barber) thrusts his mop toward a neighborhood drug dealer. "Get back to school where you belong. Get out of here before it's too late! Que viva Puerto Rico!"

It's a funny moment, mixing quirkiness and cultural poignancy with an issue that's no laughing matter. That the super goes on to run for Congress, leading to a media feeding frenzy, perhaps owes something to the fact that the director of "Vote for Me!" is a former New York state assemblyman, Nelson Antonio Denis.

Denis's ebullient film sets the tone for the Cambridge Latino Film Festival, which kicks off Friday and will bring 10 days of lively, politically charged movies to area screens. Not bad for a festival that's just two years old.

The Boston area's first Latino film festival began with a modest idea. Festival director Jose Barriga, a Peruvian-American television writer and producer, had just moved to Boston. He wanted to screen some films, and with the help of sponsors such as the Cambridge Public Library, Barriga put together some funding and nominated a selection committee. With a small staff of fellow volunteers, the Cambridge Latino Film Festival was born.

Since then, Barriga has built bridges with determination, hard work, and just $5,000. "The first year, we got 70 submissions," said Barriga. The committee -- a diverse group ranging from a professor at MIT to a 65-year-old Salvadoran literacy student of Barriga's -- chose about half of the shorts and features for display. "The turnout was overwhelming," Barriga recalled. "We seated more people than we had room for."

The energetic founder has since donated another year's labor to his brainchild, whose biggest objective is to increase the profile of Latino cinema in Boston. Latinos make up 12 percent of the US population, and they represent 17 percent of Boston's population, Barriga said. "With these numbers, there's a big void of knowledge." He estimates that non-Latinos constitute 80 percent of festival's audience.

The Harvard Film Archive is the main venue for the event and will screen films in both the main and auxiliary theaters. "We're expecting to see people from the academic communities around Cambridge, the Latino community, and the community at large around Boston," said the HFA's Karin Segal.

The movies are either about Latinos or produced, written, or directed by Latinos. Barriga favors a broad definition of the community. "To me, it refers to a group of countries, races, and cultures united by one language," he said.

This year's festival is a lively mix of documentaries, shorts, and features, each of which will screen once. A handful of the films have theatrical or television distribution, but the vast majority don't currently have distribution.

Many of the films touch upon political themes, inspired by the contemporary and historic civil unrest in much of Latin America. "La Primera Noche" ("First Night"), which plays Saturday at 9:30 p.m. at the HFA, is a resonant story about a rural Colombian family forced by conflicting military pressures to migrate to the city. The documentary "The Last Zapatistas" (Saturday at 6 p.m. at the HFA) revisits the Mexican peasants who fought for land reform under Emiliano Zapata. Almost a century later, these ancient fighters (one, a 104-year-old, died during the shoot) are still wondering if they'll ever see the rewards of their efforts.

A documentary depicting more recent events is "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," for which two Irish filmmakers had exclusive access to President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and his palace during the 2002 coup attempt (9:30 p.m. at the HFA on Sunday). The camera captures the series of events surrounding the bloody street battles in Caracas and Chavez's 48-hour ouster.

"El Lugar En Donde Se Juntan Los Polos" ("The Place Where the Poles Meet") follows the path of a Chilean family as it moves from Chile to Nicaragua in wartime, then through several political regimes in Ecuador. The film, which closes the festival, screens at the HFA on Nov. 2 at 4:45 p.m.

The festival's films aren't restricted to politics, of course. "Bazooka: The Battle of Wilfred Gomez" is a haunting piece about the Puerto Rican boxer whose sport wreaked havoc on his body (8 p.m. at the HFA on Sunday). "White Like the Moon," by first-time director Marina Gonzalez Palmier, is a 22-minute short about a Mexican woman in San Antonio who forces her 13-year-old daughter to lighten her skin with bleach (Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Media Lab). The short features a matter-of-fact yet highly effective performance from Christel Khalil.

This may be the final year for the Cambridge Latino Film Festival: Barriga is considering renaming it the Boston Latino Film Festival for 2004. He's proud of its progress and optimistic about its second year. "I think it will only get bigger," he says, though he's aware of what that will take. "We really need corporate and foundation support. We cannot run a festival with this little money." The Cambridge Latino Film Festival starts Friday and runs through Nov. 2. Films screen at the Harvard Film Archive, MIT's Media Lab, and the Central Square branch of the Cambridge Public Library. Screenings are $8 at the HFA, $5 at the Media Lab, and free at the library. For more information, go to www.cambridgelatinofilmfestival.org. Jean Tang can be reached at jeandelinstang@yahoo.com.

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