I was born at the end of the Cold War and never knowing for sure if I’d ever walk the streets of Havana. Throughout my life, there was a sort of taboo associated with talking about Cuba and the Castro regime. You didn’t get a constant stream of news regarding Cuba and it was seldom featured above the fold. I’d ask my elders, “What’s up with Cuba?” and the response often was brief, with the “C” word plastered onto whatever comment like a scarlet letter. Still, as a Dominican, I’ve always felt a sense of distant brotherhood to Cuba as one of the Greater Antilles. Like siblings, our birth and upbringing were very similar. Yet we took such drastic antithetical turns in the twentieth century, creating a stark contrast between the two countries’ development. Either side was marred by a profligacy of its political ideologies. But I was certain that, like seeing a distant sibling, the shared DNA would bring us together as if our roads never diverged. And the only way to capture that life-long distance from a place that shares your DNA is through the magic of film photography, because this familial reunion deserves nothing less than being shared through rich, vibrant, grainy photographs that I could touch and stow away for later viewing.
Planning a trip to Havana was daunting. And the apprehension does not totally escape you after you land as you’re navigating through unchartered territory while disconnected from the comforts that you have inevitably grown so dependent on. But it only took my first interaction with a Cuban to ease my discomfort. We pretty much all look the same, dress the same, and act the same. I found that we had similar accents, slicing the consonants out of common words, finding comfort and charm in a familial lingo of broken Spanish. Everyone's just enjoying their existence and trying to stay ahead of the game. Shooting on film had never been so rewarding.
Like film photography, Cuba is still analog in many ways. The cars are antiquated, the Internet barely exists, landlines are very much still in use, and people are actually socializing in real-time. Most importantly, though, the damning sense of expediency hasn’t defiled the pleasantries of quotidian life yet. Shooting in a medium that disrupts this digital era of right-now was a meditative experience and one that allowed me to savor the photographs more than I could any digital image. Having to wait several weeks before I could get my hands on those photos required patience, but it was also enchanting.
When we arrived in Havana, we inquired about a good restaurant that had live music nearby. They provided us with a few options off the top of their head. Without a phone book, Google, or an address, they proceeded to tell us to just show up and try to get lucky with a table. The directions were, “Take a right out of the hotel, another right two blocks away, walk for like ten minutes, and after the intersection it’s on that block.” Surprisingly, we made out just fine. There was no room for us on a busy night, but we walked another block into a different restaurant that was delightful and had live music as well. I’ve come to find that life’s kind of better that way. Leaving things up to chance opens us up to more humbling experiences and grounds us in reality. Film’s a lot like that. You can perfectly frame and plan a shot, but you really never know what’s going to happen in the darkroom, making every shot a mystery and every beautifully developed frame a kind of serendipitous marvel.
Do you ever notice how our phones are teeming with slightly different versions of the same shot? That’s us, trying to get the perfect photograph, not knowing that we could have got it just right the first time had we taken the time to properly frame and expose it. Shooting on film is about patience and craft. The journey from regularly blowing out your film to successfully bracketing a shot on an overcast day is an arduous and enriching one. While in Cuba, I stopped for photographs often. I stopped at the top of Hemingway’s writing tower at his home. I stopped on the way to dinner to goggle at the vintage cars. I stopped before I took my first sip from my Daiquirí at the very bar Hemingway sat. I stopped to read the vintage Communist propaganda painted onto building facades. It slowed down our walks, but these things don’t exist for our photos. They’re meant to dazzle us. Shooting on film requires you to allow for it to happen. We walked down to El Malecón and arrived as the sun was setting. People from all walks of life sat along the pier and watched the cars go by. Lovers dazzled onlookers embracing one another with crimson-colored skin tinted by the magic of the sun. A band of musicians with their trumpets and saxophones played classic Cuban salsa tunes for a few pesos to set the mood for the night. The stars faded into the blue sky as the sun disappeared behind the horizon. Looking at those photos now, it’s hard to believe that there is no filter on them from how much the sun drenched everything in orange.
I picked up my pictures this week and looking down at my fresh prints, I couldn’t help but be overcome with excitement and profound appreciation. There is magic in film like the magic that exists in Havana. That magic is reality, humanity. There is something very real happening inside of your camera when you open your shutter. You’re creating a chemical reaction for the tiny crystals suspended in gelatin to turn into a tangible memory. And sometimes that reality is not controllable, but that’s okay. You’re forced to rid yourself of this over manipulation we’ve grown so accustomed to. Our social media profiles are perfectly curated, photos incessantly edited, and our adventures are planned out through extensive research on what the best options are. Film’s got no room for that. No matter how well you know how to use your light meter, choose the right f-stop, or bracket your shots, the developed image will always be a surprise. And you’re not only honing your craft with every clack of the shutter, but you’re also living in the present for real undiluted experiences. I remember when life was like that. And I realize now that the reasons we look back on our childhoods and smile is because they were real.
