Johnny has no experience in martial arts, but that isn’t going to stop him from entering an international sparring competition. His older brother, Frank, thinks Johnny is out of his mind and wants to bring him back to reality.
The struggle between the brothers is the subject of the short film “Kumite,” which will be shown during the 2022 Poppy Jasper International Film Festival, taking place April 6-13 in venues in Morgan Hill, San Martin, Gilroy, San Juan Bautista and Hollister.
“Kumite” was produced by XeroCuadro Studio, a new film production company of veteran artists from San Juan Bautista’s famed El Teatro Campesino. The film was directed by Cristal Avila and written by Ray Rios, who plays both Johnny and Frank in the two-character film.
“The film is a conversation between the main character, Johnny, and his older brother Frank,” Rios said. “The translation of the word ‘kumite’ is sparring and it is an actual martial arts competition. I was influenced by films like “Kickboxer” and “Bloodsport”—Jean-Claude Van Damme was a big inspiration.”
Avila and Rios, along with Alfredo Avila and Jay Vera, formed XeroCuadro Studio as a way to stay creative during the pandemic, when theaters were all on lockdown.
“We came together, seeking a creative space,” Avila said. “It has been difficult in this age of COVID where we have had to step back a little. We all have a background in theater, but Jay and Alfredo have also won awards for their cinematography and editing. As a collective, we needed a home to start working again, and that is where XeroCuadro began. There are zero boundaries to our creativity.”
That creativity was faced with the challenge of filming during the pandemic when social distancing precluded large casts and filming in public locations. Shooting was done at Rancho Las Palma in Davenport, CA., where Rios lives and involved the least risk possible.
“With me playing the only two characters, we were able to keep the whole crew down to six or seven people,” Rios said. “That was the only way we could circumnavigate the complications. But in some ways, it made it easier and more streamlined. We all have experience working guerilla-style, like at El Teatro—very much an ‘on your feet,’ ‘shoot and go’ kind of production.”
While directing the film, Avila continued to challenge Rios for the backstories of the two characters.
“It is vital to me, as a director, to know the lives of the characters before and after the film. It was something I kept asking Ray about while we were rehearsing: ‘What happened just before the character spoke these lines?’ There should be some memory or more information explaining his motivations.”
As they worked to give the character more depth, they also refined things to make the two characters more ambiguous.
“We want the audience to decide for themselves if Frank is real or is just in Johnny’s head,” Avila said. “We screened it for some friends and a lot of those questions came up, which was very exciting.”
“Kumite” will be shown during the Poppy Jasper Festival as part of a Mexican-themed day to be held in San Juan Bautista, home of El Teatro Campesino.
“Usually we have a day when we show all the locally made films together,” said festival director L. Mattock Scariot. “We thought since they are from San Juan Bautista themselves, it would be a good pairing with some films we would be showing there made by Mexican filmmakers who are going to be coming to the festival. But we love spotlighting local filmmakers to inspire them and encourage them.”
Scariot recommended the film but said it might not be for everybody.
“It’s a dark comedy in the vein of Jack Black in ‘Nacho Libre,’” she said. “I really feel like it takes a lot of guts to make a film, and comedy is not easy. But it is funny and charming and I am really proud of them for making this film. I just had to have it for the festival.”
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