Assimilation Blues: Newly immigrated Bolivar de la Cruz (left) and second-generation Lola Sara (right) collide and forge friendship in 'ESL.'
Iranian-American director Youssef Delara explores the Latino culture he grew up around in 'ESL'
By Steve Hahn
Youssef Delara has personal experience negotiating the choppy waters of immigrant identity. When Iranian students loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic revolutionary leader, captured and held hostage 66 employees of the American Embassy in Tehran following the successful overthrow of the American-backed Shah in November 1979, he recalls hearing degrading insults and vicious diatribes launched against his parents' homeland. Delara, who was living with his family in Los Angeles at the time, was unsure how to react.
"I wanted to have pride in my culture, but I was a little afraid," says Delara. "It created a sense of duality within me."
As Delara grew older and began to interact with the growing Latin American community in Los Angeles, he realized his ambivalent feelings were common among many recent immigrants. It stunned Delara, who had become fascinated with the world of movie-making at a young age, that mainstream media outlets barely addressed the issues of identity and survival that he witnessed immigrants facing in their everyday lives.
"There was nothing out there edgy, independent and raw," he says. "It's a culture we identify with and we feel that they have stories that need to be told."
Delara's answer to this gap in the film market is English as a Second Language (ESL), a story of young immigrant Bolivar de la Cruz's trek across the U.S.-Mexico border and his journey into the tumultuous streets of Los Angeles. Once there, his cheery optimism and strong religious convictions are challenged at every turn, as he struggles to make enough money as a male stripper to make ends meet and support his pregnant wife back in Mexico.
More than cultures collide when Lola Sara, a second-generation immigrant from Latin America, becomes entangled in Bolivar's story. Her car crashes into the vehicle transporting Bolivar illegally across the border, and he decides to give up his fleeing ride so he can care for her wounds. Lola, who is sentenced to 300 hours of community service for driving under the influence, meets Bolivar again at the ESL class where she must work off her court sentence. Much of the film explores the relationship between these two characters and how they find common ground despite their cultural distance.
Delara began his career in the film industry as Visual Effects Coordinator for the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager TV programs. After spending a good chunk of his youth working in the television industry, he decided to begin a production company with his brother Amir that would produce marketing campaigns for Latin American television, radio and print programs.
That company became Cima Productions in 2001 and they have since expanded their operations into filmmaking. In 2003, the company released a 35 mm short written and directed by Youssef Delara called Air. ESL is the company's first feature-length movie and Delara's fifth.
While the producers of ESL have yet to find a distributor, it has been well-received by a number of independent and Latino-themed film festivals, winning five awards for best feature. Delara is optimistic that his film will continue to receive praise and awards from audiences and even hints that some "serious players" are considering picking up his film, although he doubts it will ever hit more than 100 theaters.
When Strangers Assimilate
The films presented at this year's festival are tied together by the theme of "when strangers meet," with most involving interactions between people from different national backgrounds. ESL introduces an interesting twist to this theme by featuring Latin American characters who can all trace their family lineage to the same country, yet find themselves at different stages of assimilation into American culture.
The issue of assimilation and how it can impact morality becomes a central element of ESL early on in the film. "They are from two parts of the same culture," says Delara of his two main characters. "Lola has moved away from her identity, really she lacks identity, but finds a sense of self in the L.A. club scene, whereas Bolivar is a recent immigrant, has a strong sense of who he is and is just trying to make it. So, what happens when you smash these two people on different sides of the cultural spectrum together? What happens when Lola gets thrown into Bolivar and how does he help her? What can his old world values offer her?"
The complex relationships formed between different cultures is a theme that runs throughout the film, as Lola's carefree lifestyle distances her from her deeply religious mother, while Bolivar, raised in a culture of machismo, finds himself subsumed into the homosexual nightlife of L.A. Yet the juxtapositions don't end there. Delara says he wanted to make a movie that integrated elements of drama and action, two styles that have a special place in his heart but which are often seen as separate in the mainstream film market.
"I love dramas, storytelling and movies not 100 percent in the mainstream, but at the same time I also love films with strong colors and an action-packed energy that really get in your face," he says. "I tried to take these two things that are not normally seen together and smash them together. That is really a theme in this film."
To accomplish this effect, Delara had his film crew employ hand-held cameras and he uses jump cuts frequently throughout the film. The film's backgrounds feature strongly contrasting colors, which Delara says was meant to reinforce the theme of cultural overlap. This jarring style, along with the intermittent montage scenes that flash images of Bolivar and Lola's life before the viewer's eyes, brings the audience into the mind-set of these confused and scared characters. As viewers, we see the world crumbling through their eyes, and quickly become wrapped up in the emotional roller coasters the filmmaker puts them through.
