Documentary filmmaker Cristina Costantini is on a mission. Her third film, Own the Room, premiered March 12 on Disney+ and follows two big successes, Netflix’s Mucho, Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado and the Sundance darling, Science Fair. What do they all have in common?
“Hope,” according to the conversation I had with Costantini over the phone in late February. She said, “The three films that I’ve made have all kind of dealt with hope and, and hopefully inspiration in some way. The world is really hard right now, and I hope that they can bring people a little bit of joy during these weird times that we’re living in.
But hope for who? Each of the documentaries is global in scope, either following young people from all over the world (e.g. Own the Room and Science Fair) or profiling international icon Walter Mercado (aka Mucho, Mucho Amor). But it doesn’t exactly take a film degree to notice that Costantini’s latinidad plays a role too. She identifies as a “Midwestern Latina” and notes that Latinxs “are almost a fifth of the population now but we are not a fifth of the filmmaking community by any means.”
Costantini understands the consequences of this underrepresentation, saying that Hollywood too often paints our stories “with a very broad brush,” oversimplifying the breadth and depth of our communities. That means she feels “a great need” to do something different and present our culture as the complex, beautiful, and complicated thing it is. Indeed, her three films “have these kinds of strong Latino characters who are very much in control of their own stories,” allowing her to lift up their voices in her filmmaking.
Watching them, I was struck by how different Costantini’s real-life Latinx subjects are than their scripted counterparts (which she describes as generally being “narcos, maids, or sex icons”). Science Fair features precocious Latinx scientists, ready to change the world. Mercado “follows no rules and is a complete enigma in every sense.” Own the Room features two smart and compelling Latinas, Daniela and Alondra, in its group of five student entrepreneurs brought together in a global competition.
Representing the U.S., Daniela is an immigrant who fled the crisis in Venezuela. She is building a sustainable synthetic chemicals company with plans to disrupt the entire industry, which is “of course controlled by a bunch of old white dudes.” Alondra is part of a family of entrepreneurs in Puerto Rico who are helping rebuild the island after the hurricane. Her business is an app to address the lack of care she’s seen for the local deaf community. Costantini says “both of their stories were incredible and both of them are very inspiring. They’re also real people. They are funny and smart and do other things… It’s important for me to show Latinas not as angels or demons [but as] complicated real people.”
That said, she can’t help but shout out the culture, particularly when talking about Own the Room: “I think Latinos are some of the greatest entrepreneurs of all times. We disproportionately start businesses. Many of us have family members who have moved here and then immediately decided to strike out on [their] own and start something new. It takes so much bravery.” Costantini’s own parents did this with “a small furniture company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” so it is personally important to her to tell the story of Latinx entrepreneurs, particularly because it’s one that doesn’t get told much.
She hopes that kids who watch Own the Room “will see a path for themselves,” one where “young people [are] taking on big problems and trying to find solutions.” Costantini thinks, “it’s easy to point out the problems. [It’s] harder to figure out how to solve them. And it’s much harder to practice love like Walter did than it is to practice hate.”
One of those problems that Costantini is busy chipping away at is the lack of Latinx representation in Hollywood. And she’s got a solution for that too: “It starts with hiring more Latino creators at every level. We need more Latino executives to shepherd [projects]. We need Latino journalists… to write about these projects with nuance. We need Latino directors, producers, PAs. [We need to] watch Latino stories [so] Latino creators like myself get more of a chance to make [more] things… We all have a responsibility as Latinos ourselves to push in every way we can.” Indeed.
Own the Room premiered on Disney+ on March 12. Mucho, Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado is available on Netflix now. Science Fair can be streamed now on Disney+ or rented on a variety of other platforms.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. You can follow her on Twitter: @cescobarandrade.