The good and the bad of gentrificationby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
When a neighborhood is gentrified it can be traumatic both for long-time residents, and the newcomers. A new movie called "Quinceanera" examines the struggles of a quickly changing neighborhood in Los Angeles where different cultures and generations grind against each other in unexpected ways. The film won the grand jury prize for best drama at the Sundance Festival this year. It opens in the Twin Cities this weekend.
St. Paul, Minn. — Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer live and make films together in the Echo Park neighborhood in LA. Westmoreland, a transplanted Englishman, says they found their latest story outside their back door.
"Not quite in our back yard," he admits. "Next door to us is where it happened. We were invited to be the official photographers of our neighbors Quinceanera. And we took that as a great honor."
A quinceanera is a Mexican celebration held on a girls 15th birthday to mark her entry into womanhood. It's a big deal, beginning with a solemn religious ceremony. That's followed by a community celebration with a feast and formal dancing. In turn that usually transforms into a spirited party with a DJ spinning the latest hits.
"We'd got to know our neighbors and has seen the youngest girl growing up," he says. "And so we were invited to participate in the ceremony and take the official almost like wedding style formation photographs."
Westmoreland says they enjoyed seeing inside the celebration. But Glatzer says they didn't think about its potential as a film until six months later. That's when they started chatting about all the very different cultures thriving around them.
"I think in a gentrifying neighborhood something that has a great potential for drama is that there are all these different ethnicities, sexualities, generations of people, right there on the same block," Glatzer says. "And when we started thinking about that as a basis for a story we got very excited about it, and that's when the Quinceanera came back to us and we thought 'OK, that's a real community event. Let's use that as a focus for this movie about a changing community.'"
Movies are notorious for taking years to develop, but Glatzer and Westmoreland moved at lightning speed. They wrote the script and got funding in three weeks. They then shot the film is just 18 days, using their own home, and other locations within half a mile of their front door.
"Quinceanera" opens with the splendor of a one girl's celebration. But the film focuses on her cousin Magdalena, who is having problems with her boyfriend. She thinks he's straying
"So did you go with Jessica?" she asks him as they waltz together.
"No!" he says.
"Not what I heard," she responds.
"I don't care about her," he says. "Didn't you get the text I sent you?"
"Yeah," she says looking away. "I deleted it."
Magdalena's problems go much deeper however. She is pregnant. She knows her strict father, who runs a storefront church, will take it really badly. She worries he'll disown her. Meanwhile there is more drama building in the kitchen where the women from Magdalena's extended family are preparing food for the party.
As they gossip about the youngsters dancing next door, one of the women asks a seemingly innocent question of Magdalena's aunt about her son Carlos.
"Well, he's not coming," she replies.
"He's not coming to his own sisters Quinceanera?"
"Don't talk to me about that boy" Silvia snaps, leaving the room abruptly."
In fact Carlos's father has thrown him out of the house he believes his son is gay. Carlos's living with a elderly relative in a shack next to a house owned by an upwardly mobile gay couple.
If there are villains in the film, it's these two.
They see Carlos as a plaything, and take advantage of him. Film maker Wash Westmoreland says as they wrote the script they wanted to put a spotlight on what they see as coded racism within LA's white gay community towards latinos. In the film the couple is also clearly more interested in the value of their property than the people living around them.
Things got complicated for the film makers when during auditions the top candidate for one of the roles was British.
"And we thought 'OK, he's the best guy for the job, but he's English.'" Westmoreland says. "We thought 'Everyone is going to think that those guys are us.' And we thought, 'Well, if that's the price that we have to put those issues out into the world, then we are going to pay that price.'"
Westmoreland and Glatzer say they were more concerned about getting the latino part of their story right. They went to great lengths to consult the people living round about to make sure they were accurate. They also hired 15 year old Emily Rios, who lived in Echo Park, to play the role of Magdalena.
"We looked at lots of girls, and there a lot of, you know, 18 year olds pretending to be 14, and girls from Beverly Hills pretending to be from Echo Park," Westmoreland says. "And Emily was like... Number one she was the real thing and number two she has this uncanny ability with dialog to make it very real."
Westmoreland and Glatzer were still writing the script as they were auditioning. They were able to mold the movie specifically around Rios She says she loved the script. "Ot was like,'Wow, this is what I am living in my everyday life'" she says "I was really surprised to see two anglos writing about latino culture and tradition. But they approached it with respect and were able to pinpoint what happens in our everyday life because they live in the city of Echo Park. It's very honest, its realistic, it's what's happening in the world today."
Interestingly, while Rios was the right age, she had not had a Quinceanera herself. She thinks that may have been an advantage for her as she approached the role. She says while the film is very much about her hometown, it covers universal themes of family strife, teenage pregnancy and the pressures brought on by gentrification.
Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer are now riding a wave of film festival success and critical praise. Glatzer says they're already working on another modern day drama.
"We have a film in mind about immigration, about a Russian trophy bride who's brought over to this country by a wealthy American," he says. "And she goes to English class and meets an illegal Mexican. It's a romantic triangle, but again fraught with politics."
And, perhaps because after all it is LA, there is also a proposal for a Quinceanera TV series.