Byline: Mandy Ellis
Ask the kid version of Sonja Mereu which movies did best at the box office or which actor was up on screen and she’d know without hesitation. A movie obsession seed was planted young for the filmmaker that, along with Hollis McLachlan, created the Los Angeles Diversity Film Festival (LADFF) to help filmmakers, actors, and storytellers premiere their voice without judgment and stereotypes, and spark needed conversations. Now in its sixth year, the Festival’s director aims for fast-paced growth through an open-minded and as broad as possible outlook on diversity, inclusion, multicultural experiences, and unheard voices.
EMINUTES, who recently provided a sponsorship to LADFF, chatted with Mereu about how their wide outlook helps underrepresented stories get more screen time, how the festival embraces its motto “Inspire, Embrace, Empower,” the archival screening she’s most proud of, and why unique, out-of-the-box storylines inspire real, actionable change.
Since 2014, the very start of LADFF, you’ve been part of its foundation. How did you help launch the festival six years ago, and now that you’re its Festival Director, what’s new that we should look for?
Hollis McLachlan, the founder, and I were friends because we’re both filmmakers and special ed teachers. I was leaving special ed to go into film and she was leaving film to go into special ed when we met, and she had this idea that diversity wasn’t represented in film so a few of us brainstormed an idea for a new film festival.
Since I took over, the biggest change is I decided I wanted to grow because I didn’t want to do everything myself. Hollis did everything herself…it was crazy. So I brought on a programmer, Nick Ybarra, a designer, and a videographer/editor to grow the brand and offer more. We also got sponsorship from the city of West Hollywood right at the time I took over. With that collaboration, we moved our venue to West Hollywood, and they gave us some additional financing through grants. And having support from a city that’s all about arts and diversity has been super cool and helped us grow our audience and feel more legit, which made us become a bigger festival.
This August, LADFF had 57 selections from 17 countries with 54 percent of films directed by women and 61 percent directed by people of color. How does this help make unheard voices louder in the film industry?
At the most basic level, it’s giving a platform for people to put their work out. And by putting you in this festival, we’ve told people that your story is important, and that affects how you feel about your work and yourself to be accepted into festivals. And then being in Los Angeles, it’s the heart of the American film industry, especially for people who are not necessarily in the Hollywood film industry, being shown in a place like Los Angeles is really meaningful and filmmakers have an open-minded and enthusiastic audience.
LADFF films have covered equity, living with disabilities, homosexuality, sustainability, identity, abuse, gender roles, and oppression, to name a few subjects. Why do films need to explore these topics and how do they spark necessary conversations?
There’s the saying, “Representation matters,” and that’s a huge part of why we do the film festival and why we have such a broad perspective on diversity and trying to think about who’s underrepresented or misunderstood and why. And I think disability is amazingly a hot topic right now to see on screen, and diversity and representation, and we want to know more and support.
We’ve had a few films that dealt with homelessness specifically in Los Angeles, and hearing people talk afterward, it affected how they view the next person without a home and how they’re going to perceive them and what they might do to help. We also had another film about a teenage girl who had a disability, I think multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy, and it was about how she wanted to have sex called, Young Adult. And people were blown away by seeing that because they had desexualized people with disabilities without even realizing it. That film will stay with me forever because even as someone who thinks they’re informed, it was eye-opening and powerful to see such a personal story.
Why is it imperative to have films featuring storylines with multicultural, inclusive, diverse, and international backgrounds? How does this accurately reflect life without stereotypes, judgement, or degradation?
As filmmakers, Hollis and I are both women and had experienced film festivals that were all women filmmakers. And we’d have these amazing conversations about what it’s like to be a woman, or we’d go to the Native American film festival and it’d be inspiring, but we infrequently had conversations about intersectionality.
And all of the minority groups that were represented at our festival, ultimately made up a majority. Because we program by ideological themes that people get to see how similar their experiences are, even though they’ve always been told they’re different. We all have more in common than we realize, but I also think even if you don’t have anything in common with the person you’re watching on screen, empathy and understanding will make you identify with other people and want to, at the very least, be kind.
LADFF’s motto is inspire, embrace, empower. How does the festival embody these words to create a safe space for thought-provoking, captivating films?
