Conversation: Issues in Contemporary American Documentary, Dec. 15, 6PM EST
Roundtable with Latinx Directors Cecilia Aldarondo, Michèle Stephenson and Rodrigo Reyes
Coinciding with the world premiere of the most recent films by directors Cecilia Aldarondo, Rodrigo Reyes and Michèle Stephenson at the 2020 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival scheduled for April that year, Cinema Tropical was planning a public conversation with the three filmmakers to exchange perspectives on their own artistic practices. Then COVID-19 happened, and all of the plans changed.
Despite the fact that the premieres were then cancelled (eventually the three films were screened a year later, at this year’s edition of the Tribeca Film Festival), we decided to move forward with the roundtable, and recorded this conversation with the three directors on April 18, 2020, in which they discuss their own careers and how have they sorted numerous adversities throughout the years in order to create a vibrant and influential filmography.
Since the talk was recorded at the beginning of the pandemic, and since the three of them premiered their films during these convoluted times, Distribution Advocates and Cinema Tropical thought it would be a good opportunity to bring them back to share their experiences on that front.
Join us on Wednesday, December 15 at 6pm EST for a follow up-conversation with these three filmmakers on Cinema Tropical’s Twitter Spaces (@cinematropical), moderated by Carlos A. Gutiérrez, Executive Director of Cinema Tropical.
Aldarondo, Reyes, and Stephenson, who happen to be Latinx directors, are at the forefront of American non-fiction cinema. The three of them have been able to build strong and powerful filmographies despite challenging contexts, and have become key figures in the documentary world advocating for better professional practices, particularly in reference to underrepresented filmmakers. Below is an abridged version of the original recorded conversation.
Carlos Gutiérrez: To start off, can each of you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you decide to become filmmakers and how do you marry your professional backgrounds with your filmmaking activities?
Cecilia Aldarondo: I did not train as a filmmaker, I didn't go to film school. I finished my first film when I was 36 but I have always been involved in cinema in various ways. I studied visual art. I wrote art criticism and then I did a PhD and I was always very much a cinephile. My first job out of college was at the Florida Film Festival. And I think that's where I probably discovered documentary film, by watching submissions to that festival.
But I was always a little bit terrified by the idea of making art myself. And so I became a filmmaker partly in a fateful way where my mother discovered a family archive of home movies and slides. That discovery catalyzed a bunch of memories of my family; about my uncle's untimely death of AIDS, which became the subject of my first feature documentary, Memories of a Penitent Heart.
Part of the reason I think I turned to filmmaking was because I found academic writing limiting and I wanted to speak to a more general public. I wanted to make work that would be creatively exciting and meaningful, and I just fell in love with filmmaking after that first experience.
Rodrigo Reyes: Well, thanks for sharing, Cecilia, that's a really interesting path and journey to filmmaking. In my case I've always been interested in cinema, ever since I was a little kid. It just wasn't something that I could really pursue, through film school for instance, because there was a feeling in my family, especially coming from my dad, that this was not something that you can raise a family with. And in many ways he's right, the irony.
I studied political science. I traveled a lot during college to Spain and Mexico and I grew up between Mexico and the US. I constantly had two different reference points. Mexico is very Americanized so you get to see a lot of American films there. But we also have a huge tradition of cinema. So I was five years old watching films by Pedro Infante and Cantinflas and also combining that with big Hollywood films that made it down to Mexico.
Once I finished college, I felt like I could start on my own path because I had fulfilled this achievement of getting a degree. And I was actually the first in a big circle of my family in the US to get a degree. The reason I began working on documentaries was because I felt like, “Well, I can afford a camera. I can afford some microphones.” It’s very ironic because documentaries are actually really expensive, especially in the US.
All of my films, even the one I premiered at Tribeca, have some significant portion of self financing. I feel like that has been what has jump started every project, is being able to put in time and money and get the concept going because it has just been very difficult, I think, to pitch an establishment that thinks documentaries should be this way or that way on how my ideas also make sense.
I've been able to do this because I also have a day job, like most of us. I work as a criminal interpreter in the California courts. So I have a completely different way of making a living and that has allowed me to continue investing in my own projects and, you know, they've all gotten support eventually.
