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“I Believe That Post-María Puerto Rico Functions Like a Handbook For Our Times”: Director Cecilia Aldarondo on Her Hurricane María Doc, Landfall

Landfall

2017’s Hurricane María was an undeniable disaster, borne most brutally by the thousands who died in Puerto Rico during the storm and those who were left to mourn them. But as Cecilia Aldarondo’s new documentary Landfall makes clear, there is nothing ‘natural’ about the devastation — before, during, and after the hurricane — that the people of Puerto Rico have had to endure. A haunting meditation on the aftershocks of crisis and the trauma of state failure, Landfall is an exquisite film, by turns tender and compassionate, cinematically adventurous and self-assured, and politically unflinching in its indictment of those moneyed interests now feasting on the US colony’s organized neglect. 

When the film opens all is silent but for two voices speaking quietly on an empty beach. It’s not the calm before the actual storm but the low hum afterwards of communities regrouping while power brokers plot real estate deals and new investment strategies. Watching the film from my semi-quarantined perch produced a particular ache. As the COVID-19 crisis lays bare the gross economic and racial  inequities that determine who gets to live and who has to die, Landfall gives us a window into Puerto Rico’s long-standing intimacy with state-sanctioned violence, exploitation and premature death. 

Landfall deserves to be seen on the big screen, and by people in shared company. The COVID-19 crisis has interrupted the film’s Tribeca world premiere and festival rollout, but the film has essential insights for this moment, including the warning that opportunity will always be made out of disaster. This  opportunity will either favor those few with the most money and power or those many with the least power but the most at stake. 

Ahead of a set of online screenings as part of the Hot Docs Film Festival, I asked Cecilia some questions about the making of this film. 

Story: It’s notable that the film begins not with the hurricane itself, but with the aftermath. Hurricane María becomes almost an absent presence, something that’s referenced, and that shadows and underscores each scene, but something whose actual spectacle the film refuses. Can you talk about this choice? Was it deliberate, or just part of how your production timeline unfolded?

Aldarondo: I never intended to make a film “about” a hurricane. Instead I wanted to take stock of what María left behind: the emotional as much as practical aftermath of the storm. María was a decisively traumatic event for Puerto Rico, not just because a hurricane devastated it, but because of what came next: the Puerto Rican and US governments’s colossal mishandling of their responses, the mass displacement of people from their homes, the craven opportunists that swooped in to take advantage of wounded people. The trauma is seismic, and Puerto Rico hasn’t had much opportunity for grief or contemplation. 

All my films are about memory in some way, and in the case of Landfall, I wanted to hold space for collective remembering. The most common post-María refrain I have heard is p’alante — onward — a call towards resilience that in many ways is all about moving on and never looking back. There are political pitfalls to this collective amnesia, as the film’s narrator explains in voice-over during a key scene in the film:

Something about Puerto Ricans, myself included, is that we have a short memory. We always try to move on. That’s our motto, P’alante: onwards, always. We try to erase the bad things, to set them aside. But I think we need to revisit them. Because there may be people who’ve already moved on, who’ve turned the page. I don’t think we should turn this page. We can’t forget that we were left destitute.

To me, this collective act of remembering María is not only emotionally, but politically necessary. Landfall is bookended by historic mass protests that rocked Puerto Rico in the summer of 2019, 12 days of unprecedented popular resistance which succeeded in removing Puerto Rico’s governor from office. In many ways, these protests were like a collective howl of all of Puerto Rico’s accumulated rage and grief, unleashed all at once. Thousands of people who had not had their losses recognized, honored, or repaired suddenly sought justice. Landfall attempts to harness the political potential of allowing that pain to be expressed and heard.

