“When it came to searching for my own voice in other people’s projects, the way I looked determined in their minds what my voice would be.”
These were the poignant words of Rudy Valdez, director of The Sentence, spoken over a hushed crowd in the Egyptian theatre in Park City, Utah. Valdez was referring to the way his Latino features triggered casting directors and producers to assign him stereotypical Latino roles, namely “drug lords or over-sexualized foreigners.” He went on to conclude his thought with a pithy remark that reciprocated applauses and cheers from the audience: “At this point I knew that the only way to find my voice was create for myself.”
Valdez’ comments in the Q&A sessions following his film, capture both my experience as a Puertoriqueño Americano (Puerto Rican-American) and my hope for the role filmmaking can play in that experience. Ever since my social contexts as kid in Polk County, Florida, became more racially conscious, the more I was slammed with the question, “What are you?” referring to my ethnicity. Soon I wasn’t even graced with a chance to explain my heritage, but labeled based on my phenotypical features: Mexican, Arab, Indian, American Indian, etc. Sometimes these people would use more pejorative versions of these terms, causing me to resent what made me look Latino, and inadvertently resent these other people groups as if they were responsible for the way my peers treated me. As the years went on, the labels grew more hurtful and the more I despised my ethnic features, my heritage, my people’s stories.
I didn’t have a change of heart in my life until I moved to Southern California where I encountered robust and vibrant Mexican communities who relished their cultural traditions, carved out spaces in society to express themselves, and creatively resisted forces and systems that would squelch their stories. The space they made for me these past few years have inspired me to reconnect with my Puerto Rican roots, learn Español, and be proud of the legacies which my physical features join me to. Like Rudy Valdez, I have found the cinematic arts to be the sphere where I search for my identity, my voice. And while I explore, I’m always taking cues from Americana Latina filmmakers and films which portray the Latino/a experience.
I decided to take this journey to the frigid streets of Park City, Utah, to learn from the Latin American and Latino/a voices at Sundance, and these are the films and people I encountered along the way:
Tiempo Compartido (Time Share)
In hopes to find physical and emotional healing for their family, Pedro, Eva and their son book a private villa at one the world famous—U.S. owned—Eversfield Family resorts in Mexico. Right when Pedro and familia begin to settle in, they discover that their villa has been over-booked and they must share the villa with another family twice their size. As Pedro begins to protest this oversight, he is only met with apologetic resort employees who assure him that they can bring him and his family “into paradise.” The more Pedro resists the luxurious Time Share promotions and the propaganda of Paraíso, the more he is estranged from his family. With the help of Andres, a rogue employee who lost his wife and co-worker to the monster, that is, the resort executives, Pedro makes a bold attempt expose the sinister forces at work within Eversfield Resorts and reconcile himself to his family before he loses them forever to the dream of paraíso.
I had the chance to interview one of the co-writers of Tiempo Compartido, Julio Chavezmontes, to get a better glimpse into this hilarious, satiric drama. Along with providing helpful terms to navigate Latin American and Latino/a filmmaking, he reminded me that Latin American filmmakers are not always consciously making Latin American films; sometimes the Latin American experience bleeds through a simple narrative. Chavezmontes intended to construct a narrative about the universal experience of businesses trying to capitalize on communities looking to better connect and heal. However, at the talk-back, the director, Sebastián Hofmann, commented on the prevalence of indigenous architecture in the film: “Eversfield’s use of indigenous architecture evokes the economic exploitation of the indigenous cultures at the hands of western colonizers.”
Whether or not Tiempo Compartido was a covert social commentary on Mexican history, it was a great reminder for me that Puerto Rican cinema doesn’t have to only consist of explicit social critiques. Sometimes the more evocative, particular message comes from crafting a well-made story that resonates with people across cultures. Tiempo definitely provides the visual vocabulary for such filmmaking with its tightly composed frames, over-inundated mis-en-scenes, and saturated color grading which encompass the erosion of families. Everything in the film looks like paraíso but Pedro’s tragedy makes us feel something entirely different.
You can listen to an audio recording of my entire conversation with Chavezmontes below.
