A Mariachi Academy Heads To Sundance

Lucy Gellman | December 19th, 2019

A Mariachi Academy Heads To Sundance

Film  |  Music  |  Arts & Culture  |  Quinnipiac University


A still from Día de la Madre, which will be showing at the Sundance Film Festival next year. Ashley Brandon Photo. Below is the filmmaker at work, photo courtesy of Quinnipiac University.  

A local musical engine is headed to the Sundance Film Festival this January, thanks to a documentary short that caught its students in action.

 That’s the story for the Mariachi Academy of New England, which filmmakers Ashley Brandon and Dennis Höhne have been following for several months. This fall, the two received news that their documentary short Día de la Madre will screen at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.

"A band of juveniles embark on a 24-hour spree of breaking into houses and causing a ruckus," reads a synopsis for the film. 

The short, shot over a single day with a budget of $300, chronicles the work that students and faculty at the academy did for Mother’s Day earlier this year. It is part of a larger film on the Mariachi Academy on which the two are still working. 

“I’m so excited to keep working with them,” Brandon said in a phone call Wednesday afternoon. “Our goal was just to make something fun that will make people smile.”

Both Brandon and Höhne are professors in film, television and media arts at Quinnipiac University, where they have been teaching for two years. The film was produced by Nevo Shinaar, with whom Brandon attended graduate school at Northwestern University. Together, the three of them comprise Wolf + Me Films

The groundwork for Día de la Madre began last year, with Brandon’s initial interest in making a long film on the Mariachi Academy. Born and raised in a small Ohio town called Defiance—"a lot of corn fields, a lot of pig farms"—the filmmaker moved to North Haven in 2017, after her studies at Wright College in Ohio and Northwestern University just outside Chicago. Before she arrived, she and Höhne started doing research on Connecticut, delighted to learn that it bucked several of its stodgier stereotypes.

Ashley Brandon-Sundance

“We read up on it,” she said. “That there’s mansions and everyone owns a yacht.”

What she found instead, especially in and around New Haven, was a cultural vibrancy that pumped music and art into the state’s veins. After wrapping up a different filming project last year, she reached out to the Mariachi Academy to see if they’d be open to having filmmakers follow their work. She was fascinated by the organization, which has spread to locations in New Haven, Wallingford, Meriden and Hartford in just four years.

Adam Romo, a Nevada transplant who founded the organization in 2016 “to make sure that it’s passed on to the next generation,” welcomed her into the space.

“I’m extremely proud,” he said in a phone call Wednesday evening. “It’s a chronology of the kids, where they started and where they are today. It’s brought me a lot of pride in that.”

While Brandon has spent months filming at the academy—which she plans to continue in the new year—Día de la Madre paints a specific  snapshot of this year’s Mother’s Day celebrations. In May, Romo reached out to her with the news that “basically they had a whole surprise for the moms,” which piqued her attention.

At the time, she didn’t have the concept for a short film in mind. But she had a tiny budget, and a few lenses that she borrowed from Quinnipiac. She estimates that she spent 12 to 16 hours filming, with work that started at 2 a.m. Only later, when she was editing hours of tape for the longer film, did she realize that it could stand alone as a six-minute vignette.

Because she acts as both her own filmmaker and her own editor, she added that she had to be “ruthless” when cutting down the material. She remained relatively mum on details of the film, noting that she wants to wait until after Sundance to show it to a New Haven audience.

"I definitely go into a zone when I film," she added of the process. "The camera becomes a part of you. The camera becomes your eye. I’m on this totally different, other worldly plane."

In the meantime, she did screen it earlier this month for a top-secret group of parents and kids at the academy’s winter party. There were tears, she recalled. Lots of happy tears.

Lisa Berlinger, an academic advisor and board member at the Mariachi Academy, recalled watching the video and feeling incredibly moved. So did Romo, who had only learned of the film’s acceptance into Sundance a few weeks earlier.

“I got very emotional,” he said. “It really is a sign and an accomplishment, that we’re being acknowledged. We’re really excited.”

To learn more about the Mariachi Academy of New England, click here. To learn more about the Sundance Film Festival, which runs from Jan. 23 through Feb. 2, click here.