The fire fueling the Latin Film Festival

Ethan van Thillo empowers a community through film

Monica Medina | GSD Reporter

Ethan van Thillo is a true dynamo. As the founder and executive director of the Media Arts Center San Diego, he works hard, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning, conjuring up new ideas on how he can make all that the center encompasses bigger and better.

van Thillo at the Digital Arts Gym’s new theater (Photo by Ryan Kuratomi)

van Thillo at the Digital  Gym’s new theater (Photo by Ryan Kuratomi)

Yet at first glance, van Thillo strikes you not so much a go-getter, but as a man who seems happiest on the sidelines: unobtrusive and inconspicuous. Still, there’s no denying his success at the helm, running one of the largest Latino Film Festivals in the nation, which, since its inception 21 years ago, has drawn 200,000 attendees and screened over 3,000 films. Factoring in the Media Arts Center, which shows films year-round, and the relatively new Digital Gym, with its primary focus on youth, the man is without a doubt, a powerhouse.

“If I’m going to decide on doing something, I’m going to make it happen,” he said. “I have an internal drive and am constantly trying to bring in new innovations, which sometimes drives my staff mad, but I believe there has to be something next since I don’t feel like I’m ever going to say, ‘Okay, I’m done.’”

van Thillo sits in the outside theater of the Digital Gym. (Photo by Hutton Marshall)

van Thillo sits in the outside theater of the Digital Gym. (Photo by Hutton Marshall)

Van Thillo’s drive extends to the Latino community, for which his hot-blooded passion runs deep. Though he is not of Hispanic origin, he credits his mother, Grace, for his belief in and concern for the community, despite growing up in San Clemente where he observed, “the power structure is very conservative.”

“I grew up immersed in the Latino community because of my mom, a bilingual school teacher,” he explained. “My father, originally from Belgium, was a silk screen printer, but it was my mother who I’d go with to visit her students. I’d also travel to Mexico with friends and their families. Growing up in San Clemente and seeing the negative stereotypes of Latinos, and then traveling to Mexico, was a real eye-opener. It allowed me to see people for who they are.”

It was this interest that led him to major in Latin American studies at UC Santa Cruz. With no clear career goals, except a feeling that he wanted to do community work, it was by chance that van Thillo found his path through film.

”I had this professor, Armando Valdez, who grew up in the Chicano movement,” van Thillo recalled. “He said, ‘Let’s organize a Chicano Film Festival as part of our class final project.’ I naively volunteered to do it and learned basically everything about the festival biz — how to find films, write proposals, make posters.”

Film was not van Thillo’s focus back then. He loved music more than film, having mastered the violin, and formed a Cumbia band for which he played the guitar. But he distinctly remembers two movies from his youth that changed the way he looked at life, “Amadeus” and “Koyaanisqatsi.” Perhaps in recognizing the power of film, the class assignment grew into something more for van Thillo.

“Being the driven, crazy person that I am, after it was done, I said to myself, I can’t do this just once,” van Thillo declared. “So I did it on my own for another two years while still in school.”LatinoFilmSidebar_030714

During this time, he met his partner and fellow student Mary Reed. Together they moved to San Diego, and now have two sons, ages 10 and 14. The young couple’s early days in San Diego shaped their aspirations for community involvement.

“Mary was going to go to UCSD to get her teacher credential. I was working for the San Diego County of Education Migrant Education Program. My job was to knock on doors of families we thought might be migrant families. I’d tell them about the services, but they couldn’t qualify for the program unless I knew they’d worked in the fields. I would hear their whole story, and that really helped me by giving me the ability to just talk to people.”

Eventually, van Thillo started up a student film festival, Cinema Estudiantil, in San Diego partnered with the Voz Fronteriza, a UCSD Chicano student newspaper, and SDSU’s student government. Then in 1997, he scored his first celebrity for the festival, actor Edward James Olmos.

“That blew me away,” remembered van Thillo. “The house was packed and I woke up to the fact that people want to see celebrities. The next year we moved the festival off campus to Horton Plaza and started charging. That’s when the corporate world woke up to it, and I dropped the name, Cinema Estudiantil, and it became the Latino Film Festival.”

As the festival grew, van Thillo made the decision to offer year-round programs, partnering with the San Diego Public Library.

“We decided we needed a nonprofit to run our programs,” he says. “So we called ourselves the Media Arts Center and modeled ourselves after media arts centers across the country, adding the youth component, and workshops for adults and kids.”

Not one to rest on his laurels, van Thillo is always on the prowl for the next big thing.

“I want to keep growing,” he said. “It’s a little bit about entertainment, but I also want to keep focusing on education, careers in the film industry and other creative careers, too. We’re always going to screen films, but you’re going to see the festival move a little more into expos and panel discussions and trying to beef that up.”

Van Thillo would also like to see the Digital Gym become a model for other neighborhoods, with storefronts one day in San Ysidro, Chula Vista and Escondido.

“My number one priority is to be constantly committed to the community and keeping the focus on why we’re ultimately here,” van Thillo said. “I always use the tag line, ‘Changing lives through film.’ Whether it’s exhibiting films or providing the tools to make your own films and videos to tell your stories, when you pick a film you’re looking for that connection through culture and identity, family and community … I hope people feel that. I hope it’s felt 100 percent because that’s what it’s all about.”

The Latino Film Festival runs March 13 – 23. For more information, visit


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