6-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​C​C​N​.​6​-​2.4 | Rodriguez PDF

Abstract | This essay looks back at the pro­duc­tion of Puer­to Rican films in the 1980s and 1990s as the point of depar­ture for young Puer­to Rican film­mak­ers in the first decades of the 21st cen­tu­ry. Even as the sto­ries of this new­er gen­er­a­tion dif­fer, their con­cern with the island image and dias­poric move­ment con­tin­ue to ques­tion Puer­to Rican iden­ti­ty. Prob­lems of local film pro­duc­tion and out­side dis­tri­b­u­tion remain for each film project. This essay ana­lyzes a num­ber of key films by a diverse group of direc­tors whose goal is to rethink the con­cept of a Puer­to Rican cinema.
Résumé | Cet essai se penche sur la pro­duc­tion ciné­matographique por­tor­i­caine des années 1980 et 1990, con­texte néces­saire pour com­pren­dre la mon­tée des jeunes réal­isa­teurs por­tor­i­cains de la pre­mière décen­nie du 21e siè­cle. Même si les con­tenus et les points de vue de cette nou­velle généra­tion sont dif­fèrent les uns des autres, ils présen­tent des élé­ments com­muns relat­ifs au mode de vie insu­laire et aux mou­ve­ments dias­poriques, et con­tin­u­ent à se deman­der qui nous sommes et com­ment on se définit. Les prob­lèmes de la pro­duc­tion locale et de la dis­tri­b­u­tion inter­na­tionale con­tin­u­ent à pré­val­oir dans tout pro­jet ciné­matographique. L’essai analyse un cer­tain nom­bre de films signés par un groupe divers de réal­isa­teurs dans le but de repenser le con­cept d’un ciné­ma portoricain.



A thriv­ing group of young Puer­to Rican film­mak­ers in the first decade of the 21st cen­tu­ry have pro­duced debut and some­times sec­ond fea­ture nar­ra­tive pro­duc­tions. They present a vision of a post­mod­ern Puer­to Rico with an empha­sis on sen­sa­tion­al­ist news head­lines, every­day vio­lence, pub­lic fam­i­ly feuds, and sex as com­mod­i­ty, shun­ning ear­li­er visions of a nos­tal­gic pre-mod­ern soci­ety with issues of fam­i­ly greed, state repres­sion, and coun­try­side tran­quil­i­ty as old-fash­ioned. The essay explores the 21st-cen­tu­ry vision of Puer­to Rican cin­e­ma as it emerges from indi­vid­u­al­ized film pro­pos­als of the last 30 years of the pre­vi­ous century.

At the end of the 1970s, Amer­i­can com­mer­cial films reigned in Puer­to Rico’s movie the­atres. Span­ish-lan­guage films from Spain, Mex­i­co, and Argenti­na, his­tor­i­cal­ly enjoy­ing great pop­u­lar­i­ty, had vir­tu­al­ly dis­ap­peared because of the preva­lence of Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tions in the­atres through­out the island. Fur­ther­more, the pub­lic had lost inter­est in Puer­to Rican movies, which con­sist­ed main­ly of come­dies and musi­cals emu­lat­ing local tele­vi­sion shows. Most of these pro­duc­tions were made with for­eign cap­i­tal by for­eign direc­tors and could not com­pete in screen­ing time with U.S. com­mer­cial pro­duc­tions. In spite of this com­pe­ti­tion, sev­er­al Puer­to Rican projects were under­way dur­ing this decade, with Jacobo Morales’ Dios los cría…(And God Cre­at­ed Them…; 1980) in its final pro­duc­tion stages. This film along with two oth­er Morales films—Nicolás y los demás (Nicholas and the Oth­ers; 1985) and Lo que le pasó a San­ti­a­go (What Hap­pened to San­ti­a­go;1989)—opened the pos­si­bil­i­ty in the 1980s of re-defin­ing Puer­to Rican cin­e­ma and estab­lish­ing a film indus­try in the island with an urban vision of the coun­try that could trav­el through­out Latin Amer­i­ca and the Unit­ed States. For sev­er­al years, Puer­to Rico ben­e­fit­ted from an exist­ing film­mak­ing infra­struc­ture, a result of the exper­tise and sophis­ti­ca­tion of the adver­tis­ing indus­try. The only step need­ed was to put adver­tis­ing techi­cians and equip­ment to work on fic­tion films in 35mm, tar­get­ing a wide audi­ence and aim­ing for box office rev­enues that would make it pos­si­ble for pro­duc­ers to get a return on their investment.

