Puerto Rican cinema and the impossibility of self representation

by Quintín Rivera Toro

Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.
Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.

-Jean Luc Godard

I have a right to complain about the movies. Any movie. Not only because I paid for the
ticket, but because it is in itself an inoffensive enough act. And, I live in a freedom of
speech protected country. So its not a risky thing to do either. Anyone can complain
about a bad a movie at any given moment. It’s a rather subjective act and almost anyone has a fair say in it. I mean, you don’t have to be a “film buff”, and consume four
movies per meal, and still have a reasonable general movie going education. Millions of
people have at least some basic level of comparison, granting them as well the right to
complain about a movie. We’ve all seen a movie or two such as Star Wars or Indiana
Jones and know about the grandiosity of Hollywood. Some get to see Casa Blanca,
some have seen Fellini’s Satyricon, Maybe, we have seen at least one Almodóvar
movie, and at some point, understand there is a reasonable level of quality involved in
making movies. We take it with its virtues and flaws, and generally enjoy it. It is a long,
continuous education received from early on, probably since childhood. We’ve all
watched movies. So therefore, we understand when a bad movie crosses our path. And
so, through out a lifetime, people see hundreds of movies. We also have a more conceptual awareness about the nature of films. We known movies occur in a time frame
different than in real life time. We see people having flashbacks or get to listen to the
inside of their heads. We understand there are multiple stories intertwined. We see impressive locations and amazing props, grasping situations in which the often compelling
and desirable characters have to overcome crazy obstacles and experience life altering
split second decisions. And of course we know it is a hell of a lot more exciting than our
everyday lives. And knowing all this, even if it is on some unconscious level, this grants
us the right to complain about the movies. Because we understand its complexities. Because we can compare our life with the ones up there on the wide screen. Therefore,
this established, I’d like to complain about the Puerto Rican National cinema, because
there are some serious problems with it. Now these problems, I don’t think, are due to
the lack of anything. Actually, in Puerto Rico, we have an abundance of everything. We
have all sorts of resources; access to the latest technology, access to higher education,
access to an abundant wealthy class. We have a trained film industry work force, which
has survived for many decades, solely on moving image based employment, such as
television, music videos and films. We have a trajectory from the very beginnings in film
history, we have overflowing talent, we have diverse locations, we have a fantastic production tax credit incentive, a blasting 40%, one of the highest in the world, and most of
all we have the desire to make films. An ever growing number of productions happen
every year. There are various university film programs to study under. And every year,
maybe for the last decade or two, more and more short films are produced every year.
More and more feature films are produced every year. So what are the problems with
Puerto Rican cinema?
Ever since film technology was available in the beginning of the XX century, the Island
has had access to it, nevertheless our filmography is greatly inconsistent, to say the
least. During the early 1900’s there where some military documentaries shot, with no
further purpose than field journalism. Literally, only a few proper Puerto Rican movies
where made from the 19 teens up until the forties (CLIP DEL POSTER de – 1934’s Romance Tropical by Juan Viguíé) Resulting almost as artistic anomalies, and not really as
any type of industry development. The first documented boom of local production develops during the 1950’s, when a small collection of docu fiction movies were made as
part of the historic DIVEDCO project. DIVEDCO is an acronym for the Division for the
Education of the Community, a central government funded effort with the purpose of a
massive reach out to the people of Puerto Rico, in the hopes of stimulating them into
being more self reliant and self motivated. The urgent need for progress, sanitation and
education pushed the agenda for social change, organization and development of our
impoverished communities. This in turn, presented film makers with a sort italian neorrealist parallel. These governmentally sponsored efforts paved the way for some of the
most powerful stories filmed about our history, as well as organizing a whole generation
artists, who in turn created fundamental portraits of our history. These productions also
launched many long lasting careers in the local entertainment business, iconic figures
arose from this. Notably worth presenting is the chaplinesque comedian and dramatic
actor, Ramón Rivero, also know as “Diplo”, who played the lead role in Puerto Rico’s
cinematic gem, the 1953’s film Los Peloteros (The baseball players). Los Peloteros, as
part of the DIVEDCO agenda, and not surprisingly quite the parallel to the thesis of this
text, is the story of an impoverished group of children faced with the obstacle of raising
money by themselves in order to purchase new uniforms for their baseball team. Here is
a sequence of the film where our main character, guilt ridden after having spent the
raised money for things other than uniforms, reluctantly redeems himself to the eyes of
the whole community.
(CLIP DE LOS PELOTEROS – visita al matadero)
Ramón Rivero is very important for our cinema’s history, as well as our social history.
His persona embodied the Puerto Rican struggle in more ways than I can account for,
