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Award-winning NMSU film selected by Tunisian environmental film festival

  • By Minerva Baumann
  • 575-646-7566
  • mbauma46@nmsu.edu
  • May 07, 2018
woman on movie set
movie still

New Mexico State University associate professor Ilana Lapid’s short film is being screened at EnviroFest-Tunisia this month, along with award-winning documentaries “A Plastic Ocean,” “Catching the Sun” and “Before the Flood,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s film about climate change.

“Yochi” is among seven films – five feature documentaries and two shorts - chosen to be part of EnviroFest-Tunisia, which took place May 3-5th. After the festival, the films will go on a social-impact road show to surrounding cities.

The film’s cinematographer Robert Dugan, a 2016 graduate of CMI and one of Lapid’s former students, is representing the film at the Tunisian festival and road show in Tunisia through May 14. Dugan is a director, editor and cinematographer based in Albuquerque. He will speak on several filmmaker panels, including one at the City of Culture of Culture in Tunis, about using cinematography to tell stories for social impact, from a drama and documentary perspective.

"Yochi" is a story of a 9-year-old selectively mute Mayan boy who guards a nest of endangered Yellow-Headed Parrots in Belize’s pine savannah. When his beloved older brother, Itza, returns from the city, Yochi learns that he’s in debt and has turned to poaching – setting the brothers on a collision course.

“’Yochi’ is a film about connection,” said Lapid, the film’s writer/director and professor at NMSU’s Creative Media Institute in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s about finding your voice and protecting what is most sacred to you. ‘Yochi’ puts a human face on the global poaching crisis, specifically - the poaching of the critically endangered Yellow-Headed Parrots in Belize.”

“Yochi” has been selected for 16 previous film festivals including the 2018 Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capitol. The film won Best Short at the Belize International Film Festival and is continuing its festival run. “Yochi” was selected by H.E. Daniel Gutierez, Belize Ambassador to the U.S., to screen at the Belize Embassy in Washington, D.C., as part of the May 5 celebration of Passport DC. In 2017, more than 200,000 people enjoyed Passport DC, in which embassies open their doors to the public.

“Global populations of endangered Yellow-Headed Parrots have declined over 90 percent since the 1970s, due to poaching, deforestation, and other factors,” Drexler said. “We’re hoping the film, by touching people’s hearts, can be used in educational efforts to change people’s minds about poaching and illegally trafficking these birds to the US and other places overseas.”

A trailer for the film is available on the website: www.yochifilm.com.

“Yochi” was a U.S.-Belizean co-production, executive produced by Craig Holden, novelist and director of corporate and foundation Relations at the NMSU Foundation. Drexler and Belizean filmmakers Daniel Velazquez and Arran Bevis produced it. A Peace Corps volunteer in Belize in the late 90s, Drexler has returned to Belize annually. She studies Belizean community response to ecological changes, such as deforestation. She is currently a Ph.D. student in NMSU’s Educational Leadership Department.

“From the first, ‘Yochi’ was a team effort, and it could not have happened without our very talented cast and crew,” said Lapid. “We were so fortunate to have had the sustained support and encouragement of so many people, from CMI Department Head Amy Lanasa, to NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, to the local community that organized fundraisers to help us complete the film. These contributions were indispensable, as was the support of the Belize Film Commission, in our efforts to realize our dream of creating a film that can be used for social impact.

“I am also very grateful to have such talented students at CMI, and to get to work with them creatively outside of the classroom. For instance, I loved the process of working with David Morales, a CMI grad and gifted editor, who edited ‘Yochi.’”

Dugan was among several former CMI students who joined Lapid in making the film. Other alumni involved include co-producers Jenn Garcia and Whitney Guaderrama, first assistant director A.J. Johnson, production sound mixer Nicholas Duron and gaffer Joaquin Chavana. Alexandro Horcasitas and Lapid share a story by credit. CMI assistant professor Sherwin Lau did the color grading for the film.

“Together with Kristi Drexler, I had twice led Faculty-Led International Program courses on documentary filmmaking in Belize (in 2013 and 2014), and made some amazing connections with filmmakers there,” Lapid said.

Carol and Richard Foster, Emmy-award winning environmental filmmakers, were advisors on the film. The team worked with Belize Bird Rescue, and with the community of San Antonio in Cayo, Belize. They cast non-actors they discovered through auditions in the surrounding villages. “Yochi” is in four languages: Yucatec Mayan, Creole, English, and Spanish. The film is being subtitled in Spanish and French.

“Ilana Lapid is representative of many of our faculty here at CMI who use their creative scholarship work to provide exciting, experiential opportunities for our students,” said CMI department head Amy Lanasa. “In this instance, Ilana took CMI students and alumni with her all the way to a foreign country in order to make a short film like “Yochi,” so these students not only got the hands-on experience and production credits, but also made important connections with Belizean filmmakers and crew.”

Lapid and Drexler are focusing on using the film for conservation education. They recently presented the film at the headquarters of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Kristi and I are working with international NGOs (non governmental organizations) – Environment for the Americas, Partners in Flight, One Earth, among others – to use Yochi as a resource for efforts to curb poaching and the illegal wildlife trade.”

They are currently raising money to fund a proposed screening tour of “Yochi” in high-priority communities in Belize and Guatemala, at risk of Yellow-Headed Parrot poaching and border wildlife trafficking. A “Yochimobile” bus (equipped with generator, projector, screen and speakers) will bring the film and local conservation experts to remote villages.

“Yochi” will be screening in communities across Latin America as part of celebrations of 2018 World Migratory Bird Day. Yochi was also selected for future inclusion in the digital toolkit put out by the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance.

“This film’s story about two brothers in a Maya village in Belize, shows real socioeconomic pressures people face,” said Drexler.

Multiple agencies and conservation organizations in Belize have requested to use “Yochi” for educational and social impact campaigns.

NMSU biology professor Tim Wright, whose research is focused on parrots, said the film is a story people can relate to. “I think it really has the power to change people’s minds about the impact of the wildlife trade in ways that 100 scientific papers could never do.”

NMSU graduate student Fabio Tarazona, in the fish, wildlife and conservation ecology department, is currently leading field efforts in Yellow-Headed Parrot biomonitoring in Belize, along with crews of local and international biologists.

“It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to do the work that I love most: to use visual storytelling to touch peoples’ hearts and engage with global issues,” Lapid said. “Working at NMSU, and having support from the university and Las Cruces communities, has allowed me to do that.”