Although Delara shies away from defining his film as an ideological or political statement, instead presenting it as a "truthful and honest" telling of the real-life immigrant stories he saw as a youth in L.A., many in Santa Cruz County may, given recent events, find it hard to resist reading political meaning into a story focused on the lives of immigrants. It was just earlier this month, on Sept. 7, that officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided a number of homes and businesses in the county, deporting over 100 illegal immigrants to their home countries of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and India, breaking up families and prompting protests by immigrant-rights activists.
However, ESL paints a complicated and ambiguous picture of immigrant life, one that resists being reduced to the simple dichotomies of yea/nay politics. It also delves into the highly politicized themes of religion and homosexuality, although Delara insists these topics are meant more as storytelling tools than as social commentary.
"I was a blue collar kid growing up and me and my father would hire illegal immigrants all the time for construction work. Most of them were very salt-of-the-earth types, very religious with old-world values," Delara says. "Religion was such an important part of their lives. When making the film, I asked myself, 'How would these characters be in real-life, truthful situations?' And religion is definitely going to be infused into their lives."
Delara also artfully weaves in the language and logic of Catholicism, inviting the viewer to consider the religion's place in the average Latin American immigrant's worldview. The religious principles that Delara's characters hold dear are consistently challenged by the temptations offered in the L.A. night life, most prominently in the scenes in which Bolivar is forced to strip for men in order to procure desperately needed cash for his wife and child. The ambiguity of the moral dilemmas faced by his characters speak to Delara's talents as a thoughtful filmmaker. He refuses to be judgmental or preachy in ESL, instead presenting such moral choices in all their extreme difficulty.
"What you're trying to do in storytelling is to challenge your characters and yourself," Delara says. "You take someone like Bolivar, an old-world guy with strong religious morals, and see how far you can take him until he turns in on himself. It makes it dramatic and forces characters places we don't normally see people go."
The creation of internal turmoil in Delara's characters, portrayed skillfully by the cast, including Kuno Becker as Bolivar, Maria Chochita Alonso as Lola's mother Consuela, and Danielle Camastra as Lola Sara, is a big part of what makes this film so engaging. The expert use of body language and tone adds layers of complexity to the deceptively straightforward dialogue, and grants the viewer momentary glimpses into the minds of the characters.
True to its title, the ESL classroom is also an important aspect of the film. Delara originally planned to focus the entire film around an ESL classroom, with digressions into the stories of nine different characters. Instead, he ended up narrowing the film's focus in order to stay "true to the characters" he did choose to explore. He also refrains from romanticizing English classes as a quick or absolute fix to the problems faced by immigrants. The pace of learning is slow and it is acknowledged early on in the film that many of the students will drop out without gaining fluency in the language.
At the same time, Delara presents the ESL classes as a crucial element for the survival of recent immigrants. He says the scenes from the school were informed by his own visits to ESL classes in Santa Ana, Calif., where he was inspired by the connections he saw formed inside the classroom.
"For us [native-born Americans], school is a right, but for the people I saw in the class it was a privilege," he says. "They need it just for survival. I saw a strong sense of camaraderie in the class and I tried to infuse that sense of community into the movie."
Delara was especially impressed and amused by the teacher, a "beaming and joyous" immigrant from the Ivory Coast with a thick accent. "So, here's a guy who's teaching Latin Americans English in Santa Ana, Calif., of all places, with this very thick African accent, and I knew I just had to have that in my movie."
If Delara's film could be said to have a "message," it would likely involve the careful balance characters in the film must strike between the brash and emotionless atmosphere the commercialized society of L.A. confronts them with and the deeper personal connections that are formed outside these economic and cultural systems.
"The film was playing with the whole American dream idea and the fact that it's not a dream for everyone," Delara says. "This movie is kind of like the anti-American Dream movie. For Lola's family it worked, but for Bolivar it didn't. No one really wants to talk about the fact that it doesn't always work out."
Delara sees the commercialism of today's film industry as the primary reason that compelling stories about the Latin American immigrant experience never manage to get off the ground.
"A lot of companies are afraid to tackle a Latin American movie because it doesn't always make a lot of money, but we're passionate about putting these kind of movies out," says Delara, looking forward to the day when there are more Latin American studio executives. "Eventually the studios will catch up, and we'd rather be ahead of the curve."
Youssef Delara will appear in person to answer questions after each Pacific Rim Film Festival showing of English as a Second Language (ESL). The film screens Thursday, Oct. 5, at 7pm at the Henry J. Mello Center, 250 E. Beach St.,Watsonville, and again Sunday, Oct. 8, at 2pm at the UCSC Media Theater, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz.
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