“I distinctly remember the exact moment I wanted to be a director,” recalls Jon Alonso Ayon, a recent Cinema alum. In the 1980s, his father had bought an expensive JVC video camcorder which he forbade Ayon and his siblings to touch.
“And I remember when I was 7, I snuck into his closet because I knew where he had it, and I made this variety show with my sister and my brother,” he remembers.
“And then my dad caught us, and he was really upset. But at the same time he wanted to see the tape. When he saw the tape, he laughed out loud. And he kind of made a deal with me: ‘Alright, if you can make actual good things, if you can make me laugh, if you can make something entertaining, I’ll let you use the camera.’”
It was then that Ayon started his filmmaking career.
Now 35, Ayon is one of five finalists in the Francis Coppola Director’s Short Film Contest. His immigration documentary, Sombras, will screen alongside the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, this month.
“We conceived of the competition as a call to action, as a catalyst for anyone with the ambition to make a film to do just that,” says Roman Coppola, who selected the contest finalists. “We’ve been encouraged by the response, and grateful for the introduction to such inventive and imaginative work, especially from new and emerging filmmakers.”
Ayon also received a highly sought-after $5,000 national grant from the Caucus Foundation to finish and distribute Sombras. The grant usually goes to graduate-student fiction filmmakers from schools like University of Southern California, UCLA or New York University.
Failing at filmmaking
Ayon’s Bachelor of Arts in Cinema is his first after stumbling his way through high school, attempting to start a production company in Los Angeles and then returning to community college at age 30 after those plans did not materialize. The experience made him all the more self-assured and hardworking when he got to SF State.
“I failed miserably at [filmmaking] before going back to school, so that fear of failure was gone,” he says. “Being an older transfer student, I had to grind and try to get the most out of every lecture and every exam and every single paper I wrote. I honestly was never like that in high school or my early 20s.”
Ayon adds that being older than the average undergrad helped him develop deep mentoring relationships with his professors. Johnny Symons and Celine Shimizu are professors Ayon considers personal mentors. He still contacts them for advice.
Style and the golden age of Mexican cinema
One filmmaking group that Ayon’s father introduced him to as a child has undeniable influence.
“I watched a lot of the ‘golden age’ films, the Época de Oro of Mexican cinema,” Ayon says. He lists 20th-century Mexican directors including Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and Ismael Rodriguez as having made “beautiful films with complex characters that don’t get a lot of credit in the film world.”
Iconic experimental filmmaker Luis Buñuel inspires the surrealist touches in Ayon’s work.
But Ayon makes it a point to not let one style dictate the direction of his career. He refuses to be pigeon-holed into any genre or category, preferring to do what feels right for each project. "I've never really thought of a style,” he says. “ … I don’t ever want to be considered like, ‘Oh, that’s Jon Ayon, he makes these kinds of films.’”
Exploring Latin American diaspora
The son of Mexican immigrants, Ayon likes to delve into the Latino diaspora narratives of which his family takes part.
“In a lot of my work, I’m passionate about exploring the diaspora of immigrant parents and their kids and then also the extended trauma and ripple effects of that,” he says.
He adds: “I feel like my most important passion, the thread [in my work] that I hope when I look back 20 to 30 years from now, is a discussion of how trauma affects families … oppression, poverty, isolation, criminalization of Latinos.”
These themes run through Ayon’s life so deeply that when it came time to make his senior thesis film at SF State, he chose to relay his own family’s story for Sombras, the Spanish word for “shadows.”
When it was time to make his thesis film, Ayon experienced personal losses too painful to ignore, but too traumatic to put on screen. He decided to channel these emotions into a subject still close to him: immigration.
Ayon cast a wide net to find his narrative, interviewing lawyers and immigration experts before interviewing his parents to get an intimate account of what immigration was like for them. Ayon had never heard their whole story but says that during the process of interviewing them, they told a shocking narrative he describes as “insane” because he “didn’t know the extent of how bad it was in their home country.”
He says the interview brought them closer together as a family.
“My relationship with my parents was a bit distant … but by the end of the interview, my parents and I were crying because it was such a therapeutic process,” Ayon says.
An idea that started as a big immigration film with a full crew became a quiet, personal film about Ayon’s parents he made on his own.
Sombras casts a successful shadow
On winning the $5,000 Caucus Foundation grant, Ayon says, “I wasn’t just happy that I made my mentors proud, but I was also happy that my parents’ story was compelling enough to people on the board and that it was worthwhile to give an award to."
Sombras also earned him an opportunity to be included in HBO’s New York Latino Film Festival this past October. It will also screen at the American Documentary Film Festival in April.
After Sombras, Ayon is determined to make more work encouraging a variety voices in media and the film industry. He believes diversity will be achieved when it is no longer a novelty.
“I used to think my only goal was to make work that strengthens empathy,” he says. “But now I see my job is to make sure I tell enough stories that begin to normalize my personal experience and my family’s experience. … The more stories that come out like [Sombras] the better.”
— Gospel Cruz