I was also extremely wary of the conventions that guide most films about disaster. When I began making Landfall immediately after María hit Puerto Rico, I already felt tired of the media images that were circulating like clockwork: people stranded on roofs as streets flood, flattened houses and crops, people waiting in epically long lines for gas or food. This is the visual parade of horrors we are conditioned to expect from disasters. It’s akin to ruin porn, a way of looking driven by a voyeuristic pleasure in gazing at the suffering of others. These images perpetuate a victim narrative that situates Puerto Ricans as a passive, disempowered people, and they don’t square with the Puerto Rico I know. Landfall refuses all that, in search of a more animated afterimage. Yes, post-María Puerto Rico is in many ways a ruined world, but its people are not.

Story: The film, to me, puts into question the very concept of disaster, the very concept of a crisis. Hurricane María is held up, by your production and post-production choices, alongside Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, colonial history and use as a base for US military activities. What did you want to suggest about the nature of crisis by putting these different calamities — at least for Puerto Rican people — together as part of a shared narrative? 

Aldarondo: One of the negative side-effects of a pitying disaster gaze is that when looking at suffering people, we often fail to listen to or learn from them. With Landfall, I tried to demonstrate that Puerto Rico is full of crisis experts who have vital information for the world at large; I truly believe that if you study Puerto Rico, you will be able to understand the interconnection of complex and seemingly unrelated global crises. In Landfall we see how climate-accelerated disasters do not happen in a vacuum but rather inflame existing injustices — everything from debt, to access to education, to worker’s rights. 

This is why we adopted a prismatic structure for the film. By traveling across the Puerto Rican landscape, the viewer takes in seemingly unrelated aspects of Puerto Rican life: farmers in a mountain town work to rebuild; a family of real estate agents tries to lure tax-dodging investors; a group of enterprising cryptocurrency evangelists recruits young Puerto Ricans to a shiny tech-driven future; college students sit in a plaza and debate tuition hikes. Each fragment of life refracts on the other, with the goal of revealing how crises interconnect: climate change rubs up against land access, land access rubs up against luxury real estate, luxury real estate rubs up against Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, Silicon Valley entrepreneurship rubs up against tax breaks for the rich, and eventually popular rage explodes.

We were also keen to demonstrate how crises repeat and return, building on previous ones. When we were in post-production, the film’s editor Terra Jean Long and I had a refrain that we kept pasted on the wall: THIS IS AN OLD STORY. We saw Hurricane María as a kind of portal through which we could connect a very long arc of Puerto Rican crises. Since Christopher Columbus made his own landfall on Puerto Rico’s shores over 500 years ago, Puerto Rico has functioned as a kind of social laboratory for various economic experiments, from the sugar industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to the US Navy’s serial bombing and pollution of the island of Vieques, to the Puerto Rican government’s mass sterilization of its own women under the guise of development. 

Story: And then there’s also the issue of debt, which is completely political. How did the subject of Puerto Rico’s crushing debt and the pretext it gave the US government to install a financial oversight board figure into the story of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath?

Aldarondo: While most people outside of Puerto Rico have heard of Hurricane María, many do not know that by the time María hit, Puerto Rico had been in the grip of a $72 billion unpayable debt for almost a decade. Since 2016 an Obama-appointed board of seven individuals (many of them from the same banking sectors that caused the debt crisis in the first place) has held dominion over Puerto Rico’s finances. These people are not elected — they serve at the pleasure of the US president and are not accountable to the Puerto Rican people. Well before María, this control board has been promoting crippling austerity measures designed to pay a debt that most Puerto Ricans had no hand in creating. 

While these policies are supposedly meant to promote fiscal responsibility, their real purpose is to gut Puerto Rico’s public infrastructure: over the past four years the board has promoted major university tuition hikes, the closure of hundreds of schools, and the slashing of employee pensions, to name just a few. At the same time, in the name of economic recovery, the Puerto Rican government has instantiated the most agressively liberal tax laws in the world, making it a fiscal paradise for wealthy Americans to hide their money. 

Landfall explores wildly opposing visions for our shared futures: on the one hand, recovery for all who need it, and on the other, privatization and wealth hoarding. By juxtaposing these visions, I want us to ask ourselves: what world do we want? 