so I thought I’d show you this clip.
Things have changed quite a bit during the last few decades, and productions have
gradually increased, but as far back as I can remember, almost every single Puerto Rican movie I’ve seen in my life has had some serious problems. And I don’t believe this
to be just my perception. I believe this actually to be, the general perception. I’ve witnessed and participated in countless mockings about the quality of our movies. Comments coming form such diverse profiles such as family members, art friends, local
newspapers, film theory professors, and the final judge, our luke warm box offices.
Puerto Rican movies have serious structural problems. I will now briefly talk about two
of them.
The first. The acting – historically speaking, actors in Puerto Rican movies don’t look,
feel, sound, or behave like real people, let alone Puerto Ricans. Their pronunciation is
so far away from sounding close to the natural likeness of our diction, its uncanny.
Without a minimum basic resemblance to actual natives, character portrayals become
quite difficult to believe. Some say perhaps this problem comes from an effort to be better understood by other spanish speaking audiences, because we apparently speak our
Spanish unclearly. But on the other hand, can anyone really understand Gael García
Bernal when he’s doing his chicano talk? It truly becomes this distancing factor for the
suspension of disbelief experience. It literally sound as if they came out of a play, this is
consistently a sore thing to point out. Eventually and unconsciously, this makes us condone poor acting standards, and we end up taking it as a sad fact we have to bear. Our
actors have overacting problems. It’s our cross to carry. Once during a discussion about
this very subject, someone said that this phenomenon was due to the fact that our “actoral training was in the dramatic arts”, meaning stage theater, and not film acting. And
even though this sounded pretty smart, maybe even true, it didn’t erase the fact that it
was embarrassing to watch, as well as an unsatisfactory movie going experience.
I’ll now show you a brief, but illustrative example of the self representation problem in
Puerto Rican cinema, with a dialogue sequence. I thought of showing you a really over
the top, over acted clip of any number of truly disastrous movies, but then I thought it
would be too easy to prove my point. So I’ve decided to go the opposite way, and
present to you the most successful example. It is the initial short of the feature film
Maldeamores (or Lovesickness), a movie from 2007, co-produced by Benicio del Toro.
This initial short is an aperitif, part of a three way interlaced story about couples relationships. This production has set many new standards for contemporary Puertorrican
film making, and for one, has succeeded in gravitating closer than ever before towards
the likeness of our biographical characteristics. So Maldeamores is, in my opinion, one
of the most resolved narratives to this date. Still, as you might be able to see, it presents
us with the same symptoms of problematic self representation, such as diction issues, a
lack of specific cultural likeness and over acting. Carlitos Ruiz, the co-director is also
one of the actors in the following dialogue.
(CLIP corto inicial Maldeamores)
Now, these problems, I don’t believe are to be blamed on the Maldeamores production.
I believe this to be an inherited problem, through the collective unconscious of centuries
The second. Directing. Probably the most important aspect of movie making. François
Truffaut said that “there weren’t good or bad movies, only good or bad directors”. In
Puerto Rican cinema directing has too often and for too long, felt like just another technical role of the film making process. More like a skilled puppeteer and less like an author. I agree with the author theory which understands directors to be the essence of
movies. Directors as the gatekeepers of the narrative voice, not to be diluted in the
complexities of a production. It is their distinct point of view and visual language which
dictates the success or failure of the story; film making, potentially being and industrial
process, needs these larger than life, dog determined, egomaniacs, pursuing their narrative voices. Directors are people willing to wear super hero costume they have sewn
for themselves. They cling on, unashamedly to his/her personal vision, until the very last
consequences. Until a second home mortgage, do or die. And you see, aside from very
few exceptions, us Puerto Ricans generally like to be understood as humble people. It is
an important social value. We want to be known as a hospitable, welcoming society. It
is taught to us, by our mothers and our Catholic roots. There is even an economic argument for it. Its called tourism. If we are not nice to our visitors, how will we ever sur-
vive? So, in other words the super hero costume is often not really tailored for us, by us.
It reminds me of this mexican spanish term called “agachista”, which literally means to
bow ones head. And there is a reason for this meek behavior and I’m getting to it. To
illustrate the our problems with directing, I will once again show you a success story.
Jacobo Morales is the only director in Puerto Rican history to have been nominated for
an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. He’s a two time home
mortgage loan guy. He is also a brilliant political satirist and has had an enviable Film
Directing carrier. Here is the trailer for Jacobo Morales latest full feature, from 2007,
Ángel. An all too familiar detective thriller about corruption and wrongful incarcerations. I
will point out, that even though we once again witness “stage” acting and a dangerously
