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Las Cruces film festival’s focus is on diversity

LAS CRUCES – The third annual Las Cruces International Film Festival highlighted the careers of strong women and need for inclusion in the entertainment industry.

The five-day festival opened Wednesday night with the film “Rose” starring Cybill Shepherd and Pam Grier made in Truth or Consequences by southern New Mexico filmmaker Rod McCall.

Both women were at the screening and appeared on a panel about diversity in the entertainment industry Thursday. The discussion comes as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements demand an end to sexual misconduct and equal pay for women in Hollywood.

“I didn’t have to deal with sexual harassment. My daddy taught me how to play football,” said Shepherd, referring to how she learned to protect herself as a model and young actress.

Grier told the audience things are improving for both women and actors of color and recounted a recent experience working on the set of “This is Us,” a hit show airing on NBC.

“We had a multi-multi racial crew. It was great because it didn’t happen in my day.”

Grier also talked about her breakout role in “Jackie Brown,” a 1977 film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. “I just couldn’t believe he had written it for me,” said Grier. When she first read the script she assumed she was playing a supporting character, a woman who is murdered in the movie rather than the leading role. She was nominated for a Golden Globe and NAACP Image Award for her performance.

Amy Lanasa, a professor at NMSU’s Creative Media Institute for Film and Digital Arts, and moderator for the panel, told the audience that 65 percent of students at NMSU are Hispanic and 48 percent are women.

“I think it’s really important to share these personal experiences and stories not only so our students understand the world they’re going into but they understand the history,” said Lanasa.

Brian Espinosa, CEO of Optimism Entertainment, encouraged students to use their voices to demand changes in the industry.

“You can rally and start making things happen,” said Espinosa.

He said he was “honored” to be the only man on a panel with five women.

“I come from a home with a single mom. Mom was the boss. Women were the leaders for me. I love seeing that,” said Espinosa, a native New Mexican from Santa Fe and a UNM alumnus.

Espinosa said in the last couple months he has seen more women actors demand equal pay in their contracts. He also said there are a wider range of roles for Hispanic actors on television these days rather than the stereotypical characters of the past.

Television writer Anne Cofell Saunders talked about the challenges of being one of the few women in an industry where only 13 percent of writers and producers are women.

“When I first started out it was outrageous,” said Cofell. She began her television career on the set of hit Fox TV series “24.” “I coped with it with humor,” said Cofell.

Cofell did double duty appearing on the inclusion panel Thursday as well as in a television writing workshop Friday. She encouraged students in the audience to find mentors as they begin their careers. But she said it’s often harder for young women to seek advice in a male-dominated industry amid widespread allegations of sexual harassment. “You have to be careful.”

After the workshop students Olivia Leon and Kayla Donohue, seventh graders at Sierra Middle School in Las Cruces peppered Cofell with questions. The girls and other students in the media magnate program attended the film festival as part of a field trip.

The opening of the first studio in Las Cruces on Friday coincided with the third day of the film festival which features more than 150 movies, including many independent productions and work by filmmakers based in southern New Mexico. An awards ceremony is scheduled tonight and festival screenings run through Sunday.