I did not come here to kill. I came here to die.
– Lolita Lebrón
On March 1, 1954, Lolita Lebrón and three men entered the United States House of Representatives armed with weapons. Her fist held high and wrapped in the flag of Puerto Rico, she fired four shots towards the ceiling in defense of the independence of Puerto Rico. The shots ricocheted off the ceiling and wounded four congressmen. Lebrón was sentenced to fifty-seven years in prison for assault and conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States. She served twenty-five years of her sentence and was granted clemency by President Carter in 1979.
I begin with this description of what would certainly now, and probably in 1954, be considered a terrorist attack against the United States, not to idealize the injuring of government officials, civilians, or anyone, but to provide some context for the experiences of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Nineteen fifty-four was a seminal year. It was the year that the United States Congress decided not to grant Puerto Rico statehood. What resulted was the current nomenclature, “commonwealth,” which would obviate the United States’ obligation to report to the United Nations on its “colony,” Puerto Rico. One cannot discuss Puerto Rican filmmaking without discussing how our colonial status effects our national identity and our very complex human experience. Almost every country in Latin America has had their “golden era” of cinema, but Puerto Rico is still reaching for its moment. Ironically, our relationship with the United States, being a “film mecca,” has done little for the development of a cinema that truly reflects the diversity of our stories as Puerto Ricans.
Representing la mujer
Dylcia Pagán is a filmmaker, producer, and former Puerto Rican political prisoner. As an activist for the independence of Puerto Rico, she was convicted of seditious conspiracy and spent twenty years in prison. She was granted clemency by President Clinton in 1999. In 2000, she founded Avanza Productions (AP), a Puerto Rican production company based in San Juan. AP was created to fill a need in Puerto Rico for a production company that is not only professional, but committed to effectively providing the educational and visual tools needed to promote our culture on our own terms. Its goal is to create high-quality audio and visual materials for the Puerto Rican population in Puerto Rico as well as the US-based diaspora. “We must document our own stories, this is our legacy to our children,” says Pagán.
Pagán is no novice filmmaker. Before going to prison she was a successful television director, writer, and producer of numerous shows and documentaries for ABC and PBS. And while in prison she was the one of the subjects of the 1998 documentary, The Double Life of Ernesto Gómez Gómez, by Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan, about the son of Puerto Rican revolutionaries who was raised by a Mexican family. This moving and informative documentary follows the teenage Ernesto as he goes on a journey of self-discovery, moving from Mexico to the US to meet Dylcia Pagán, his birth mother, in prison. Weinberg was nominated as Best Director for the 2000 DGA Award. Pagán now serves as the Puerto Rico and Latin American distributor for the film.
AP’s first project is Mujeres N’ Women, a documentary about five illustrious women of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party: Isabel Rosado, Blanca Canales, Doris Torresola, Carmín Pérez, and Lolita Lebrón. “The lives of these five Puerto Rican women, who were members of the Nationalist party, play a very significant role in the history of our homeland, Puerto Rico. Our interest in this project came from the fact that there does not exist in the documentary or film narrative format information about these heroic women,” Pagán explains. And who better to make this film than Dylcia Pagán, a heroine in her own right.
For more information about Avanza Productions and Mujeres N’ Women, e-mail: email@example.com.
Expanding the reel
Writer/director/producer Frances Negrón-Muntaner is following a cinema tradition of examining the complex relationship between colonialism and patriarchy for Puerto Rican women that was pioneered by Ana María García with her award-winning film La Operación (1982), that broke the silence about the sterilization of Puerto Rican women in the United States and in Puerto Rico. Not only was this was one of the first films directed by a female Puerto Rican filmmaker, but it also dealt with the provocative issue of patriarchy and the taboo subject of colonialism. Negrón-Muntaner continues in this tradition of confronting complex issues by expanding the dialectic to include issues of sexuality.
