Award-winning NMSU filmmaker Ilana Lapid pursues a love affair with the pictures.
by Jeff Berg
"I'm terribly fond of the pictures." — from the silent film, A Cottage on Dartmoor
Many women have been involved in filmmaking over the years, but beyond any number of actresses of note, women rarely get the stage (screen) as men do. Sadly, it is still a "man's world" when it comes to movie making.
New Mexico has been the home to a number of women actresses, including Demi Moore, who was born in Roswell. Greer Garson once lived near Santa Fe, as did Vivian Vance of "I Love Lucy" fame. Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine and Julia Roberts live "up north." Silent film star Mae Marsh was born in Madrid, just south of Santa Fe, and Anna Gunn, of the made-in-New Mexico television series "Breaking Bad," was born in Santa Fe.
But Ilana Lapid is an up-and-coming New Mexico-based filmmaker. In March, Lapid won the New Mexico Centennial Award for a film that aims to humanize the complexities of the US-Mexico border, "Red Mesa," at the Taos Shortz Film Festival.
Lapid is a slightly unlikely New Mexico filmmaker, it's true. She was born in New York City and lived in Jerusalem for five years and in Ottawa for four more before landing in Las Cruces. Lapid just had her tenure track interview at New Mexico State University, where she is currently teaching film classes for the school's Creative Media Institute, covering a broad array of film subjects including history of cinema, screenwriting and cinema review, and a mini-course this spring entitled, "Border Cinema Around the World."
Lapid, who now lives in Mesilla, credits several things for her interest in the art of film, one of which is the Fountain Theatre in Mesilla.
For the uninitiated, the Fountain is operated by a throng of volunteers organized as the Mesilla Valley Film Society, which for the last 23 years has been programming foreign, non-mainstream American, documentary and classic films for week-long runs, single shows and special events. The adobe theater is over 100 years old and is perhaps more like a chapel of cinema than a movie theater. It has a grace and ambiance unlike any other theater in the state, perhaps in the country, and helps create lasting friendships among moviegoers and volunteers alike.
"The Fountain has a lot to do with why I got into film," Lapid says. "When I was attending Las Cruces High School, it was my favorite theater. In the '90s I saw a film called Before the Rain and it was one of my first experiences with the power of film. It touched on personal and political issues, and its origins of ethnicity (Albanian) really resonated within me. It gave me the powerful insight as to what gift a film can have on a viewer."
Her father, Dr. Yosef Lapid, is a Regents Professor in the Department of Government at NMSU, which is how the family came to Las Cruces. For her own undergraduate education, however, she went off to Yale.
"I studied political science at Yale, and got my BA there," she says. "I was really interested in the issues and it really opens your eyes to their complexity rather than watching them on CSPAN or other news channels or reading about them online or in the paper. I came to understand them in a more holistic way."
There was more travel in Lapid's life, as she received a Fulbright to go to Romania in 2002. There, she did a mural painting project with children, helping them to use and understand visual storytelling.
It was in Transylvania, of all places, in the unofficial capital of that historical province, Cluj-Napoca, where she had a very serendipitous occurrence.
"I was living in an apartment above a theater, and the First Annual Transylvanian Film Festival was taking place. I had just watched Before the Rain again and there was a knock on the door. There were five filmmakers standing there when I opened it, who had heard from someone in Bucharest that I was here and they asked if they could stay with me. I said, 'Okay.'"
The five filmmakers were part of the crew of Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's first film, Occident.
"I was so inspired by them," she recalls. "They helped give me a sense of responsibility to do something with movies besides entertainment — to tell the truth or open others' eyes through film."
Upon returning to the US, back in Las Cruces, Lapid went to work for the Border Book Festival, an annual event run by noted New Mexico author Denise Chavez. She has also taught art education at the Court Youth Center in Las Cruces
Lapid was at the Court Youth Center working on an art exhibit by children called "Dreaming in Color, Living in Black and White," when she decided to apply for film school. She was also able to contact Milcho Manchevski, director of Before the Rain, and later meet director Mungiu, whose 2007 work, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, won 38 worldwide awards, including the Palm D¹Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Lapid was accepted at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, but soon found it to be different than she had expected. It was nothing like the smaller but more story-oriented CMI program at NMSU.
"I was expecting to do the same thing at USC that the Romanian directors were doing," she says. "But I found it to be more of an industry school, as opposed to one about philosophy. It was much more commercial and is a place where the students' work was made to look much more polished. There wasn't as much poeticism."
