Bowerbirds live in the forest, and the males’ main purpose is to decorate their nest elaborately to attract the female birds to mate. They collect random and colorful things they find such as coins, bottle caps, berries, and flowers for their nest. Matthew Castellanos is not a bird and certainly has more purpose than an animal’s main functions (eating and mating). But his artistic character and production company, BowerBird, reflects much of the bird’s intention—bringing different treasures together to create something beautiful.
“[BowerBird] is a creative nest for blossoming filmmakers and storytellers,” he says, “I want to decorate an environment for other creatives who are inclined to come, and we build together. Bowerbird is what I am.”
The 26-year-old Mexican-American filmmaker from South Central Los Angeles has worked on various projects since he graduated from the California State University, Dominguez Hills. He directed Steve Lacy’s music videos, Tyler the Creator’s television show “Nuts + Bolts” on VICELAND, television commercials, and more recently a short film called “YOSHUA.” But it wasn’t until last year’s presidential elections that completely changed the intention of his work.
After wrapping up a long day of work on November 8, 2016, Castellanos texted his mom to let her know that he’ll be bringing food home to celebrate the first woman becoming president. “I want to watch this with you. We’re going to have a female president. This is fucking amazing!” he told her. As the night painfully unfolded, he was one of many who shed tears that night. It made him realize that “We’re in such a bubble [in Los Angeles]. Everyone is friendly, and there’s not that much visible racism, so you think that the country is like that. Shit is still fucked up in this country.”
That night changed everything, including his art. His previous work had always meant something to him, but it was never really his voice or his story. Nonetheless, it helped him grow into the filmmaker he is now and is becoming. “I’ve grown in terms of finding my voice, and once you find your voice as a creator, the rest falls into place.”
Castellanos was one of five aspiring filmmakers part of AT&T’s Hello Lab diversity-focused mentorship program. The program was created to support filmmakers from diverse backgrounds create a short film. Mentors included some of Hollywood’s notable leaders such as Octavia Spencer, Common, and Nina Yang Bongiovi (producer, Fruitvale Station), among others. Their films are now available for view on DIRECTV and DIRECTV NOW.
From this program, “YOSHUA” was born. “YOSHUA” is fantasy drama short film that people may have never seen before: young black and latinx kids dealing with a real alien who has superpowers in South Central Los Angeles. “I want to bring the fantasy genre to the hood,” he says, “I wonder what it would’ve been like had Hitchcock grew up in Inglewood or South Central L.A.”
The main character, Yoshua (Kim House), is a big blue alien who shares a strong bond with his four best friends Maelle (Aimee Carrero), Sam (Otmara Marrero), Cliff (Spence Moore II), and Francisco (Johnny Ortiz). Originally from the fictional Tierra Amarilla mountains in Canada, Yoshua and many others like him are still undiscovered but slowly migrate all around the world, specifically to the U.S. and to California. His friends plan to leave their hometown to protect YOSHUA from the police. As priorities change between the group, conflicts arise, and they have to make decisions that can change their lives—and Yoshua’s—forever.
“It’s about humanity,” Castellanos says, “a bird can love a fish but where would they live? [“YOSHUA”] deals with anyone who has ever loved someone but society told them they couldn’t. It’s personal to me and personal to, I think, a lot of communities.”
While there are many interpretations of the film, it made me think of the immigration politics in this country.
“Why an alien?” I asked.
In the U.S., the term “aliens” is sometimes used to refer to undocumented immigrants, ultimately undermining their humanity. Could “YOSHUA” be offensive and controversial?
“I by no means intend that this big blue monster is a representation of an actual race, gender, or anything,” Castellanos responds. “He is a Tierra Amarilla, and he exists in the mountains with his people. Nothing else. And that’s the beauty of film and art, it allows for interpretation but if anyone asks me what is Yoshua supposed to be? He is an alien with whiskers, and there’s a lot of them.”
Castellanos did consider whether his film could be offensive. Yoshua is an alien, but he isn’t claiming that immigrants are also aliens. As a filmmaker, he doesn’t believe in creating art with the fear of receiving backlash.
“The idea of me switching something up because it might be misinterpreted is paralyzing to my growth and my story and the way I want to tell it.” However, he’s open to conversations with opposing views.
His ultimate goal as a filmmaker is to tackle and bend genres that are often forbidden in South Central L.A. He wants to create stories that represent what he has seen and has dealt with such as religion, the latinx heritage and traditions, and politics. “Ultimately, [my voice] is my commentary on the world as is.”
“There’s a quote [by Nina Simone] that says ‘art should reflect the times,’” he pauses, “and I’m no exception to that. I want to make sure that my art reflects the times.”