LANDFALL Filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo details the process and emotional impact of addressing collective trauma in Puerto Rico in Hurricane María's aftermath
What is LANDFALL film about?
LANDFALL is about Hurricane María’s aftermath, and it goes beyond the global headlines around the category five hurricane. From the hurricane to famine, it's about the pre-existing conditions that set the stage for the hurricane crisis. The film really goes beyond what most people know to demonstrate how the crisis in Puerto Rico has its roots, not only in a $72 billion debt crisis but really the colonialism. In many ways, this is a film that tries to demonstrate how vulnerable people in a moment of crisis can come together and actually fight for justice and care for one another in very beautiful ways.
What motivated you to create this film?
It's personal. My grandmother died six months after the hurricane. Like millions of Puerto Rican Americans living outside of Puerto Rico, I had to witness this really tragic event from afar. I was really dissatisfied with the way the media was portraying the situation. The media was really giving no background, and also, they engaged in "ruin porn." Most mainstream media was residually fascinated with the destruction and the suffering of the Puerto Rican people. A lot was missing. In particular, people in Puerto Rico were not portrayed as agents caring for one another and saving each other's lives but rather being pitied. It was imperative to create a film in which people would have more agency. People were coming together in some of the most difficult circumstances and fighting for what they believe.
The film is artistically mainly executed in a cinema verite style with intervals of archival footage. Could you describe the thought process and motivations behind the film’s artistic direction?
I would say that first and foremost, this is an intimate film in which we are visiting and spending time with a complicated and diverse group of people living in Puerto Rico. It's really an examination of everyday life. The most important thing about the film's style is that it's got a prismatic structure. That means many small stories put off one another to provide a holistic portrait of what people are dealing with on the ground in Puerto Rico. In part, that’s important because Puerto Rico’s situation is so complicated; yet, Puerto Rico is this vibrant microcosm. You can see or study carefully how seemingly different issues intersect, for example, climate change as it intersects with debt. Some of these issues that we explore in the film can seem really heady and esoteric, and we really wanted the focus of the film to be on the emotional landscape of what it's like to live in a world of disaster. People talk about concepts like disaster capitalism, for example, but very rarely do you actually get to imagine the emotional tenor of that issue. We deliberately wanted to adopt a more intimate and personal approach to these really complicated issues.
Could you provide more insight into the editorial process surrounding the storyline? How difficult was it to connect the themes and conversations to create a representative and cohesive portrait?
I would say the credit for that goes to the film's editor, Terra Jean Long, a really sophisticated thinker and, with a lot of delicacies, carefully interweaved these intersecting stories. In our film production, we were really deliberate about choosing storylines and people to spend time with who would productively contrast with one other. It wasn't until the edit where we had to grapple with the complex project of trying to get these things to interplay. It's not your traditional beginning, middle, and end kind of documentary for a particular reason. This is a film that's organized more around arguments; it’s trying to invite viewers to actively ask themselves questions about what they think they know about a place and start to see what is happening in Puerto Rico. This so-called "natural disaster" is not natural at all. We edited to progressively build this desire in viewers for change, show what's not working, and demonstrate how people really came together to demand what they felt they deserved. It was a complicated process, but I think we pulled it off.
LANDFALL includes a variety of perspectives from diverse identities and subcultures. As a person from the Puerto Rican diaspora, how did identity offer more narrative control and accessibility to the communities featured? How did the process of collaborative filmmaking exist in this creative space?
You know, I think we have a long way to go in terms of our conversations on diversity and ethics in the documentary world. I think right now we're in a place where people will sort of check boxes of identity and will look at a filmmaker like me and say, “You're a Puerto Rican filmmaker. Therefore, you are a part of the Puerto Rican community and will compel quote-unquote stories about them.” I would say that it's far more complicated than that. I never lived in Puerto Rico. I'm a consequence of the diaspora like many other millions of Puerto Ricans and people. Migration is a side effect of colonialism. I grew up with a huge gap in my understanding of Puerto Rican history, day-to-day life. There was a lot that I was blind to and just kind of a lot of ignorance, even though I had a tremendous love for the place that my parents grew up. For me, embarking on this film wasn't enough that I could say, "Oh, I'm Puerto Rican. I'm going to make a film about Puerto Rico."
It was important for me to partner with somebody who lived their whole life in Puerto Rico with people who live this crisis in a way I do not and those who have belonged to political movements. That person is Lale Namerrow Pasto. Who is a Puerto Rican DJ and activist there, and is a co-founder of a queer community space, and lots of other things. That collaboration is really vital to the film; without online conversations between Lale and me, the film would not be what it is. The film is an outcome of an ongoing dialogue between a person based in Puerto Rico and the diasporic Puerto Rican. Rather than sort of papering over our differences, it's actually an acknowledgment of differences. It’s proposing to people who don't live in Puerto Rico day-to-day, whether they're diasporic or not. Part of the role that we have is to listen and sort of enter into our own experiences, and ultimately help hold space for the experiences of people living in Puerto Rico rather than imposing our idea to their visions or prescriptions for what needs to happen there.
Some might perceive this film as a call-to-action or a tool to spread awareness. Do you perceive this work as a form of activism? Why or why not?
