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Documentary Highlights Resilience of Puerto Ricans Living in New York

Toñita's, South, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Imagen usada con permiso.


The Caribbean Sports Club, South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Image used with permission.

There is a widespread feeling among New York City residents living outside of Manhattan that not enough is being done to encourage the stability of communities. In radio and television programs covering news in the Big Apple there is constant debate over this issue, and there are many voices – from social workers, city council members, community leaders, and even real estate brokers – who are busily sounding off about the forced displacement of the poorest populations due to the high cost of living. Among all the people flowing daily through New York's congested train stations, very few seem unaware of the continuous discussion.

One of the most recent cultural projects that is helping to put the topic of displacement in New York on the front pages is the short documentary Toñita’s, which premiered at the Documentary Fortnight 2014 Film Festival hosted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York on February 22nd and 23rd. Directed by Sebastián Díaz and Beyza Boyacioglu, Toñita’s exposes the crossroads at which the Puerto Rican/Caribbean community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn finds itself. They have survived thanks to places like the Caribbean Sports Club, the centerpiece of the documentary.

Since this topic is so a current and pertinent, we present this conversation with director Sebastián Díaz to our readers.

Global Voices (GV):   Why did you make a documentary like Toñita’s? What made you decide to use this film genre to reflect on identity, urban space, and displacement?

Sebastián Díaz (SD): Elegimos el Caribbean Sports Club como sujeto de nuestro documental por nuestra fascinación por ese espacio y su gente. Al proponernos hacer un retrato sobre el último club social puertorriqueño en un barrio que solía tener una comunidad predominantemente puertorriqueña, era casi obligado tocar esos temas. Especialmente cuando el barrio ha sufrido y continúa sufriendo por un desmedido incremento de renta y desarrollo de nuevos condominios, desplazando a la comunidad que por años ahí habitaba. Y cuando hablo de comunidad puertorriqueña, no sólo me refiero a la nacionalidad o raíz cultural, sino también a sus estrechos lazos como vecinos, donde todos se conocían, se ayudaban y había muchas actividades comunitarias que le daban salud al vecindario. Además había un orgullo por su identidad puertorriqueña o ‘boricua’ y un cariño por su vecindario.

Sebastián Díaz (SD):  We chose the Caribbean Sports Club as the subject of our documentary because of our fascination with this space and its people. When we set out to present a portrait of the last remaining Puerto Rican social club in a neighborhood that was once predominantly Puerto Rican, it was practically inevitable that we would touch on these topics. Especially because the neighborhood has suffered and continues to suffer from a disproportionate increase in rent and the development of new condominiums, displacing the community that has lived there for years. And when I speak of the Puerto Rican community, I’m referring not only to nationality or cultural roots, but also to their close ties as neighbors, in a place where everyone knew everyone, helped each other, and where there were many community activities that brought health to the neighborhood. These people also possessed a sense of pride for their Puerto Rican, or “Boricua” identity and a love for their neighborhood.

GV:  How did you find out about the Caribbean Sports Club? Was is just by chance, or you were already familiar with the Caribbean community around Williamsburg and in Brooklyn?

SD:  El proyecto es parte de un programa de la organización UnionDocs, ubicada en el sur de Williamsburg. Los ocho proyectos que se realizaron tenían la condición de tener que tratar sobre este barrio en particular. Si bien no era un requisito tratar un tema relacionado a la comunidad caribeña, definitivamente es un interés de UnionDocs, pero también algo atractivo para los artistas que participamos. El programa está destinado a generar contenidos que puedan formar parte de un proyecto mayor de UnionDocs, titulado Living Los Sures.

Tomando como punto de inspiración el documental de 1984 titulado Los Sures de Diego Echeverría, realizamos algunos ejercicios de investigación y exploración de temas y personajes de ese documental que se filmó en este mismo barrio en los ochentas. Ahí aparece un club social y en uno de estos ejercicios en equipo, la codirectora Beyza y otros compañeros investigaron si aún existían este tipo de lugares. Un amigo Puertorriqueño de Beyza le dijo de la existencia del Caribbean Sports Club y se pusieron a buscarlo hasta que preguntando dieron con él.

SD:  This project is part of a larger program by an organization known as UnionDocs, located in South Williamsburg. The eight projects that came out of this program were undertaken with one stipulation: they had to be about this neighborhood in particular. Even though our project did not have to deal specifically with the Caribbean community, that topic is definitely of interest to UnionDocs, and it also holds appeal for the artists who participated. The program aims to generate content that can become part of a larger UnionDocs project called “Living Los Sures.”

