For the Love of Film, for the Love of Highland Park

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By Diana Martinez

It was five years ago that three local artists – actor/writer Marita De La Torre, cinematographer Alessandro Gentile and music producer/DJ Mark Reitman – launched the Highland Park Independent Film Festival (HPIFF).

The festival was a big, but natural step for the northeast Los Angeles art community, which is known for its “can do” attitude. The same local spirit has birthed the Arroyo Arts Collective, Lummis Days and First Saturday Art Walks. 

The HPIFF is an outstanding addition to that impressive company. The 5th annual festival this October will be the biggest yet, with 47 films over three days, including seven world premieres, one USA premiere and nine Los Angeles premieres.

How did they do it? “We’ve always been ambitious,” said Ms. De La Torre. “But our growth has come from our community involvement.”

That involvement includes an eye for local talent and respect for local audiences. Eleven short films in the festival this year are by local filmmakers or shot in Highland Park, as is one feature film, “Awkward Silence,” by Highland Park filmmaker, Manny Montanez. The HPIFF also runs a mentorship program at Franklin High School to introduce students to filmmaking and develop the talent of aspiring filmmakers. In the run up to each year’s festival, the organizers hold free outdoor screenings of films that did not make it into the festival, rather than turn the films away unseen. The outdoor screenings, at La Culebra Art Park, a gem tucked away on Ave. 60, have evolved into a mini film fest of their own. There will also be free screenings during the festival on Friday, Oct. 5.

And then there is the festival setting itself: The historic Highland Theatre on N. Figueroa Street between Ave. 56 and Ave. 57. A no-frills, community centered venue, already appreciated for showing first run films for a bargain, it is the perfect home base for HPIFF.

The pieces all come together at the screenings. “We focus on storytelling and on providing the best setting where the voice of the filmmaker can be really and truly heard, appreciated and magnified,” said Ms. De La Torre.

Word of the festival has spread, so much so, this year, the festival received films from Iran, Ireland and Spain. But, at the heart of the festival is the local Highland Park community that volunteers, sponsors and embraces the opportunity to see their life experience and talents portrayed on screen.

“While we welcome international recognition,” said Ms. De La Torre, “we are steadfast in our commitment to program stories which accurately represent the composition of our beloved neighborhood of Highland Park.”

Diana Martinez is a Montecito Heights resident and the owner of L.A. Media Group She can be reached at