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Omaha Magazine

Making a Difference, Fast: Diana Martinez Educates

Mar 01, 2022 11:38AM ● By Tara Spencer
Diana Martinez behind the scenes at the theater

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Although the news in Nebraska has been known to speak of a statewide “brain-drain,” Omaha is a city where more than one-third of the residents have at least a bachelor’s degree. In fact, the city has gained some valuable college-educated assets over the years. Film Streams’ artistic director Diana Martinez is one of those assets. 

She was initially hired as the education director after a lengthy, nationwide search. Film Streams’ marketing director Patrick Kinney said, “She was interested in the entire breadth of film–lowbrow, highbrow, art house, blockbusters, all of it–and how that work reflected important truths about our culture. It was clear that she was the film expert we’d been looking for.”

Martinez’s film roots started early. She recalled her Salvadoran parents watching a diverse range of movies to help them with their English, and they would let her watch whatever movies she wanted. She said they never set limits on what she could do in life, either. 

After earning her bachelor’s degree in English from California State University – San Bernardino, Martinez earned a Ph.D. in film and media studies from the University of Oregon. Once she started teaching—at the University of Oregon—she quickly realized the role she played in some students’ lives. “I had students tell me they took my class because of my last name, because they just wanted one other Latino to bond with in this really homogenous place,” she said. “Then I had to look at what I was teaching. Clearly there was an expectation of what it would mean to have a professor of color.” 

Growing up in Southern California, Martinez said she was fortunate to be surrounded by diversity. It wasn’t until she started moving in circles that were less heterogeneous that she started to recognize how important that was. 

While she couldn’t change the curriculum, the desire to tell the stories of people of color in the film industry prompted her to create her own podcast, Hollywood in Color. “I’m a researcher at heart,” she said. “I spent forever researching loudness standards. Like, you don’t need to know that,” she added with a laugh.   

Before moving to the Midwest, the now 35-year-old did her own brand of research. “This is probably the wrong way to go about it, but I think it actually gave me a very positive depiction of Omaha—I did my Instagram research.” She looked at local influencer, bar, and restaurant accounts. “And I was like, OK. There’s a cool, thriving scene of young people who have Instagram content.” 

When she came to visit, she said it was similar to the area she grew up in, known as the Inland Empire. Since moving to Omaha more than five years ago, Martinez’s support for the city has only grown, and she has become one of its
biggest champions.

“I don’t know why people leave,” she said. “I get that there’s things in terms of politics, weather, and those things that do make it difficult to live here. But, especially for creative people, this is a place where you can make a difference so fast, because it’s so much smaller than New York or LA. You need fewer resources to get a project off the ground.”

Martinez’s work at Film Streams has influenced her feelings toward Omaha as well. She said the philanthropic community is supported in a way that it’s not in other places, even major cities, in the U.S. That proved especially helpful when COVID first arrived in 2020.

“I was concerned about our staff, but I was privileged enough to be like, I’m not worried we won’t come back, because of all the resources that we were able to basically put away before the pandemic happened,” she said. 

Martinez found out she was the new artistic director in mid-March, one day before Film Streams shuttered their doors to in-person audiences. Within a week of closing, they were doing virtual cinema, offering films to patrons to rent online. It was a strange time to take on a new leadership role. “Being artistic director, I envisioned programming our screens...Then it became launching a virtual platform and learning how to do streaming, basically, in a few months,” she said. “That wasn’t at all what I anticipated, but…I don’t think I’ve ever, in my career, felt more accomplished than during that time.” 

Martinez’s current role involves overseeing all of Film Streams’ programming. “That includes our education programming, which Diana still oversees, but also the new releases and classic films we show at the Dundee Theater and Ruth Sokolof Theater,” Kinney said. “Additionally, she oversees our community engagement screenings—which may look like a film followed by a panel discussion—and our events with visiting filmmakers and artists.”

It’s clear Martinez believes in the power of film, but she knows it has its limits. While she thinks film can change peoples’ perceptions, she is also realistic. “A film, I believe, isn’t going to provide affordable housing for people,” she said. “It’s a representation of issues and ideas, and even the best documentary still needs to spur people to action in order to change things. Ultimately, people change things.” She laughingly admits that might be controversial for her to say, given what she does. But she believes art is powerful in the realm in which it exists.

“I wish we talked about that more, because it does a disservice to art to make it want to be always about social justice, or always working to do something,” she said. “Sometimes art is just beautiful. That, in and of itself, is a really powerful experience. Let art be for arts’
sake sometimes.” 

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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  


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