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Colombia to Queens: Tale of immigrants struggling to survive in Jackson Heights debuts at Tribeca Film Fest

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Colombian-born filmmaker Simon Brand knows what it means to venture out into the unknown, and his sophomore film "Paraiso Travel," which makes its U.S. debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this month, vividly details the struggles of illegal immigrants, one of whom finds himself lost in Jackson Heights.

The filmmaker, who moved to the United States with his family from Colombia as a young man, adapted the film from the 2001 Jorge Franco Ramos novel of the same name, but has updated the story to a post-9/11 world. In the film, Colombian couple Marlon (Aldomar Correa) and Reina (Angelica Blandon) illegally enter America for hopes of a better life, but become separated in New York City.

"Paraiso Travel" tells two stories simultaneously: the couple's difficult journey from Medellin to America and Marlon's attempt to earn money at a Jackson Heights restaurant while he tries tracking down his girlfriend, who is holed up in an apartment somewhere in Brooklyn.

"I had read the book six years ago and was very moved by it," said Brand, who had originally planned to adapt the novel for his feature debut, but ended up shooting "Unknown," a 2006 thriller starring Greg Kinnear and James Caviezel, first. "I felt very close to the story. I remember experiencing the culture shock when I came to the U.S."

The film, which will screen five times in Manhattan this month at the Tribeca Film Festival, is one of several films to be released this year about illegal immigration, including "Under the Same Moon" and director Thomas McCarthy's "The Visitor," which includes a sequence at a Jamaica-based immigrant detention center.

Brand said he hopes to secure a distributor for the film, which is already a hit in his native country, at the festival.

"I hope there's a distributor that gets it," he said. "They usually expect films about violence and drugs from Colombia, but this is a very different movie. It tells the story of millions of people who live there."

The director, who splits up his time between Colombia and Los Angeles, said Jackson Heights, which is where much of the novel's action was set, was a perfect locale to shoot the film. He said the borough's diversity puts it at the forefront of the current national immigration debate.

He said he hopes the film can be distributed in this country by the fall.

"I hope to have the film released by the time of the presidential elections because of its timeliness," he said. "This is a movie that does not make a political statement but covers an issue that has been talked about a lot in politics."

Brand spent several months in late 2006 and early 2007 shooting "Paraiso Travel" at a chicken restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue, among Jackson Heights's Colombian community. Correa's character works and lives in the neighborhood for a portion of the film before squatting in an abandoned building with a photographer named Roger, played by Colombian-born actor and former Jackson Heights resident John Leguizamo.

As Marlon assimilates into his new community, he must choose whether to seek out Reina, who may or may not be waiting for his return, or start up a new relationship with a Colombian-born singer. Interspersed throughout the film are flashbacks to Marlon and Reina's treacherous journey through Guatemala and Mexico before crossing the U.S. border.

"Paraiso Travel" will screen April 26 at 9 p.m., April 27 at 1:45 p.m. and April 28 at 3:45 p.m. at Manhattan's AMC Village VII Theater, as well as May 1 at 6:45 p.m. and May 3 at 2:15 p.m. at the City Cinemas Village East.

Brand said he will attend several of the film's Tribeca screenings to discuss it with the audience.

This year's Tribeca lineup will also include Errol Morris' Abu Ghraib documentary "Standard Operating Procedure"; experimental Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg"; "Baby Mama," a comedy starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler; David Mamet's "Redbelt"; "Savage Grace" with Julianne Moore; and many other films.

Tickets for all features can be purchased at the festival's Web site at www.tribecafilmfestival.org.

Updated 6:57 pm, October 10, 2011
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