Jacobo Morales did not present a new vision of film­mak­ing, but rather his work refo­cused Puer­to Rican cin­e­ma by look­ing at specif­i­cal­ly Puer­to Rican topics—subjects, his­to­ry, char­ac­ters, idiosyncrasies—and draw­ing on that real­i­ty to pro­pose an orig­i­nal, nation­al­ly root­ed def­i­n­i­tion of this art form. Just as Guade­lou­pean film­mak­er Chris­t­ian Lara attempt­ed to define a nation­al cin­e­ma in his 1992 inter­view with Mbye Cham (Cham 281), Kino Gar­cía in Breve his­to­ria del cine puer­tor­riqueño (Brief His­to­ry of Puer­to Rican Cin­e­ma; 1989) express­es a sim­i­lar con­cern by sug­gest­ing a series of para­me­ters towards iden­ti­fy­ing what con­sti­tutes a “gen­uine­ly” Puer­to Rican film. Accord­ing to Gar­cía, the val­ues the film presents should respond to an inter­pre­ta­tion of real­i­ty that is essen­tial­ly Puer­to Rican. The film should be a Puer­to Rican pro­duc­tion, or have a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Puer­to Ricans tak­ing part in the pro­duc­tion effort, whether in the artis­tic, tech­ni­cal, or finan­cial aspects. The sub­ject or con­tent should respond to a sit­u­a­tion or an issue approached and devel­oped from a nation­al point of view; and the film should con­tribute to the devel­op­ment of a Puer­to Rican nation­al cin­e­ma (4-5).

Puer­to Rican film­mak­ers in the 21st cen­tu­ry appear to show lit­tle inter­est in encas­ing their own cin­e­ma in these para­me­ters, although they stress their com­mit­ment to show­cas­ing the vibrant day-to-day hap­pen­ings of Puer­to Rican life by focus­ing on the dynam­ic youth and young-adult cul­ture and lifestyles; these direc­tors include Raúl Marc­hand, Rober­to Busó, Car­l­i­tos Ruiz, Juan Dávi­la, Cris­t­ian Abn­er, and Jean-Car­lo Pérez. Their var­i­ous film projects, both short and long fea­tures attached to TV sit­coms and made-for-TV movies, pro­pose a visu­al style that appeals to a younger gen­er­a­tion: unsteady cam­era move­ment, mix­ture of angle shots, quick action, street and col­lo­qui­al lan­guage, and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed use of light­ing and cam­era. Fran­cis­co González focus­es on Raúl Marchand’s 12 horas (12 Hours; 2001) in “La noche te lla­ma: ‘12 horas’ cumple diez años” (“The Night is Call­ing You: ‘12 Hours’ is cel­e­brat­ing 10 Years”) as the film that set a new trend in Puer­to Rican cin­e­ma with its use of dig­i­tal film­mak­ing on a long fea­ture. Anoth­er inno­va­tion of this film was the use of dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios for sto­ries deal­ing with an 18-34-year-old Puer­to Rican urban pop­u­la­tion that tran­scends class and gen­der issues. González also points out the influ­ence of the Dan­ish film, Thomas Vinterberg’s Fes­ten (The Cel­e­bra­tion; 1998), which set the exam­ple for mak­ing inde­pen­dent, low-bud­get films with eas­i­ly acces­si­ble dig­i­tal cameras.

