Three local film festivals – showcasing Latino, Jewish, and underwater films – take place over the next two weeks

“Fearless” (2021), a documentary by director Wojciech Lorenc & producer Valentina Trevino / Courtesy of the Houston Latino Film Festival

Houston is home to WorldFest, the Houston Cinema Arts Society14 Pews, the Aurora Picture Show, and a newly opened second movie theater at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston – among other film venues and organizations.

And Houstonians managed to save, thanks in part to vocal public support, the recently shuttered River Oaks Theatre, which is expected to reopen under new management in coming months.

This active local film scene also nurtures a myriad of festivals year-round, often inspired by the city’s diversity and artistic energy. Themes range, for example, from the long-running ReelAbilities Film Festival to the newer literary-influenced Reelpoetry Festival.

The next two weeks epitomize Houston’s dynamic, ever-growing film culture, as three local festivals take place back-to-back and concurrently. Let’s take a closer look:

Houston Latino Film Festival, March 23 – 27 at MATCH

Founded in 2016 by three filmmaker-friends – Dave Cebrero (Festival Director), David Cortez (Operations Director), and Pedro Rivas (Program Director) – the Houston Latino Film Festival has grown from a 3-day event to, this year, a 5-day event that encompasses screenings, workshops, Q&As with filmmakers, readings, visual art, and local bands.

“The idea began as a project to share our love of Latino-themed cinema with the City of Houston,” said Rivas.

“We weren’t sure if we would get much of a response at first, but we ended up having a sold-out event our first year, and again in our second year,” he continued. “This told us there was a need for this type of cinema and storytelling in the community, and we wanted to keep it going and adding to the festival.”

The expanded programming attests to the festival’s increasing influence on the local film scene and its international attraction. Its application pool has doubled – from roughly 200 submissions in its first year to more than 400 this year.

Along the way, it has survived the challenges of COVID-19 by overcoming a cancelation in 2020 and a reimagining of itself at a drive-in theater in 2021.

Now back in-person for the first time since the pandemic, the 6th Annual Houston Latino Film Festival features more than 80 films from all over Central and South America, Spain, and Portugal, and by Latino filmmakers in the U.S.  A complete schedule of screenings and events can be found here, including a virtual option.

Though Hollywood and the film industry were hit hard by the pandemic, Latino filmmakers all over the world have remained creative and resourceful, according to Rivas.

“It may have been hard to get a film crew together, but a lot of people took the time to write or flesh out their ideas,” he said. “It was also an opportunity for some to finish editing their unfinished films and submit them to festivals during the last two years.”

The festival also aims to support local filmmakers through screenings of short films by Houstonians; the coming-of-age rebellion story, Acid Test, by Jenny Waldo; and Fearless, a portrait of a boxing gym in Conroe, produced and directed by the Houston-based husband and wife team of Wojciech Lorenc and Valentina Trevino.

“We hope this inspires other local filmmakers to realize that Houston can be a place to make our films,” said Rivas.

Rivas also says that he hopes the festival will inspire both casual film fans and avid film buffs.

“These are films you normally couldn’t see in theaters or on any streaming service yet, and we take pride in our programming selection,” he said. “We hope more Houstonians will come out to support the festival and these great artists, and to have fun!”

Houston Jewish Film Festival, March 26 – April 6 at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC & other venues

“Houstonians have a strong appetite for international cinema and independent films,” said Marian Luntz, longtime curator of film at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, who gives credit to the city’s diversity.

“At the MFAH we can show a film in any language and know there will be audience members who don’t need the subtitles, especially when they laugh at moments that aren’t well-translated for those of us reading along!” she said.

In addition to serving as a juror at numerous film festivals over the years, including Sundance and South by Southwest, Luntz is on the committee of this year’s Houston Jewish Film Festival.

Now in its 18th year, the festival has maintained a mission of bringing Jewish lives and stories to the big screen.

The Annual Houston Jewish Film Festival is intended to expose the Houston community to current documentary, feature, and short movies with meaningful Jewish or Israeli content, as well as Israeli-made movies with contemporary themes. Films will cover a diverse range of cultural, religious, or historical topics of Jewish relevance and are selected to educate, inform, and entertain a wide general audience.

Mission statement, Houston Jewish Film Festival

Luntz says this year’s committee of movie lovers recruited by the ERJCC has programmed “a great variety of award-winning films that appeal to all interests and tastes. In the 18th edition you can find drama, comedy, romance, documentaries, LGBTQ fare – something for everyone!”

 The 18th annual Houston Jewish Film Festival will feature 17 films and a 6-episode mini-series in a hybrid format – with films screened in-person and/or virtually. A complete schedule of events can be found here.

“Among the highlights, we are most excited about is Space Torah, a documentary featuring native Houstonian and NASA Astronaut Dr. Jeff Hoffman and the Torah he brought with him aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1996,” said Jody Sweed, festival chair, in a statement.

Space Torah’s producer Rachel Raz, director Rob Cooper, and Dr. Hoffman will be in attendance for a post-film panel discussion on March 30 at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC.

Sweed also calls the romantic comedy Kiss Me Kosher a “must see.”

“It’s a subversive love story between clashing cultures and families: two generations of Israeli women fall for a German woman and a Palestinian man and chaos follows,” Sweed said.

When asked about the significance of this festival – and the purpose of art in times of crisis, particularly following two years of a pandemic and the rising visibility of racist activities – Matt Basen, ERJCC’s Arts and Culture Program Coordinator, said:

The film festival provides us a way to come together, experience what life is like through the lens of someone else, experience Jewish stories, and share that in an accessible format.

A film is also an accessible form of art. It has the power to bring stories, thoughts, and ideas to groups of people in an easy-to-digest structure. We can shed light on these Jewish stories that a general audience may not know of on their own.

Houston Underwater Film Festival, April 2 – 3 at MATCH

Longtime scuba divers, Craig and Betsy Beasley, co-chair the Houston Underwater Film Festival, now in its 2nd year.

“We have a very unusual and high quality show,” said Craig Beasley. “Betsy and I are underwater videographers ourselves but are retired and do this just to spread the word on the beauty and issues with the oceans.”

The Beasleys founded HUFF during the pandemic – inspired by their own love of underwater filmmaking and such festivals in other cities, according to reporting by the Houston Chronicle.

HUFF aims to promote underwater filmmaking and appreciation of the beauty and diversity of all things underwater, as well as to encourage the art of videography, as stated on its website.

Sponsored by the Houston Underwater Photographic Society, this year’s festival will screen 52 films from 24 countries, selected from open and free submissions to Film Freeway. Other events include an awards reception and “Meet the Directors.”

Film categories include Short, Protect and Respect the Oceans, Made in Texas, Art House Flicks, and Feature Length (up 5 minutes for underwater films).

A complete schedule can be found here – with a virtual on-demand option available on April 4, following the in-person festival.

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