Michèle Stephenson: It's really interesting to hear from both of you because I feel that there are a lot of intersections in our journeys. I came very late to film. I always loved film and the arts. I actually wanted to be a dancer and that was not quite accepted by my family, in a way as a result of being a family of immigrants. I was also a first-generation college graduate within my immediate family.
Butfor me, politics and human rights issues were very present growing up. I think it had to do with both my Panamanian as well as Haitian roots and the kinds of discussions that were happening in our home. I also studied political science and traveled after graduating. I worked with the United Nations' Development Program in Africa and became very, very disillusioned with the systemic inequities and the industrial complexes that I felt I was becoming a part of. Eventually, I went to law school thinking that perhaps with a law degree I could try to make change on a different, more direct level.
It was actually my partner who introduced me to the notion of being able to make my own film. He was actually transitioning careers as well and was doing fiction, so I was on [his] sets for a while. I was exposed to the screenwriting process while still in law school, and the bug just bit me there. So I picked up a camera and started to take small workshops on weekends here in New York. Back in the day, there were these small kinds of collectives, Film and Visual Arts, AIVF. There were a lot of these little spots that actually don't exist anymore. Places you could go to create community and try to learn on your own with these small workshops for people who had other jobs, who were trying to learn but had to also pay the bills.
CG: This was a question for later but since you already brought it up: How do the three of you balance your filmmaking careers with making a living?
CA: Like you Michèle and you Rodrigo, I also have a day job. I am a professor of art at Williams College. So, I teach. I count myself among the very lucky few to currently be employed on a tenured track position, which I think is extremely key because it gives me a degree of freedom, even though I always say I have two “more than full time” jobs. I get summers off, I have time between semesters, and for example, right now I'm currently on sabbatical, a period of time away from teaching that enables me to focus on filmmaking.
Though I am one of these rare lucky people, it also means that I can't spend all of my time making films. I have to really modify my expectations and slow down. And I think in particular for a film, like the one I was due to premiere at Tribeca, Landfall, I was having to fly to Puerto Rico on some weekends and shoot while teaching. So, there's a certain amount of flexibility with having a day job. But, it can also be incredibly difficult.
But at the same time, like both of you mentioned, having a day job means that I have aesthetic freedom and I don't feel pressure to conform to industry pressures in the same way that I think people who depend on commissioned work, or who work for hire, have to. And that's what I want to do, I don't want to make films for others. I want to make films the way I want to.
MS: I've done all kinds of work. Now I am doing commissioned work and it's not easy. It's a split because it's helping me pay the bills, but it sucks a lot of creative energy from the independent work that I want to develop. It’s trying to figure out what that balance looks like.
I guess the main point that I try to think about is this idea of how to maintain your financial independence as much as possible while trying to keep some time for the creative process. What I've done is I've tried to invest in real estate. I'm being very practical here. The idea of being able to own something that allows you to kind of build on that independence, I think that’s key. So that’s one of the things I try to talk about when I mentor. If you have a day job, see how you can save as much as possible and see what little things you can actually have for your own. Maybe it's that immigrant mentality that's present.
I think it's a myth to be able to just go from one independent film to another and sustain yourself. There's got to be something else going on, likeyou have a trust fund. Because the independent documentary model just doesn't allow for self-sustenance. You’re not able to just be the artist that you are.
CG: So, let's talk about this aspect of juggling. What's the biggest challenge you face in terms of having to make those decisions? How do you fight for that artistic independence? What are the biggest struggles in the everyday life of making your films?
RR: I think the biggest struggle that I see is just the fact that you're asked to tell stories that are intimate, that basically bring the white gaze into your community or the communities or the worlds that you have access to or that you're a part of as a person of color or an immigrant or a member of an underrepresented group. But you're asked to do it in a way that really just caters to the needs of a white viewer. To me it just feels boring.
And then the other challenge, at least from my perspective, is to realize that many times we're not speaking the same cinematic language as the folks that we're pitching our films to, and the pitching field is uphill. It isn't a level playing field. It isn't a real conversation about sharing a vision and discussing where it came from and what the context is so that both sides can understand each other.
It's really a question of—and I love to use this analogy—how do you pitch the New Yorker article that the commissioning folks have already read and that makes them feel like they understand your culture.
