“The Seeds Of An Uncertain Land” was the winner of BEST SOUND & MUSIC at the March 2021 DOCUMENTARY Film Festival.
1. What motivated you to make this film?
When hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, I started talking with Tammie and John, the producers on this film and who are both Puerto Rican, about how we could address the situation. We didn’t know exactly what we were going to film, but we knew what we didn’t want: we didn’t want to do a teary disaster film that depicted Puerto Ricans as victims or as people endlessly in need or without capacity, but as people who have ability, intelligence and resourcefulness. Those 3 descriptors are rarely used when Puerto Rico comes up, but, having lifelong friends from the island, I know how much brilliance, elegance and capacity is there.
At the same time the producers and I didn’t want to shy away from the problems and challenges that Puerto Rico faces—but the ground rule was always to push back against the general portrayal of Puerto Ricans as depicted in our media. All too often Puerto Rico only makes the news after a scandal or when someone gets into a fight at the Puerto Rican parade or, as in the case with Maria, disaster strikes and people are shown as needy, but not as capable.
On Christmas eve in 2017, I was listening to NPR and they did a report on women farmers, how they were bringing their communities together and actually making them better than before. After I heard it, I called Tammie immediately and said, “This is the film we’re going to make.” We were also careful not to only include women because the whole women saving Puerto Rico thing was also becoming a cliché in a lot of the post hurricane coverage. I spoke with a lot of the women farmers and they really didn’t like being portrayed as the only saviors or as superheroes. The truth is that women and men all came together and because those in these communities are so giving to one another, they wanted to make sure that everyone involved got credit. Absolutely, strong and capable women play an essential role in this film. But young men too are doing important work and we wanted to show this farming community in its totality.
2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?
In all, it took 2 years.
3. How would you describe your short film in two words!?
4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?
We were pretty lucky in that there were no major road bumps on this production. Over the two years that I was making this film I was traveling a lot. I was making a film in the Italian Alps and on the other side of the world in Fukushima, Japan where I had spent much of the past decade documenting life in the exclusion zone, so the travel was tiring, but because of the amazing people I met in Puerto Rico I was also exhilarated. They kept me going.
The most major problem we encountered was on the first trip when communication was in a bit of disarray. In the end we were extremely fortunate for it. In my director’s statement I wrote:
When I landed in Puerto Rico, after a month of arranging logistics, speaking with subjects and scheduling days to shoot, everything fell apart. Those who I was supposed to meet became unreachable. All the work that went into ensuring that we would have full and productive shooting days went out the window. It was the best thing that could have happened. The disarray brought in the unexpected, opening up opportunities that would have never existed through logical planning.
Upon my arrival John picked me up at the airport and we drove into the mountains. Without a schedule for the following day, we knew we had to do something and started researching again. It was a tense time because so much was on the line, but, because of all of the planning, we had a strong foundation and could flow into new situations easily. Having a pretty good idea about where to start looking we had the extreme good luck to discover that the The First Congress of Independent Puerto Rican Farmers was happening the following day—and it was nearby in the neighboring municipality of Manati. When we arrived, we were not sure that we’d be let in without an official invitation, but we were greeted warmly and given access to shoot and speak with the participants.
As much as the congress was about farming, it was also about cultural identity, revealing an elegance and sophistication that is rarely acknowledged in press accounts from Puerto Rico. At the congress I was so fortunate to have met Yaitza Lopez of The Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. A cellist who has played throughout the world, she dreamed of returning to her family’s land and farming from it. Her dream, expressed through her cello in all of its somber and tender resonance, formed a main narrative in this film. If everything didn’t fall apart in the beginning, we would have never met her, and this film would not have had the elegant and rich score it now has.
5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?
I was heartened to hear their thoughtful and engaged comments. It’s clear that they understand and respect the language of cinema. I was also just so gratified that the music and sound in this film was recognized. Sound is actually the very first thing I think of. I get really obsessive about it and mic my sources sometimes 3 or 4 times. So, I am so very thankful that that resonated with people.
Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:
6. When did you realize that you wanted to make films?
I think it must have been around the time that I got my first car when I was 16. I was living in California and I’d ditch class to go to the New Beverly Cinema. It was there that I was introduced to Scorsese’s Mean Streets and the films of Francois Truffaut, Sajit Ray, Federico Fellini and very importantly Ingmar Bergman. I also loved the silent films they presented, especially those of Buster Keaton, and picked up a super 8 camera. I loved the texture and grain of black and white film and also the movement of super 8 because of the 18 frames per second. I think I made my first short when I was 17. Also, so special was the editing process of physically cutting the film and taping it together. I was lucky later on to cut films just before the old Steenbecks and Moviolas went out of existence. When I was cutting on them it was literally a year before Avid took over everything.
7. What film have you seen the most in your life?
Probably Ghost Busters or Beverly Hills Cop. I watched them endlessly as a kid. Later in life it’s a tie between Persona and La Dolce Vita.
8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are your feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?
It’s terrific. Having to previously search individual festivals and fill out all the info over and over again was exhausting. It’s terrific to be able to have all the film info in one place and submit with a few steps.
9. What is your favorite meal?
Without the ability to travel I REALLY miss eating in Japan. One of the great restaurants there is Tonkatsu Tonki in Tokyo’s Meguro neighborhood. Their tonkatsu is sublime. Overall, Japanese meals come in many small dishes, so I greatly miss that gradual way of eating. It’s like one grat big meal that evolves in small bits over the evening.
10. What is next for you? A new film?
I’m working on a film/immersive web project and exhibit about a community on Oahu that is in desperate need of a storm shelter. There are 2,500 in the town and another 23,500 in the surrounding towns. If a hurricane or tsunami were to strike them, 26,000 people might lose their lives. It’s inconceivable that the richest nation in the world can’t provide the most basic of necessities for its citizenry. I hope that this upcoming project challenges the bullshit notion that the United States somehow shouldn’t have a functioning government.
I’m also making this film because I don’t want to see the same thing happen in Hawaii that I saw in Puerto Rico where people were left to their own survival. Another thing I want this film to address is the fact that The United States doesn’t do a good job in preparing for disasters or put resilience into communities on a regular basis. I’ve seen too many corpses in my life due to the climate crisis and this nation really needs to get moving on working solutions, both for itself and for the planet. The upcoming film will illustrate that building resilience on a regular basis is actually something that can benefit the community in every way from economic wealth to environmental policy and general health and wellness. As we come out of the pandemic and the storms of the climate crisis loom over us, continually building resilience can have a wonderfully transformative effect on our societies throughout the world.