The Sydney Latin American Festival (SLAFF) is back for its 12th consecutive year and will be screening films at Dendy, Circular Quay between September 7 to 11. In preparation for the festival over 250 films are watched, discussed and selected to carefully curate a program that tells a true story of Latin America today. We thought it was a great time to speak with the Production Manager about the festival.
Vicki Gutierrez is an El-Salvadorian born woman who at the age of three was accepted as a refugee into Australia with her mother. Being bought up in the Fairfield area her surroundings were very multicultural she says ‘everyone spoke a different language’. Going to Wollongong for university and then working at Dendy in Newtown she realised that the majority of Sydney was far from the ‘multicultural bubble’ she lived in.
Her mother was a young activist in El Salvador and Vicki says that knowing their story of why they came to Australia is sometimes chilling, ‘it’s scary to think that you could be in that position for believing in something and having the courage to stand up’.
Were you born in Australia?
No, I arrived in Australia in 1987, I was 3 years old. It was right in the middle of the El-Salvadorian Civil war when things were pretty bad, I don’t think things started to get better til at least the early 90’s and they’ve been slowly rebuilding from there
What brought your family here?
My mum was quite heavily involved with student politics she was studying law at the University of San Salvador and she was very vocal and active with fighting for what she believed in. She started noticing that she was being followed and then there was an incident where the soldiers came to our house. I was only two years old at the time and my sister was about six. They ransacked my mother’s house for anything subversive; tapes, books. anything that looked like it was enough to take her way.
They were looking around our apartment for stuff and I walked out, she just saw me and her blood turned to ice. Just seeing me walking among these soldiers standing in her house! One of the soldiers picked me up and started passing me around to the other soldiers. They stopped looking around the house and then gave me back to her. As they were leaving one of the soldiers turned around and said, ‘you’re lucky your daughter came out”. After that incident, my mum said ‘We’re out of here!’.
How did she go about leaving El Salvador?
She applied for maybe three different Visas; the Australian, Canadian and something else random like Switzerland. Australian granted us a visa first. This was at the time when Australia was taking in a lot of refugees and that’s how we ended up here. She did it completely by herself; my uncle was here as well so she knew that was a good option.
It’s really scary to think that you could be in that position for really believing in something and for having the strength and courage to really fight.
Did you grow up in Sydney?
I grew up in the Liverpool/Fairfield area. It’s very multicultural, one of those areas where everybody was from somewhere else; a safe little multicultural Liverpool bubble existed. When I went to university in Wollongong it was soo different. My whole life I thought everyone came from somewhere else and everyone spoke a second language which wasn’t the case in Wollongong. Then I got a job at Dendy in Newtown where I got to know this really alternative scene. Newtown is where I feel most at home and in Wollongong, I stuck out. But in both places, I felt exoticised. People can project their images of what they think Latin America is. I was only 18 and I thought ‘Is that all you think about me?’
Was Spanish your first language?
No, not really, my mum always spoke to me in Spanish and answered in English. I have that whole thing where I understand it but I can’t speak it as well. I went back to Latin America in 2006 for 3-4 months and I felt like really wanted to connect with my culture through the language and when I came back I did a course at TAFE. I definitely try and speak more Spanish with my mum and working for the festival I get to speak Spanish to a lot of my friends.
Have you gone back to Latin America since 2006?
I haven’t and I’m dying to. My grandfather is Mexican and when I went to Mexico, I just felt like it was home to me. I don’t know how to describe the feeling. I went to El Salvador, Guatemala and Chile during that trip. Now having done the festival I want to go and do even more and see more different places. It’s given me much more of an appreciation for Latin America.
How did you get involved with SLAFF?
I was living in Canada for two years in Toronto and when I came back I needed to do some work. Three different people told me ‘you should apply for this role’, so I applied but they hired somebody else. Laura who is the current president of SLAFF called me and said ‘we hired them because they had more experience but I still want you to work with us’.
They gave me this smaller project called Pachamama Festival; its film but also has a lot more opportunities to interact with goers. So I started working on that and then I just stayed and got involved with every event I could. In 2015 I joined the management committee and was the volunteer treasurer for 2 years. When the Production Manager job came up last year for the film festival and they couldn’t find anybody, I was working in admin in an interior design firm and wasn’t particularly happy there. When this role came up, I spoke to Laura about it and she told to apply. She had a lot of faith in me, everyone did, the organisation itself is so encouraging and supportive. Laurea really pushed me and mentored me. Everyone that had worked on the festival previously was so incredibly generous with their knowledge, experience and time.
What’s your role now?
I’m the Production Manager, I did 2016 and I’m doing 2017 festival. It’s a contract position that goes for about 6 months, it takes that much preparation time to actually get the festival up and running. Most of that time is dedicated to programming, I do less in the beginning. We all watch films and we choose who we would want to put through to the program and then we start all the other stuff.
How have you seen the festival evolve over the last few years?
It’s been amazing actually, we’ve had four new crew members come on this year. It’s so important to have new people join the team and so vital to our growth. They have new different ideas that they bring to the team and I’ve really seen that evolve.
We’ve seen attendance grow as well, they’re all here to experience this Latin American Culture because somehow they’ve connected. Something I’d really like to see is the connection with the younger community. Growing up I probably wasn’t as connected to my community, there weren’t a lot of El Salvadorians but the ones we did have were our family. I didn’t really go to the South American clubs around my area like Marconi.
How do you select the films that make the festival?
We do have criteria they need to meet. It has to be a Latin America production & in terms of content it can be about anything. We just want to make sure it’s a story that hasn’t been told a million times before. We try and stay away from all of the Latin American stereotypes. We don’t want another cartel movie from Colombia or Mexico and we don’t want another kidnapping movie. Those are the hot topic issues that are thrown around all the time and it obscures what is really happening in Latin America. The Latin America of today.
In terms of themes, we find that they evolve naturally. Giselle our program manager has watched over 250 films this year. We want SLAFF to be held to a very high standard. That doesn’t mean the value of production in the film, its whether that film tells us a strong story. This year there are really strong female stories, and our program ended up being 50% directed by women. This wasn’t because we were trying to meet a quota, it happened naturally.
What’s your top movie pick for this year?
I’ve got two! Alamparao a Venezuelan Movie, based on a true story; the massacre of El Amparo happened in 1988 on the Venezuelan & Colombian border. I think because of my mother’s background in politics that these types of stories are some of the most important to come out of Latin America for me. These stories have a space here. It shows the strength and resilience in our community, it shows if there’s a truth then they stand behind it, it shows the strength of women in our community.
Bad Lucky Goat – which is our closing night film. It’s based in the Colombian Caribbean. Something I didn’t know is that it’s called Old Providence and the film is in entirely in creole, its very Afro Latino and shows the Caribbean side to Latino Culture. You’ve got these two siblings that are traversing around the island, trying to cover up what happened with a Goat and they go visiting all these different places on their island. It’s beautiful, the music throughout the movie is a character in itself and it showcases something about Latin America that not many people know.
It’s not too late to purchase tickets to SLAFF 2017, tickets are still available via SLAFF’s website. We highly encourage you all to try and see a film!