Taking our inspiration from a the 1984 documentary called “Los Sures de Diego Echeverría,” we carried out some investigative and exploratory research on themes and characters from that documentary, which was filmed in this same neighborhood in the eighties. That film shows a social club, and so in one of our team research exercises, co-director Beyza and other colleagues did some investigating to see if places like that still existed. One of Beyza’s Puerto Rican friends told her about the Caribbean Sports Club and they started looking and asking around until they found it.

GV:  Your short film has been called a love letter to the “Nuyorican” culture. Why present this type of love letter on film? Is this a documentary that is mainly reminiscence and sentimental, or is it a modern testimony to what is still going on in this same New York City-Caribbean neighborhood?

Creo que más que la nostalgia, de hecho es un esfuerzo por mostrar a la comunidad que aún sobrevive en el barrio y se resiste a morir. La música, el baile, el juego de dominó, la comida y el calor y pasión de la gente son características del Caribbean Sports Club, y características de los puertorriqueños en Nueva York, también conocidos como nuyorricans. Todas estas cosas fueron lo que nos atrajeron de este lugar y nos motivaron a documentarlo, así que hablar de una carta de amor, es una manera de compartir nuestra fascinación por estas coloridas características de la cultura nuyorrican con la audiencia.

SD: I think that, beyond sentimentality, this is truly an effort to showcase a community that is still surviving in the neighborhood and refuses to die. The music, dancing, games of dominoes, and food, along with the warmth and passion of the people, are essential features of the Caribbean Sports Club, and essential features of the Puerto Rican community in New York, also known as “Nuyoricans.” All these things attracted us to this place and motivated us to document it, so when you talk about a love letter, this is our way of sharing our fascination with these colorful aspects of the Nuyorican culture with our audiences.

En el centro, Toñita, la dueña del Caribbean Sports Club. Imagen usada con permiso.

In the center: Toñita, owner of the Caribbean Sports Club. Photo used with permission.

GV:  How did María Toñita, the owner of this social club, feel about this project? You describe her as a tireless matriarch. Having said that, what can you tell the readers of Global Voices about her character?

SD: Toñita es una mujer admirable. Verdaderamente es respetada por todos en la comunidad y aquellos que han sido desplazados y vuelven de visita al Caribbean Club. Se da a respetar para que nadie se ‘salga de la raya’ dentro del Caribbean Club, pero también es admirada porque siempre está dispuesta a brindar ayuda a quien la necesite, ya sea prestándoles dinero, dando algún consejo o por su labor filantrópica de ofrecer comida gratis para los indigentes o más necesitados.

SD:  Toñita is an extraordinary woman. She is truly respected by everyone in the community and by those who have been displaced but still come back to visit the Caribbean Club. She demands respect for herself so that no one will “get out of line” inside the Caribbean Club, but she is also admired because she is always prepared to offer her help to anyone who needs it, whether that means lending people money, offering advice, or through her humanitarian work, offering free food for indigents and other people in need.

GV:  Tell me about your creative process, about the conceptualization of the project. I see that music plays a central role in the aesthetic of this documentary.

SD:  A ambos nos gustaba mucho pasar tiempo en el club social, hablando con la gente, bebiendo cerveza y escuchando música, principalmente ritmos afrocubanos tocados por el Dj que es uno de los personajes, o en la rockola (o vellonera).

No recuerdo habernos planteado algo particular sobre la música, sino que ésta es parte de la atmósfera del club. Al tratarse de un documental, hubiera sido imposible que la música no estuviera presente todo el tiempo.

En términos más generales, el proceso fue elegir algunos personajes, y por supuesto la protagonista tenía que ser María Toñita, que es la dueña del Caribbean Sports Club, donde se desenvuelve la mayor parte del documental. Nos planteamos una estructura a partir de un patrón visual, como de una flor, donde el Caribbean Club está al centro y los personajes son los pétalos. De modo que seguimos a un personaje que aparece en el club fuera de ahí, y regresamos siempre de nuevo al club. La música ayuda a diferenciar diferentes escenas o personajes del club.

SD:  We both really enjoyed spending time at the social club, talking with the people, drinking beer, and listening to music, mainly Afro-Cuban rhythms played by the DJ, who is one of the characters, or on the Rockola (or jukebox).

I don’t remember that we anything particular in mind regarding the music, other than knowing that music was a part of the club’s atmosphere. Since we were making with a documentary, it would have been impossible for the music not to have been there the entire time.

In more general terms, the process was to choose a few characters, and of course the main character had to be María Toñita, who is the owner of the Caribbean Sports Club where most of the documentary unfolds. We envisioned a structure that started with a visual pattern, like a flower, with the Caribbean Club at the center and the characters as the petals. So we follow characters who first appear in the club as they venture away from it, but we always return to the club. The music helps to differentiate between the various scenes or characters in the club.

