Documentary duo: Meet brothers Adolfo and Ivan Cantu-Villarreal

Filmmaking brothers destroy all stereotypes

Adolfo and Ivan Cantu-Villarreal. (Photo by Rasy Ran)
Adolfo and Ivan Cantu-Villarreal. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

When brothers Adolfo and Ivan Cantu-Villarreal immigrated to the United States, they brought only what would fit in their car.

Then 17 and 10, their mother moved them from Monterrey, Mexico to Dallas for the promise of better opportunities.

They were the sons of a famous Mexican drag racer and had dreams of being professional soccer players. But their lack of athletic ability, paired with creative minds and the immigrant work ethic, led them to careers in the arts.

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Now 32 and 26, they own Oak Cliff-based Tzom Films with producer Maribel De Leon, and they produce commercials for clients including Fossil, Dave & Buster’s, Mary Kay and Fair Park. Anytime they can, they also produce music videos and independent films.

They say the immigrant experience informs their work.

Adolfo and Ivan are redheaded and of fair complexion. They didn’t grow up poor, and their parents weren’t migrant farm workers or housecleaners. But they find those are stereotypes that most Americans have of Mexican immigrants.

“It’s incredible how unsettled people can be at the fact that there are people out there who don’t fit the mold of the perception they’ve created for themselves,” Adolfo says.

As filmmakers, they strive to show their audiences the unexpected.

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In a new video for Dallas-based rock band Nervous Curtains, “Devastator,” they employed a diverse cast of actors and dancers, most of them from Oak Cliff.

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There is so much creative talent in our neighborhood that one doesn’t have to go far to find everyone from a makeup artist to a prop builder, they say.

“Filmmaking is all about connecting people … it’s amazing the talent you can bring together,” Adolfo says. “It’s the hardest part of filmmaking, but it’s also the most rewarding.”

The Cantu-Villarreal brothers took unconventional education paths. Adolfo graduated from Lake Highlands High School, and his younger brother graduated from Richardson High. When Adolfo attended Richland College, though, he didn’t pursue a degree.

A counselor tried to set him on a path to graduation, but Adolfo said, “Forget about the degree.”

Instead, he took philosophy, art and music classes without regard to credits.

“I took the classes I wanted to take,” he says. “It was one of the best things that I did.”

Ivan is a self-taught illustrator and composer who also attended Richland College and didn’t finish. It’s one more way in which they don’t fit the mold.

Ivan describes an “obsessive drive” with art and film since childhood. Their mother, Renata Villarreal, never censored what they could read or watch. So young Ivan spent hours dissecting every shot of movies like “Goodfellas,” watching the scenes of his favorite films over and over.

Adolfo says one of his favorite parts of documentary filmmaking is research. When he takes on a project, he reads as much as possible about that topic. At the end, he disconnects from that and starts researching the next thing.

“Having a sense of curiosity is the most important thing as a human being,” he says. “When you stop being curious, I don’t know how you can wake up in the morning.”

He’s also a teacher. Adolfo offers a filmmaking summer camp, through nonprofit client Cara Mia Theater Co., at the Latino and Oak Cliff cultural centers.

The students use professional equipment and must meet the same high standards he sets for himself, he says. And they always succeed because most of them attend neighborhood schools and don’t have much of an arts education, so they’re hungry for any outlet.

Most of the summer camp students are girls, and Adolfo says they sometimes don’t think of themselves as directors and producers. From the first day, he sets out to smash those stereotypes.

Besides their paid work, Tzom Films is working on a self-funded short film. And they have many more ideas for shorts and feature films, including eventually, a documentary or biopic about their late father, the eccentric drag racer.

For the past three years, a Mexican director has won the Academy Award for Best Picture. And for the past three years, a Mexican cinematographer has won the Oscar. The Cantu-Villarreal brothers expect nothing less for themselves, even if this wasn’t their first career choice.

“As Mexicans, we’re all frustrated soccer players,” Adolfo says. “After soccer, I wanted to be a racecar driver. This was my third option.”

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