Story: It seems to me that the question of memory is necessarily bound up with the question of history, and in particular, who gets a say about what narratives dominate our knowledge about a people and a place; what archives become part of a historical record. Can you say more about growing up Puerto Rican in Florida, and what you think most Americans learn — or don’t learn — about the relationship between the archipelago and the United States, politically and historically? 

Aldarondo: Despite the fact that the US has controlled Puerto Rico since 1898, the colony barely registers in US public discourse, and I sometimes felt while making the film that we had a mountain of ignorance to climb. If it registers on the American psyche at all, Puerto Rico exists mostly as a tropical paradise on display for the visitor, ready to serve up rum drinks and sunburns. So in thinking about how to present this place outside Puerto Rico, I was keen to draw attention to and challenge this tourist gaze as a way of decolonizing Puerto Rican images and reclaiming them. This is part of the reason why we decided to structure Landfall as a kind of inverted travelogue, a tour from within that asks the visitor to set their expectations and desires aside and listen to the experiences of people living the crisis. 

I was also keen to de-center this outsider audience and make a film that would first and foremost resonate with Puerto Ricans, both in the colony and the diaspora. This is part of the reason the film doesn’t take too many pains to explain Puerto Rican history, or the source of the debt crisis, or even to translate entirely from Spanish to English. There are moments in the film that only Puerto Ricans will really understand, and that is beautiful to me. Part of this motivation came from my own experience as a Puerto Rican raised in diaspora, displaced from birth. María was deeply personal — my own grandmother died after the storm — yet what I knew of it came at a distance. Making Landfall was a really painful process of confronting how colonialism has robbed me of my home and history, and in making the film I had to deal with the blind spots that loss inevitably created in me. 

This is why the film is quietly centered around a conversation between two people sitting on a beach; although we never identify us, the two people are me and my collaborator Lale Namerrow, a queer activist and DJ who has lived their whole life in Puerto Rico. Throughout making the film, Lale challenged all of my assumptions about Puerto Rican politics. I also quickly realized that Lale’s pain — as someone who not only endured María, but was negotiating the ongoing trauma of surviving the present crisis — was far more important than my own. This is why their voice carries the film: it’s a way of centering those who remain in post-María Puerto Rico, putting the pieces back together. In many ways, Landfall is an exercise in crisis intimacy, a product of solidarity between two Puerto Ricans working across the sea of experience that separates them, toward a shared outrage and desire for Puerto Rican liberation. 

Story: It’s an enormous challenge – one I think you’ve navigated beautifully — to make a film about politics, with a social injustice at its centre and a strong point of view, and also produce something that’s cinematically graceful, aesthetically agile, and so conversant in atmosphere. How did you and your collaborators negotiative what I assume were at times conflicting pressures, especially given the enormous gap in most people’s knowledge about what’s happening in Puerto Rico. Why were you so committed to treating the aesthetics of this film as seriously as its politics?

Aldarondo: Landfall is in many ways a placemaking film; if there is a “main character,” it’s the entire territory of Puerto Rico. I made Landfall out of deep love for Puerto Rico, and I wanted to find ways to acknowledge its complexity and exquisite beauty, amidst and despite its destruction. I had the luck of working with some brilliant filmmakers who shot and edited the film. I began with DP Pablo Alvarez-Mesa, who has one of the most patient and empathetic gazes I have encountered. In addition to the interviews Lale and I scouted, the three of us wandered through every corner of Puerto Rico, waiting for something interesting to find us. The film is punctuated by these unplanned moments of serendipity: a fisherman and his son haul traps full of live lobsters onto their boat; a flock of pigeons swoops down on a man who has come to feed them; a group of nuns gathers on a cliffside as the ocean crashes below. 

