It began as a one-day showcase of a single film. Now in its third year, the Filadelfia Latin American Film Festival has grown into a bona fide fest, with screenings of 15 films, filmmaker appearances, panels, and parties spread out over one evening and two full days, Friday through Sunday, in locations from Center City to University City.
Festival executive director Bia Vieira, who shared that first film in 2012 with a few friends, said last year's festival drew more than 300 viewers for its 11 films, which included the Paraguayan thriller Seven Boxes, since then a cult hit across the country.
"Eventually, it would be wonderful to build an eight-day festival," Vieira said. "We're building up to it slowly."
This year's program consists of seven new documentaries and six scripted features, plus screenings of two classics: the 1958 Argentinian documentary Tire Dié (Toss Me a Dime) and the 1943 Mexican hit Maria Candelaria, a melodrama starring Dolores del Rio and Pedro Armendariz that opens the festival Friday night.
Vieira tried hard this year to strike a balance between films from Latino directors based in the United States and imports from Latin America, she said. The program also has two Philadelphia films, documentary shorts Forbidden Lovers Meant to Be and Aqui y Alla Crossing Borders.
The latter, from South Philadelphia artist and filmmaker Michelle Angela Ortiz, is about public art, specifically the creation of a 30-by-60-foot mural by Ortiz and two groups of teens. Part of the image, which shows an adolescent girl and boy, was constructed with the help of undocumented Mexican immigrants living in South Philly. The other part involved contributions from Mexican youths in the border towns of Juarez and Chihuahua.
Ortiz, 35, who has served in Mexico as a cultural envoy with the American Embassy, said she asked the teens to share their stories of crossing the border - or of being left behind - in a series of panels that encircle the two figures on the mural.
"The purpose of the project is to get people to listen to the stories of individuals and to go beyond the numbers and statistics," she said, "and try to imagine what it would be like for someone to risk their lives . . . to come here."
Other docs include Maria Agui Carter's highly anticipated The Devil's Music, the story of jazz from its inception to its peaks of popularity and cultural cachet.
"People said it wasn't even music," said Carter, of Boston, who has directed a number of films for PBS. "It was attacked as trash . . . attacked mostly because of the people who created it, people of color."
Notable dramas this year include The House That Jack Built, a sharp-edged satire on the Puerto Rican American family from director Henry Barrial.
Set in the Bronx, it stars Caribbean Latino New York actors, with E.J. Bonilla as the titular character. A young, successful businessman, he tries to reunite his family by buying an apartment building in the Bronx and bullying his entire extended family to move in.
"It's a very universal story, a Shakespearean drama about a young prince who through his own hubris sets up this situation that forces him to try to control everyone around him," Barrial said. "It's all based on this fantasy [he has] to recapture his childhood, because he's not happy as an adult."
Rosal Colon plays Jack's sister.
"She's gay and she has wanted to come out, but on her own terms," Colon said. "But she's forced to come out by Jack. And since we had been so close since childhood, she feels his betrayal very deeply."
Vieira said one of her goals this year was the inclusion of entries from countries that have smaller film industries.
"There are three major forces in filmmaking in Latin America: Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil," she said. "Last year, we had a film from Paraguay, and this year, we were able to program films from Uruguay and Chile."
There are two notable Chilean films. In Matar a un Hombre (To Kill a Man), a family man faces the ultimate dilemma: to take justice into his own hands and exact vengeance for the murder of his son by the neighborhood thug, or to trust the law.
The second film, Moises Sepulveda's Las Analfabetas (Illiterate) features Paulina Garcia, the acclaimed star of Gloria, as an illiterate woman in her 50s who finally decides to learn to read and write.
Another festival highlight is the animated family film Anina from Uruguay. A critical hit, Anina is about a girl burdened by three names that all are palindromes - Anina Yatay Salas. It was directed by Alfredo Soderguit, the illustrator and cartoonist acclaimed for his children's books.
"Latin Americans really are not known for their animation work," said Vieira, "so this is really special."
Equally moving, if for more mature audiences, is the Venezuelan entry Pelo Malo (Bad Hair). A 9-year-old boy is desperate to get his hair straightened and styled in the manner of the latest boy bands before he sits for his class picture. His mother, terrified this is a sign the boy is gay, forbids him to touch his tresses.
Filadelfia Latin American Film Festival
Friday through Sunday at various locations, including the Kimmel Center, the University of the Arts, and International House.
Tickets: $9-$10 per film; $7 for students & seniors; $110 all-screening; $175 VIP pass.
Information: 718-751-6901 or www.flaff.org.