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A Question for Puerto Rico: Producer Josh Penn on Discussing Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Josh Penn, Producer, Beasts of the Southern Wild

In showing Beasts of the Southern Wild across San Juan this week, a really interesting conversation emerged.  The conversation was not so much a discussion about the movie but rather a conversation around an idea that the film explores which is a very real question for Puerto Ricans.  The question is: if a natural disaster was coming towards your community and you had the option of staying or leaving, what would you do?

The protagonists of Beasts deal with this with question when a storm comes towards their home.  Puerto Rico also frequently needs to worry about major storms hitting their home and thus many years Puerto Ricans find themselves asking this question.  The responses to this question were very personal and passionate.  The majority of people seemed to say that they would indeed stay with their community, but it in one way or another was clear that this had been a decision each one of them had made at some point in their life.  In many cases these choices had revolved around a hurricane but the question resonated with many people in ways that did not relate to natural disasters but rather had to do with other forces that were pushing people out of Puerto Rico.

Many people spoke about the economic conditions in Puerto Rico which have gotten particularly bad in the last few years and how better job opportunities in the U.S. had taken a huge portion of the young professionals and artists away which only made the situation worse in Puerto Rico.  Puerto Rico’s standing as a territory of the U.S. only seemed to make this question more pertinent as there was always an escape hatch for people to leave Puerto Rico and go to the U.S.  Many people said these economic forces were as strong a motivation to leave as any storm and are part of the same conversation.

The members of the incredible theater group “Y no había luz” who performed before Beasts on opening night, spoke about how every day they are faced with the temptation to go to the U.S. because of the tough conditions at home but how they felt that they must stay in Puerto Rico despite the conditions and do their art in Puerto Rico.  There was a deep love of home that was very deeply felt in every statement they made.  They also spoke of a major disaster in 1985 in which an entire mountain community here was decimated when they decided to stay through a storm and nearly all buildings in the community collapsed. The catastrophe remains a very real reminder of the dangers of staying through a storm.

One audience member turned out to work for the government’s emergency preparedness division and had spent a very significant amount of time going door to door and asking people if they would stay through a storm and if so why.  She spoke very passionately about the need to be prepared and safe if you are going to make this choice.  She in a very real way understood both the reasons why people but also the very scary reality that can ensue when this choice is not combined with a certain level of preparedness. She also said she wanted to have Beasts of the Southern Wild be mandatory viewing for the other workers in her department.  

There were many more passionate responses that were said throughout the week on this subject that I can’t all fit in here but there were certain cultural through lines that clearly ran through the majority of the answers were heard.  The answers were different than we would have gotten had we asked the question in New York or New Orleans and revealed something about the place and its culture.  I would love to go to each and every Film Forward location as well as many others and ask this same question as I think in each place it would likely reveal unique philosophies, attitudes and cultural elements that would be fascinating to learn about both individually and collectively. 

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Sundance Institute Piloting Direct Individual Support for Mediamakers Through the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

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