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Pa' Encima: Documentary Filmmaking En La Isla de Puerto Rico

By Kristal Sotomayor

From Cecilia Aldarondo’s 'Landfall.' Courtesy of Cecilia Aldarondo

Read in Spanish

Part 1: La Isla Before Maria

“Puerto Rico is a small island in a political limbo,” describes Karen Rossi, documentary filmmaker and director of Ser Grande. Having worked in the documentary field for decades, Rossi has experienced the changes in the filmmaking landscape. “When we invite Latin American filmmakers to Puerto Rico, they say, ‘Of course Puerto Rico is part of Latin America.’ But, if they didn’t know us, they might have had the impression that we are part of the United States and that we’re covered by US funding. And then, the US looks at us like, ‘Your first language is Spanish.’ Latin America doesn’t necessarily consider us as part of Latin America and, definitely, the United States doesn’t see us as part of the US. They were all shocked after Hurricane Maria to recognize that we actually are US citizens.”

From Cecilia Aldarondo’s 'Landfall.' Photo: Pablo Alvarez-Mesa. Courtesy of Cecilia Aldarondo

Puerto Rico is an archipelago in a constant shift of identity and belonging—it is an unincorporated United States territory with a population of predominantly Spanish-speaking residents of Taino, Spanish, and African descent. Puerto Rico is not officially considered either a Latin American country or a US state. For documentary filmmakers from Puerto Rico, access to funding is severely limited due to the technicalities of sovereignty—oftentimes they’re unable to apply for funds in Latin American or the US. “We’ve always struggled in being in that distribution, funding, and financing limbo,” Rossi observes. “In reality, culturally we are Latin American, our language is Spanish, our culture is Latino, but, obviously, we have this relationship with the US that places us politically and geographically like a North American territory."

Since 2016, Puerto Rico has been controlled by a Fiscal Control Board (FCB), instated through a US federal law titled the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). The law was passed by President Barack Obama to manage the colony’s $72 billion debt. Through PROMESA, meaning “promise” in Spanish, the US government will “establish an oversight board, a process for restructuring debt, and expedited procedures for approving critical infrastructure projects.” The FCB is made up of seven voting members that are selected by the President of the United States. There is only one non-voting member of the FCB that is chosen by Puerto Rico’s governor. Puerto Ricans, despite having US citizenship, cannot vote in US presidential elections. With PROMESA, Puerto Ricans have no political say in the management of the archipelago or the ability to elect US officials that can change policies that affect the archipelago.

The Puerto Rico Film Commission and private investment used to be the two main sources of local funding for independent documentary filmmakers. Due to PROMESA, the Puerto Rico Film Commission has since been absorbed into the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DEDC). Macha Colón, director of Cartas De Amor Para Una Ícona and Perfume de Gardenias, was one of the last filmmakers to receive a grant from the commission. “[The commission] used to be a whole department and now it’s just an office,” she explains. “We used to have a fund but it doesn’t exist anymore. So, we have less options in that way. My film was one of the last films to receive that money, which we haven’t received yet because it worked on reimbursement. It’s been very difficult and expensive to film in Puerto Rico for independent productions. For people outside of Puerto Rico, it might work better because there’s a lot of tax incentives for outside productions coming in. But for us, it’s more difficult to receive the tax incentives."

From Macha Colón’s 'Perfume de Gardenias.' Courtesy of Macha Colon

In 2012, the non-profit AdocPR (Association of Puerto Rican Documentary Filmmakers) was founded by a group of filmmakers with the aim to promote the development of documentary film and improve working conditions. Currently, there are about 40 filmmakers in the collective with the goal of reaching audiences, training future makers, lobbying for national cinema, and collaborating internationally. Kique Cubero García, a documentary filmmaker and AdocPR co-founder, had been working with the Puerto Rico Film Commission to diversify the funds. Those plans were put to a halt with the signing of PROMESA in 2016. “The FCB put pressure on our government and one of the first cuts was the Puerto Rico Film Commission and converted it into an office in the DEDC,” says Cubero García. “It established a set of rules for films that dealt with profit in the market. They put restrictions on us that made it difficult for us to fulfill the funding requirements. Because we couldn’t fulfill the funding requirements, they began to decrease funding for national cinema. They decided national cinema was not profitable and they eliminated the fund.”