CA: I think filmmaking is hard, period. But I think it's especially hard if you are a documentary filmmaker in the United States that doesn't want to conform to the prevailing mode. I think in particular for filmmakers of color there's a set of tacit expectations about what kinds of films we’re supposed to make.
Nobody handed me a rule book that said: “You need to make a social issue documentary that follows a certain number of characters, that is uplifting, that makes us feel a certain way.” But that is there. I feel like if you want to break the mold of a three-act structure or a heroic narrative or something that's going to feel really resolved at the end or be, as Rodrigo pointed out, transparent to a white viewer or the dominant narrative, it's really challenging.
And I think for me, alongside all of this – this goes back to the sustainability question – I like to make films in which I'm collaborating with others. I am not a “one-woman-band.” I don't edit my own films. I don't shoot my own films. For me, part of the challenge is making films that are simultaneously aesthetically committed for very specific reasons.
MS: Trying to safeguard that space to be able to experiment creatively is one of my biggest hurdles. But, I wouldn't be here, or I wouldn’t be able to even experiment a little bit, if it weren't for the gatekeepers of color who exist in these spaces of power. I think there are many films that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day if not for the advocates they had in these spaces who related to their stories and were able to push for their support.
Right now, these foundations and grant spaces that have been my bread and butter, aren’t well. They are supposedly in crisis because their endowments are not what they used to be. Will that mean a retraction to modes that they are more familiar with? I mean, that's a big question.
But even this particular film, Stateless, one of the largest funds I got was because of a Puerto Rican funder who is in this grant space and was able to fund the film. He kind of understood it, and it became the first film that this foundation has ever supported. So it's really seeing ourselves in these places of power that makes a difference. Even if they don't necessarily understand the language of the storytelling, they do sort of understand where it's coming from and the “why” behind it.
CG: I found that a very fortunate coincidence between the three films, even though they are very different in terms of narrative and themes, is that they all have a certain similarity in that you three go back to your places of origin to revisit the past in order to understand the present. And in that sense, how do you negotiate this as filmmakers, as American filmmakers, that tension between this country [the United States] and your countries?
RR: You know, that tension is just existential. It's every day, at least for me. I'm literally an interpreter. I'm in the middle, helping people speak and listen. At this point, I'm 36, so I've gotten used to it. But for the longest time, both countries didn't really want anything to do with me. They wanted me to declare allegiance to one side or the other. And Mexico is just as selfish in that way as the US because it's almost like you abandoned your homeland, even though the reasons for leaving are obvious. In the US, there's this constant question of like, why do you need to maintain your cultural identity or your roots?
But now after many stumbles and films, I've kind of used that as a strategy. Because when you go and you talk to the folks in 499, the real people, and they realize that you're a Mexican who comes from California with a crew from Spain and New York, and you brought all these people to listen to their story in Veracruz, and that other folks like me from Mexico City have not bothered to go out there, that's a very powerful way of creating a bond. You're able to build trust really quickly.
Because this negotiation is happening all the time, I think that affects the stories that I'm interested in. I want to exist in that gap and really explore it and tell stories and not pretend like that gap doesn't exist.
CA: I think for me, being Puerto Rican, Puerto Rico is a place that unfortunately retains its colonial status and therefore is inherently ambiguous. Part of what drew me to make Landfall is a personal need to deal with the fact that I was raised in the diaspora and I've never lived in Puerto Rico. We talk about memory and history here. I feel like if my identity is coherent in any way, it's that I've been robbed of a coherent identity, robbed of a coherent history.
In making this particular film, it was really important to me, from an ethical perspective, to not replicate the extractive practices that have plagued documentary filmmaking since its inception. I didn't want to replicate the extractive practices that are currently afflicting Puerto Rico, of people parachuting in in this Neocolonialist way to rob a vulnerable place. The last thing I wanted was to be thought of as a disaster capitalist making a film about disaster capitalism.
As somebody who didn't grow up in Puerto Rico, it was really important to me to collaborate with someone from the island. I worked really closely with an activist named Lale Namaru Pastor who herself has lived in Puerto Rico her whole life. And without making it explicit, the whole film is a conversation between a diasporic Puerto Rican and a Puerto Rican based in Puerto Rico.
