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BORDER PUNKS
San Antonio-based filmmaker Jim Mendiola has been exploring the people and music of his hometown in a series of innovative DV films. His latest, Speeder Kills, uses Richard Lester as an inspiration to tell a semi-autobiographical story involving a Mexican-American punk band.

Lisa Y. Garibay reports.

Melissa Flores in Jim Mendiola's Speeder Kills.
PHOTO: AL RENDON.

The just-completed Speeder Kills is Jim Mendiola’s third film focusing on his people (Mexican-Americans), his birthplace (San Antonio) and his passion (colliding music and images). Throughout his career, Mendiola has migrated to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but since 2000 he has been based in his hometown, capturing its own particular rhythms in a series of resourceful and energetic no-budget works.

"A lot of the filmmakers I admire are known for their work being about a place," Mendiola says. "Paul Anderson is really into the valley, Kevin Smith is into his New Jersey, Scorsese has Little Italy and Spike Lee for a time was really into Brooklyn. These guys aren’t dismissed as ‘regional filmmakers’ – they just happen to be very interested in a specific place and want to keep telling stories from there because they know it best."

The just-completed Speeder Kills is Jim Mendiola’s third film focusing on his people (Mexican-Americans), his birthplace (San Antonio) and his passion (colliding music and images). Throughout his career, Mendiola has migrated to San Francisco and Los Angeles, but since 2000 he has been based in his hometown, capturing its own particular rhythms in a series of resourceful and energetic no-budget works.

"A lot of the filmmakers I admire are known for their work being about a place," Mendiola says. "Paul Anderson is really into the valley, Kevin Smith is into his New Jersey, Scorsese has Little Italy and Spike Lee for a time was really into Brooklyn. These guys aren’t dismissed as ‘regional filmmakers’ – they just happen to be very interested in a specific place and want to keep telling stories from there because they know it best."

Mendiola’s first film, the 30-minute, award-winning Pretty Vacant, had punk rocker La Molly zooming through her San Antonio hometown and Mexican-American home life in a brilliant homage to the Sex Pistols that was as influenced by Paris-based documentary filmmaker Chris Marker as it was by Clueless. "Pretty Vacant was very calculated," notes Mendiola. "I didn’t make it for critics, but I made a movie that I wanted to see with critics in mind." With such a strategy, Mendiola attracted the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation, which awarded him an Intercultural Media Fellowship in 1997.

His second film, Come and Take it Day, was fine-tuned via the 2000 Sundance Filmmakers Lab and picked up by ITVS for production and distribution. Come and Take it Day keeps music in the background while its characters struggle with cultural identity and the convoluted and interwoven histories of Texas, the U.S. and Mexico. "It was like my film school, my first real movie where I had actors speak lines and had to set very basic things I did not know," he recalls. The hour-long feature screened on PBS stations across the country in 2002.

After Come and Take it Day, Mendiola’s passion for the punk scene inspired him to work in a more underground manner again. "A Hard Day’s Night has always been this very important movie for me, so I came up with the idea of a story that would use Speeder, a band I really liked and had taped over the course of a year," he explains. Although the band had broken up by the time of principal photography, they reunited for the film. Still, Speeder Kills is Mendiola’s life story to an extent, depicted through the voyeuristic adventures of a scholarly filmmaker (portrayed by slam poet Amalia Ortiz) infiltrating San Antonio’s punk scene.

Speeder rocks out on Fiesta Day in San Antonio. PHOTO: AL RENDON.
The film’s spontaneity had its disadvantages, as Mendiola describes how the script was "totally rewritten" during the editing phase – which could have meant disaster if it weren’t for the idea of reappropriating older, unrelated footage. "While reworking the movie after principal photography, I asked: ‘What’s working and what’s not? How can I expand the story and what visual things do I have that I can throw in?’ Everything I’d produced that was just sitting in boxes I looked at to put in the movie."

Speeder was shot on Mini DV in April and May of 2001 and shares stylistic elements with his other films, namely, his unabashed use of still photography. "Even if I had more money, I would always use photographs," he explains. "I started out as a photographer, so I love the art, but the use of stills and any kind of archival footage that you may have access to really expands the production value of your piece – it gives it a scale that isn’t reflected in the budget."

A montage detailing Amalia’s grandmother’s work as a photographer is a particularly effective commentary on Mendiola’s issue with his own ethnicity. "Those pictures were chosen very specifically to suggest a life in the ’50s that included all-American things like birthday parties and baseball. A lot of my ideas are about hybridity and participating in an American discourse, but it’s not new – there were always Mexican-Americans participating in what’s perceived now as this white cultural expression."

Another model Mendiola had in mind during production was Slacker. "I wanted the same thing – lots of people from a scene that knew each other." Producer Faith Radle was critical for what Mendiola was eager to capture. "The film became what it did through her contacts; she knew a lot of people in the music scene. I’d been off six years and didn’t know anyone."

While Mendiola aspires to work with film and larger budgets, he asserts that he "definitely won’t give up video," although he has set down rules for projects to come, including the ensemble piece All the Young Dudes (described as a Latino Short Cuts). "I don’t want to edit and shoot my own stuff anymore," he states. "I want to get people who are much better at it than I am and then concentrate on directing and writing." Even though San Antonio’s technical climate isn’t ideal for filmmaking, Mendiola says he’ll always go back for the stories. "I operate from the belief that if you’re really specific to a place and a people and tell their story, it becomes universal." It’s worked so far.

 

Speeder Kills premieres at San Francisco's Noise Pop Film Festival in March, while Come and Take it Day is now available on video via MTI/Delta Entertainment."

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