Since May 2015, Puerto Rico increased their film tax credit program with up to 90 percent in qualifying credits. That same year, around $100 million was spent on productions set in Puerto Rico. Former Puerto Rico Film Commissioner Demetrio Fernandez stated in a 2015 Variety article, “This fiscal year, we have already raised $86 million.” Typically, tax credits allow qualifying productions to not pay taxes to the state or, in this case, US territory. “[The absorption of the  Film Commission into the DEDC] created the problem of it all about being a return-on-investment,” points out Rossi. “Any programming for educational or cultural purposes are more unlikely to receive funding. They were more interested in attracting movies from abroad, which can be a good thing because it creates jobs for the film industry, but, for local content creators, if you weren’t creating commercial movies, your chances of getting funding were lower.”

There is a colonial history of centering US goods and services over those produced by Puerto Ricans. In 1920, the Jones Act was passed to support the growth of the US commercial shipping industry. According to Vice, this meant that “basic shipments of goods from the island to the US stateside, and vice versa, must be conducted via expensive protected ships rather than exposing them to global competition.” The Jones Act made every good purchased on the colony more expensive relative to those purchased from the US stateside or other Caribbean islands because “foreign-originating goods must be dropped off in Jacksonville and then shipped to Puerto Rico via an exorbitantly expensive Jones-compliant vessel.” The “foreign-originating goods” that must be taken to Jacksonville include those produced in Puerto Rico making local products more expensive and taxed twice. This drives up the cost of living on the colony. Currently, the cost of living is 13 percent higher than on the US stateside and, before Hurricane Maria, food in Puerto Rico costed twice as much as it did in Florida.

Lale Namerrow Pastor, associate producer of Landfall, explains, “Operation Bootstrap [in the 1950s and-’60s] moved people from the rural areas into the city. It was a push to industrialization. Basically, everything that we eat, the majority, is imported. A and that shouldn’t be. We have a lot of resources, this is a great island with very fertile ground to be eating everything from our grounds. There’s a plan, there’s a scheme, for us to be completely subjugated to the US.”

Much like the Jones Act, there are incentives for foreign film and TV productions to benefit financially from the archipelago. Puerto Rico has one of the highest film tax credits in the United States. There has been debate after debate across the film industry as to whether film tax credits actually benefit the local economy or cost taxpayers. With Puerto Rico’s $72 billion debt, the tax incentives program ends up doing harm for the local independent film industry. “We have a technical crew that is used to being paid a salary from foreign productions that have a different budget,” says Colón. “When it comes to [Puerto Rican independent filmmaker’s] budget, we can’t pay the same so we have to negotiate salary. The reality is, we cannot compete as independent filmmakers. Perfume de Gardenias, my first narrative film, is a co-production with Colombia. We finished production right before the COVID-19 quarantine and are now in post-production. We still need money to finish the film. When the Colombian producers looked at the budget, they understood why it was so expensive to have productions in Puerto Rico.”

Part 2: La Isla and La Diaspora During Maria

In September 2017, category five Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico in the span of two weeks. The devastation from Hurricane Maria led to about 3,000 deaths on the colony,  as reported by the US government. A Harvard University study estimated between “800 and 8,500 excess deaths in Puerto Rico related to the hurricane through the end of December 2017.” According to the government of Puerto Rico, full power to the colony was restored 328 days after the storm. Hurricane Maria is estimated to have caused $95 billion in total damage. The lack of resources to filmmakers on the archipelago was exacerbated by the hurricane. Director Macha Colón received Ibermedia funding for DOCTV Latinoamérica film Cartas de Amor Para una Ícona. “I had won in Puerto Rico in July and then, in September, there were the hurricanes and that meant months of trying to get contracts signed during a natural disaster,” she explains. “While other countries were able to make their films, I only had six months and [the DOCTV projects from all the countries are] presented as a series. I almost lost the opportunity to make my documentary because I couldn’t produce my film, since there was no electricity and people couldn’t work. It was also a lost opportunity and I was able to do it in three or four months while everyone else had the whole nine or 10 months. And, that was a situation where I won something! From Puerto Rico, I wasn't able to raise any money because of the crisis.”

Filmmaker Macha Colón. Courtesy of Macha Colon

For many Puerto Ricans in the diaspora, Maria was a wake-up call to give back and amplify stories on the archipelago. In 2017, director Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi started filming We Still Here, about youth organizing and just recovery in Comerío after the hurricane. He is also a co-founder of Defend PR, a multimedia storytelling project that documents and celebrates Puerto Rican creativity, resilience, and resistance. “We heard that Hurricane Maria was coming toward the island that had just been hit by Hurricane Irma,” he recalls. “A few weeks later, we touched down in Puerto Rico with 36 boxes of donations from the Bay Area community. I’ve been living in Puerto Rico ever since. What we were getting in the diaspora, and if you have family on the island, you were in a state of shock, you felt powerless, you felt like you weren’t getting the real information, you felt disconnected, and you wanted a lifeline. A lot of people couldn’t even get in touch with family for months after Hurricane Maria. Going to the island was really important to connect and tell those stories to be a Puerto Rican voice in Puerto Rico telling the stories. For just recovery to happen, the stories need to come from the community, amplifying stories, and bringing resources.”

