Snag even a few minutes of conversation with Nelson Betancourt, and you're bound to catch his excitement that Orlando now has a Latin American festival that's about more than food, music and mingling. Betancourt's enthusiasm is obvious as he reels off a list of the avenues of cultural expression to be explored in the first-ever Orlando Latin American Film and Heritage Festival – OLA Fest, for short – which he and his organization, AWAKENING/Art & Culture, are bringing to the D.MAC media center and its environs this weekend.

There's film, of course. But there's also visual art. And spoken-word poetry. And dance instruction. And musical-instrument-making demonstrations. And educational forums that will dissect the Latin American experience from perspectives both artistic and socioeconomic.

"The mix is the message here," says Betancourt, a Colombian-born arts supporter who's admired from afar the Asian, Jewish and gay film festivals presented at Maitland's Enzian Theater. The event he's producing, though, is significantly wider of scope, using cinema (a particular passion of Betancourt's) as the selling point for a discipline-blending experiment in community outreach.

"I want to use film to go just beyond entertainment," Betan-court explains. So the opening-night screening of the Oscar-nominated Maria Full of Grace (which had its area debut last September at Enzian) will be enhanced by an appearance by featured actor Orlando Tobon, a real-life activist who has made it his business to claim the bodies of dead mulas, or drug mules. ("He has a heart of gold," lauds Betancourt, who claims to speak with Tobon weekly.) Visiting filmmakers and performers will likewise lend context to the OLA Fest showings of films with less visibility than Maria but just as much to say. A Day Without a Mexican mines the comedic potential of a suddenly Latino-less California, while 2001's Almost a Woman adapts the memoirs of Esmeralda Santiago into a made-for-TV tale of growing up Puerto Rican in the New York of the 1960s.

Betancourt says he's "very interested in economic development," which is why he's bringing in Paul Glover, the founder of an Ithaca, N.Y., medical co-op, to participate in a panel discussion inspired by the documentary The Take. That film shows what happened when workers took over factories that had been abandoned in the wake of Argentina's financial collapse. Not only are Glover's experiences relevant to the film's themes of civilian empowerment, but hearing them from the horse's mouth should lend depth to an "economic forum" that's geared toward improving the lot of greater Orlando's own Latin population.

Under the OLA Fest model, film is a gateway to self-actualization and the other lively arts as well. The showing of Voices in Wartime, a doc starring sundry international poets, is a great rationale for a live performance by Colombia's Antonieta Villamil; meanwhile, Betancourt happily acknowledges that the availability of D.MAC's downstairs art gallery will make movie patrons a captive audience to an exhibit of works by 21 local Latin-American painters. One of them, Edson Campos, will unveil two never-before-seen airbrush pieces, including the grandly spiritual Sacred.

That's not to mention the outdoor showcases of music and dance and the sidewalk folk art that will see OLA Fest spilling out of D.MAC and into the neighboring Heritage Square. It's an ambitious undertaking, but to its organizer, one whose time has come. Betancourt says he's been championing the idea of an OLA-type affair for "a long time," dating all the way back to his days helping Jason Neff's Frameworks Alliance put on the Central Florida Film & Video Festival that was an annual cultural staple in the mid- to late-'90s. (Betancourt was responsible for booking the visit by filmmaker Yevgeni Yevtushenko that accompanied a memorably controversial screening of the documentary I Am Cuba in 1998.) The AWAKENING organization, in fact, is an outgrowth of Frameworks, and Betancourt started hashing out the particulars of OLA Fest with Neff while the latter was in the process of leaving his job as D.MAC's program director last year.

Since then, it's been a steady two and a half months of work for the plugged-in Betancourt, a self-described film-business "dabbler" whose professional credits include associate producership of the Valencia Community College family feature The First of May. After much "scrounging `of` pennies and dimes," he can at least say that the first OLA Fest's expenses are covered. And being even marginally in the black has him thinking ahead to making the festival a twice-yearly happening. He'd like the next one to take place in fall, timed to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month and the 400th anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote.

"I think `OLA Fest` can be a real important piece of developing the arts and culture in Orlando," he says of his long-awaited brainchild. "If I have to go out and project the stuff on the side of a wall, I'll do it."

(For full schedule, visit www.dmacorlando.com)

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