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Austin Filmmakers are Pushing for Diversity in Film

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The Austin Film Society and local filmmakers are hoping the nation will follow their lead.

By Sabrina LeBoeuf 

While the Academy Awards continue to lack diversity in their film nominations, the film community in Austin is taking action to increase diversity in all aspects of the industry in hopes the nation will follow.

“In Austin, I think there are still some ways to diversify the local film community, and I think people are coming together and really working on that,” says local filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez.

Opportunity is a crucial step on the path to diversity and one the Austin Film Society takes seriously. AFS awards grants to a variety of film projects to propel them beyond Texas and to a national audience. 

“We’d really like to see opportunities for them to have bigger projects, to have bigger budgets and to have their voices heard on a larger scale,” says Holly Herrick, head of film and creative media at AFS. “That’s really what we’re out to do, that is, connect filmmakers in Texas with career leaps that will not just get a film made, but really [sustain]a career.”

The AFS grant recipients for 2018 included directors of different races, sexual orientations and genders, unlike this year’s Oscar nominees for best director. The academy only selected male directors, despite female directors representing 41 percent of the feature films and episodic content accepted to Sundance Film Festival.

Hernandez, one of the grant recipients, has helped pioneer a Facebook group called Tejanas in Film to provide a networking platform, as well as a space to discuss diversity in various levels of the film industry.

“We’ve been seeking other Latinas in film to come together, to have a safe place to talk about diversity and to be able to align with others to make sure that local filmmakers are thinking about diversity because I think sometimes it gets overlooked here in Texas,” Hernandez says.

This group connected Hernandez with Monica Santis, a fellow Latina filmmaker from Austin.

“It’s a group that basically creates a space for women that identify as Latina that are either from Texas or residing in Texas to network and to collaborate and to support each other,” Santis says. “It’s been a really great resource and a way to build connection and community.”

Both Santis and Hernandez actively work to increase diversity in Austin’s film scene by hiring diverse casts and crews for their projects. For Santis’ latest film, Hacia el Sol (Towards the Sun), her co-writer was gay, her cinematographer was a woman and her producer was a woman of color.

“It is extremely important for me to have diversity on set, in front of [the]camera as well as behind [the]camera,” Santis says. “Both are important.” 

While Austin still lacks representation in different areas of the film industry, Herrick believes the local community shows progress in comparison with other film communities.

“We do have such a diverse body of filmmakers here,” Herrick says. “If you go to South By Southwest, you’ll see some great examples of this.”

AFS grant winners Pahokee, a documentary following four teenagers in a small town in Florida, and Building the American Dream, a documentary by Hernandez following the exploitation of Latino construction workers in Texas, will be screened at SXSW. In addition to showcasing films, Austin filmmakers will lead workshops, including Asian filmmaker Yen Tan, who is a member of the LGBTQ community. He is best known for his film 1985, which tells the story of a man trying to tell his conservative parents that he has AIDS.

“The talent is there,” Santis says. “They just [have]to be given the space, given the chance.”

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