Trailer for We Still Here

Filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo was scheduled to premiere Landfall at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. The film is framed as a conversation between Aldarondo, a diasporic Puerto Rican living in New York State, and Associate Producer Lale Namerrow Pastor, an activist and emerging filmmaker from the archipelago. Landfall documents two sides of the archipelago’s post-Maria recovery—that of the community’s resilience and that of the exploitation by foreign businesses. “Lale, in our collaboration, even though we have specific roles that our industry recognizes, I’m director and she’s credited as associate producer, her role is really instrumental. I don’t think there’s even a credit that acknowledges how important her collaboration was, “states Aldarondo. “I think this speaks to wider ethical issues in our documentary landscape,” states Aldarondo. “I think the tradition of the outsider filmmaker going into a culture and place that maybe they don’t know as well is to hire what’s known as a ‘fixer.’ I find even that word to be so patronizing and hierarchical. In my collaboration with Lale, her voice is central to my understanding of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The conversations and debates between us, a Puerto Rican raised in diaspora and a Puerto Rican that has lived their whole life in Puerto Rico, that solidarity between la isla and la diaspora is key.”

Namerrow Pastor is a young filmmaker and activist in the LGBTQIA+ community and during the 2010 Universidad de Puerto Rico strike to reallocate funds back to students and their education. Landfall is her first major foray into the documentary film industry. “For me, it’s a necessity to come together, especially for the people of this island who have been forced to migrate and to be divided,” says Namerrow Pastor. “Our colleagues in the US have a better understanding of the resources and have access to the funds. Just the fact that they have an address in the US changes everything. Sometimes, we try to apply to applications and we can’t because we don’t have a US address. Little details like that help to apply to funds and to have contacts to distribution companies.”

While many came to the archipelago seeking to help, some international filmmakers were seeking to capitalize on the sensationalism of the story. “It’s the economics of a crisis,” describes filmmaker Karen Rossi. “For me, it was crazy to see, after Hurricane Maria, the amount of interest we were getting internationally and the amount of phone calls I would get were never about me collaborating on the creative side of it. They were about being a local resource but at a very low level, like they wanted production assistants. They weren’t looking to hire local screenplay writers, directors or even producers, which they desperately needed. All the questions they were asking and hoping we would give them for free were what a producer takes care of. This also happened after Hurricane Katrina. Instead of hiring and collaborating with people who understand the perspective and have been telling stories there professionally for decades. They were looking for cheap labor that would facilitate them to tell our story. And they don’t realize how imperialistic that is.”

After the hurricane, shanty towns and “informal” homes popped up around the colony. There were estimates that about half of Puerto Rico's population of 3.4 million were living in these situations. Over 335,748 people were also rejected from FEMA aid under the individual assistance program because the applicants did not have the proper documents to provide proof of home ownership. The housing crisis in Puerto Rico is far from over, as other environmental disasters have impacted the colony. While many people on the colony lost their homes, there were other parts where wealthy foreigners began buying up large amounts of properties.

Landfall contrasts the colonization of Puerto Rico with the rebuilding efforts in rural areas. A powerful scene in the film takes place in the coastal town of Rincón during a public forum organized by a group of crypto-evangelists lured to relocate to Puerto Rico due to tax incentives. The group is led by Brock Pierce, a former child actor who got rich off bitcoin. In response to a crypto-evangelists' call for unification with people in the colony, a young woman in the crowd states, “The last time that there was a ‘we,’ my people died. My people died and my land was taken the last time there was a ‘we.’ Honestly, I don’t trust any of you.” In June 2020, the Supreme Court upheld the FCB instated by PROMESA despite the constitutional challenge to the FCB’s composition,  which is led by hedge funds that invested in Puerto Rican bonds.