I was truly moved by how much my dear friend Johnny cut to the core of how important our work is to us. He is also a wonderful writer and I wanted to share that with all of you.
by: Johnny Díaz
As fate would have it, I happened upon a gem of a film for my Friday night viewing pleasure scrolling away through Facebook. "Our Ebertfest", part travelogue, part tribute, and lastly, part love affair, is a sweet rumination on the intersection of life, love, and art that invites the audience to partake in a couple’s trip to Chicago and Champaign for the festival dedicated to the late film critic, Roger Ebert.
Like any good piece of art, the piece transcends its own origin and intent. Beginning as a kind of diary in the first half of the film, it subtly transforms into a conversational piece about the nature of art and its value to humanity, provoking us to dig deeper into the relationship between society and the artists we admire, as well as their respective works of art.
The film, clocking in just under 26 minutes, was shot, edited, and directed by Gio Crisafulli, with the helping hand of lover and muse, Melissa Batista. Centering on the Virginia theater where the festival is held, the narrative weaves in and out of panel discussions in the theater to local eateries and cultural institutions, as well as in and out of reverie and self-awareness. In true collaborative fashion the couple share screen time and shoot the film together, playfully blurring the lines between the observer and the observed.
One of the lessons to be learned about this joint effort is that we don't have to endure the pain (or torture as Guillermo del Toro describes it) of the artistic process alone. The film tells us that we should not feel entrapped by the 'curse of Van Gogh', whose beautiful paintings are displayed in a bright light in a dark room. Through love and companionship, we need not become the cliché of the solitary artist.
In one of the defining moments of the piece that marks its denouement, the camera pans up into the ceiling of the Virginia theatre and cuts into an opening of a ceiling of a Greco-Roman place of public gathering in a classical painting. In voice-over narrative, Paul Cox, one of the filmmakers highlighted in the festival, shares his personal experience of being fortunate to be alive thanks to an anonymous liver transplant. Just like Paul Cox, we should be grateful to have these gifts from our fellows that enliven us, or as he so eloquently puts it, "the proof of our lives is the love we leave behind, and life must be an act of love, whatever the consequence."
I couldn't have chosen a better film to watch myself, made all the better by the fact the protagonists and authors are cherished friends (full disclosure). 'Ebertfest' is a film rich in content that allows the audience to overlook any of its technical mistakes or superfluity and gets two enthusiastic thumbs up. I am excited about the prospect of what we are to see in the future from these two amazing individuals. May everything you do be an act of love just as you are.
We recently had the great pleasure of experiencing Roger Ebert’s 18th Annual Film Festival at the Virginia Theater in Champaign. What a gift those five exhausting days were! The selection of films and the people that joined us to talk about them are all beautiful, honest, lively, warm, and inspiring people. Above all, they are soldiers of cinema. We are so grateful for our time there.
Champaign is a quaint city. It’s got small-town charm speckled with urban appeal. More importantly, however, it’s Roger’s home town. And that is what made those five days extraordinary. Because his spirit was so present during our time there. His voice echoed through the auditorium of the Virginia Theater, his faint laughter whispered through the booths at Shake Shack, and his infectious smile spread like a wildfire in remembrance of his name.
Ebertfest celebrates the life of America's favorite film critic, critics now, filmmakers, and above all, film lovers. It is a celebration of all the things we love about cinema. It is a festival for all of those who smile at the smell of fresh popcorn and Good n’ Plenty, for those who love classic cinema house marquees still changed daily by hand, for those who blush at the sight of those blood-rich velvet curtains, and for those who love the sound of the film reel clicking behind them. Above all, it is a celebration of damn good motion pictures. Ebertfest is all of the things we love separately about our cinema experiences in one.
In a theater filled with 1,100 film lovers, we sat and experienced together our most personal reactions to this year’s selection. We sat among directors in their most vulnerable states: bringing their hard work to us. Guillermo del Toro’s speech moved us all to tears, as he expressed how the Ebertfest audience healed his experience of putting forth Crimson Peak, a passion project that he poured all of his heart and soul into for eight years, but was unfortunately not as well received as his earlier work. The standing ovation seemed to last several minutes. "The real award is the audience, " he said. We are so grateful that we were able to bring this gratification to him as he brought to us.
