The eighth annual Highland Park Independent Film Festival took place Oct. 1–2 at the Highland Theatre. The festival featured 31 films by NELA filmmakers including “Brandi Finds God” by Gonzalo Cordova, “Homie Love” and “Skater Dudes” by Juan Escobedo and “Willie in the Sky” by Nathaniël Siri.

“Brandi Finds God”

Gonzalo Cordova, a film director, standing outside of the Highland Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 2, 2021. Theodore Tang/The Occidental

“Brandi Finds God,” a short film written and directed by Gonzalo Cordova, opens with a teenage girl who accidentally runs over a woman’s pair of stilettos while attempting to parallel park. She and her mother bring the woman with them to church in order to get her a new pair of shoes. According to Cordova, the plot, in which the rebellious and half-drunk secular woman discovers a Pentecostal church, is based on a real story from his childhood.

“A young woman who was clearly still a little bit inebriated from the night before showed up at our church with us, and acted very weird,” Cordova said. “It’s an actual thing that happened.”

In one scene, Brandi, the tipsy church crasher, brightens at the prospect of tiny glasses of free wine during the service — it is actually grape juice — and in another, the teenage girl gets excited about seeing a movie where the characters can curse. Cordova, who is both a stand-up comedian and a filmmaker, said humor is an intentional part of his storytelling.

“Usually I outline [the story] by putting notecards on the wall,” Cordova said. “Then I will write an outline on a Microsoft Word document, then I’ll write it into script. And along the way, each time, I punch [it] up. So I’ll add jokes each time.”

Cordova, a television writer originally from Florida, is of Ecuadorian descent. He also co-created “Edith!”, a narrative podcast about former First Lady Edith Wilson and wrote for “The Academy Awards,” “Adam Ruins Everything” and “Tuca and Bertie.”

“Homie Love” and “Skater Dudes”

Juan Escobedo, a film director, standing outside of the Highland Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 2, 2021. Theodore Tang/The Occidental

Juan Escobedo had two films in the Highland Park Independent Film Festival, “Homie Love” and “Skater Dudes,” both featuring queer men and safe sex practices. “Homie Love” focuses on a young man who brings his boyfriend over while his dad is not home. In the film, characters discuss the importance of using condoms and PreP, a medication commonly used to prevent HIV. “Skater Dudes” portrays a couple at a skatepark — two men who discuss the results of a recent STI test.

Escobedo said he developed the concepts for “Homie Love” and “Skater Dudes” after he was approached by Altamed, a healthcare provider that had seen his other films about STIs — including Lydia ChlamydiaPapi Papilloma and Gary Gonorrhea. Altamed asked that he make more shorts for them with similar concepts. By focusing on STI prevention, Escobedo said his films are meant to inform, not blame.

“You never want to shame people for [STIs] or getting infected,” Escobedo said.

Escobedo said he has an active writing process. Rather than sitting down and brainstorming ideas, he said he uses exercise to get his mind flowing.

“If I get stuck on a word, on a line or on a scene, I start jogging, and that’s when I get into my head,” Escobedo said.

Escobedo said he believes events such as the Highland Park Independent Film Festival are very important.

“This is a collaboration of different mixes of races and cultures,” Escobedo said. “You need places like this where people can come watch films and escape and learn and get provoked.”

Escobedo is a San Diego native. In addition to being a director, he is also a photographer, actor and the founder of the East LA Society of Film and Arts and the East LA Film Festival.

“Willie in the Sky”

Nathaniël Siri, a film director, standing outside of the Highland Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 2, 2021. Theodore Tang/The Occidenta

A product of the early days of pandemic lockdown, “Willie in the Sky,” written and directed by Nathaniël Siri, tells the story of a man struggling with anxiety and depression as he lives on the roof of his apartment complex. The film is narrated completely by voiceover, as the audience hears Willie’s inner thoughts while he silently goes about his days.

Siri said the entire film was made over the course of three days, as he decided to enter into the Safer At Home Film Festival four days before the deadline.

“After those three days of editing at the same time I’m shooting in parallel,” Siri said. “We had a movie.”

According to Siri, the story is based on his own struggles with mental health during quarantine. In one scene, Willie lets himself fall off a roof, only to rise in flight seconds later, drifting up into the sky.

“You can make your own interpretation of it,” Siri said. “But in my world it’s a metaphor for flying off and rising above difficulties and obstacles, and just being liberated from the weight of anxiety, depression and everything that was keeping him from smiling.”

Siri is originally from Montréal and has been making films for 28 years.