The Mind Behind the San Diego Latino Film Festival

March 22, 2018

By Geneva Gámez

Ethan Van Thillo

As the San Diego Latino Film Festival celebrates 25 years of bringing film, arts, and culture to the community, La Prensa San Diego spoke to Ethan Van Thillo, founder and executive director of the festival, as well as the Media Arts Center San Diego and Digital Gym Cinema, a few questions about himself and the evolution of the organization over the past two decades.

Q: Where are you originally from and have you always been a San Diego native? If not, since when have you lived in San Diego?

EVT: I grew up in San Clemente, California. My mother was a bilingual elementary school teacher. It’s with her that I learned Spanish. Became involved in the local immigrant community. Traveled to Mexico. Played Cumbia music with my friends in High School. Attended UC Santa Cruz where I continued to be involved with the Latino student community. Started a Chicano Film Festival under the mentorship of Professor Armando Valdez. Produced (a) short film with a Chicano film director. Majored in Latin American Studies. Then, upon graduating from UC Santa Cruz, I moved to San Diego in 1992. When I arrived here, I saw that there wasn’t a film festival celebrating the amazing work of Latino filmmakers. And, felt that it was important to have one that appealed to the Spanish speaking and Latino population on both sides of the Border Region.

Q: What made you want to start a film festival?

EVT: The importance of using film as a tool for education and social change and offering youth growing up in this region the opportunity to see positive mentors on the big screen. Also, the festival was started to combat the negative stereotypes that we constantly see on mainstream media, Hollywood, and in news outlets.

Q: Once you knew that is what you wanted, how did you make it happen?

EVT: I had learned at UC Santa Cruz how to write grants, market movies and curate movies. So, when arriving in San Diego, I connected with Voz Fronteriza, a Chicano newspaper at UC San Diego. I used a similar model that I had at UC Santa Cruz and received funding from the various school departments, professors, student groups, etc.

Q. Do you have a background in film?

My passion for art and film started early on. My family, originally from Belgium, taught me to appreciate art, music, museums, etc. I started at a young age playing classical music with the violin. Then, in middle school I was introduced to films such as Koyaanisqatsi and Amadeus that showed me the power of Cinema (both visual and sound).

Q: Twenty five years later how much has the festival evolved?

EVT: We’ve grown from a small student film festival that used to screen only about 20+ movies and was attended by a few hundred people. Now, we are a 11-day film festival with 166+ movies; and expecting 20,000+ attendees. Early on it used to be a lot easier to confirm movies and special guests. Now, it’s become a big business, and we need to compete against major film festivals and pay huge rental fees to Sales Agents and distributors from around the world. Most recently, with Netflix and other online outlets, there’s more opportunities to see movies in advance. Which creates challenges for film festivals in terms of audience and premieres.

Q: Where do you see SDLFF five years from now?

EVT: The festival needs to continue to evolve. Screen more television shows and spotlight more online/streaming content. It also needs to present more Virtual Reality content and continue to bring in younger/newer audiences.

Q: What are some of the festival’s/organization’s greatest achievements?

EVT: Providing a space for Latinos from around the world to see themselves on the big screen. Many young people have either gone into filmmaking, acting, film producing, as a result of the festival.
It’s one thing to just hold an event once; or, maybe once per year. But, it’s a great achievement I feel, to be able to be rooted in the community and create continual and long lasting social change.

Q: What kind of trademark would you like to leave behind in years to come?

EVT: Having a year round organization that educates youth and promotes social change, is for me the most important legacy that I would like to leave for the San Diego Border region.

The San Diego Latino Film Festival runs through March 25 at select venues.

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