Written by: 
Michael King

In one of the quiet neighborhoods of Cedar Hill, a mystery man decorates freshly placed sidewalk cement with his concrete creations. A goatman and a girl, a leaf, a face -- all the work of Manuel Portillo, the secretive sidewalk artist. He spends his days walking around different concrete sites, leaving simple yet skilled artwork mostly for himself.

Portillo isn't someone Cedar Hill residents would ever see on the street. The sidewalk artist is a character in a work of fiction.

"Yeah, it was all fake," says Brandon Rivera ('20), one of the directors of The Sidewalk Artist film. "We intentionally tried to make something that felt like a documentary, but every little thing in that film is very calculated and planned out."

The Sidewalk Artist is the latest passion project of Watchale, a Texas-based collective of Latino filmmakers. Founded by UNT alumni Rivera from Arlington, Emily Sanchez ('20) from San Antonio and David Velez ('19) from El Paso, the collective focuses on telling authentic stories through their films.

"I think one thing that brought us together is that we all have this Latino background," Rivera says. "We want to tell these stories that revolve around our upbringing."

When Velez first arrived at UNT, he didn't have much of a plan. His parents just wanted him to go to college, and he liked movies.

"I had no idea what my future would look like," Velez says. "I didn't know about UNT until like a semester before I graduated high school."

After settling into UNT's media arts program, Velez decided to join the promotions team at North Texas Television, UNT's student-run television station. Through working with promotions, he met Rivera, a fellow media arts major.

"We were both making promos and we were both making stuff that we liked," Rivera says. "We were just like, ‘Hey, we should be friends,' and from then on we kept making things together."

The two served in leadership positions on the promotions team for over two years. While they led the group, they also worked on their own film projects.

During Professor Eugene Martin's directing class, Velez crafted the script for Ladybug. "Ladybug was a story about two brothers," Velez says. "The younger one has a pet ladybug; the older brother kills his ladybug, and the rest of the movie is the mom trying to be the peacemaker between the two."

When writing Ladybug, Velez drew from his own experience in a unique way. While most viewers only see the younger brother, Spanish speakers might notice something else.

"If you speak Spanish, you'll see how many cuss words there are in this movie," Velez says. "It's a very profane movie, but it's masked by a small, cute little child."

For the film, Velez cast Rivera and Rivera's little brother as the two lead brothers. However, they were still missing a crucial position.

"We still needed a cinematographer, and David found Emily Sanchez, who was just shooting cool stuff," Rivera says. "We thought her work was on a different level than what we were doing, so then we all worked together."

The short film was later presented at the Lone Star Film Festival, where it won in the Best Student Film category.

"I think what we learned was how important story is," Rivera says. "There were so many short films that had higher production value, but ours shined through because of the story we made."

With their first film as a group completed, Rivera, Velez and Sanchez formed a partnership that would last throughout their time at UNT.

The shift to the outside world was full of uncertainty for the trio, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They banded together and formed Watchale, meaning "to watch out" in Spanglish, in the fall of 2021.

"It was that scary point of, ‘Shoot, we just graduated college, but we still have to be making things, right?'" Sanchez says. "By creating a name or a space to put our projects together, we felt like it legitimized something."

With a new name also came a new focus. The trio shifted their attention toward breaking the boundaries of the genre instead of making traditional narrative short films.

"We realized we wanted to go into the documentary space," Velez says. "It's practice for us learning how to find a narrative within something that might not be too obvious to see one."

Their work includes Rincón, a mini-documentary that follows two sisters and the impact that each one brings to their community, and Heatwave, a mini-doc focusing on the overwhelming Texas summers.

However, their love of narrative short films never went away. They would later unite both genres with their latest creation, The Sidewalk Artist.

"We stripped it down to the bare bones and asked, ‘How can we make this happen?'" Rivera says. "How do we tell a story that feels as believable as possible?"

Unlike Ladybug, The Sidewalk Artist was not intended to be entered into any film festivals. But Watchale submitted it to Slamdance, a film festival in Park City, Utah, winning the Narrative Shorts Grand Jury Prize -- and gaining more attention and the support of the Dallas Film Commission to form their own event, Film Soup, to take the small spotlight they had been given and use it to shine light on other talents in the Texas art scene. Hosted in Oak Cliff in April 2023, the event featured films, live entertainment and vendors from across Dallas.

"For us, community engagement with the work is just as important as the process of making it," Rivera says. "That's why we make the films, to be more connected to people around us and express ourselves."

With the success of both The Sidewalk Artist and Film Soup, the Watchale team keeps looking forward to what's next. But they will always incorporate their Tejano roots in their next projects and share their culture with an even wider audience as they progress.

"Texas is inherently going to be in all of our storytelling," Sanchez says. "We're Latino and proud."