Reflections on Renovation and Hope in Puerto Rico
On Friday, October 21 I had the honor to share some thoughts about narration for documentary and feature films with filmmakers Allysa Nahmias (Unfinished Spaces) and Jasmila Zbanic (Grbavica) in a full room at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico. This dialogue also included Ilyse McKimmie, Labs Director for the Feature Film Program at the Sundance Institute, and was part of an extraordinary calendar of events and film screenings presented by FILM FORWARD and organized by the Sociedad de Cine de Puerto Rico.
One of the main challenges for filmmakers in Puerto Rico and many other countries is to develop appealing and economically viable stories for wide, complex and diverse audiences. As a way to respond to this topic, we organized the panel: Tell me something!! Story development and narrative for documentaries and fictional films. We started the panel with an introduction about the status of Puerto Rican cinema. I pointed out that, although we have made significant advances in terms of production, legislation, education and support, we still need to improve our storytelling. This gave us chance to talk about the experiences of Nahmias and Zbanic in the United States and Bosnia, and the ideas that gave life to their films. It also brought out how the Sundance Institute is always looking to promote new and interesting stories via the Feature Film Program.
After this initial interaction, we continued the panel talking about narration. The audience and I learned how Nahmias and Zbanic developed multilayered stories for Unfinished Spaces and Grbavica, as well as the reactions they wanted to activate in the audiences using this technique. Then, we continued our exchange with the topic of characterization.
Unfinished Spaces is a documentary about the construction/decadence/renovation of the Cuban Art Schools that were created following the Cuban Revolution in the 1960’s. Characterization was made possible in this film by the specific testimonials, but also through the editing process. The result was great (real) characters deeply interrelated to the narrative, their personal lives, the Cuban Revolution, the Art Schools, the contemporary Cuban history and many other themes.
On the other hand, Grbavica, which is a fictional film, is the story of Esma, a woman that gave birth to Sara as a result of an act of rape made to her by a soldier during the Yugoslav war (1991-99). In a very painful but liberating way, Sara learns how she was conceived. The story occurs in contemporary Bosnian society and in the aftermath of war. These elements obliged Zbanic to design complex characters, which work all together to make possible a balanced drama full of tension, comic reliefs and memorable moments.
At the end of the panel, we talked about how Grbavica pushed a campaign that finally, and Zbanic’s activism, changed Bosnian laws to recognize that raped women were also victims of war. On the other hand, Nahmias told us how Unifinished Spaces has served to recognize the architectural value of the Cuban Art Schools and the work of architects Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti.
The Q & A with the audience was also very productive and interesting. It was exciting for me to see how Puerto Rican filmmakers and students were able to exchange opinions with these professionals in a very informal and well-versed fashion. McKimmie, Nahmias and Zbanic were all very generous with their knowledge.
I think that Unfinished Spaces and Grbavica share two common themes: renovation and hope. Those are, essentially, words that can describe the moments in which Puerto Rican filmmaking is. They also appeared, thanks to FILM FORWARD and the Sociedad de Cine, as a conceptual framework to understand how the panelist and we got so nicely connected. After all, that is the beauty cinema.