The avail­abil­i­ty of the dig­i­tal cam­era was cer­tain­ly a break­through in a local indus­try that required bud­gets of at least $500,000 for a medi­um-length or long-fea­ture film. As an exam­ple of this surge in film pro­duc­tion, in 2007 five fea­ture-length films were shown in com­mer­cial film the­atres: Angel (Jacobo Morales), El clown (Pedro Adorno and Emilio Rodríguez), El cimar­rón (Maroon; Iván Dariel Ortiz), Maldeamores (Lovesick­ness; Car­l­i­tos Ruiz and Mariem Pérez-Riera), and Rui­do (Noise; César Rodríguez). These films stand out in their real­is­tic approach to social and his­tor­i­cal issues and the tech­no­log­i­cal care and sophis­ti­ca­tion used to tell their sto­ries. In Angel, Morales shifts from his pre­vi­ous glossy 35mm films to con­struct a grit­ty dra­ma of polit­i­cal repres­sion that con­flates events in the 1960s with con­tem­po­rary issues and presents these con­cerns with skilled artis­tic and act­ing direc­tion. El clown uses metaphor­i­cal imagery to tell the sto­ry of a tal­ent­ed local actor who is dis­cov­ered and becomes suc­cess­ful as an adver­tis­ing emblem and then los­es touch with the every­day life of his for­mer com­mu­ni­ty. El cimar­rón is a rar­i­ty as a his­tor­i­cal film that res­cues part of the Puer­to-Rican-African her­itage. While Cuban film­mak­ers made plan­ta­tion soci­ety and slav­ery a recur­rent theme, Puer­to Rican lit­er­a­ture and film have for the most part side­stepped this his­to­ry. Maldeamores attempts to fol­low a more Latin Amer­i­can trend of [dis]connecting dis­sim­i­lar sto­ries, à la Ale­jan­dro Gar­cía Iñárritu’s Amores per­ros (Love’s a Bitch; 2000), but rely­ing too much on stereo­typ­ing, overused street lan­guage, and exag­ger­a­tion for easy laughs. Notwith­stand­ing these draw­backs, the film had wide dis­tri­b­u­tion and crit­i­cal recog­ni­tion because of its endorse­ment by Puer­to Rican Hol­ly­wood actor Beni­cio del Toro and its inclu­sion in the TRIBECA Film Fes­ti­val. Rui­do focus­es on the new mid­dle class­es in which young pro­fes­sion­als mea­sure their suc­cess by their cars and dis­tant town­hous­es; mean­while, fam­i­ly rela­tions take low­er pri­or­i­ty, cre­at­ing con­tin­u­ous fric­tion between par­ents and chil­dren. All these sto­ries are set with­in a Puer­to Rican socio-his­tor­i­cal real­i­ty with which the audi­ence can iden­ti­fy and empathize. As one might expect, audi­ences most enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly respond­ed to come­dies rather than dramas.

Although migra­tion has been a com­po­nent of Puer­to Rican soci­ety since 1898 when the Unit­ed States invad­ed the island, very few films base their sto­ries on Puer­to Ricans’ res­i­dence in Hawaii (before state­hood in 1959) and the con­ti­nen­tal Unit­ed States, or migrants’ sub­se­quent return to the island. A notable excep­tion is Luis Molina’s La guagua aérea (The Air­bus; 1993), based on a col­lec­tion of essays and sto­ries by Luis Rafael Sánchez, whose nar­ra­tive works were wide­ly read when first pub­lished in Argenti­na and lat­er trans­lat­ed to Eng­lish by Gre­go­ry Rabas­sa. The film was extreme­ly pop­u­lar because of its mar­ket­ing strate­gies and finan­cial back­ing by a promi­nent high­er edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tion (Uni­ver­si­dad del Sagra­do Corazón) and pri­vate enter­pris­es. Before “the mak­ing of the film” became a stan­dard fea­ture on the island, Moli­na used it as a pro­mo­tion tool that also involved a trav­el pack­age from San Juan to New York where the film would be fea­tured for the first time. Puer­to Rican com­mu­ni­ties in both loca­tions had an inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship with the film as they became trav­el­ers mir­ror­ing the film’s sto­ry. The film poster apt­ly illus­trates this rela­tion­ship, as a bus lit­er­al­ly takes to the air (fig. 1):

Figure 1: film poster La Guagua Aérea (http://filmgates.com/title/tt0024665)

Fig­ure 1: film poster La Guagua Aérea (http://​film​gates​.com/​t​i​t​l​e​/​t​t​0​0​2​4​665)

Molina’s expe­ri­ence in film­mak­ing began with doc­u­men­taries on Puer­to Rican cul­tur­al his­to­ry such as Bole­to de ida (One-way Tick­et; 1983), El telé­fono: ayer y hoy (The Tele­phone: Yes­ter­day and Today; 1985), Zafra (Sug­ar Cane Har­vest; 1990), La his­to­ria de la far­ma­cia en Puer­to Rico (The His­to­ry of Phar­ma­cy in Puer­to Rico; 1992), Allá viene el tem­po­ral (The Storm Is Com­ing; 1985). For his 1990 debut fea­ture film Moli­na adapt­ed sev­er­al short sto­ries and vignettes of local colour by Puer­to Rican writer Abelar­do Díaz Alfaro. He direct­ed some of the best actors on the island and estab­lished a link with the Depart­ment of Education’s pub­lic tele­vi­sion net­work that guar­an­teed the pur­chase and dis­tri­b­u­tion of the film. In 1997 Moli­na returned to Alfaro’s sto­ries to pro­duce the film Cuen­tos para des­per­tar (Wake-Up Sto­ries), which was not as suc­cess­ful. He also attempt­ed anoth­er film on migra­tion in 2005, El sueño del regre­so (Boricua Home­com­ing), which cen­tered on the return expe­ri­ence by hav­ing 10 peo­ple from the Unit­ed States win a Puer­to Rican vaca­tion pack­age, which sup­pos­ed­ly includ­ed air­fare, hotel, and sight­see­ing. This time around there was no lit­er­ary adap­ta­tion and its com­ic ele­ments resem­bled local sitcoms.

