By Jeff Mays
HARLEM—Raphael Benavides has a message for Robert DeNiro as the first-ever East Harlem International Film Festival gets underway next week.
"Watch out, DeNiro, we are going to give you a run for your money," he warned the founder of the Tribeca Film Festival.
"You won't be the only film festival in town."
With 40 films shown over six days, and artists from India, China, Sweden, Spain, Argentina and, of course, El Barrio, Benavides is hoping to make the festival a truly international and annual affair.
"We are looking at this as an opportunity to . . . showcase the diversity that East Harlem has," Benavides said.
The events kick off on May 31 with an outdoor screening of "Tito Puente: The King of Latin Music" at East 106th Street between Lexington and Third avenues. Six members of Puente's band, including flutist Dave Valentin, will perform.
From June 1 to 5, films will be screened at several area venues including Poet's Den Theater, El Museo del Barrio, the Museum of the City of New York and the New York Academy of Medicine. The entry fee to most events is $12, except for the outdoor film and a senior event which are free.
Although the festival is in its first year, Benavides said he and others have been hosting screenings for filmmakers in East Harlem for several years.
"We realized there was a need for a venue to bring this goal of helping them to fruition," said Benavides.
Films in the festival include "Raul," about a 73-year-old man from Uruguay who decides to train for a decathlon.
"The Miracle of Spanish Harlem" follows a widower with two daughters as he deals with the aftermath of the loss of his wife. "The Tuner-L'Accordatore" is the story of a piano tuner whose work has a strange effect on the public.
"String Caesar" is based on the early life of Julius Caesar and is set in the maximum security South African prison where Nelson Mandela was once held.
"There's so much great work out there and that's the idea behind the festival," Benavides said.
The event will also benefit East Harlem, which is becoming home to a growing number of flimmakers. At least five area filmmakers are on the festival's advisory board.
"I have met so many filmmakers who live in this neighborhood or work in this industry who talk about the hardship of making it into a festival like the Tribeca Film Festival," Benavides said.
"Since this is a New York festival, it's attractive to artists who are here but especially to those from other parts of the world."
Benavides said the fun won't end on June 5. There are plans for periodic screenings throughout the year.
"The festival ends June 5, and on June 6 the work begins for next year. We want to put East Harlem in the same playing field as the Tribeca Film Festival one day," Benavides said.