MS: I think that the diasporic lens is my lived experience. What Stateless sort of represents for me, too, is an opportunity to reconnect. This idea of paying homage somehow to the land, to the people. In that way it's very personal and it’s a privilege to be able to do that. It just allowed me to reconnect on a deeper emotional level with the island. I felt a need for that.
CG: How do we envision new sustainable models of filmmaking coming out of [the pandemic]? I think this crisis is a good opportunity to try to come up with new utopias because we were completely defeated by reality coming to this crisis. I think this “pause” allows us to kind of reimagine and again, create those utopias where we can redirect the struggle.
CA: People in Puerto Rico are crisis experts, and part of what I have come to see and what the film I made tries to give space for and honor is that dystopian moments, by default or by necessity, create opportunities for utopian thinking.
And I don't necessarily have answers as to how we are going to be able to, without the help of people with more power than us, radically redefine the documentary production model.But I do think that the only way that we're going to work towards or fight for sustainability is by finding ways to turn away from those in power to find space for our own conversations, our own alliances, our own collaborations. I mean, the solution may not be an entirely industrial one. It may need to be very DIY, it may need to be very grassroots.
Something that people in Puerto Rico found out very quickly, or already knew and that Maria laid bare, was that institutions were not going to save people. People saved people. And I think that may be something that we have to prepare ourselves for. That as much as I think we need to do advocacy work and ask our institutions to change and be equitable and be just, we may also have to prepare ourselves for a world in which mutual aid is the way we get through this.
RR: I also think that at a certain point we need to rethink what funding for art looks like at a government level. Think about the support that so many other countries have in place that we don't have, and how those could help sustain a community while the community is also resilient on its own in all the ways that you've mentioned, Cecilia.
MS: I don't think that state institutions are the answer, unfortunately. I just came out of a collaboration that was a partially state-funded project. And there are all kinds of inequities that happen in that space as well. In the same way, you talk about the cautionary tale. Some people see Haiti as our future and I look at it as not just our future on many levels. In terms of thinking about environmental degradation, thinking about chaos, thinking about the role of the state, but also thinking about creativity and how creativity, in some ways, is what sustains the cultures and the communities.
Special thanks to Pilar D. Garrett and Juan Pedro Agurcia.
Cecilia Aldarondo is a documentary director-producer from the Puerto Rican diaspora who is making films at the intersection of poetics and politics. Her feature documentaries Memories of a Penitent Heart and Landfall were selected to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and air on the award-winning television series POV. Aldarondo’s films have been supported by ITVS, HBO, A&E, the Sundance Institute, Cinereach, Tribeca Film Institute, the Jerome Foundation, and many others. She teaches at Williams College.
Born in Mexico City, Oakland-based director Rodrigo Reyes makes films deeply grounded in his identity as an immigrant artist, crafting a poetic gaze from the margins of both cultures, using striking imagery to portray the contradictory nature of our shared world, while revealing the potential for transformative change. In 2020, his latest film 499, won Best Cinematography at Tribeca, as well as the Special Jury Award at Hot Docs. He has screened at festivals such as Morelia International Film Festival, BFI London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Rodrigo is a recipient of the Sundance Spotlight on Storytellers Award, the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Creative Capital Award. He currently serves as Co-Director for the BAVC Mediamaker Fellowship.
As co-founding member of the Rada Film Group, filmmaker, artist, and author Michèle Stephenson pulls from her Panamanian and Haitian roots and experience as a human rights attorney to tell provocative stories about personal and systemic liberation. Her work has appeared on numerous broadcast and web platforms, including PBS, Showtime, and MTV. Her film, American Promise, was nominated for three Emmys, including Best Documentary and Outstanding Coverage of a Current News Story. The film also won the Jury Prize at Sundance, and was selected for the New York Film Festivals’ Main Slate Program. She was recently awarded the Creative Capital Fellowship, the Chicken & Egg Pictures Breakthrough Filmmaker Award, and the Guggenheim Fellowship.
Carlos A. Gutiérrez is the Co-Founding Executive Director of Cinema Tropical, the New York-based non-profit media arts organization celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2021, that has become the leading presenter of Latin American cinema in the U.S.