“Puerto Rico, post-Maria, is missing,” maintains Aldarondo. “One of the consequences of our colonial condition is chronic invisibility. I would challenge you to look at any COVID-19 map of the United States in a news publication and, very often, they don’t include Puerto Rico, for example. The chronic invisibility means, for me, that there is a chronic ignorance of Puerto Rico of the most basic facts about Puerto Rico in the United States and globally. Up until this point, there have been a few films made after the hurricane that have any kind of circulation. What has circulated instead, have been these very mainstream media images of ruination. These almost standard images you expect to see of impoverished Black and Brown people with their hands in the air waiting for somebody to take care of them. What I was concerned with challenging is this image of Puerto Ricans as victims, waiting for Uncle Sam to come and rescue us. What wasn’t being reported was a really beautiful, rich story about Puerto Ricans saving one another through mutual aid across these divides between Puerto Rico and the diaspora.”

Part 3: La Isla Post-Maria and COVID-19

On July 25, 1952, the Puerto Rican Constitution was authorized by the United States Congress. This constitution, however, upheld the “Estado Libre Asociado" (ELA), or commonwealth status. The status reinforced that Puerto Rico was an unincorporated territory of the US and governed by the US Congress. “Most international funds consider us part of the US but not a colony of the US, as if we benefited from all the resources in the US when we’re actually marginalized,” describes AdocPR co-founder and filmmaker Kique Cubero García. “There are three international funds that support Puerto Rican filmmakers. One that we’ve been working to open up is the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) Bertha Fund. It’s taken many years to be considered a country with an underdeveloped film industry because they removed us from the list because of the US's lie about Puerto Rico not being a colony in 1952. That lie removed us from the list of colonies within the international community. Instead, we are considered a ‘commonwealth,’ which isn’t true. Once we educate international funds about the political situation in Puerto Rico, it’s allowed us to open funds in Europe and then look to the US to form alliances with other minority groups to exchange information and gain insight to apply for these funds.”

AdocPR has been working extensively to make Puerto Rican filmmakers eligible for European, Caribbean, and US grants. In April 2019, Firelight Media hosted Groundwork Puerto Rico to support local filmmakers, co-produced with AdocPR and Sistema TV-WTMJ, a PBS member station located in San Juan. While there have been a few recent initiatives to help Puerto Rican filmmakers, there is still a dire need for more access and structured support within the documentary filmmaking landscape to ensure that stories are shared and preserved. 

Being a US colony, a major issue faced by filmmakers applying to US grants is a difference in cultural understanding. While most Puerto Ricans speak English, there is a difference in terminology and language used within the filmmaking community. Spanish is also the colony’s primary language and translated applications never fully grasp the complexity of the project. There is also a difference in costs associated with filmmaking on the archipelago. “For the budgets in the US, they need $250,000 to fund a film,” says Cubero García. “In Puerto Rico, we could make three or four films with that budget. So, when we apply for a grant with how we make a film here, they don’t think we’re serious because they think we don’t budget enough money to make a film.”

“The major funders, many times, don’t understand the needs of Puerto Rico,” explains Bienvenida “Beni” Matías, a documentary filmmaker and media nonprofit organizer. “In my conversations with filmmakers in Puerto Rico, what they need is money to make their films and the ability to take their films out of the island. They know very well how to distribute their films within the island and Caribbean cinema, community groups, schools, etc. What they need is access to getting their films to other places. I was one of the people that started NALIP because I knew we needed an organization that would bring filmmakers together and to really try to crash open some of the doors and I see that AdocPR is doing the same thing.”

Marangeli Mejia Rabell is the director of the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival (PHLAFF) and is currently working to take GoodPitch Local in Puerto Rico. Having been raised on the archipelago, she has dedicated her work to open doors for filmmakers by collaborating extensively with AdocPR. “The work of documentary filmmakers is key to the self-actualization of Puerto Rico and its people,” she says. “Decolonizing ourselves not only includes learning our history, reclaiming our narrative and spaces but also building bridges by sharing our experiences, resources and energies to honor, nurture and celebrate nuestra Puertorriqueñidad. Grounding our work in our values and collective healing supports PHLAFF in our dialogue and co-creation with collaborators as we pursue opportunities to expand our programming and nurture our ecosystem. Bringing events like Good Pitch Local to Puerto Rico is critical to diversify resources and strategic alignments, cultivate a culture of collaboration and build a community practice with filmmakers en ambos lados del charco [on both sides of ocean].”

Online platforms and social media have proven to be a new avenue for Puerto Rican filmmakers to get their work out there. AdocPR has collaborated with Libros 787 to sell their films online. For filmmakers like Eli Jacobs-Fantauzz of Defend PR, the accessibility of the camera and microphone makes a difference when getting their word out there. “I think that the film grants are a hard industry to break into no matter what,” he explains. “What we see is that they replicate the same stories over and over again in a very extractive way. Most documentary films are heartbreaking and you leave the theater feeling horrible about the world. I’m completely against that and want to fight against that extractive system. So I don’t believe that my model and my framework work well in that and I’ve never gotten traditional film funding. As a colony of the United States, it’s very hard for us to look for funding to the US and it’s very hard for us to find international funding. Being able to make the films we want to make and get them out there online has been key.”

