Flamenco and horror meet in ‘Huella’ at Aspen Shortsfest
Filmmakers look to feature development
What: ‘Huella’ at Aspen Shortsfest
When: Program 10, Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Wheeler Opera House
How much: $20/GA; $15/Aspen Film members
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
More info: The seven-film program will be followed by a Q&A including ‘Huella’ writer-director Gabriela Ortega and producers Helena Sardinha and Rafael Thomaseto; aspenfilm.org
In the opening moments of the short film “Huella,” Daniela gets a call that her Dominican grandmother has died, jumpstarting a vivid and original story of grief and inter-generational trauma.
The bilingual film, which screens Saturday night at Aspen Shortsfest, includes in its surprising 14 minutes an effective blend of moody drama, workplace comedy and horror, along with some gorgeously choreographed flamenco-based dance scenes.
If they had to cut corners due to budgetary or COVID restraints, none of those limitations are apparent on the screen in this story of a family curse, which includes effects shots like a burning dollhouse and a level of costuming and production design that has it jumping credibly between modern Los Angeles and an early 1960s convent.
It’s an ambitious solo directorial debut from Gabriela Ortega, who made “Huella” with support from a Rising Voices fellowship, granted by Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad productions and Indeed.
The fellowship award, as Ortega and her producers Helena Sardinha and Rafael Thomaseto recalled this week, came with a very short timeline to start production. They were filming this complex cross-genre film just days after winning.
“When we got it, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is real — we’re going to make a film!” Ortega recalled over coffee Thursday at the Aspen Art Museum. “But then we were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to make a film tomorrow?'”
Ortega said it was pure serendipity that the actress she most wanted for the lead, Shakira Berrera (“Glow”), happened to have a background in flamenco and could step in and quickly master the film’s dance sequences. They cast the veteran actress Denise Blasor — who had directed Ortega during her time as a stage-acting student at USC — as her grandmother.
They shot it in less than a week in Los Angeles in April 2021, had a month for editing and post-production and then were in a special showcase at the Tribeca Film Festival in June. “Huella” later was selected for the all-virtual 2022 Sundance Film Festival, but Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House will be its first big-screen public exhibition.
“This is the first time that we’re actually seeing it with the audience in a festival,” Thomaseto said. “I think that’s going to be really special.”
Ortega wrote the script early in the pandemic, inspired by what she called a “crazy dream” about a woman who transformed into a serpent trailed by her ancestors. That transformed into “Huella” (Spanish for “footprint”) and its all-female story of what people, and especially immigrants, carry with them from previous generations. She was doubtful the short would ever get made, and thought of it as a creative exercise for herself.
“I was like, ‘This is wacky,'” Ortega recalled. “‘I don’t think anyone is going to care about it.'”
Filming in April 2021, Thomaseto noted, made them among the first wave of post-vaccine film productions in Los Angeles with a small and grateful cast and crew, many of whom had not been on a set for more than a year. The timing also meant that they had to build out a sizable and separate COVID-19 budget for the short, including a testing regime and having a COVID compliance officer to enforce set protocol.
Ortega’s own grandmother died of the virus during the pandemic. So to be making a film about a grandmother’s vaunted place in a matriarchal Latin family meant a great deal to Ortega.
“It’s really great to honor our elders in a way, especially in a year when so many elders felt like they were expendable,” she said. “That makes me really proud.”
After the filming of the climactic and emotional final scene, she and Blasor embraced one another and sobbed, Ortega recalled.
Ortega said the “Huella” team had considered submitting to the Oscar-qualifying Aspen Shortsfest, but were unsure of their chances and did not apply until Shortsfest programming director Jason Anderson — having heard buzz about the film — reached out directly and encouraged them to submit it.
When they were accepted, Thomaseto said, “It really was like a dream come true.”
The trio said they’ve been invigorated by the quality and diversity of the Shortsfest lineup this week and have enjoyed the long-overdue experience of watching movies with a festival audience of local film lovers and international emerging filmmakers.
“In bigger festivals, shorts can get a little lost,” Ortega said. “Here you feel like you’re at the center of it and people really want to engage with it.”
The “Huella” trio of immigrant filmmakers — Ortega is originally from the Dominican Republic, her producers both from Brazil, all working in Los Angeles — recognize that they represent a rising force in the industry.
“We are young Hollywood,” Sardinha said. “People like us would not be in the place we are right now just a couple years ago. So it feels really nice to know that the new, younger people coming after us, we are going to be able to support these people.”
The trio noted that they not only have a seat at the table at arty and independent festivals like Shortsfest — where more than half of the films are directed by women and selections represent 28 countries — but also that studios and financers are now seeing the commercial prospects in films like “Huella” and in Latin artists like Ortega and her team of young immigrant producers and craftspeople (the team also included a Chilean editor, Vicente Manzano and a South African cinematographer, Frances Kroon”).
A feature-length version of “Huella” is in the works with a script by Ortega, the same creative team behind it and seed funds from a NewNarratives grant from WarnerMedia OneFifty aiming to fund films with social impact.
“We have had some meetings here and there, and there’s definitely interest,” she said. “What we’re trying to look for right now is for creative partners that will help us take the movie to the next level and make it.”
Doors are opening now due to Industry diversity initiatives as well as the mainstream embrace of international feature films like “Parasite” and “Drive My Car,” the trio said, which have made the industry less subtitle-averse. Ortega said that she and the team do want to spark conversations among artists in the diaspora and make films about the immigrant experience (she also has ambitions to adapt stories from Caribbean mythology for the big screen). But, she added, they want to tell universal stories.
“We are making cinema and we don’t want to be put in a box,” she said.