Exclusive: How McDonald's Spotlight Dorado has Given Latino Filmmakers a Chance to Shine

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Three Latino filmmakers have received a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity from McDonald's USA Spotlight Dorado short film contest.

The top three finalists—writer and director Jazmin Aguilar of Kid Ugly, Mexican American writer and director Jesus Celaya of Lucha Noir, and queer professional soccer player turned comedian, filmmaker and educator Lorena Russi of A History of Sitting in Waiting Rooms (Or Whatever Longer Title you Prefer)—were selected by a panel of industry leaders and each awarded $75,000.

In addition to the funds, the finalists will receive mentorship access from film industry experts including actress Stephanie Beatriz (Encanto), director Carlos López Estrada (Raya and the Last Dragon), showrunner Ilana Peña (Diary of a Future President), actress Danay Garcia (Fear the Walking Dead) and writer and director Nancy C. Mejía (Vida).

In an exclusive interview with People Chica, Aguilar, Russi and Peña discussed the importance of elevating Latin voices in film through contests and programs like McDonald's USA Spotlight Dorado.

Courtesy of McDonald's

We have seen a lot of shows featuring Hispanics and Hispanic stories being canceled across streamers as of late. Why do you think it's important for these stories to continue being told and our voices to be elevated?

Ilana Peña: My show on Disney+ was one of them, Diary of a Future President. I think for all artists a lot of shows that are classics and favorites right now take a while. It took a while for them to find their voice, it took a while for them to find their stride, it took a while to gain a fan base. I'm really proud of the two seasons that we made of our show, but I wish that we were given the resources and the money and the time that other shows and the dominant culture have been given to grow and to continue.

It's such a common refrain, "We don't have any Latinx stars." If you would've kept my show going for multiple seasons, Tess Romero [would have become] a Latinx star. We had them, but they weren't given the chance to thrive and to grow. I mean, she's still a Latinx star and she's still going to thrive, but it's a "snake eats tail" [situation] because a lot of projects don't get green-lit because there's not a star attached, but then projects get canceled and stars aren't able to get made.

Our community is not a monolith, we're not a genre, we have so many different kinds of stories to tell, to represent it, and that's what makes it so exciting. It's so awesome that programs like Spotlight Dorado exist because we can elevate these voices, get them the money, the resources, the time that they need to thrive and create stars behind and in front of the camera.

As a mentor, what is the most important piece of advice you give aspiring filmmakers?

IP: I guess this is something that I've picked up making two seasons of a show and being in production on my own, and it's feedback that I've gotten from people that I've worked with. I think it's just so important to remember it is so essential and necessary that our stories get told and what we're doing is important and what we're doing is meaningful, but also what we're doing is fun and what we're doing is joyful.

Photo by Morgan Lieberman/Getty Images

What we're doing is being together and collaborating and telling stories. To lead from a place of of joy, it trickles down to the producers, to the cast, the crew, to everybody above below the line. That kind of joy, when everybody has that and is feeling that, and can exhale and take off this pressure of making something perfect and just enjoy the process you will 100% of the time get a better product.

How can we start seeing a more authentic representation of Latinos in film and television?

IP: Well, we can start by not canceling our shows. I think it's important for us to show up for each other and for us to keep telling our stories and to keep telling stories that aren't necessarily "Latino" stories. I mean, what I love so much about these finalists' stories is that [it's] their stories and they're interesting and they're different and they're not like we just stamp culture on them.

They have that infused in them already. I want to be able to write and I am writing sitcoms and rom-coms and family dramas, and they don't all have to be what we think the industry thinks Latino content is. Latino content can be any kind of content. We just need to keep making it and supporting each other as we do it.

Courtesy of McDonald's

Filmmakers are at the forefront of storytelling, what inspired you to pursue a creative career in this field?

Jazmin Aguilar: I've always been really creative. I was an animator at first and it's very similar, just [focusing] on story and framing. I always loved movies, so it was a natural shift when I was very young and realized, "Oh, I don't like working on 3D. What's a new thing I can put all this effort into?"

So, when I got to college, I started film school and worked my way from being a producer [to] editor and [saying] last quarter, like, "I'm going to be a director." It was just something that's always been in my life—watching movies. My family's very creative [but] none of them had the opportunity or privilege to do that for a living, but I'm really glad that I'm able to do that now and be here right now, so it's really great that Spotlight is giving me the opportunity to do that.

Lorena Russi: I'm a loose goose and I sort of got into it very accidentally. I used to play soccer professionally, and I was actually going to get a Ph.D. in gender studies, so my life has been very weird. But I think a lot of my path to creativity was a lot of denial and I think that was just as a woman, as a queer person, I always felt like being behind the scenes made more sense with what society was telling me.

I started off as a DP and a photographer for a little bit, I was doing improv I was doing sketch, unfortunately. I like to say that people fill their Jesus hole with whatever it is, whether it's sports or religion, and to me, the arts were where it made the most sense or where it was the most fulfilled. When I was really leaning into the groove of my artistry is when I was like, "Oh, this feels really right." It's when I started investing more in making my own short films.

Courtesy of McDonald's

How do you hope this program will help further your future career and creative endeavors?

LR: I mean, I'm going to retire today. It's so phenomenal. I'm in that place in my career where I'm not paying to play but not always getting paid to play. So, I'm just getting to play, which is really fun. To be elevated where I'm with people like Ilana, people that are around the program, people [that] have money so we can make our films in a way where we don't have to compromise artistry. It's really exciting because I think a lot of art is [compromised], and so when you get to a place of, "Oh, just an open sea, that's exciting." Movies are really easy to make. I'm just excited to be elevated and to be given some [help by] Spotlight Dorado.

JA: I'm just excited to do [genres] that are coming of age. I feel like I understand that pretty well. It's very easy to make, it's cheap to make. I knew I could use this opportunity to do that and I'm so happy that they offered us a good budget to do so. I'm thankful that I was able to do that. It's a big jumping-off point.

What has been the most exciting part of participating in this contest?

LR: It's felt like a weird competition show for me. I've kind of every week felt like I've been doing cameos to a camera that doesn't exist. And I'm like, "So this week they asked for an updated script and there's a budget now, and I've had to change the budget..."

I think a lot of times you submit to these things and you have no idea if anyone likes anything you make ever. I think my projects do well, but this was the first project where strangers were like, "I feel so moved by your project. I would love to do this." And I was like, "Whoa, okay. We have something." Regardless of whatever happened [to] me, I was just excited. My goal is always to just cut at the pulse of culture if I can, and so it's exciting just to be able to do that.

JA: There's a lot of things. Just being given this opportunity, the money, the mentors, this is really once-in-a-lifetime.

For more information about McDonald's Spotlight Dorado visit www.spotlightdorado.com.