You know, I think that I am an activist, and I believe that filmmaking can be a form of activism, and at the same time, I don't think it's the same. Activism is one very simple thing like taking to the streets with signs. I believe that I have a more expansive idea of what it means to be an activist. And I believe that activism happens when you voice controversial, challenging opinions, and you fight for that, especially when it comes to injustice. That can take many forms. At the same time, this is a film where emotional experiences can be very politically transformative. This is not a literal film. This is an experiential film. Even though one of the film’s goals is to reform mindsets about what's happening in Puerto Rico, it's much more than that. It's meant to fight and bear witness to what’s happening. For example, millions of people in our country have not healed from the hurricane, but they are now ongoingly traumatized by the pandemic and various intersecting forces. I think this is a film that emphasizes how helping people to heal with care on screen is a form of political change, and it's really vital to political awakening. Filmmaking is not the same as taking to the streets, but they both are part of an encoded series of processes that lead to justice.
This film involves a great deal of emotional investment, but what was your self-care routine during the filming process?
I wouldn't say that I had one necessarily, but I did have access to therapy. It was a lot. One of the challenges of decentering my own experience was really trying to prioritize the health of the people I was suffering with. They were reliving their trauma in a way that I didn't. We incorporated a mental health services budget for our crew and the protagonists into the film’s overall budget. I thought that was important, but this is one of the challenges of making this kind of documentary work. I'm not going to sugarcoat it; there are things about making this film that has been incredibly healing, and there are also tremendous emotional sacrifices that come with the territory. You just kind of have to recognize that's part of the deal that kind of comes with it.
What aspect did you enjoy most when filming this project?
I honestly think it was sitting with people. As our approach to filming, we would identify people that we wanted to spend time with. Sometimes we would just meet people randomly. I also worked with a really incredible team. We would just drive around and look for stuff to film sometimes. There was a lot of getting to know some incredible people that you see in the film. You know, I think it was very bittersweet. Amidst all this pain, I believe this is one of the film’s lessons; it’s in times of crisis that you find out who your friends are and that can really be an asset to the film; it's both on-screen and behind the scenes.
What advice do you have for filmmakers, especially those covering collective or community trauma?
My biggest advice would be to be incredibly careful about how one engages documentary filmmakers; they’re not therapists. We're not. We're often entering situations we'll organize if we are trained. I think we have to be really careful about how we negotiate, especially when we're talking about traumatic situations and talking about communities that are not our own. Again, I'm a Puerto Rican filmmaker by descent, but I was still an outsider to the communities we were filming in. The most important thing to do is have enough humility to do your homework and really note that you are likely to cause more harm than good. The act of introducing the documentary practice into vulnerable communities can be a very violent one. I think the most important thing is to make sure that you are treading with care and recognizing you probably don't have all the answers and that you're going to need to take time. It's a slow, deliberate process. It's imperative that any filmmaker, regardless of how much experience they have, take their time to make sure that they are building the right relationships and making sure that they have people on their team that will make sure the film is executed without hurting anybody.
Now that LANDFALL is getting great acclaim and praise across the festival world, what are your hopes for how the film’s legacy and impact will be reciprocated in Puerto Rico?
In addition to our festival run, we are in the midst of beginning a tech campaign. For me, one of the things that get left out in the documentary world a lot is that there's a great focus on festivals and awards, and there is less focus on the communities depicted on screen. We've been lucky enough to get a few grants to support us in developing in-person, DIY grassroots screening theories in Puerto Rico. This is assuming that it can be done safely in 2021, but the goal is to make sure that people in Puerto Rico have every opportunity to see the film and that we're leaving it behind because the sort of regular, independent infrastructure in the United States just doesn't cut it in terms of reaching those audiences. That's a major goal. This is also where educational distribution is also key for what we need.
We need a much more robust conversation about what's happening in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican sovereignty is being completely trampled at the moment, and we need to do things like abolishing the $32 billion illegal debt. We need to remove the seven unelected people who are controlling Puerto Rico’s finances. There's a lot of injustice in Puerto Rico itself, but also, what is happening in Puerto Rico is a microcosm. It's a really valuable case study for anyone trying to understand how crisis works and how it becomes an opportunity for others. There are many ways in which Puerto Rico functions like the handbook for the model we're currently living in. I hope that through things like educational distribution when people want to talk about a just recovery from pandemics, they talk about Puerto Rico, not just because Puerto Rico is full of people who need help, but because Puerto Rico has something to teach the world. People need to start learning from Puerto Rico. Those who have begun to do that, are the better for it.
There are so many messages one could walk away with from this film. However, what do you consider to be the most critical message(s) for audiences to retain?
I think the most relevant to this moment is that in moments of crisis, as I said before, you find out who your friends are and learn within the COVID pandemic. For example, we are seen laid bare in a radically unequal world in which our institutions fail us, our elected officials. In particular, it is incumbent upon us to take a community approach and really care for one another in a much more grassroots way rather than looking to people in high places to save us from anything. There's a phrase in Puerto Rico, which is ‘Nos Tenemos.’ It means, “we have each other, we take care of one another.” And there's another phrase that says, only the people save the people, so, this is where we find ourselves right now, globally. I think that would be one of my most vital things, but I would also say in the cracks of suffering, there's also joy and beauty.
People in Puerto Rico have demonstrated that it's important to dance, it's important to have wonderful dinners, be with your friends, build culture, and not allow the people stealing from you to take that away. They cannot take away our love for one another, joy, or our capacity for kindness, etc. That is extremely powerful, despite everything.