It’s because we think you have to do all three of those things to create change, and we go out of our way to make sure every filmmaker and attendee at the festival feels all three of those things, and we do that in different ways. Because our festival is small, I’m able to have direct conversations with every single filmmaker prior to the event. If they’re able to attend, when they walk in, I know who they are and know who they should talk to that they’d get along with. We also have a podcast where we interview filmmakers prior to the festival and try to put their stories upfront. But also, our staff and volunteers are friendly and make the festival feel communal.
Why is it important to support an inclusive and inspiring festival like LADFF?
The big film festivals, like Outfest, make a difference in what we watch, and so the more money and ability to grow, the more you can dictate the conversation on what’s important in culture. Being able to get higher-profile films to draw bigger audiences and get those stories out to the broader public is really important. One thing Outfest does is support archiving gay and lesbian films for film history to make sure they don’t get lost. That’s something that we want to do as we grow; archive and show older films that might not be what the average person has been exposed to.
How has EMinutes’ sponsorship impacted LADFF? Do you have any plans for the sponsorship so far?
EMinutes is sponsoring a new award, called the Emerging Filmmaker Award, and 2021 will be our first year giving that out. It’s open to an unlimited amount of recipients so we’ll be taking applications and choosing however many seem to best fit the criteria. They’ll win the services of EMinutes to help start a company, among other things. Aside from that, we’re exploring what to do with their financial contribution, which we will definitely be using for something amazing.
But then also talking with people who make you feel your mission is validated. I think Jeff reaching out to me and saying, “I found you online and I’m inspired,” gives you the boost to think big and keep growing and make a difference.
You’ve been a teacher, actor, writer, and director, but producing is where you found what you’re meant to do. How did that happen, and what’s your favorite short film, video, or series that you’ve seen?
I got into producing because since I was a kid, I knew actors’ names and knew what movies did the best at the box office. I ultimately fell into it because I had a friend from college who went to film school and wanted help making a music video and I volunteered to help. And it felt like the most natural thing I’d ever done. I decided to leave my teaching job and started from zero and work my way back up to producing, which was awesome.
My favorite film could change any day of the year because I’m obsessed with movies, but I’m going to say Hedwig and the Angry Inch is always going to be in my favorites. It totally relates to LADFF in terms of the plot and characters, but it’s also a rock and roll musical about a transgender person that’s crazy and super fun.
When you’re not reviewing hundreds of vibrant, one-of-a-kind films for the next festival, who are you and what are you doing?
I’m obsessed with movies so going to the movies when I can, watching movies at home, I do yoga every day, and I have a cat and dog that I’m obsessed with and make calendars of. My cat is named Muggs; he’s a giant orange cat. And my dog is named Quincy and he’s a little terrier mutt that looks Toto from The Wizard of Oz. I also try to be outside as much as possible since our lives keep us tethered to the computer.
What film or LADFF project are you most proud of?
I think it was World AIDS Day, and it was our first archival screening where we found this film that had fallen into obscurity, but had won an award at Sundance called Silver Lake Life: The View from Here. It’s about two men who are a couple who both have AIDS HIV and are going through the process of dying. But, one of them is a filmmaker that’s documenting obsessively and lovingly the entire process. That’s what I’m most proud of because it was a risk. It’s not an easy movie to watch and this uplifting film that you laugh and cry, but it’s pretty heavy and we had a great audience. And it was our first time trying to help with film history and archiving and bringing lost films to the forefront.
What should we be looking forward to in the coming years from LADFF, and all its fantastic stories?
One of our goals is to do a retrospective and honor Edward James Olmos because we love him. Definitely in-person and show his films and hopefully have him come. And this year we were supposed to have a live one-woman show that we canceled so my hope is to start bringing in other media, music and live performance, into the festival. I’m also speaking with someone about doing interesting art pieces, for example, maybe some audio sensory media experience that could be accessed by someone who doesn’t have the ability to see a film.
What advice would you give to filmmakers, actors, and storytellers from all different backgrounds?
Focus on your story and the performances and make sure that they connect and are truthful, then the other barriers, that are maybe technical or financial, are way less important. And always feel you can reach out to a film festival and ask for a discount; it can’t hurt to ask.
BIO: Sonja Mereu is the festival director of the Los Angeles Diversity Film Festival (LADFF), which offers filmmakers, actors, and storytellers from diverse backgrounds a platform to showcase their voice, in Los Angeles. She’s also the CEO of Flathead Films and a member of the Producers Guild of America.