GV:  I've noticed the quality of the photography as well. There's texture in the image which naturally lends a particular “feel” to Toñita’s. What type of cameras were used?

SD: Utilizamos una cámara de las conocidas como DSLR, que son cámaras fotográficas que también permiten grabar video de alta definición. La ventaja es que son muy pequeñas, lo cual es práctico para un espacio tan reducido como lo es el Caribbean Club, que en fines de semana se llega a llenar mucho.

Además, no son ostentosas o intimidantes, lo cual es bueno para grabar documental, especialmente en un lugar donde la gente está acostumbrada a sentirse como en su casa, beber, bailar, etc. La desventaja de este tipo de cámaras es que es difícil estabilizarlas, cuidar el foco y que generan una imagen muy saturada y contrastada. La saturación de la imagen nos funcionó en este caso por la riqueza de color que tiene el Caribbean Club.

Trabajando con el colorista en la corrección de color, realmente no hicimos mucho, más que nivelar tonalidades y mejorar las situaciones de poca luz, ya que muchas escenas ocurren de noche y todo lo grabamos con luz existente ya en las locaciones.

SD: We used a type of camera known as a DSLR, which is a still camera that also permits high-definition video recording. The advantage is that these cameras are very small, which is practical in a space as small as the Caribbean Club, a place that gets very crowded on weekends.

Another advantage is that they are not showy or intimidating, which is good for recording a documentary, especially in a space where people are used to feeling as if they are at home, drinking, dancing, etc. The disadvantage of this type of camera is that it's difficult to steady them and keep them focused, and they produce a very saturated, contrasted image. The saturation of the image worked for us in this case because it highlights the Caribbean Club’s richness of color and decor.

We really didn’t need to do too much when working with the colorist on color correction, other than to even out tonalities and to improve upon low-light situations, since many of the scenes occur at night and we recorded everything using existing location lighting.

GV: What were the creative and technical challenges that you faced? During the filming process, were there situations that brought changes to your original plan?

SD: Fue muy difícil obtener una entrevista con Toñita. Al no tener la certeza de si nos daría la entrevista o no, tuvimos problemas para ver cómo resolveríamos el reto de que ella fuera la protagonista. Intentamos diferentes estrategias e incluso versiones de cortes. Algo lamentable que muchas veces ocurre en el documental es dejar fuera escenas o incluso personajes que ya han invertido generosamente su tiempo. Esto nos sucedió y son decisiones muy difíciles de tomar pero dejamos fuera la entrevista de un personaje.

A nivel técnico, fue retador el sonido, pues la música siempre se toca a muy alto volumen en el club. También trabajar con mínimos recursos, ya que no contamos con financiamiento.

SD:  It was very difficult to obtain an interview with Toñita. Because we weren’t certain whether she would give us the interview or not, we had trouble figuring out how to overcome the challenge of having her as the protagonist. We tried different strategies and even different edited versions. One unfortunate thing that often happens in documentaries is that scenes featuring characters who have generously invested their time often have to be edited out. This happened to us and these are difficult decisions to make, but we did had to leave out one character’s interview.

On a technical level, the sound work was challenging, because there was always music playing at a very high volume in the club. Also, having to work with minimal resources was challenging, since we don’t have financial backing.

GV:  We know that your plans include going beyond the genre of short film and continuing to explore the topics developed in Toñita’s in a feature-length film. Why is it important to you, as film-makers, to continue to explore identity, urban space, and displacement? Is it because these topics are still current? Is there still more to be said about such topics in the 21st century?

SD:  De hecho estos temas ciertamente se han explorado bastante, incluso específicamente en el caso de Brooklyn, hay una gran cantidad de trabajos recientes que hablan de desplazamiento, rezonificación, aburguesamiento de vecindarios, cambios en el espacio urbano, etc. A pesar de esto, no creo que los temas dejen de ser importantes y creemos que la forma en que los estamos abordando es sustancialmente distinta. También, nos preocupamos por no plantear las cosas en blanco y negro y no victimizar a los personajes, sino tratar de presentar la complejidad de la realidad que se vive, donde no hay respuestas sencillas.

Y sobre todo, estos temas son el contexto, pero nuestro principal enfoque es la cultura e identidad puertorriqueña o caribeña. Al convivir por un período de más de un año con esta comunidad en el club social y trabajar en este corto, creemos que vale la pena profundizar más en los personajes y también en el contexto histórico, que además de tener un potencial de mucha riqueza visual a través de material de archivo fotográfico o fílmico, ayuda a comprender mejor el contraste con la realidad actual y las cosas que están en riesgo de desaparecer como rasgos culturales, comunidad e identidad.