The reliance on famil­iar and overused com­ic ele­ments has been one of the key draw­backs in recent Puer­to Rican cin­e­ma. Crit­ics hailed Maldeamores (2007) (Fig­ure 2) as a rup­ture with tra­di­tion and the begin­ning of a youth­ful and vibrant new style. It had a long run in local com­mer­cial the­atres and was also select­ed as the Puer­to Rican entry in the For­eign Film cat­e­go­ry at the Oscars. It won praise from local film and enter­tain­ment crit­ics with the lone excep­tion of the week­ly Clar­i­dad. One of the indi­vid­ual sto­ries deals with a mama’s boy in his 30s who decides to hijack a bus in order to force its dri­ver to accept his mar­riage offer. Anoth­er sto­ry is about the hys­te­ria of a dys­func­tion­al fam­i­ly that has to deal in close prox­im­i­ty with the death of an elder­ly rel­a­tive and the unfaith­ful­ness and aban­don­ment of the hus­band. In the third sto­ry, a ménage-à-trois delights the lives of a woman and two men in their 80s. The book­end sto­ry, which makes fun of what appears to be a case of domes­tic vio­lence, is per­haps the most con­tro­ver­sial in a machista cul­ture where [ex]girlfriends and [ex]wives are seen as objects to pos­sess and dis­pose of when no longer use­ful or submissive.

Figure 2: scene from Maldeamores (http://www.salt-co.com/index.php/titles/maldeamores)

Fig­ure 2: scene from Maldeamores (http://​www​.salt​-co​.com/​i​n​d​e​x​.​p​h​p​/​t​i​t​l​e​s​/​m​a​l​d​e​a​m​o​res)

Raúl Marchand’s 2012 film Broche de oro (Finale) was a box office hit—as was his 2000 12 horas—that appealed to a wide audi­ence across gen­er­a­tions. Pablo, Ansel­mo, and Rafael, long­time res­i­dents of an elder­ly com­pound, accept the latter’s grandson’s invi­ta­tion to spend the day at the beach where Car­los will par­tic­i­pate in a surfer’s com­pe­ti­tion. To do this they have to evade the vig­i­lance of the Moth­er Supe­ri­or and the stand­ing guard and Car­los has to “bor­row” his father’s car. The sto­ry becomes a cel­e­bra­tion of friend­ship, sus­tained love across gen­er­a­tions, and the in/significant things that hold us all togeth­er. The film is not exempt from TV-sit­com sit­u­a­tions, but has enough sto­ry­line and tal­ent to go beyond slap­stick humor.

Although women direc­tors are almost absent from this new gen­er­a­tion, Sonia Fritz, Mex­i­can-born long-time res­i­dent of Puer­to Rico, has led an unin­ter­rupt­ed career in film­mak­ing. She began her career in Mex­i­co as an anthro­po­log­i­cal film archivist. In Puer­to Rico, her doc­u­men­tary-film tra­jec­to­ry has focused on fine arts and women artists: such as Myr­na Báez: los espe­jos del silen­cio (Myr­na Báez: Silence’s Mir­rors; 1989), Puer­to Rico: arte e iden­ti­dad (Puer­to Rico: Art and Iden­ti­ty; 1991), Bar­ro, una cel­e­bración (Clay, a Cel­e­bra­tion; 2014), and Un retra­to de Car­los Col­la­zo (A Por­trait of Car­los Col­la­zo; 1995). Her films on his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and women’s move­ments include Luisa Capetil­lo: pasión de jus­ti­cia (Luisa Capetil­lo: Pas­sion for Jus­tice; 1995), Julia en tres tiem­pos (Julia in Three Waves; 1996), and La alian­za de mujeres viequenses (The Alliance of Vieques Women; 2000), She also exam­ines cul­tur­al move­ments in such films as Ban­das, vidas y otros sones (Bands, Lives, and Oth­er Rhythms; 1985), Las caras lin­das de Tite Curet Alon­so (Tite Curet Alonso’s Pret­ty Faces; 2004), and Músi­ca 100x35, notas de una trans­for­ma­ción (Music 100x35, Notes of a Trans­for­ma­tion; 2013). Some of her work deals par­tic­u­lar­ly with migra­tion: Visa para un sueño: la imi­gración de las mujeres domini­canas a Puer­to Rico (Visa for a Dream: The Immi­gra­tion of Domini­can Women to Puer­to Rico; 1990), Sueños atra­pa­dos: la migración domini­cana a Nue­va York (Trapped Dreams: The Domini­can Migra­tion to New York; 1994), Cruzan­do fron­teras: puer­tor­riqueñas y mex­i­canas en Nue­va York (Cross­ing Fron­tiers: Puer­to Rican and Mex­i­can Women in New York; 2000), and Puer­tor­riqueñas de aquí y de allá (Puer­to Rican Women from Here and Over There; 2001).