Puerto Rican-born and raised, Negrón-Muntaner is an artist with both an opinion and a vision. In her ground-breaking film Brincando El Charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican (1994) Negrón-Muntaner created a space for Puerto Rican lesbian subjectivity in cinema. Her first film, AIDS in the Barrio (1989), dealt with AIDS in the Philadelphia Latino community. These two films provided a new voice for the Puerto Rican gay and lesbian experience, one that was more complex than the narrative feature simultaneously released by Puerto Rican filmmaker Rose Troches’ Go Fish (1994). Negrón-Muntaner’s body of work pushes forth a picture of a Puerto Rican queerness that is destabilized by many identities (sexuality, gender, class, skin color, national and ethnic identity, urban life, migration, and language); one that is typically absent from “white” US American cinema. “Instead of making a film about affirmation or national or ethnic identity, I prefer to play with those categories, to question them and raise their complexities,” says Negrón-Muntaner.
In 1987 she founded Polymorphous Pictures to produce narrative and documentary films about Latino-oriented subjects. As Negrón-Muntaner grows as a filmmaker, so does the landscape of her work. Polymorphous Pictures is currently producing two documentaries. The first is State of the Territory (working title), which is a one-hour documentary about a grassroots movement to oust the US Navy from Vieques, the small island-municipality off the coast of Puerto Rico that was used to train troops and practice bombing runs. The second, For the Record: The Story of WWII on Guam, tells the story of the only time in modern American history that a US territory has been occupied by a foreign army. The film focuses on how the Chamorros, the native people of Guam, remained loyal to the Americans during a brutal three-year occupation and later struggled for self-government, citizenship rights, and land. “These two documentaries reflect similar themes: the relationship between war and the acquisition of overseas territories, and the tension between civilian and military needs,” explains Negrón-Muntaner.
For more info about Frances Negrón-Muntaner or Polymorphous Pictures e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reeling with the community
The Puerto Rican Public Broadcasting Corporation is initiating a multimedia Special Communication Project which seeks to equip local residents with radio, print, and video tools to document their surroundings and create stories that are important to local residents. Currently, the project is focusing on the towns of Caguas, Cataño, and Salinas, with hopes of expanding the project throughout Puerto Rico, where media access for low-income communities is nonexistent.
The only other government initiative in Puerto Rico to provide media literacy and democratic communication was in the 1950’s, when the Division of Community Education (DIVEDCO) tried to create a very “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” multimedia project. Launched by the reformist government of Luis Muñoz Marín of the Popular Democratic Party, DIVEDCO employed many Puerto Rican artists, writers, and activists to mobilize rural communities by creating films about their experiences. Though the United States government was able to exploit the works that had been created, ironically, they employed many radical artists who were able to promote a political education that caused the community to question the motives of the US government. The project was eventually closed as it became increasingly radical.
But the Special Communication Project claims to have a different mission from DIVEDCO, one that seeks not only to work with the residents as subjects, but also as creators. DIVEDCO exploited their films by using them to encourage US foreign aid, development programs, and to sell Puerto Rico to potential US investors. The challenge for the Puerto Rican government will be to avoid the reformist values of DIVEDCO, and to focus on providing sustainable funding that will assist low-income communities in gaining access to the film industry while also giving them the control that will transcend the role of performer and technician to that of a creator and producer.
From technician to creator
“Puerto Rico is a place that needs to evaluate cinema and explore how the digital age can assist us in visualizing ourselves as creators and not just technicians,” states filmmaker Vicente Juarbe. After a twenty-five-year career as a director of industrial videos and an assistant director for commercial films such as Company Man, Contact, Amistad, Assassins, and Jacob’s Ladder all shot in Puerto Rico, Juarbe is ready to direct his first feature film. His true passion is to be a filmmaker that brings Cine Sana (Healing Cinema) to Puerto Rico. Juarbe wants to be one of those fearless independent filmmakers that not only makes films about the beautiful landscapes of Puerto Rico, but also provides a voice to the legacy of being a people-in-exile.
