October 28, 2020

Rommel Villa wins Student Academy Award for Sweet Potatoes

By Maria Warith-Wade and Taylor Yarber-Smith

Set in 1950 Mexico, Sweet Potatoes documents the story of scientist Luis Miramontes, and the religious and cultural backlash he faced for his controversial and revolutionary discovery of the primary hormone used in contraception. Sweet Potatoes presents the internal conflict set upon Miramontes as he contemplates the ramifications of creating a world with less children. A story of familial obligation, religion, and science told beautifully by our very own Film & Television Production graduate Rommel Villa.         

Sweet Potatoes is a story of the clash of religion and science; a standoff that doesn’t seem to be diminishing in our culture. Why did you want to tell this incredible story?

Exactly because of the reason you mention in your question. Luis Miramontes was a man of faith who also believed in science, I found that fascinating. I grew up learning to either believe in the divine creation or the Big Bang theory, there was no in-between... As a Catholic man who loved volunteering at church as a catechist on weekends, I was exposed to the Catholic Church's teachings, but as a Systems Engineer - my undergrad - I grew respect for the analytical sciences that base their teachings on facts rather than spirituality. I was caught in between. I kept thinking that there has to be a gray area where these two strong beliefs intersect. That made me respect and appreciate Luis Miramontes' story so much. I wanted to show the real-life events that happened after his groundbreaking invention. I think this story speaks to how divided we were and still are in a society that needs to find some middle ground more than ever.

What is the meaning of the name of the film? If it’s not giving away too much.

Sweet Potatoes represents science and spirituality, all at once. On the one hand, the plant that Luis Miramontes used to synthesize the contraceptive hormone was a tuberous root called Barbasco, a kind of medicinal Sweet Potato also known as the Mexican Sweet Potato. On the other hand, at home, the Miramontes family had a sweet potato farm along with other plants that they used for cooking. Luis would give his best friend, Father Alfonso, baskets of sweet potatoes to show him his appreciation and love. The name of the film represents the common ground that science and religion could have. 

This film is about a Mexican scientist who pioneered a breakthrough that benefits women all around the world. Why do you think Luis Miramontes isn’t a household name?

I think Luis Miramontes' story is one of many examples of the systemic appropriation of a person's hard work. And I believe this usually happens to minorities/misrepresented people - people of color, women, LGBTQ+ community, etc.. - who have been taken advantage of by corporations and their representatives. Luis didn't get the recognition he deserved, but his company and bosses surely did, which is unfortunate but also completely relatable. My hope is that this film serves as an educational tool that gives voice to those revolutionary brilliant minds that were not able to speak up back then.

Who were your collaborators on the film?

I could go forever with this answer. First of all, I would say that Octavio Miramontes, Luis Miramontes' son, was my very first collaborator. He trusted his family's story to me and I will forever be grateful for that. Next, I would say that USC and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation supported me and my team financially, morally, and most of all, with the incredible mentors who oversaw the progress of the film from beginning to end. Next, my amazing producers Andrea Porras and Damon Laguna, and all the Sweet Potatoes crew in Los Angeles as well as Mexico who gave their time, talent, and passion for the story. Last but not least, my top-notch cast - found by the amazing Casting Director Elvira Richards - Jorge Adrian Espindola, Azucena Acevedo, and Daniel Pinte, and the rest of the talented cast who not only beautifully acted but existed on the screen, bringing a sense of reality to this fictional project.

You came to the School of Cinematic Arts for graduate school from Bolivia. Why did you choose USC?

There were two main reasons. First of all, I looked over a lot of programs from different schools all around the world, and USC's School of Cinematic Arts film program seemed to be the most complete one according to my needs. It offered exposure to all filmmaking roles, had incredibly talented award-winning professionals, welcomed diverse students from all around the world, and more. Second of all, I wanted to go to the number one film school in the world, so I figured I'd give it a chance and apply. Luckily, it all worked out! 

What are you working on now and what are your career goals?

I think Sweet Potatoes is the first chapter of many more to come. There are more stories out there about underrepresented people who had humble upbringings but their contribution to the world was priceless, so I'm currently working on compiling those characters to continue writing the following chapters to pitch as an episodic series. I’m also finishing up a feature script that takes place in Bolivia and the U.S. This is another story that is close to my heart. It includes love, heartbreak, violations of privacy, the benefits and disadvantages of technology, self-identity, and closure… I know, it’s all complicated but it’ll make sense once it’s done, I promise. My hope is to develop and produce this project as my first feature film. 

In the future, I hope to own/work in a Production Company that produces films all over Latin America about underrepresented Latinx stories, with diverse characters on screen as well as a diverse team behind the cameras.

How did it feel to win the Student Academy Award?

It definitely was a dream come true. I can confidently say that this has been the biggest achievement of my early career as a filmmaker. It's not only an honor but it is also humbling. It encourages me to write more, to study more, to create more, and to put the name of Bolivia, the Latinx community, and the LGBTQ+ community high above. I thank God for such a blessing and promise to take this award as an opportunity to continue on with my goals as a filmmaker.

What advice would you have for students from Latin America who are interested in following in your footsteps and coming to SCA?

I would tell them to do as Nike Ads say: "Just do it". Write a story that inspires you, grab your cell phone, go out to the world, and film that story. Continue being creative no matter what. Technology can be such a great tool for filmmakers. We don't need expensive equipment to tell stories, we do need passion though. Feed that passion by watching films and tv shows that you like and dissect them, learn from them, be prepared with a set of work so that when it comes the time to apply to film school at SCA, you already have an idea of who you are as a filmmaker. And most importantly, always remember where you come from. I love my home country Bolivia. I get my inspiration from my family, my traditions, and challenges, which makes me who I am, so I would tell all Latin American students to keep their passion high and their home even higher.