Enjoy this video that was put together by my partner, Giò, which can also be found on our website: ZioCiccio
Thanks for watching!
I am of the notion that a picture should be measured not by its content, but rather, by how much its content is able to caress the frail hairs on the back of our neck, embrace our hopelessness and give us hope, and softly enchant the core of our souls with gentle fingertips. Roger Ebert said something similar. That a picture [is not about what it’s about, but rather, how it’s about it]. Auteurism tends to make our cinematic experiences something special. It tends to incite conversation. It tends to keep cinema alive and well.
During this year’s Ebertfest, Paul Cox shared something important as a filmmaker and film lover while introducing his Force of Destiny. That, “We cannot live in a world without conscience.” And that he thinks, “a film really burns inside you when it sticks to your bones and goes home with you and changes your life and makes you think and feel and remember.” Long after having first experienced this treat of a film, Amélie often sneaks back into my mind and my heart to tickle my nose and make me smile.
Three minutes into the picture, Amélie bestowed upon me a gift of familiarity and warmth as the narrator introduced its story’s characters. What a feeling, seeing a stranger partake in the myriad of ways my fingertips entertained me as a child--simple pleasures that I thought so personal and uniquely my own. A grin wiped across my face at seeing her peel glue off of them, eat raspberries off of them, and flutter them.
Amélie is very much like a children’s book. Like a children’s book, it has all of that childlike wonder which made our then-ignorant hearts cling to those colorful pages and savor them at each turn. And it is through this lens that we are able to enjoy the picture: with a sense of naiveté. The characters are described in terms of things they love and they hate, the lurid photography is drenched in rich hues that massage our eyes, its score seems lugubrious but hopeful, and the narrator’s appreciation for the sense of touch allows us to enjoy the comforts of rubbing an endive on one’s cheek, fingering a roasted chicken carcass, or dipping one's finger in a sack of grain. Amélie’s sensuousness is both blatant and satisfying. And as we have already been wooed into this storybook-like world of Jean Pierrot, we are accepting of the obvious ways he portrays emotion. Like seeing the heart under her breast thumping in an aura of red and orange or her melting into a puddle at the sight of her beau leaving the cafe. They are the conventional ways that we describe moments like these, but why is it that they are never just put on screen that way?
I am partial to Jeunet’s use of on-screen narration. There are a plethora of pictures with fantastic uses of this technique. Often, however, it is a character from the story itself narrating the tale. Jeunet’s narrator, on the other hand, seems removed but somehow more present than others. Similar to Godard’s narrator in Bande á part. He lives inside of every breath, every footstep, every tire screech. He understands the characters of his tale better than the characters do themselves. He sounds like one of our elders. And he unfolds this story of love and life in such a way that no words are too much or too little.
More important, however, is the depiction of Amélie Poulain herself. Audrey Tautou’s character is strikingly malleable and she dances on the fine line of girlhood and womanhood, as do all the other elements of the film. She’s got a childish grin at times, even as she is having sex. And other times, she’s got the confident stare of a woman in charge of herself and those around her. She sleeps in sexy lace slips, but wears oversized oxfords and long chiffon skirts to work. She revels in the pleasures of mischievous matchmaking and scavenger hunts, but also cries at the thought of her loneliness. Amelié Poulain is a lovely balance of sexy and adorable. She is both woman and girl, as the film is youthfully mature.
I can speak endlessly about why, stylistically, Amélie was such a great picture. However, it goes far beyond beautiful color, sound, and even character juxtaposition.
It is the universe through Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s eyes that is vastly optimistic, as it should be. There is beauty in this world to be seen in everything we do and touch and feel. There is beauty to be seen in everyone we meet. And there is work to be done to help out wherever this optimism is lacking. Whether it’s finding our Dominique Brotodeu and getting him to finally reach out to his kids through an old time capsule or humbling a grouchy entrepreneur. I’m an advocate of the fairytale-like lens of Jean-Pierre Jeunet with which he sees the world for this reason. Because life's too short for cynicism.
The poignancy associated with nostalgia is an interesting phenomenon for me. It induces a feeling that I can only describe as temporary elation interspersed with downright melancholy. Although this strange pull in opposite directions is unsettling, an appreciation for life, the souls that we are bound to, and the memories we are blessed with always prevails.