As might be expect­ed, with lim­it­ed infra­struc­ture to pro­duce fea­ture films Fritz’s incur­sion into fic­tion is not as pro­lif­ic as her doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing. Nev­er­the­less, she has direct­ed two fea­tures and pro­duced four oth­ers. El beso que me diste (The Kiss You Gave Me; 2000) is based on the thriller nov­el Porque el beso que me diste no lo olvi­daré jamás (Because I Will Nev­er For­get the Kiss You Gave Me) by up-and-com­ing Puer­to Rican writer Stel­la Soto, who framed her sto­ry of the polit­i­cal­ly charged and vio­lent atmos­phere of the island from the stand­point of a jour­nal­ist. Her sec­ond fea­ture, Améri­ca (2010; Fig­ure 3), had the pro­fes­sion­al and finan­cial back­ing of actor Edward James Olmos; the film is based on Esmer­al­da Santiago’s nov­el América’s Dream and set in Vieques, a small off-shore island near Puer­to Rico, dur­ing the Navy occu­pa­tion (1941-2003). América’s Dream tells the sto­ry of a woman who is able to ini­tial­ly break away from a cycle of gen­dered vio­lence by accept­ing a job as a nan­ny and maid and mov­ing to a small East­ern town in the Unit­ed States, away from the father of her 15-year-old daughter.

Figure 3: film poster América (http://www.tinseltine.com/2013_04_01_archive.html)

Fig­ure 3: film poster Améri­ca (http://​www​.tin​sel​tine​.com/​2​0​1​3​_​0​4​_​0​1​_​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​.​h​tml)

Depend­ing on the poli­cies estab­lished by the gov­ern­ing par­ty elect­ed every four years (there are two major rul­ing par­ties in Puer­to Rico—Popular Demo­c­ra­t­ic, pro sta­tus-quo; and New Pro­gres­sive, favour­ing annex­a­tion to the U.S.—and oth­er small­er ones endors­ing sov­er­eign­ty and inde­pen­dence), the state tele­vi­sion chan­nel may pro­mote film­mak­ing through screen­writ­ing com­pe­ti­tions, seed mon­ey for mak­ing films for TV, and prime­time screen­ing. Dur­ing the time that Sila María Calderón was the first woman gov­er­nor of Puer­to Rico (2000-2004), the state chan­nel spon­sored a series of films on labour and women’s issues direct­ed by Sonia Valen­tín: Sudor Amar­go (Bit­ter Sweat; 2003) on the clos­ing of a tuna fac­to­ry in the west­ern part of the island; and Las com­bat­ientes (The Com­bat­ants; 2004) on women in dif­fer­ent stages of breast can­cer. Valen­tín was also able to devel­op two suc­cess­ful series: Parece que fue ayer (It Seems Like Yes­ter­day) and Psi­co­sis (Psy­chosis). This open­ing in the state chan­nel was closed when, in 2008, the gov­ern­ment enact­ed dras­tic eco­nom­ic cuts and sus­pend­ed almost all local­ly made TV productions.

Although most of the pro­gram­ming in local net­work chan­nels is import­ed from Mex­i­co or the Unit­ed States, there have been some oppor­tu­ni­ties for local pro­duc­tion. Vicente Cas­tro, an expe­ri­enced and suc­cess­ful stage direc­tor, has shown his made-for-TV films on com­mer­cial chan­nels by tap­ping a vari­ety of spon­sors to assure that his films have a wide audi­ence. These films have been well received because they dra­ma­tize the every­day vio­lence that has char­ac­ter­ized Puer­to Rican soci­ety dur­ing the past decades. For exam­ple, La rec­om­pen­sa (The Reward; 2008) and Locos de amor (Crazy Love; 2001) had very high rat­ings on local TV. Even though nei­ther of their direc­tors had attempt­ed to make films for the big screen—mostly because of the high cost of pro­duc­tion and the dif­fi­cul­ty of dis­tri­b­u­tion out­side the island—in Decem­ber 2014, Cas­tro took advan­tage of the audience’s taste for action films and pre­sent­ed Los Reyes: la ver­dadera his­to­ria del Búster y el Camaleón (The Kings: The True Sto­ry of Búster and Camaleón), which screened in local movie the­atres for four weeks.