close cliché art direction to the Schwarzeneger action movie genre, we can see his narrative voice or at least his agenda. Morales, a long time political rebel and critic, articulates through his action flick the Puerto Rican tradition of our historic dichotomy between the American Federal Police and Island’s political prisoners. Morales also plays a
lead role in Ángel. He’s the one with the bright white beard. I’ll quickly point out an almost subliminal technique used by Morales in his movie, where the poster, of a recently
assassinated leftist political leader (Filiberto Ojeda Ríos) is placed in an innocuous wall
in the middle of the action. The father of African cinema Ousmane Sembene, often used
this technique in his movies as well. African and Puertorrican cinema share many parallels due to their colonial history.
(Clip Trailer Ángel)
The idea of being an intervened country is at the heart of my argument about the problems of self representation in our cinema. Puerto Rico historically speaking, has been a
battle ground, from the pre colombian times of the Taíno indians, during four centuries
of Spaniard intervention, and another century and counting, of North American intervention. You see, about five hundred years ago, way before combat was an aereal venue,
the main method for combat was nautical ships. Great, big wooden ships, which needed
to work with the uncertainties of nature such as wind, maritime currents, and a sea sick,
undernourished bunch of guys for a workforce. And when working conditions are harsh,
boats need to reach their ports with a certain regularity, for rest, nourishment and provisioning. So it is quite interesting that the name given to us by the Spaniard conquistadors is Puerto Rico or “rich port”. And one could assume this name was given to us because of its abundance of natural resources, and of course our beautiful women, but
more specifically because of our location. You see, it’s all about the location. Think
about real estate. And because war was fought in the sea, and maritime combat had to
be subject to nature, underwater currents, storms and what not, Puerto Rico was the
natural point of arrival and departure. The geography of the Atlantic Ocean wills it so.
Most Puerto Ricans disregard this fact as part of ancient history, but truth be told, our
little Island is still a gold mine. It’s still in the same spot and it’s still all about location.
History tells us that once the Spanish Armadas discovered us, they quickly and permanently made Puerto Rico the center for military operations and all expansion efforts.
This was not something to be messed with. Puerto Rico, was a top military priority. At
some point it was the most technologically advanced combat station in the world. To this
day, it is still used as military grounds, as well as for mostly unknown commercial maritime transactions with the rest of world, meaning North America, Europe, Central and
South America. From Puerto Rico, with love. And when I say unknown commercial maritime transactions, I mean it. We are not, in any remote way, in control and have little
knowledge of what goes on with our coastal relationships to the exterior. It is Federal
property. Can you imagine such a small Island like ours, not knowing what is going on
its coasts? We have no control over any economic transactions or revenues derived
from the first and last point of arrival/departure in the Caribbean. Think about the Panama canal, but without the 100 year lease agreement, it’s just an eternal arrangement.
The newest fashion is to call Puerto Rico “A jurisdiction of the United States of America”
I guess, a “U.S. Territory” is a bit harsh.
Now this said, there are also problems with having problems with National cinema, and
in order to openly and publicly assert these problems, one has to undergo the sensitive
dissection of a complicated dual experience: Understanding a fair and rightful disliking
for our own product while also understanding the unpatriotic feelings it brings about. It is
an emotional and logical contradiction. Criticizing our own movies is quite the complicated process, when the issue of a personal identity is at stake. It is what we have to
show for the rest of the world, after all. I also believe dismissing our movies remits us to
an ancestral feeling of guilt about the incapacity to defend our land from “outsiders”,
leaving us with a ghostly feeling of shame about the fact that ticket sales are thriving for
Avatar while, Maldeamores can’t even reach the 50% mark for recuperating their investment. Quite often, local actors, directors and film industry members have cried out
to the general public in search for support to the local product with the argument of National pride. It has been my experience we have responded to their call, time and again.
Because we do love our country, and we also love going to the movies. But then, time
and again, we are let down. Movies that should make us cry, makes us laugh. Movies
that should make us laugh, make us cringe. There is this great quote by José Martí, a
cuban intellectual and political revolutionary of the late XIX century. He said: “Nuestro
vino es amargo, pero es nuestro vino”. Which means: “Our wine is sour, but it is our
wine”. The psychological ambiguity of this statement is an accurate description of how
we endure the Puerto Rican experience, an experience which for over five hundred
years has been subject to a perpetual mixture of powerlessness, rebelliousness and
idealism. Just consider the idea of being subordinated in aspects such as citizenship,
currency, postal service, commerce, finance, health and welfare, and many others. It is
difficult to accurately portray ourselves because we lack the ownership of our identity.
It’s that simple. Our truth, twenty four times per second, might take a lot of years before

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