One afternoon, Tita (Laura Patalano), an elderly farmer who works picking strawberries, opens the door to her house. An artificially intelligent humanoid (Nico Greetham) stands at the door, his eyes glowing with a tight camera. Tita analyzes the futuristic invention before letting him in.
Tita has hired the humanoid to help her with her work, as she is aging and not as agile as she used to be. But she will soon prove that an AI cannot replace her humanity and her strength.
This story is immortalized in the film “The Ballad of Tita and the Machines”, directed by Miguel Ángel Caballero and co-written with Luis Antonio Aldana. It premiered in Tribeca Film Festival 2023 and will arrive in Los Angeles at the NewFilmmakers Los Angeles InFocus: Latino and Hispanic Film Festivalco-presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Museum, September 23. (Disclaimer: I will be moderating a panel at this year’s NFMETERTHE.)
NFMLA is a monthly festival that aims to foster new voices by providing industry resources to the artists behind the chosen films. The InFocus Latino and Hispanic Film Festival, in association with AMPAS, coincides with the start of Hispanic Heritage Month. This year’s version welcomes 24 new films, including “The Ballad of Tita and the Machines.”
Caballero was one of the 10 filmmakers chosen to create a project for Indeed’s Rising Voices Program, which financed short films on the topic “the future of work.” He was selected for the program in December and then underwent two months of development at the start of the new year. From there he assembled a team of filmmakers to help on what would become “The Ballad of Tita and the Machines.”
The film’s story came about with the help of Aldana, whom Caballero met while working at the Latino Theater Lab with Latino Theater Company. They bonded over being queer Latinos from immigrant families. (Caballero’s family lived in Oxnard and Aldana’s home called Huntington Park.) While at LTC, they contributed to the creation of “Melancholy” from 2007 a play that told the story of a young sailor who returns home from the Iraq War and struggles to readjust to his old life.
In her latest work for Rising Voices, Aldana suggested that they immerse themselves in the history of their own families who immigrated to the United States in search of work. They took the story they knew and added a futuristic twist: What if the AI couldn’t keep up with what their families had endured?
“It’s kind of a tribute to our working-class families and communities that too often become invisible in this country,” Caballero said of the film.
Caballero’s mother, father, and older brothers worked in the fields, picking fruits like grapes, oranges, and strawberries, the same fruits that Tita picks throughout the short film.
He then reflected on the concept of essential workers, a term that became common at the beginning of the pandemic to describe people who worked in positions crucial to helping society stay afloat, such as grocery workers, farm workers, and grocery workers. fast food. Harvesting, something often considered “unskilled work,” suddenly took on new importance.
“It’s a very specific skill that machines can’t do,” Caballero said.
The duo decided to pit humans against AI because the emerging technology had been a big part of the discourse earlier in the year. “We didn’t realize it was going to be so prevalent now,” Caballero said.
Bojana Sandic, director of programming at NFMLA, says she chose to include Caballero and Aldana’s film in the InFocus festival because of its relevance and ingenuity, introducing humor to address the dehumanizing nature of AI.
“The conversation is moving very quickly and there are a lot of people who are rejecting that narrative,” Sandic said. “I think this film does it in a way that points out the ways in which all kinds of human labor is discounted in that process.
“It can not only be unethical but also impossible if humanity is not taken into account,” he added.
Even in the current context… strikes in progress against Hollywood calling on industry leaders to stop relying on AI to replace human creativity in screenwriting and acting; The film itself highlights the importance of supporting the work of living people.
“I think there is a prediction in this that is already starting to be confirmed in some places, and I think we will see it confirmed more and more,” Sandic said.
Aldana, an avid science fiction fan, wanted the film to be more than just another dive into AI. He wanted to subvert the stereotypes of science fiction. Often the hero of these stories is white and helps working class characters on the sidelines. This time, he turned the working class character into a hero.
“It’s a testament to our vision as children of immigrants and queer filmmakers,” he said.
The duo’s perspectives in the science fiction genre add nuances to Latin cinema. Their goal was to represent the voices of queer Latinos in California. Caballero noted that the Latino experience in the United States is more diverse than the usual narratives told by Latinos outside the United States. They sought to represent a multitude of experiences in “The Ballad of Tita and the Machines” through small on-screen exchanges.
For example, Tita holds a photo of his late wife (portrayed by a photo of Aldana’s mother) and speaks to her daughter in Spanish while her daughter responds in English. These moments seem small, but for other Latinos who grew up in the United States, the experience feels familiar.
“We are writing stories about our reality,” Caballero said. “Our mothers spoke Spanish and we spoke to them in Spanish and English. “We are writing from that reality.”
The short film, like many others at the festival, highlights Latin talent in film, a long underrepresented group in entertainment. Patalano told Caballero that he had been in the industry for almost 40 years and “The Ballad of Tita and the Machines” was his first leading role.
“She said, ‘Yeah, Hollywood doesn’t write roles for female leads who look like me with my skin color,’” he recalled. “It was a very happy moment but it broke my heart.”
When casting the film, Caballero sought to attract talent that was very close to field work. He chose his older brother and sister, who worked in the fields with their parents, and they put on the badge once again, this time for the camera.
“We made a big effort so that everyone we had as an extra had to be current field workers, of which we had a handful of them, they had to be children of field workers or former field workers,” Caballero said.
Caballero found it “beautiful” to represent working-class people as three-dimensional characters like Tita, who portrays both a sweet childlike joy and a defiance of the technology that threatens her livelihood.
In “The Ballad of Tita and the Machines,” the story speaks of a reality that is not only full of expansive technological advances, but also of a future in which someone like Tita finds herself facing an AI and exerts undeniable power over she.
“It’s about time we had a science fiction movie with a queer, brown Mexican woman at the helm in this hyperfuturistic world,” Aldana said.
‘The Ballad of Tita and the Machines’
Where: Linwood Dunn Theatre, 1313 Vine St., Los Angeles
When: 5:30 to 8 pm on Saturday, September 23.
Cost: $10 to $30