On a quiet morning in a small Michigan town, mother of three, Cindy Shank hears a knock on the door. Her husband opens the door and finds police officers with a warrant for Cindy’s arrest. While guilty of nothing, Cindy’s knowledge of her deceased ex-boyfriend’s involvement in drug-related criminal activities was enough for a criminal justice system, eager to punish and arrest as many as they could, to charge her with conspiracy. Cindy was torn away from her six-year-old, four-year-old, and six-week-old girls, her loving husband, and the wider Valdez family. “The only way I thought I could cope with it all, was stand behind a camera,” says director Rudy Valdez in a voiceover. At first, Valdez’ filming was to capture all the familial moments Cindy would miss like her youngest child’s first words and the bold efforts her family would make in trying to free her. As Valdez discovers he has a voice through his filming, his documenting for Cindy becomes a platform for legal voices to speak out and against the minimum sentencing mandate which Cindy was unjustly slammed with. During production Valdez finds enough support and momentum to participate in a larger struggle against a broken criminal justice system which had wrongly taken 34,000 people like Cindy a way from their families. The Sentence is a deeply moving documentary that interweaves communal tragedy, self-discovery, and social activism into one compelling cinematic tapestry.
While Valdez did make several connections between his experience as a Mexican-American and the shape of the film, the primary purpose was to help his sister and free him from the artistic restrictions others put on him. With that said, much of Valdez’s needs to self-express originated from his struggles as a Latino in a predominately White community and film industry. His turn to filmmaking was a profound confirmation to my own aspirations for self-discovery through filmmaking. The Sentence is also another brilliant example of Latino/a films that bleeds its culture as opposed to explicitly stating it. I saw my close-knit and loving Rodriguez-Chico familia in the Valdez familia. While Cindy’s story wasn’t unique, her family’s resilient support and commitment was, and as a Latino I know that was due in part to our cultures’ strong emphasis on familial bonds.
The Queen of Fear
Robertina is a famous Argentine actor who is set to perform her grand, one-woman show. Along with her renowned theatrical career, Robertina is infamous among her colleagues and friends for her crippling anxiety about everything under the sun. Her fears prevent her from ever showing up to rehearsals and from dealing with her deteriorated marriage to a husband who is consistently absent. After receiving a phone call from an old friend who’s dying of cancer, she decides to travel across the world to visit with him despite the fact her performance is weeks away. During her visit, it becomes more apparent to her and the audience that the most crippling effect of her phobias is the perpetual isolation it creates. How can she connect with others when everything around threatens to unravel in unwanted surprise?
I know very little about Argentinian culture, and its geopolitical history differs from Puerto Rico in so many ways that I haven’t bothered to look for overlaps. More interesting to me was that this was the only, predominately proyecta hembra (female lead project). Co-directed by Fabiana Tiscornia and Valleria Bertuccelli (who also starred in and wrote the film), The Queen of Fear was a cinematic reminder that the Latino/a voice doesn’t always include the Latina voice, the female experience. I’m not sure, if Tiscornia and Bertuccelli intended to say something about the female experience in Argentina, but it certainly attempts to make you experience Robertina’s anxiety with its claustrophobic long shots and Robertina’s anxiety-inducing monologues. I was very pleased to hear that Bertuccelli won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting for her performance.
Following the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet Union sent children affected by the radiations to hospitals in Cuba to be treated. The communist government in Cuba decided to close the Russian literature program at the university and send the professors to the hospital to serve as traductores (translators) between Russian patients and Cuban doctors. Malin is one of those translators and the most opposed to the occupational transfer out of his cohort. However, over time Malin falls in love with children and devotes himself to making their last days on earth filled with community and imagination. As Malin invests more of himself in the hospital, the less present he is with his pregnant wife and son. Based on the true events of their parents’ marriage, directors, Rodrigo and Sebastían Barriuso, tell an extremely personal story that simultaneously mirrors the larger sociopolitical conflicts on the island at the time (1989).
In a way, the Barriuso brothers’ stunning period piece connects several themes in Latin American filmmaking explored in the films above. In one sense, the film is intensely personal relaying the true events of one particular family in Cuba. However, the particularity of the story manages to embody the overarching experiences of Cubans in general on the island. Malin represents the love and hope many Cubans had for Communism and their relationship with the Soviet Union. From his passion for Russian literature to his feverish concern for the Russian patients, Malin clings to a thriving Communist Cuba that slowly dissipates in the background of the film. Malin’s wife, Isona, is suspicious of the grandiose promises of her government and prefers the world of art curating where individual voices are celebrated and the flow of wealth is less controlled. Un Traductor was the quintessential Latin American film for me that manages to balance self-discovery, attentiveness to familial legacy, and the sociopolitical history of the country and its people. It is a film that has inspired me to search for these “universal stories” in the particularities of my Puerto Rican roots.