Student filmmakers hit awards gold with Hispanic drama

Sunday, August 25, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- An old man, nearing death, longs to be buried in the land where he was born and began his glory years, when adventure and romance were his.

Two students produce a short film about this fictional character and find their own share of glory when "A Piece of Earth" takes first place in a college contest held by the TV academy, home of the Emmy Awards.

When Hilda Mercado and Alberto Gonzalez-Reyna received this year's prize for best drama, they did more than achieve a personal victory: They offered a vision of what television and movies can be at their best.

The American Film Institute graduates, both from Mexico City, created a beguiling slice of Hispanic culture and life that has demonstrated broad appeal at screenings as well as in competition.

"I was very surprised at the acceptance of this film everywhere in the United States," said Mercado. "I found the judges and people who saw it here in the U.S., and not just Latin communities, they really received it so well."

Besides serving as producers, Mercado was the film's director of photography and Gonzalez-Reyna the production designer. Fellow AFI alumnus, Jorge Gaggero of Argentina, was the writer-director. (Gaggero was ineligible to share the TV academy's prize, which is reserved for producers.)

Earlier honors

Honors in seven categories, including comedy, music, documentary and animation, were given earlier this year in the 23rd annual Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation contest. The entry period for the new competition begins Sept. 1, with details available on the Emmy Web site.

The awards ceremony is an obvious thrill for winners. "A lot of these kids have never been to Los Angeles," said the foundation's Price Hicks. "They stand there with their plaques with 'Emmy' on it, say 'I would like to thank the academy' -- then they almost faint."

Mercado, 32, and Gonzalez-Reyna, 35, who now live in Los Angeles, aren't exactly kids. She received a degree in communications from a Mexican university and has a background in producing; he was an architect who suddenly discovered a passion for filmmaking. When they created "A Piece of Earth" ("Un Pedazo de Tierra") for their master's theses at AFI, their intent was to make "a meaningful film," Mercado said, one that reflected their Hispanic background.

"A Piece of Earth" follows the return of 101-year-old Don Aurelio Robles to Palos Verdes, Calif., where he was recruited as a youth by the revolutionary Pancho Villa. This time, Robles travels from Mexico with two great-grandchildren in a beat-up station wagon; on the roof is the coffin which he intends to put to use in his now-suburban birthplace.

Ruben Moreno ("Thirteen Days") plays Robles; Roberto Enrique and Erick Carrillo are featured actors.

Cultural flow

The film limns a family's saga as well as the unending flow of cultures and people back and forth across the Mexico-U.S. border. The story is tragic and comic, specific and universal, gentle yet barbed -- in other words, it has the subtlety and humanity so often missing in Hollywood work.

It also represents the sort of ethnic storytelling largely absent from movies and television, which are capable of tossing in a minority character (or caricature) just to swell the body count. "A Piece of Earth," rooted in historical fact, draws fully and faithfully on its heritage.

The foundation, the academy's educational and archival arm, has a history of honoring worthy projects from both American and foreign students, said its chairman, Thomas W. Sarnoff.

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