If film pro­duc­tion is an extreme­ly dif­fi­cult task, sell­ing the film in U.S. mar­kets and enter­ing the state­side dis­tri­b­u­tion cir­cuit has proven the great­est bur­den for inde­pen­dent film­mak­ers. In the 1990s, Molina’s La guagua aérea pen­e­trat­ed the cir­cuit of Span­ish-speak­ing films in U.S. cities with large His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tions. Although oth­er films have attempt­ed the same strat­e­gy, none has been able to recov­er its over­all finan­cial invest­ment. Notwith­stand­ing this draw­back, Puer­to Rican films—including the recent New York-based Under My Nails—have estab­lished their pres­ence at a great vari­ety of film fes­ti­vals in Phoenix, Chica­go Lati­no, New York Lati­no, TRIBECA, and Mon­tre­al, and oth­er loca­tions. In terms of cable TV, HBO Lati­no has great­ly con­tributed to the expo­sure of Puer­to Rican films.

Even though most Puer­to Ricans in the Unit­ed States cat­e­go­rize them­selves as Puer­to Ricans and reject attempts dur­ing the 1970s and 1980s to rename them as Nuyoricans/Chicagoricans/Hartricans/Philiricans, etce­tra, sev­er­al fac­tors stand out when com­par­ing cin­e­ma pro­duced in Puer­to Rico and that pro­duced in the Unit­ed States. Lil­lian Jiménez and Ana María Gar­cía, both doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers, have writ­ten exten­sive­ly on the vari­ety and qual­i­ty of film pro­duc­tions by Puer­to Ricans resid­ing in the U.S.. The vast major­i­ty of these films doc­u­ment the strug­gles and achieve­ments of this pop­u­la­tion as they face eth­nic and racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and poor hous­ing facil­i­ties, schools, and med­ical ser­vices. The film­mak­ers pri­or­i­tized involve­ment with com­mu­ni­ty affairs, inter­views with every­day peo­ple, and the use of PBS and oth­er net­works to insert them­selves in the news of the day. They tapped city and state funds and non-prof­it foun­da­tions to pro­duce their projects. As might be expect­ed, nar­ra­tive films were sel­dom­ly pro­duced dur­ing this time because of the over­all invest­ment and dif­fi­cul­ty of dis­tri­b­u­tion, with the excep­tion of a lim­it­ed num­ber of short films includ­ing Luis Soto’s 1986 The House of Ramón Igle­sia and María Norman’s 1987 The Sun and the Moon.

Ana María Gar­cía in her 2000 book Cine y video puertorriqueño/Puerto Rican Film and Video (and pre­vi­ous work in the 1995 San Juan Cin­e­mafest video exhi­bi­tion) attempts to write the over­looked chap­ter on Puer­to Rican cin­e­ma in the Unit­ed States, miss­ing in pre­vi­ous books and spe­cial issue jour­nals since the 1980s. She selects 22 film­mak­ers and includes inter­views and a select­ed fil­mog­ra­phy for each one. Some were promi­nent in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Lil­lian Jiménez, Bien­veni­da Matías, Diego Echevar­ría, with inde­pen­dent pro­duc­tions or PBS-spon­sored doc­u­men­taries. In the 1990s there is “a marked pref­er­ence for fic­tion­al­iz­ing their mes­sages” (Gar­cía xliv) as evi­denced by Frances Negrón-Muntaner’s exper­i­men­tal film­mak­ing in Brin­can­do el char­co: Por­trait of a Puer­to Rican (1994), Karen Torres-Cox’s Pleas­ant Dreams (1996), Nés­tor Miranda’s Des­ti­na­tion Unknown (1997), and Rose Troche’s Go Fish (1994) and Bed­rooms and Hall­ways (1998). Some have moved to oth­er cities and states and con­tin­ue to work as pro­duc­ers and teach­ers. Oth­ers, as in the case of Dyl­cia Pagán who spent 19 years in a fed­er­al prison, moved to Puer­to Rico and have insert­ed them­selves in com­plex and local­ized com­mu­ni­ty organizations.