SD: It’s true, these topics have certainly been explored a lot, even the case of Brooklyn in particular. There are a great number of recent works that deal with displacement, re-zoning, gentrification of neighborhoods, changes in urban space, etc. In spite of that, however, I don’t believe that these issues have lost their relevance, and we believe that the the way we are approaching these issues is unique. We've taken care not to lay things out in black and white or to victimize our characters, but instead we’ve tried to present the complexities of the reality in which they live, where there are no easy answers.

And above all else, although these topics provide the context, our main focus is the Puerto Rican or Caribbean culture and identity. After living for more than a year inside this community, at the social club and just doing work on this short film, we believe that it’s been worth it to add further depth to the film's characters and to the historical context. Besides having the potential for adding visual richness by using material from photo and film archives, this new depth helps people to better understand contrasts with the current realities and with features of culture, community, and identity that are at risk of disappearing.

GV: There are people who still believe that it’s difficult to subsidize a project like this one. Judging by the name of your production company – UnionDocs Collaborative – I think that behind it all there is a spirit of collaboration. How has your experience been in terms of financing?

SD: Como comentaba anteriormente, se trata de una producción autofinanciada. UnionDocs apoyó con algo de equipo que fue muy útil y cierta asesoría, pero lo más valioso fue precisamente el espíritu colaborativo del programa. Por un lado, tuvimos la fortuna de contar con el apoyo de varios integrantes del programa para echar la mano en rodajes haciendo cámara o sonido. Pero por otro lado, y quizá esto es lo principal, teníamos juntas regulares que eran una plataforma para discutir ideas, obtener retroalimentación, mostrar avances, etc. Y además, hubo algunas sesiones con expertos del medio que vieron avances y ofrecieron una crítica sin reparos.

SD: As I was saying before, this has been a completely self-financed production. UnionDocs helped us obtain some useful equipment, as well as providing us with some consulting. Their most valuable contribution, though, was the collaborative spirit of their program. On the one hand, we were fortunate to have the support of several program members who lent a hand with filming, running cameras, and doing sound. But on the other hand, and this is perhaps the main thing, we had regular meetings which served as a platform for discussing ideas, obtaining feedback, demonstrate progress, etc. There were also a few sessions with experts in this medium who saw progress and offered straightforward critique.

GV: Initially Toñita’s will be shown in special auditoriums at the Museum of Modern Art. What are your plans for the distribution and exhibition of Toñita’s?

SD: El estreno mundial en un festival del nivel del ‘Documentary Fortnight’ del Museo de Arte Moderno (MoMA) significa un buen escaparate que estamos tratando de aprovechar para explotarlo al máximo, en términos de hacerle ruido al evento e interactuar con la red a la que un festival siempre te acerca. No sabemos aún qué pueda pasar y con este festival, Toñita's está iniciando su ruta de festivales que esperemos continúe con selección a otros buenos festivales. Pero además, al forma parte del proyecto Living Los Sures de UnionDocs, es probable que forme parte del componente interactivo en internet, donde podría estar accesible y en algunos paquetes de distribución y proyección en festivales que UnionDocs está explorando.

SD: Having our world debut at a festival on the level of the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Documentary Fortnight’ represents a wonderful showcase that we’re trying to take advantage of and exploit to the utmost by making some noise about the event and networking with the festival crowd. We still don’t know what the future may hold, and with this festival, Toñita’s is kicking off a festival tour that we hope will continue with more invitations to other great festivals. Also, because it is a part of UnionDocs’ “Living Los Sures” project, it could become part of the interactive component of the Internet, making it accessible there, as well as in other distribution and projection packages in festivals that UnionDocs is currently exploring.

GV: And finally… What upcoming projects are you working on? What new projects are on the immediate horizon?

SD: De momento, dos cosas nos tienen casi completamente absortos. Una es la aplicación del corto a festivales y la otra es la búsqueda de financiamiento para el largometraje. Además, hacer todo el trabajo de relaciones públicas y marketing, ya que básicamente todo lo estamos haciendo entre los dos, desde creación de sitio web, diseño de cartel, postales, boletines, etc. Es muchísimo trabajo pero estamos muy entusiasmados y apasionados con el proyecto.

SD: At the moment, there are two things that are absorbing almost all of our time. One of these is applying to enter this short film into festivals and the other is searching for funding for the feature-length film. Also, we are working on public relations and marketing, since basically we are doing all of this between the two of us, from the creation of the web site, poster design, post cards, bulletins, etc. It’s an enormous amount of work, but we’re very enthusiastic and passionate about the project.

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