When the protests broke out unexpectedly last July, I thought we were almost finished editing. But I also knew the film couldn’t ignore the most potent mass resistance I’d seen in my lifetime. Pablo was in Colombia shooting his own film, but luckily my friend Martin DiCicco, who shares Pablo’s place-making sensibility, was willing to drop everything and fly straight to San Juan. This split decision ended up yielding a whole new frame for the film. Pablo and Martin’s cinematography was complemented by Terra Jean Long’s patient editing. Terra had edited another feature shot by Pablo, the beautiful 1999, so she was prepared to take her time with his footage. Terra really believes in letting material breathe; she’s not a cutty editor at all, and she gave the film an undulating rhythm, a bit like the rise and fall of the ocean. We sought to let the footage communicate on its own terms, rather than to simply illustrate an interview or voice-over, as most documentaries tend to do. It’s not my job to tell you what it all means; to me, that would spoil the experience. This is what I love about metaphors: they enable a viewer to encounter Puerto Rico’s mysteries, even as they remain unexplained to you. 

Every aesthetic choice in Landfall — from its holistic approach, to the thick environmental sound design and moody score, to our use of archival imagery — is grounded in an ethical and political commitment to Puerto Rico. I think there’s a tendency in documentary, particularly in the US, to treat social issues as somehow separate from artistic choices; if you want your film to address pressing matters of injustice, that urgency requires you to make the most straightforward, digestible, utilitarian film possible. On the flip side, if you are interested in pursuing a more poetic, metaphorical or lyrical approach, it’s somehow elitist or indulgent, as though there isn’t time for meaning that’s too layered or implicit. 

I just don’t subscribe to this thinking. I’m reminded of showing Landfall to a poet friend of mine, whose poems explore war, violence, and US military aggression. I told her I was worried that viewers might feel that poetry is a luxury Puerto Rico cannot afford. Her response: “Only people who have never lived through a crisis would call poetry a luxury.”

Story: We’re dealing, at the moment of this conversation, with our own “natural” catastrophe — the COVID-19 pandemic. What do you think the case of Puerto Rico has to teach us about the underlying politics and economics of disaster, and about how we might think about the rebuilding process afterwards?

Aldarondo: The term “natural disaster” is almost always a misnomer; apart from the fact that human-generated climate change has made so-called “natural” hurricanes stronger and more frequent, seismic disasters like a hurricane or a pandemic function as accelerants. While millions are out of work or having to continue to work in high-risk environments, dealing with infected families, and unable to gather in person, politicians and CEOs are enacting policies and plans that, pre-pandemic, most people would never have tolerated. Just a few examples: NY Governor Andrew Cuomo just paired up with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt to “re-imagine” education towards what Naomi Klein has called a “highly profitable no-touch future.” The EPA is rolling back as many environmental regulations as possible, as quickly as possible. Even elite universities such as Harvard are shedding already underpaid adjunct instructors under the aegis of “financial exigency.” Amazon’s COVID popularity is making Jeff Bezos a trillionaire; millions of Americans can’t pay rent; so-called essential workers are being sent for slaughter; most of my fellow filmmakers are spending their days chasing unemployment benefits; the virus is raging in jails and ICE detention centers; domestic violence rates are soaring. 

This is only the beginning. With COVID, we are currently standing at a global precipice, on the verge of a systemic meltdown greater than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. The same forces that María unleashed — profiteering, austerity measures, mass displacement — are spreading, this time on a global scale. For years, Puerto Ricans have been asking the most important questions that arise in these moments: Who is on our side? What does a just recovery look like? Who is profiting, and how do we hold them accountable? How do we forge community? When do we dance?

I believe that post-María Puerto Rico functions like a handbook for our times. Landfall attempts to take a holistic look at recovery, so that we can deal with the past and make plans for futures that align with our values. Crises bring out the worst and the best in people. Sure, the vultures are circling and the profiteers are profiting. But in the cracks of disaster, we find spaces where corruption and greed just can’t grow. In the film, we tried to harness the power of these moments. A couple wanders on a deserted beach in Vieques: they hold up a handful of sand and say to the camera, “it’s free.” A pack of grinding dancers sweats all over one another. Friends enjoy a meal together. Thousands of protesters sing in the streets. Moving forward, these protected spaces for loving, caring, pleasure and celebration will be key to our survival, and the resistance that will inevitably follow. 

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