Diego Echev­er­ría and Ricar­do Mén­dez-Mat­ta, with work expe­ri­ence in both places, high­light the issue of lan­guage as an ele­ment that defines and sep­a­rates films made by Puer­to Ricans locat­ed in either Puer­to Rico or the Unit­ed States: “In Puer­to Rico, peo­ple speak Span­ish. Film has to reflect this real­i­ty […]. There is also Puer­to Rican film made in the States and this one needs to be made in Eng­lish in order to reflect the fact that Puer­to Ricans here speak more Eng­lish than Span­ish. They have lived a process of cul­tur­al trans­for­ma­tion” (Gar­cía 65). Mén­dez-Mat­ta, who lives in Los Ange­les and works in the film indus­try there, dis­re­gards any notion of a nation­al film­mak­ing: “Peo­ple in the indus­try do not make films about oth­er nation­al­i­ties. And Puer­to Ricans in gen­er­al work sep­a­rate­ly, not togeth­er. I don’t think there is such a thing as a Puer­to Rican cin­e­ma in the Unit­ed States because the work is pro­duced spo­rad­i­cal­ly and it is not the­mat­i­cal­ly cohe­sive” (149). Miguel Arte­ta is a case in point since he has a suc­cess­ful career in inde­pen­dent film in the U.S. but none of his films deal with the Puer­to Rican or His­pan­ic Com­mu­ni­ty: Star Maps, Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids. Besides the lan­guage in which a fea­ture film “speaks to spec­ta­tors,” oth­er major dif­fer­ences are that the Amer­i­can-made pro­duc­tions address a real­i­ty firm­ly locat­ed in a U.S. con­text. In these sto­ries, char­ac­ters’ con­flicts are ini­ti­at­ed, resolved, or changed with­in the Amer­i­can real­i­ty of jobs, hous­ing, schools, health, and social con­di­tions, includ­ing racial­iza­tion and eth­ni­ciza­tion. The films are made with local­ized pro­duc­tion funds (com­mu­ni­ty, city, state, inde­pen­dent) and are insert­ed in the inde­pen­dent and Lati­no film dis­tri­b­u­tion cir­cuit. The ques­tion posed here is whether films such as Under My Nails, El Clown, and even 12 horas can suc­cess­ful­ly nav­i­gate between island and main­land appeal in local and dias­poric communities.

Bruno Irizarry’s 200 car­tas (200 Let­ters; 2013) accom­mo­dates Span­ish- and Eng­lish-speak­ing voic­es with shared expe­ri­ences in New York and Puer­to Rico by group­ing four char­ac­ters in a road movie: a Puer­to Rican from New York, his Mex­i­can cowork­er and trav­el com­pan­ion, a Puer­to Rican mul­ti-tasker, and her Mex­i­can friend on vaca­tion on the island. 2014 records a major advance­ment in Puer­to Rican cin­e­ma on the Island. Vacas con gafas (Cows Wear­ing Glass­es), the first fea­ture by Alex San­ti­a­go Pérez, show­cas­es the min­i­mal­ista (min­i­mal­ist) style—shoestring-budget, inte­ri­or set­tings, use of non-pro­fes­sion­al actors, sta­t­ic cam­era, sto­ries of every­day life—preferred by inde­pen­dent Latin Amer­i­can film­mak­ers. It tells the sto­ry of a once high­ly regard­ed artist and art teacher who is going blind; he choos­es a strict dai­ly rou­tine so he can trace his steps as if he were still in con­trol of the lit­tle he sees and what he is able to do. These films incor­po­rate the sophis­ti­cat­ed pho­tog­ra­phy and sound that Puer­to Rican film pro­duc­tions used to lack.

Even though the focus of this essay is the nar­ra­tive long fea­ture in this 21st cen­tu­ry, the short film has been extreme­ly impor­tant in the pro­lif­er­a­tion of a new gen­er­a­tion of poten­tial film­mak­ers. The acces­si­bil­i­ty to dig­i­tal cam­eras, abil­i­ty to film in a short time and with a low bud­get, in a col­lec­tive enter­prise made up of friends and close acquain­tances (no one gets paid, but they have fun togeth­er) has made this for­mat a valu­able vehi­cle for inex­pen­sive and high­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed film projects. The inter­net also pro­vides easy dis­tri­b­u­tion and the many out­lets pro­vid­ed for their exhi­bi­tion in inter­na­tion­al fes­ti­vals and spe­cial­ized ones.