He is convinced that the only true viable way that Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico can turn their filmmaking visions into reality is through the digital medium. “Puerto Rico is a place that needs to reevaluate the way that we make films and enhance the industry here on the island through making digital films. Many filmmakers here have that one project which is never made because they are waiting for someone to give them the money. With digital filmmaking, the cost is less and we can make the stories that we want to tell,” explains Juarbe. Practicing what he preaches, Juarbe picked up a Canon XL-1 and directed a ten-minute trailer of his feature script, Tempest, a psychological drama set during Hurricane George. Using his experience as film technician, he and other Puerto Ricans have been able to develop lighting techniques for digital film that make it more cinematic. Cine d’ Exportación, Juarbe’s production company, is now using the Tempest trailer to pitch the project to various development agencies in hope of actually making the film.
For more information on Vicente Juarbe or to support Cine d’ Exportación, e-mail VicenteJuarbe@yahoo.com.
M&M: seeing Puerto Ricans as creators
Located in Old San Juan, M&M Projects, founded and directed by curator and producer Michelle Marxuach, is committed to creating a framework for artists that nonintrusively documents local stories. M&M features over forty-eight artists and seventeen curators from throughout Puerto Rico. Occupying a multistoried building, M&M provides a studio space, offices, exhibition space, and funded residencies. Artists funded by M&M have managed to garner screenings and exhibitions at lucrative sites throughout the world, like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian, and the Whitney Museum.
For more information, contact Michelle Marxuach at Michy@microjuris.com, or call (787) 722-1287.
People to watch
Resoancia PR/MEX, a new film production company launched by emerging producer Sonetchka Vélez and veteran sound mixer Antonio Betancourt, seeks to create Spanish-language films based in Puerto Rico that will put Puerto Rico on the Latin American film scene. In production on their first feature film, El Misterio del Trinidad, they are collaborating with producers and development executives in Mexico and throughout Latin America. “Puerto Ricans must tell our stories about colonialism. We must step up and define who we are without letting the United States stereotype our national identity. Films like these won’t be readily supported in the United States—our commonwealth status makes the US and, many times, Puerto Ricans insecure about the truth,” says Vélez. True to her word, Vélez did not wait for US funding, but has instead found backing for the project in Mexico.
For more information about Resoancia PR/MEX, e-mail Ilia Vélez at email@example.com
In addition to the people and organizations profiled above, there are a growing number of resources about and for Puerto Rican filmmakers in the US and in Puerto Rico:
Alternative Studio Corporation is an independent, Puerto Rican-owned production house in Puerto Rico providing cinematography and production. Company-head Victor Marin is an award-winning cinematographer with independent and commercial credits. Contact Victor at (787) 753-2801 or www.alternativepr.com.
Department of Cinema (Puerto Rico) is the Puerto Rican equivalent of US municipal film offices. Contact representative Marvin Crespo at (787) 758-4747 x2254.
National Association of Latino Independent Producer’s mission is to promote the advancement, development, and funding of Latino and Latina film and media arts in all genres. See the website: www.nalip.org.
National Hispanic Media Coalition is a coalition of Latino organizations that joined together to address a variety of media-related issues that affect the Latino community across the nation. Visit: www.nhmc.org.
Latino Public Broadcasting is a project of the Corporation for Public Broad-
casting. The organization grants monies once a year for Latino-based projects: www.lpbp.org.
Latino Educational Media Center is an archive of oral histories documented in film and video about the New York Puerto Rican experience. E-mail Lemctr@aol.com.
Center for Puerto Rican Studies has
an extensive library with videos and films by and about the Puerto Rican diaspora. See http://library.hunter.cuny.edu/centro.htm.
Las Culturas is a website dedicated to Latino culture. It has a plethora of information about Latino film: www.Lasculturas.com.
SPANIX is an online network for Latino film. See www.latinfilmnetwork.com.
Subcine is an artist-owned, artist-run collective of Latino-issue films and videos at www.subcine.com.