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San Diego Latino Film Festival: A conversation with executive director/founder Ethan Van Thillo

San Diego Latino Film Festival: A conversation with executive director/founder Ethan Van Thillo

Now entering its 25th edition, the San Diego Latino Film Festival will be celebrating this year's event with over 160 films showcased from March 15th through the 25th. Once a modest student film festival that started in the 1990s, the project has since blossomed into a major cultural gala under the guidance of founder and executive director Ethan Van Thillo. 

In a recent conversation with The San Diego Chronicle, Van Thillo opened up about the festival's beginnings, its growth and what to look forward to on the big screen.


"27-28 years ago, I was a student at UC Santa Cruz," said Van Thillo. 

"At that time I was taking Chicano studies classes, I had a great professor named Armando Valdez, who said 'Who wants to organize a Chicano film festival as part of your final class project?’ I naively said yes. That’s where I learned about organizing a film festival."

It was there in Santa Cruz that he began fine-tuning his craft. Van Thillo ran a Chicano film festival for a few years, produced a film of his own and then eventually made his way to San Diego where he noticed something peculiar.

"I felt that there really wasn’t anything like that here in the border region with the huge Latino population of Spanish-speaking community members on the Tijuana side and San Diego side. So I said to myself, I can start a Latino film festival here in San Diego." 

He immediately connected with local institutions and created Cine Estudiantil, a Latino student film festival which made its debut in 1994. After only a few years, his venture eventually began to thrive.

"Cine Estudiantil started growing, this was around '97-98, it really took off," said Van Thillo. "Corporate America started waking up to the fact that there's so many Latinos in the country, so we started getting corporate support and then we started doing year-round programs at the local public library, it was called Cine Club. With the Centro Cultural de la Raza we did some film series, and then around '99 we formed a nonprofit."

"It would have been easy just to say ‘We're going to create a Latino Film Society’ but we really had other goals in mind. So, we modeled ourselves after other organizations across the country and we called it the Media Arts Center San Diego."

Slowly but surely, his project eventually morphed into a larger organization.

"We have workshops for both kids, teens and adults on how to become digital storytellers. We now have our own movie theater called the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park. We produce movies and short movies in the community and we also teach close to 1000 kids and teens a year at local schools and at our space," said Van Thillo.

As for the festival itself, a change in name and focus brings us to where we are today with the San Diego Latino Film Festival: A wide-reaching and diverse celebration of all things Latino.

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"You can go into that movie theater at any given time --- we have five auditoriums --- and you can see the whole Latino experience."

Looking toward this year's event, the founder of the festival highlighted one local production from the list of 160+ movies that will be shown.

"There's a local filmmaker, I mentioned him earlier, Paul Espinosa. He is premiering his film that he has worked years on," said Van Thillo. "He made a film about the local singing legend 'Chunky' Sanchez who passed away a couple of years ago. That film, it’s an amazing portrait of him and how he connects to the whole Chicano movement, it’s called Singing Our Way To Freedom."

When discussing the impact and importance of his festival, especially during the current political climate, Van Thillo was quick to note the significance of educating the audience.

"Yes, we've made great strides in terms of more Latinos in the entertainment industry and there's a lot of great things happening, but clearly we need to get the word out beyond the border region. We need to educate general audiences about our shared experiences as humans and get people to understand what really is the immigrant experience, the refugee experience and the border experience."

The San Diego Latino Film Festival runs from March 15th-25th. More information for the festival can be found here on the event website

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