Linklater’s new Everybody Wants Some!! (labeled as the spirit sequel to Dazed and Confused) unexpectedly offers that appreciation. For a picture that veered away from the traditional Hollywood plot-line (in that it didn’t really seem to have one), the entertainment was constant throughout the entire movie. It was a picture that did not require a conventional plot, because the events leading up to the first day of class in a baseball house off campus is more than enough to make a great movie. In fact, the first thing I said to my partner after leaving Lincoln Square was, “Wow. What a nice ride that was.”And I found that the more we exchanged our thoughts and feelings about the picture, the more in love with it I became as we peeled back its layers and found it breathing and changing into several distinct portrayals of finding oneself, athleticism, nostalgia, and young men in their most biologically fundamental form: spreading their bountiful seed and competing in all things physical.
What a foreign feeling for me, an admiration for jocks. Because the Linklater jock isn’t the jock you see just about everywhere else. The Linklater jock is just as horny and bursting at the seams with testosterone as all of the others, but they’re also insanely witty, charming, and easygoing. No one in this movie is ever unapologetically an asshole or overtly cruel. I think this is also owed to the portrayal of women in the picture. Although the baseball team is exploiting their popularity to get laid, the women are not strangers to this game. They are seen floating from jock to jock throughout the movie instead of being coerced into something that they think will be exclusive. While Jake (Blake Jenner) excuses himself from his date so he can free up his room upstairs, she inevitably floats into the arms of another one of his teammates. But there are also women seen not batting an eye to the jocks’ advances. It's an even playing field.
And they all pick on each other. It’s just men being men--competitive by nature and fighting for who has got the most brawn. Everyone is just having a good time. No hard feelings.
Then there’s the baseball tugging at my heartstrings. It seems that in the past ten years everyone’s attention span has changed to that of a goldfish. With that, baseball has gone from being revered as America’s greatest pastime to a game too long and boring to sit through. Perhaps I am partial to baseball having grown up in Dominican Republic. So my biased opinion is that, unlike contact sports that offer entertainment by operating at a high intensity 95% of the time, it is just a little more mature. It’s not loud. It does not ride on testosterone. It requires the patience and respect of not only the players, but also the fans. And those fans understand the idiosyncrasies of each position as well as the hard work that is put into molding those specific players. It is for these reasons that baseball is that much more attractive. Similar to the way that Beverly (Zoey Deutch) liked, “the quiet guy in the back seat,” instead of the rest of the guys in the car hollering at her and her friend like a pack of dogs. It was also nice to see that gratitude for the sport on the big screen; a bunch of guys talking about why pitchers are weird, their superstitions about lucky batting helmets, the scout that watches their practices in disguise, and how, above all, voluntary practice is mandatory. We need more pictures about baseball.
It brought me back to a time when playing an organized sport was the thing in my life. Back when I didn’t have a job and all life was about was school, softball, and sharing the bus with the baseball team to our respective games. These guys are all aware that they will probably never go pro. And that what they’ve got is right now, these four years as college jocks. They go to school for free to do something they absolutely love and get showered with admiration in the form of playful advances from beautiful women before they go off into the real world of nine to fives, marriage, and arthritis. What more could a college kid want?
Then there’s the competition. From flicking knuckles to slicing baseballs in half with an ax, the matches are endless. Comical as it may be (for a woman, at least) to see such farcical displays of machismo, the accuracy and lighthearted tackling of the “manhood” topic is nothing shy of beautiful. A guy goes into a fit of rage for losing a casual game of table tennis and his teammates can do nothing but laugh as he hurls the paddle at his opponent. No one is a stranger to the anger that comes with losing in this house. Ten minutes later, they are on to talking about baseball and the universe over a few bong hits.
One doesn’t have to have lived through the 80's to feel nostalgia at experiencing Everybody Wants Some!! No matter what decade, we all have those golden years where we are free to stumble through the bewildering path into adulthood. Where the cheap beer games, keg stands, and jungle juice are in the foreground of every celebration, where good decisions are hard to come by, and where the thought of any of that coming to an end is tormenting enough to make you want to keep plowing through it just as you have been.
My mother turns 60 today. My mother turns 60!? That woman who I used to chase after whenever she left for the airport? That woman whose suitcase I so desperately tried to squeeze into whenever she wasn't looking? That woman whose lap I demanded to sit on during every car ride to Sosúa, to La Vega, to Jarabacoa, to Santo Domingo? That woman whose favorite color is burgundy, so naturally mine is too? She turns 60 today.
I cried whenever she left.
For all of those who don't know, the first eight years of us living in the Dominican Republic were hard on my parents. Mostly my mother. She had to constantly go back for weeks--sometimes months--at a time to run our clothing factories in New York City. Then the garment industry tanked and everything was sent to china (but that's a story for another day). Back then, I didn't understand it was all business and that mother goose had to take care of her little duckling. Back then, it was my mother deliberately carving my seven-year-old heart out of my chest and driving over it as she went back to the airport for New York. I cried so much that I could barely catch my breath. There was snot rolling down my upper lip and into my mouth, onto my shirt, drying up and turning into a weird yellow crust all over my cheeks. And I had one of these episodes every couple of weeks. They had to stop taking me to the airport so as to not cause a scene. They had to start sneaking out when I wasn't looking. It was bad.
Then somewhere down the road all of that changed. My mother and I didn't have that relationship anymore. Somewhere down the road I started to hate her. For reasons that my present adult self cannot even explain, I couldn't be in the same room with her without being on edge, without wanting to scream. We didn't see eye to eye. I did not want to be like her. I did not miss her. I wanted to disappear.
My mom turns 60 today and I want to thank her and tell her how much I love and appreciate her.
An open letter to my mother on her 60th birthday: Mami,
You are beautiful. I don't just say this because you are my mother. I don't know if you will ever be able to comprehend the joyous and proud feeling I get hearing stories about your youth. Everyone that knew you then, sees so much of you in me. There have been times we are sitting in a room with all of your now middle-aged friends from back in the day and I catch them staring at me with this look. Then they snap out of it and say, "My God. You look just like your mother." There are times when they tell me stories about you. About how you would catch the eye of everyone who passed you. About how you were loved by everyone. About how unbelievably beautiful you were. And you still are. Mother, I am so proud to be your daughter and your spitting image. Thank you.
I wish I could tell you how sorry I am for my teenage years. I wish we could make up that lost time where I was too young to understand how rare and wonderful you truly are. I wish I had the depth to comprehend the reasons you did the things you did and said the things you said. But I am my father's daughter. I don't like confrontation. I don't face my fears, my problems, the people I have wronged. I don't like to cry in front of people. I live so carefree and just hope to be loved by everyone, but I'm missing that key ingredient that you have. The ability to look into someone else's heart and empathize with them. To feel what they are feeling. To know when I have done something to utterly break someone else. But I am slowly honing the ability to do so.
A very special person in my life recently told me something interesting about vulnerability. He is truly becoming an important part of my growing up and becoming the woman that I need to be. I will paraphrase what I gathered from what he told me. He said that a lot of people mistake vulnerability for weakness. But on the contrary, the ability to make yourself vulnerable takes a lot of courage. When a warrior enters an arena, he is making himself vulnerable. If he stays outside of the arena, he doesn't expose himself to that danger and therefore isn't vulnerable. But he will never be a champion if he never enters that arena. Mother, I remember the days that were hard on you. I remember your tears. I remember you fighting with all of us, asking for answers, for explanations. I remember that overused "Tu crees que eso es justo? (Do you think that's fair?)" And I remember shutting the door in your face and asking for you to leave me alone. I remember leaving you standing alone in the arena, vulnerable. But you always entered the arena. You were always a warrior. And you, mother, are a fucking champion. Thank you.
I turned twenty five this year. At this age, you walked down the aisle of Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, so I have taken some time to reflect. My motherly instincts are starting to kick in! And I can't help but to think of all the ways that I could really ruin a child that I bring into this world. And then I think of you and the formula is right there. My only hope is to someday be half the mother you are. Remember when we moved to Connecticut? It was late august and school was almost beginning. Who the hell knows how to get around Waterbury on foot? When the hell was the last time you took your kids to public school? In less than a week, you managed to somehow figure out which school we would go to, get all of our vaccines ready (you took us all the way back to Dr. Almonte in the Bronx for those), enroll us in both schools, buy us clothes, get our bus schedule, and make sure our asses were on time for the first day of school. All on CT Transit. Thank you. Mother, I don't know when I stopped chasing after you or why. I don't know when I stopped trying to emulate you, when my favorite color became blue instead of burgundy, and when I stopped putting on your favorite shoes. I don't know when I started being so mean to you, but I'm glad those days are over. I'm thrilled to love that beautiful reddish brown hue again. I am thrilled to hear your voice over the phone to talk about nothing. I am so thrilled to snuggle between you and dad, feeling your warm embrace. I am proud to understand and appreciate the times when you said "eso se ve feo." And that you were right. Now I know that the child in me was right all along. That this woman, this beautiful and phenomenal woman, is someone I should always look up to. And I do. You are my warrior. You are my champion. And I am working on being that champion someday, too.
All of my love,