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Breaking the Silence

Local filmmakers take a stand on local and world issues through short films

 by Ljiljana Ciric
 published on Thursday, February 9, 2006

A still frame of John Jota Leanos' short film
graphic courtesy of John Leanos
A still frame of John Jota Leanos' short film "Los ABCs: !Que Vivan los Muertos!"
 

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Death can sometimes tell more than life.

At least that is the message that two local filmmakers, John Jota Leanos and Marco Santiago Jr., share in their short films, "Los ABCs: !Que Vivan los Muertos!" and "Once Upon a Time in the Desert."

Leanos, a Chicana/Chicano studies assistant professor, is the director and screenwriter of "Los ABCs: !Que Vivan los Muertos!" His film was selected from 4,327 submissions and highlighted during the Animation Spotlight short film series at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

"Los ABCs" is a five-minute documentary that uses animated skeletons to tell stories of life and death during war.

"I mean 'war' in the largest sense, from real or traditional warfare to metaphorical and economic war," says Leanos.

Leanos' skeletons sing a Mariachi "corridor," -- a type of traditional Hispanic folk ballad. Leanos uses every letter of the alphabet to tell a story of real-death scenarios, like border crossing in Arizona and California, suicide bombers and the deaths of women in Juarez, Mexico.

Although Leanos uses bright colors, a catchy tune and smiling skeletons, the content and the message conveyed in the film are anything but childlike.

"Humor and satire are vital to this tradition and 'Los ABCs' uses the strategy of humor, children's rhymes, a catchy song and animated characters to speak to a wide range of audiences about these very serious issues," says Leanos.

Leanos is no stranger to starting controversy or expressing his feelings through art.

In October 2004 he became the center of a major debate when he used an image of former ASU football player Pat Tillman for a piece of art. Tillman joined the military and was killed in action in Afghanistan in April 2004. Leanos' poster questioned the use of Tillman's name for commercial purposes.

Leanos says the poster triggered an investigation into his classroom activities, the production of his artwork and angered a lot of people throughout the United States.

Leanos says that the Tillman ordeal wasn't a direct inspiration for his short film, but the backlash definitely was.

"A thriving democracy calls for open discourse and debate, not threats and violence when someone utters an idea that you do not want to hear," Leanos says. "As an artist who delves in the symbolic arena of power, my tactics are to complicate ideas and repeat them over and over and over, through different forms, media and messaging."

Marco Santiago Jr., an ASU graduate, took a different approach to express his views on human trafficking in his film "Once Upon a Time in the Desert."

He loosely based the movie on a shootout that happend Nov. 4, 2004, on Interstate 10. The shootout between two rival human trafficking gangs left four people dead and five wounded.

Santiago developed interest in this issue while working on another documentary, "Into the Border." He says knowing no more than what he read in the newspapers about human trafficking, he headed to the border to explore the problem in depth. Santiago says he spent time with the border patrol in remote areas and witnessed the horrors of human trafficking across the border firsthand.

"People are dying year around, not just in summer," Santiago says. "In fact it's in winter when most of them die. They tend to cross the border more frequently in winter months, because it's not so hot."

Similar to Leanos, Santiago also uses a catchy tune throughout "Once Upon a Time in the Desert" to make the death scenes more viewable to the audience. He says he considered using more dramatic music, but decided to go with a jazzy pop composition by Rodolfo Madero as juxtaposition for the violence in the film.

While Santiago says he understands both sides of the border issue, he doesn't feel current legislation, such as a proposed fence along the US-Mexico border, is working.

"The solutions to the problems associated with human trafficking are not easy. They are complex and very political in nature," Santiago says. "If there is a will from a group of people to go from point A to point B, because they are really desperate and have no hope, they'll find the way of crossing the border."

Reach the reporter at ljiljana.ciric@asu.edu.



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