There are two impor­tant out­lets for the mak­ing and pro­mo­tion of short films. The Cor­po­ración de Cine de Puer­to Rico/CCPR (Puer­to Rican Film Com­mis­sion), estab­lished in 2001 with the pur­pose of pro­mot­ing film­mak­ing in Puer­to Rico, has had a rocky his­to­ry because direc­tors and poli­cies change accord­ing to the direc­tions of the gov­ern­ing par­ty. At one time, only film projects in Eng­lish could apply for funds; at oth­er times, most of its bud­get went to pro­mot­ing the island as a film site for inter­na­tion­al pro­duc­tions, the great major­i­ty from the U.S. In recent years, the PR Film Com­mis­sion has pro­mot­ed “micro films/microcortos,” 5 to 15 min­utes in length. Because these ini­tia­tives tend to be inex­pen­sive com­pared to long fea­tures, the select­ed projects receive seed mon­ey upfront ($5,000 to $10,000) and are assured exhi­bi­tion through closed-cir­cuit trans­mis­sion in gov­ern­ment offices in addi­tion to inter­na­tion­al pro­mo­tion­al ven­tures. The sec­ond out­let is Cine­Fi­es­ta, the pri­vate­ly run fes­ti­val that began in 2002 and is now the most impor­tant short film fes­ti­val held in Puer­to Rico. This fes­ti­val draws the par­tic­i­pa­tion of hun­dreds of film­mak­ers from around the world who sub­mit their 1 to 20-minute films to com­pete for Best Short and Best Screen­play. From the begin­ning of Cine­Fes­ta, the goal has been to pro­mote Puer­to Rican film­mak­ing and, to that end, they not only have a screen­play com­pe­ti­tion but also a sep­a­rate award cat­e­go­ry for the Best Puer­to Rican short film. In 2012, Álvaro Aponte-Centeno’s Mi san­ta mira­da (My Holy Gaze) was the high­light of Cine­Fi­es­ta because the film had also been cho­sen by the Cannes Fes­ti­val to par­tic­i­pate in their Short Film cat­e­go­ry. This 15-minute short about the dai­ly life of a drug deal­er unveils the vio­lence and intim­i­da­tion that abounds in drug-relat­ed turf wars with a min­i­mum of dia­logue. Shot most­ly in inte­ri­ors or at night, the direc­tor dis­plays a Puer­to Rican real­i­ty that does not fit in tourist adver­tise­ments or in politi­cians’ pic­tures designed to attract the favour and mon­ey of the U.S. government.

The Aso­ciación de Pro­duc­tores Cin­e­matográ­fi­cos y Audio­vi­suales de Puer­to Rico (Asso­ci­a­tion of Cin­e­mat­ic and Audio­vi­su­al Pro­duc­ers or APCA), an orga­ni­za­tion that brings togeth­er film and audio­vi­su­al pro­duc­ers, has cre­at­ed an alliance with IBERMEDIA—a film fund spon­sored by Spain, Por­tu­gal, and 13 Latin Amer­i­can countries—that offers the oppor­tu­ni­ty of co-pro­duc­tions and dis­tri­b­u­tion in the Por­tuguese and Span­ish cir­cuit. Because of its empha­sis on lan­guage, Puer­to Rican film­mak­ers resid­ing in the Unit­ed States who want to par­tic­i­pate in this fund would have to redi­rect their film projects to a dif­fer­ent audi­ence and dis­tri­b­u­tion cir­cuit. On the oth­er hand, the Puer­to Rican Film Com­mis­sion (PRFC), through its own film fund, has already spon­sored bilin­gual film projects such as Under My Nails (2012) and tends to favour the U.S. dis­tri­b­u­tion circuit.

In cel­e­brat­ing 100 years of Puer­to Rican cin­e­ma, an abun­dance of forums, pan­els, dis­cus­sion groups, screen­ings, and oth­er activ­i­ties have stressed the unique­ness of a film pro­duc­tion that has devel­oped through its links to the Span­ish-speak­ing Caribbean and dias­poric com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States. Whether pur­pose­ly or not, Puer­to Rican film pro­duc­tions in the 21st cen­tu­ry, from the island or abroad, have main­tained an unin­ter­rupt­ed con­ver­sa­tion that tran­scends lan­guage and geog­ra­phy, always in search of a com­mon culture.


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Image Notes

Fig­ure 1: film poster La Guagua Aérea (http://​film​gates​.com/​t​i​t​l​e​/​t​t​0​0​2​4​665)

Fig­ure 2: scene from Maldeamores (http://​www​.salt​-co​.com/​i​n​d​e​x​.​p​h​p​/​t​i​t​l​e​s​/​m​a​l​d​e​a​m​o​res)

Fig­ure 3: film poster Améri­ca (http://​www​.tin​sel​tine​.com/​2​0​1​3​_​0​4​_​0​1​_​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​.​h​tml)

Copy­right Maria Cristi­na Rodriguez. This arti­cle is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.