Lapid wanted her work to be more grounded in story, emphasizing working with actors, while not always having the most "polished" piece of work on the screen.
She explains, "When working with actors, I try to look at the individual needs of each actor, and not use a one-size-fits-all approach. I think it is very important to know the needs of all of the actors on your project."
While at USC, Lapid made 11 short films, two of which were submitted to festivals. The first was "Jabez," a piece about a couple who are trying to cope with the loss of a child to SIDS during a road trip to Joshua Tree National Park.
"It was a labor of love and also my most joyful experience as a filmmaker, due to the small crew," she says. "It is a meditation on loss and won an award at the HD Film Festival."
HDFF is a festival that shows only films shot in high definition, often referred to as high-def. It refers to the picture resolution, based on pixels and other factors.
Lapid's next short film, "Red Mesa," was a somewhat bigger production that was filmed in southern New Mexico. It was partially shot on Brian Foster's Corralitos Ranch (also used by Steven Spielberg for one of the Indiana Jones productions), just west of Las Cruces, and also in Garfield, north of Las Cruces.
"For 'Red Mesa,' we had 30 to 50 people on the set for any given day. We built our own Border Patrol checkpoint, refurbishing an old house in Garfield," Lapid says.
"I wanted to tell a border story, since I've grown up around borders and I've been interested in their complexity. I wrote many short film scripts before finally settling on 'Red Mesa.'"
The story of "Red Mesa" offers an interesting juxtaposition between love of family and love of a partner. Noted character actor Tom Bower plays the rancher grandfather of Lynn (actress Jessica Spotts, who looks alarmingly like a young Sissy Spacek), who has a relationship with Octavio (Gabriel Rivera), an undocumented worker from Mexico. The grandfather has long felt threatened by people crossing the border, but until now, it has not affected his life.
Lapid continues, "It's kind of like a 'coming out' border story."
She credits several faculty members at CMI for her success, including Mark Medoff, who assisted with writing and became a mentor. "My key mentor was Mike Laurence," she adds with a note of sadness. Laurence, a magnificent photographer and filmmaker in his own right, was one of the first instructors at CMI, one who helped get the program going in the first place. Sadly, Laurence died of cancer in 2007.
She goes on, "The union paid four of the salaries, CMI students received on-site training, union representative Jon Hendry brought in a trailer for our star, and I received a $15,000 grant from the New Visions Program through the state film office."
She also cites the Foster and Hyatt families (fifth-generation New Mexico ranchers) for the no-hassle use of their ranches, even allowing Spotts to stay for a week to get a feel for the lifestyle.
Lapid says that she was having a hard time finding an actor with experience to play the part that Bower took. "A professor who saw Bower in an LA coffee shop called me and said that Bower was noted for his generosity to young filmmakers. I put together a packet for him" — and that was all it took.
The film premiered in 2009, and has done well at a number of film festivals around the country, with the Centennial Award at the 2012 Taos Shortz Film Festival being its latest honor. A fundraising campaign to allow submission for Oscar consideration fell a bit short, but the accolades continue to come in. Lapid is working on a distribution deal, but needs to clear up a small issue with some music rights first.
Now in her third semester as an instructor at CMI, Lapid was hired to direct feature films in 2010 and 2011, but funding didn't come through. It is still her intent to write and shoot a feature in southern New Mexico, though.
"It will be low budget and I am wrestling with story ideas," she says. "One project I am co-writing with Josh Wheeler, who I met at the White Sands Film Festival. It is set in Lordsburg. I'm also working on another project on my own."
Besides the hits that the film industry has taken in Santa Fe concerning funding, incentives and tax credits, Las Cruces has recently seen the loss of Bill McCamey, the part-time film commissioner. He had to leave the position for health reasons, and the position is being abolished for lack of funding from the city. There is also a turnover in leadership at CMI.
But none of that seems to have deterred Lapid. Cheerily, she points out that the patrons at the table behind us at Spirit Winds Coffee Bar are her students, who happened by to work on a storyboard.
"I feel very connected to this region and am inspired by the landscape and people," Lapid says. "I want to tap into that vibe and teach, hire and collaborate with new filmmakers. I really hope to be able to stay here as a filmmaker."
For more information on "Red Mesa," visit redmesamovie.com. Lapid's film "Jabez" can be seen on You Tube.
Jeff Berg writes a lot about film, but never wants to make one, thank you very much.