Flamenco and horror collide at ‘Huella’ at Aspen Shortsfest

Shakira Berrera in “Huella”, which will be screened Saturday night at Asepn Shortsfest. (Courtesy of Aspen Shortsfest)

In the opening moments of the short “Huella,” Daniela receives a call informing her that her Dominican grandmother has passed away, sparking a vivid and original story of intergenerational grief and trauma.

The bilingual film, which will screen Saturday night at Aspen Shortsfest, packs into its startling 14 minutes an effective blend of brooding drama, workplace comedy and horror, along with beautifully choreographed flamenco dance scenes.

If they had to cut corners due to budget or COVID constraints, none of those limitations are apparent onscreen in this tale of a family curse, which includes effects shots like a wooden dollhouse. fire and a level of costume design and production that makes it believable jump between modern Los Angeles and an early 1960s convent.

This is an ambitious solo debut by Gabriela Ortega, who directed “Huella” with the support of a Rising Voices grant from Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions and Indeed.

The stock price, as Ortega and his producers Helena Sardinha and Rafael Thomaseto recalled this week, came with a very short deadline to start production. They were shooting this complex multi-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 movie!’ Ortega recalled over coffee Thursday at the Aspen Art Museum, “But then we were like, ‘Oh, are we going to do a movie tomorrow?'”

Ortega said it was pure coincidence that the actress she wanted the most for the lead role, Shakira Berrera (“Glow”), had a background in flamenco and could step in and quickly master the film’s dance sequences. . They cast veteran actress Denise Blasor — who had coached Ortega while she was a theater 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 premiered in a special showcase at the Tribeca Film Festival in June. “Huella” was then selected for the all-virtual 2022 Sundance Film Festival, but Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House will be its first public showing on the big screen.

“It’s the first time we’ve actually seen him with the audience at a festival,” Thomaseto said. “I think it’s going to be really special.”

Ortega wrote the screenplay at the start of the pandemic, inspired by what she called a “crazy dream” about a woman who turned into a snake dragged by her ancestors. This morphed into “Huella” (Spanish for “footprint”) and its all-female story of what people, and especially immigrants, carry with them from previous generations. She doubted the short would ever be made and considered it a creative exercise for herself.

“I was like, ‘This is wacky,'” Ortega recalled. “‘I don’t think anyone is going to care.'”

Filming in April 2021, Thomaseto noted, made it one of the first waves of post-vaccination film productions in Los Angeles with a grateful small cast and crew, many of whom hadn’t been on set in more than a decade. ‘a year. The timing also meant that they had to establish a large and separate COVID-19 budget for the short term, including a testing regime and have a COVID compliance officer to enforce established protocol.

Ortega’s own grandmother died of the virus during the pandemic. So making a film about a grandmother’s vaunted place in a matriarchal Latin family meant a lot to Ortega.

“It’s really great to honor our elders in some way, especially in a year when so many elders have felt unhelpful,” she said. “It makes me really proud.”

After the climactic and emotional final scene was filmed, she and Blasor hugged 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’s programming director , Jason Anderson – having heard of the film – contacted them 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 were invigorated by the quality and diversity of the Shortsfest lineup this week and enjoyed the long-awaited experience of watching films with a festival audience of local filmgoers and emerging international filmmakers.

“At big festivals, shorts can get a bit lost,” Ortega said. “Here you feel like you’re at the center of it all and people really want to engage with it.”

The “Huella” trio of immigrant filmmakers – Ortega hails from the Dominican Republic, his Brazilian producers all working in Los Angeles – recognize that they represent a rising force in the industry.

“We are young Hollywood,” Sardinha said. “People like us wouldn’t be where we are just a few years ago. So, it’s really nice to know that the new, younger people who come after us, we’re going to be able to support those people.

The trio noted that they not only have a place at the table at artsy 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 Financiers now see commercial prospects in films like “Huella” and in Latin artists like Ortega and his team of young immigrant producers and artisans (the team included a Chilean editor and a Mexican cinematographer).

A feature version of “Huella” is in the works with a script by Ortega, the same creative team behind, and seed money from a NewNarratives grant from WarnerMedia OneFifty to fund social impact films.

“We’ve had meetings here and there, and there’s definitely interest,” she said. “What we’re trying to find right now are creative partners who will help us take the film to the next level and make it happen.”

The doors are now opening due to the industry’s diversity initiatives as well as the widespread adoption of international feature films like “Parasite” and “Drive My Car,” the trio said, making the industry less reluctant to subtitles. Ortega said she and the team want to spark conversations between diaspora artists 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 make movies and we don’t want to be put in a box,” she said.

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