Since the election, I’ve questioned my role as a filmmaker in influencing social progress. The power to positively affect culture seems as relevant as ever with the spike in hate related crimes, aggressive executive orders and vitriolic dialogue across social media.
While I’ve been encouraged by Moonlight’s Oscar win and box office successes like Hidden Figures and Get Out, I have neither the platform nor financial backing of those films. I’ve stared at my list of potential projects and struggled to understand how and where my skills would be best applied to create anywhere near the same social impact as those films.
Throughout my life, I devoured the intoxicating mythology that surrounded my favorite filmmakers: Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, Sam Raimi, Robert Rodriguez…the list could go on and on and on.
Even as my taste and opinions of these artists changed over time, their ability to influence cultural dialogue has always amazed me. Additionally, the idea of the singular, visionary artistic voice hurtling through all obstacles by sheer force of will in order to arrive at a moment of cinematic bliss felt truly aspirational, even truly American.
In 2011, I moved to Suchitoto, El Salvador, with the intention of making films. By that point in my career, I had worked on several independent films and network television shows as a production assistant and data wrangler. While these jobs gave me a crash course in what goes into mounting large-scale productions, 14-hour work days and six day work weeks left me with very little time or energy for my own creative endeavors.
While photocopying call-sheets and sorting through VFX renders, I’d often fantasize about my own films and the career I dreamed of having.
When one of my closest friends and collaborators invited me to join him on a trip to El Salvador where we could make films and filmmaking our top priority, I jumped at the opportunity. It felt like a chance to turn these dreams into reality.
My friend grew up in El Salvador and I learned we’d be able to rent a house for cheap. We amassed lists of the books we were going to read and the films we were going to study. He’d send me photos of the beautiful colonial town, and I (embarrassingly) would envision crafting some Latin-American style version of a Terrence Malick film.
It wasn’t long before I started framing my trip to El Salvador as an opportunity to make my Who’s Knocking At My Door, my Reservoir Dogs, my El Mariachi.
Things turned out a little differently. Growing up, I had visited visit my own family in Mexico, and I inadvertently assumed El Salvador would more or less be the same. So while I had stocked up on aspirations, restless energy and the mythology of American filmmakers, I hadn’t quite prepared for a new culture, a new climate and a fundamentally different way of life.
This arrogant and incorrect assumption prevented me from seeing the big picture. Firstly, I had no idea that the daily temperature was mostly in the high 80’s — high 80s with 100% humidity. I’d break into a sweat just reading a book. More importantly, my initial mentality blinded me to the rich, complex and beautiful culture of El Salvador, not to mention the country’s violent civil war and heartbreaking gang issues.
I quickly learned that I had a lot to learn.
The idea of imposing my first impressions of El Salvador through a film didn’t feel right. For many, a movie is someone’s very first exposure to new faces, places and ideas. I realized how little I’d known about El Salvador before I arrived and anything I created could potentially be someone’s first window into the country. It felt like a huge responsibility and I wasn’t prepared to take that on because I didn’t have the knowledge.
I knew I needed to rethink my time there. This wasn’t an opportunity to utilize another country and culture for my career aspirations. This was an opportunity to listen, learn and grow from the things I didn’t know.
Thankfully, I found other ways to get involved. My friend and I even found a non-profit organization founded by documentary filmmaker Paula Heredia, that sought to mentor and teach kids filmmaking. While I still took time to read, watch films and write my own work, it was through volunteering that I found other ways to utilize my skills and serve someone other than myself.
When the town approached my friend and I to make a series of short documentaries on that year’s jazz festival, it felt like the ideal way to combine our love of filmmaking with the needs of the community we were living in. Considering El Salvador’s reputation as a country riddled with gang violence, these videos were an opportunity to highlight the artists that the media ignores.
I returned to the U.S. nearly seven months later without my feature film calling card that I had gone in pursuit of. What I did find was more peace of mind and productivity in making shorts for the community than I would’ve attempting a selfish feature.
I’ve continued to work creatively in different capacities, but 2017 feels like a whole new landscape. When I read the news, it feels like crazy people have hijacked the culture and are moving it away from the values I believe in. It’s as disgusting as it is terrifying.
However, if film has the power to change hearts and minds as I truly believe it does, it’s time for filmmakers to stop thinking about themselves. As artists, it can no longer be “what story do I want to tell?”, but rather “what story does the community need?”
If there are filmmakers out there who believe, as I do, that movies and shows need be more inclusive and more diverse, then writers and directors need to be less like the mythologized dictators of Hollywood and much more like the community organizers making positive change in their neighborhoods.
At this pivotal moment in our history, if your work isn’t serving a greater good, don’t expect people to pay for it.