Colorado rocker on the smile that burned brighter than a toxic Nicaraguan trash fire | Arts & Entertainment

todayNovember 6, 2023 7

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“‘Kids’ and ‘a trash dump’ should never go together in the same sentence,” Littleton-born rocker Brad Corrigan said to an open-mouthed, teary-eyed and nearly capacity crowd at the MCA Denver Holiday Theatre on Saturday. They had just taken in Corrigan’s tragic yet ultimately hopeful documentary “Ileana’s Smile” as part of the 46th annual Denver Film Festival.

Corrigan, in large part thanks to Napster, exploded to instant fame in 1999 as the drummer for Dispatch, which he has called “the biggest band nobody’s ever heard of.” But one that was big enough to sell out two reunion shows at Red Rocks in 2011. Corrigan returned there this past summer to play with the Colorado Symphony – ”another mountaintop climbed,” he said – and a new Dispatch record is in the works for 2024.

After the band first broke up in 2004, Corrigan accepted an offer to go to Managua to play soccer and some tunes with local students. While there, a cab driver told him about some other Nicaraguan kids who truly needed a lift. He drove Corrigan to a 3-square-kilomileter landfill called La Chureca, where about 3,000 lived in garbage eking out meager livings by reselling scrap. This wasn’t an ordinary trash dump, Corrigan said. “It was a burning ‘Lord of the Rings’ hellscape.” There, he witnessed countless families living for generations in unimaginable, toxic conditions.

Ileana's Smile Denver Film Festival 2023

“Ileana’s Smile,” a documentary set in Nicaragua, has a significant Colorado connection in director Brad Corrigan.

As the sun started to set on that first disorienting visit, a 10-year-old girl named Ileana tapped on the window of Corrigan’s cab. She didn’t ask for money. She asked if he wanted to visit her cardboard house and meet her mother and three sisters. In spite of her circumstances, Ileana radiated warmth, compassion and laughter. She had a smile that seared itself onto Corrigan’s soul like melting tire rubber. 

That window tap sent Corrigan on an astonishing and unalterable new life path. He returned again and again. He brought supplies. Then he started an annual music festival. Then, in 2007, he founded a nonprofit called Love Light + Melody, which changes the trajectory of vulnerable kids’ lives through education. Then, in 2018, he opened Ileana’s School of Hope, which now serves 180 children, and has a long waiting list.


But this is not a pat story with an easy happy ending. Corrigan spoke openly on Friday about his ongoing conflict, being a white man of privilege from Colorado assuming the right not only to tell Ileana’s story but to intervene in her life at all.

“Sometimes the impulse to rush in can be really ego-driven,” said Corrigan, whose own journey took flight when he realized that the only way he could make a lasting difference was through larger collective partnerships.


Brad Corrigan, second from right, acknowledges a social worker and teacher identified only as Sheyla at Saturday’s screening of Corrigan’s documentary, “Ileana’s Smile.” Sheyla has helped Corrigan in his efforts to aid the impoverished in Nicaragua for 15 years.

A lot of Nicaraguans didn’t trust Corrigan at first, said a Managuan social worker identified only as Sheyla in the film. “But Brad’s light really lit up the place, and in time they realized, ‘He’s not one of those who comes, takes a few pictures, and then we never see him again,” Sheyla said through an interpreter at Saturday’s screening. “They came to see that he loves children, and that he’s fighting so children can have a better future.”

“Ileana’s Story” is a remarkable documentary that Corrigan intends to make available for anyone to see for free in schools, churches, online and at gatherings like Saturday’s community screening. The goal, he said, is to raise money for the school’s expansion. But it’s more than that.

“I think goal No. 1 with the film is for you to just really see Ileana and her sister, Mercedes. We all deserve to be seen,” he said. “The second goal is for you to see people in your own communities who oftentimes are not seen.”

It is clear from the film that, after money, food and supplies, music is the most powerful barrier-breaker at Corrigan’s disposal. I asked him how his separate callings as a music star and a crusader fit together into his one, contrasting life.

“Gosh, I didn’t see the connection at first, 25 years ago,” he said. “I thought these were two very different paths and that, honestly, I had faltered on both. Neither path was working without the other. But now, by fusing social justice and making music to tell stories and ask more questions – I will never run out of energy for music ever again.”


Anthony Chen, director of “The Breaking Ice,” was in Denver on Nov. 4 to receive the Excellence In Directing Award from the Denver Film Festival.


Anthony Chen of Singapore was in Denver for the first time to receive the festival’s Excellence in Directing Award before a screening of “The Breaking Ice,” a film he said was very much inspired by François Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim.” It’s about three adrift young Chinese who bond over a drunken weekend confronting their traumas.