Puerto Rico has a rich history of filmmaking, with works such as Modesta, directed by Benjamin Doniger with the Puerto Rico Division de Educacion de la Comunidad (DIVEDCO). The film is about women organizing the Liberated Women League to fight for their own rights. It is part of the National Film Registry through the Library of Congress. Other Puerto Rican documentaries such as El Puente and El Santero, directed by Amilcar Tirado, have been honored at the Museum of Modern Art. Beni Matías points out that, “I don’t like thinking that we are reinventing the wheel. I like to think that we’re moving forward. A lot of the filmmakers on the island, most of them, are incredibly well- educated and have gone to school in Puerto Rico like the Universidad de Puerto Rico, people who have gone to Cuba's International School of Cinema, people who have gone to Spain, Mexico, NYU. That’s where the resilience comes in because you can shoot on an iPhone.”

With COVID-19, filmmakers on the archipelago are accustomed to navigating natural disasters. Cubero García is currently collaborating on El Mundo En Pausa with 23 Iberamerican countries across the globe to tell the story of a single day during the pandemic. “With Hurricane Maria, much of our infrastructure fell like our electricity, for example. Little by little, it’s taken a lot to recover economically,” says Cubero García. “With COVID-19, it was another hit and has affected our ability to get a public for our films. We’ve already had a protocol for filming because of Maria, so the hardest thing for us has been the quarantine imposed by the state. It’s been a quarantine more for controlling the people than for health reasons. The control is what’s affecting our work. It’s almost impossible to film because the police might disrupt. The state is fragile like the injured tiger that attacks. They see filmmakers like enemies because they see documentary filmmakers like journalists. They see journalists as criticizing the government and as a threat.”

The postponement of 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, where Cecilia Aldarondo’s Landfall was scheduled to premiere, has affected her ability to get the film to audiences. “In the same way that Hurricane Maria hit and people asked me, ‘How is your family? I would say it’s not just about my biological family—it's my Puerto Rican family. That’s how I feel about talking about the impact of COVID-19 on my film. It’s not just me, it’s literally everyone I know,” explains Aldarondo. “Just as Hurricane Maria exposed the crisis that was there before, I would say the same thing is true for COVID-19 in our independent film ecosystem. Puerto Rico operates as a handbook for our times. It is a case study in how opportunists take advantage of disaster. The thing that we need the most is collective power. The reality is that independent filmmakers have trained to work in very individualist ways to be our own brands, to be our own bosses, to be CEOs, and we have often worked in deep competition with one another while the monied interests get richer. This conversation about sustainability is almost euphemistic in that it sort of hides what’s at work here,  which is that we have an elite class of monied interests that we’re not a part of that conversation. The same way that there are conversations with very powerful people in Puerto Rico behind closed doors and without transparency, the same thing is true in the documentary ecosystem. The injustices of the world don’t just remain on the screen. They’re not just what we document. They are happening to us and we are connected to them. I want to throw the word ‘sustainability’ out the window because it makes me laugh at this point.”

Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi’s 'We Still Here.' Courtesy of Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi

Despite the overwhelming powers that are working against the people of Puerto Rico and filmmakers, there is also an extraordinary amount of resilience. On June 10th, 1948, La Ley de la Mordaza, also known as Law 53 or the Gag Law, was enacted to squander the independence movement in Puerto Rico. This law made it illegal to display or even own a Puerto Rican flag, even within the confines of one’s own home. “There’s a feeling of proudness of being from here. I think it also comes from the fact that we were prohibited to feel proud of being Puerto Rican,” explains Lale Namerrow Pastor, associate producer of Landfall. “We were prohibited from waving our flag to speak with our thick accents. We were prohibited to be."

“Despite everything,” Namerrow Pastor continues, “I think we haven’t seen the extent of the economic crisis that's going to come with COVID-19. That’s going to be another turning point for Puerto Rico. On top of that, we have the American elections that are’s very important to us, even though we can’t vote. And then we have our local elections, which are super important. I think 2021 will be another scenario for Puerto Rico.”

Kristal Sotomayor is a bilingual Latinx freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and festival programmer based in Philadelphia. They serve as Programming Director for the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival and Co-Founder of ¡Presente! Media Collective. Kristal has written for ITVS, WHYY, AL DÍA, and Submittable. They are a 2020 Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow.