El Sueño de Betances for the Hip-Hop Generation

A Conversation with Tito Román, Director of El Antillano

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I studied at an idiosyncratic little film school on the outskirts of Havana. For more than 25 years, eccentrics from all over the world have passed through the school’s classrooms and left their mark – literally and figuratively – on the its graffiti-coated walls, living on in the form of legends and tall-tales that have become part of the school’s folklore.

Yet when I entered in 2010, I found myself living in the shadow of a mythical figure that seemed to stand out above all the rest: Tito, el Boricua. At the time, there were other Puerto Ricans at the school, but Tito seemed to live on in the collective memory like a favorite son who had left home to try his fortune abroad. They spoke of his charisma, his affability, but above all of his passionate commitment to his island and the cause of its independence.

I had the pleasure to meet Tito a few times when he came back to visit the school. On one occasion, over a few glasses of Cuban rum, we talked about Ramón Emeterio Betances. He was developing a documentary on the subject and had quite a bit to say. I knew a little about Betances, but was impressed by the extent of his knowledge and the depth of his research.

Two years later, El Antillano was born. After premiering to a packed house at the iconic University of Puerto Rico – Río Piedras (UPR) theater, El Antillano has gone on to a highly successful run at commercial cineplexes and turned into a grassroots social phenomenon that’s rapidly spreading across the island. On the eve of a tour through the United States, with stops in New York and Chicago, I took the opportunity to reconnect with Tito and ask him a little about the film. Here are some highlights.

On the genesis of El Antillano.

TR: One day I was wearing a T-shirt with the image of Betances and some classmates from France asked me who he was. At the film school in Cuba we have a tradition of recommending films or documentaries, and I realized that I didn’t have anything to suggest to them. There were absolutely no audiovisual educational materials about the life of Betances, and so I decided to take up the task – a task that required a lot of commitment and also a degree of risk. Telling the story of a historical figure of this magnitude can be problematic for a filmmaker. It’s a difficult subject, a big challenge to tell his story because you have to be very careful regarding what you choose to represent. You have to be totally in line with what the historians have written. From that perspective it’s a risk that one has to assume, but for the time being it’s gone really well for us, we chose a good group of historical advisors for the project.

Obviously during the process of shooting the documentary we realized how important Betances really was. At first we were making the film out of a desire to achieve a deeper understanding of our history, out of a necessity as young Puerto Ricans to know more about our revolutionary history, the history they don’t teach you in a colonial system. But along the way we realized that this is something that can go much further than a mere documentary, something that could turn into a campaign to revive the ideals of Betances, to construct a more free and just society for Puerto Rico, and beyond that, to create a confederation of the Antilles – an idea of Betances’ that hasn’t lost validity in the 21st century, – to take inspiration from the other nations of Latin America where political movements have once again raised the flag of Latin American unity.

The Caribbean must construct its own project, and that project is nothing new… it was Betances’ mission over 100 years ago. That period of illustrious revolutionaries from Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti – we have to reformulate it for our own time. We need a project that seeks to better the quality of life of all Caribbean nations. In that sense, the documentary takes on more importance, because it’s not simply a documentary about a dead hero, but rather the story of a great figure that brings his ideals into the present, that shows the continued relevance of his ideas.

Tito Román. Photo: Ricardo Alcaraz Díaz

Tito Román. Photo: Ricardo Alcaraz Díaz

On the aesthetic of El Antillano.

TR: My objective for this documentary in particular – which isn’t to say that it’s going to be the modus operandi for all my future work – but in this particular case our intentions were educational, or didactic in a way. But I elaborated a formal strategy with the idea of making the film entertaining, in order to reach out to younger viewers and a more general public that isn’t necessarily interested in historical subjects, because knowing your history is essential to understanding where you’re standing, and how to move forward.

To this end, I strategically employed different formal resources like animation, music, hip hop and spoken word as a way to grab the viewer’s attention – the type of viewer that might be more accustomed to a faster, Hollywood-style cinema, and not to a more contemplative, slow-paced style. So, in between interviews I try to mix in these stylistic elements, and I think it’s worked. Students and young people who have seen the film have generally reacted positively, and the Puerto Rican public as a whole I think is connecting to the work, as opposed to just independentista militants. I knew it would be a challenge because a lot of times this type of educational documentary tends to be really boring and monotonous, and the spectator disconnects entirely from the story. What I want is for the spectator to identify immediately with the people who are narrating the film and then with the historical figure that they’re discussing, which is Betances.

On success.

TR: I think the mere fact that we chose to make this film is a success. I mean, in all these years no one had proposed making a film about the father of the patria, so there was a huge vacuum. The fact that we managed to make it, that it’s been presented in the UPR’s theater with such an incredible turnout – it’s a huge thing for a filmmaker to choose a subject matter that interests so many people, and we also sparked interest during the two years we were preparing the film through the internet, which created a lot of expectation. I think that’s also a really important issue for filmmakers – what subject matter you choose to explore, how to create interest and get people to come out and see your project regardless of what your intentions are, and not only that, but how to turn those spectators into allies who spread the word about the film. The fact that we presented this film in the UPR theater, and that so many people liked it, meant that we had 1,800 people talking about the film on social media.

So, for me the success of the film is in the viewer’s satisfaction. People are happy with the film, they identify with the themes; and the success of the film is also in the recovery of Betances as a historical figure through the documentary – in how people ask to take pictures with the movie’s poster, how people are all of a sudden recognizing and celebrating the birth of Betances – that’s the principal objective of this documentary. First to lay out the history of Betances, then to explore the current situation of Puerto Rico, and then open a discussion about possibilities for the future of the country.

In this case we’re not reviving a historical figure just because, but rather to explore his ideas, his struggle, his cause, and reformulate them for our own time. So, in this way, I’ll measure the film’s success on one hand in the satisfaction of the audience at each screening and the continued attendance of new viewers, and on the other in how they take up the figure of Betances and incorporate it into their everyday lives.

…and a final word for the Diaspora.

The Diaspora should be conscious of this project and take it on as their own, because la lucha de Betances es la lucha de todos nosotros.

Translated from the Spanish.

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Andrew Stehney Vargas

is a writer, director, producer, actor and proud Nuyorican. A graduate of the International Film and Television School in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, his award-winning short films have been featured at film festivals across the U.S., Latin America and Europe. In his free time, he works in the promotion and distribution of Latin American cinema as Assistant Director of Cinema Tropical.