Chen is also the director of “Drift,” an English-language festival selection that will screen Nov. 7-8. He has been named one of  Variety’s “10 Directors to Watch.”

“I had a huge existential crisis during the pandemic,” Chen said. “I felt really depressed. I felt I lost my identity as a filmmaker. I’ve always believed in cinema, and I was very sure that when cinemas reopened, audiences were going to come back. But I wasn’t sure if I would still exist, because I don’t make spectacle. I don’t make blockbusters. I’m a very quiet, gentle, subtle, restrained filmmaker, and I wasn’t sure if people still wanted to hear my voice. So I’m very pleased that audiences are back here in Denver watching two of my films in this festival.”


The first screening of the 2023 Denver Film Festival to sell out in advance was “Eric LaRue,” a play-turned-film made in response to the Columbine massacre. It features a riveting performance by Judy Greer as a dazed mother whose son has shot and killed three of his classmates. First-time director Michael Shannon, a celebrated actor perhaps best known for “Boardwalk Empire,” can relate.

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“As a parent, you’re constantly examining the impact that your decisions are having on your children, hoping that you’re giving them what they need in order to thrive, or even just to feel good about themselves or not be upset or alone or scared,” he told The Denver Gazette. “And you’re also constantly confronted with the fact that no matter what you do, they may not have the best time regardless of how much you intervene. At a certain point, you have to let go and let them become whoever they’re going to be because they don’t belong to you. They’re people in and of themselves. And so it’s just a real precarious juggling act of how to guide them when they need guidance and know when to keep your mouth shut.”

“Eric LaRue” will screen at 7 p.m. tonight at the Sie FilmCenter. Read our complete interview at


Filmgoers who attend “The Taste of Things” at 4:45 p.m. today at the Sie FilmCenter will then be invited next door to Sap Sua for a dinner directly inspired by the film. Set in the 19th-century French countryside, it follows the life of a chef (Benoît Magimel) and his personal cook (Juliette Binoche) who share a long history and love of gastronomy.

11-04-23 DENVER FILM FESTIVAL BAD PRESS Denver Film Festival

Producer Tyler Graim, speaking after a Saturday screening of “Bad Press,” sported an Indigenous-produced chain spelling out the name of his film.


The documentary “Bad Press” chronicles the efforts of one determined indigenous Oklahoma journalist named Angel Ellis to have an amendment added to the Muscogee Nation’s constitution guaranteeing freedom of the local press. But it also serves as a larger cautionary tale and a reminder to anyone who cares about free speech that even protected freedoms are always under threat from those in power.

“I think the largest takeaway from our film is to speak up. If Angel weren’t so bold, nothing would have happened. No one else was going to do it,” said “Bad Press” producer Tyler Graim, sporting a culturally authentic chain spelling out the name of the film. “You just have to fight for (a free press) no matter what situation you’re in.”

frybread-face-and-me Denver Film Festival 2023

“Frybread Face and Me” is a charming coming-of-age story that will be screened today at the Denver Film Festival. 


“Frybread Face and Me” is a charming coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old Native American boy who is sent to his grandmother’s ranch against his will and strikes up an unexpected friendship. 7:15 p.m. at the AMC9, 825 Albion St.


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11-04-23 DENVER FILM FESTIVAL Brad Corrigan Holiday 2

Brad Corrigan played “Ileana’s Song,” a tune inspired by the subject of his documentary “Ileana’s Smile,” at Saturday’s Denver Film Festival screening at the MCA Denver at the Holiday Theatre. 


The crowd stands after Saturday’s Denver Film Festival screening of the documentary “Ileana’s Smile” at the MCA Denver at the Holiday Theatre.


For the first time, the Denver Film Festival is presenting two featured screenings at the MCA Denver at the Holiday Theatre next to North High School.


The documentary “Ileana’s Smile,” was screened Saturday at the MCA Denver at the Holiday Theatre.

11-04-23 DENVER FILM FESTIVAL Anthony Chen 2

Anthony Chen, Director of ‘The Breaking Ice,’ speaks to a Denver Film Festival audience after receiving the Denver Film Festival’s Excellence in Directing Award.


Denver Film Artistic Director Matt Campbell, right, discussing “Riddle of Fire” with, from left, Rachel Browne, Andrea Browne and Weston Razooli at the Denver Film Festival on Nov. 4, 2023.

11-04-23 DENVER FILM FESTIVAL Matt Campbell

Denver Film Artistic Director Matt Campbell introduces a screening of the neo fantasy film “Riddle of Fire” at the Denver Film Festival on Nov. 4, 2023.


The primary venue screening Denver Film Festival offerings this year is again the AMC9 at 8th Avenue and Albion Street.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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