Latina Documentarian: An Interview with Sonia Fritz
by Eva Santos-Phillips
Filmmaker Sonia Fritz was born and raised in Mexico into a German-Mexican family. She is currently professor of literature and cinema studies, including filmmaking, at the University of El Sagrado Corazón in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Besides her duties as a professor, she makes documentary films and feature films. She began her filmmaking career in her home city, Mexico, D.F., when she was an undergraduate student at the Universidad Autónoma Nacional. In 2000, Fritz received her MFA in visual arts from the Vermont College of Norwich University.
After moving from Mexico to Puerto Rico and working as an editor and director of documentaries, Fritz and fellow filmmaker Frances Lausell established a filmmaking company, Isla Films, and In 2011 Fritz also launched Marina Productions for producing films.
Though Fritz enjoys working on feature films and has had success with them, the following interview focuses on her documentaries. Early in her career, in 1986, she won the Ariel prize (Mexico’s equivalent of an Oscar) for best documentary for De banda, vidas y sones (Of Bands, Lives, and Other Sounds). Her films consistently show passion and concern for her subjects, and the results can be both educational and emotional. She focuses on women and men artists, musicians, or activists who had their day in the sun but who have since been neglected. Given her own history of having migrated from Mexico to Puerto Rico, she identifies with many of the migrant women she films and with the children who also need to migrate to be with family and begin a new life. The films make it possible for these individuals to be studied, understood, and remembered. Her longtime interests in children, women, and immigration are especially timely today. (See Figures 1a and 1b, Little Immigrants, 2008.)
Because Fritz has made many films over many years and most of them are not readily available for viewing, it is difficult to position her work within the history of U.S. Latina/o independent film. It is safe to say, however, that whether she is completely conscious of it or not, her films display a recurrent fascination with what it means to be female in various societies. She is sensitive to the disparities between the sexes. She also, however, shows women’s strength, creativity, and survival techniques, which they use to reach their goals and the goals of those who depend on them. (See Figure 2 and 3, Luisa Capetillo: Passion for Justice, 1995.) Various critics have praised her filmmaking skills and the topics she chooses (see bibliography below). Her filmmaking techniques are typical of documentaries in the last decade or so: filming on location, interviews (not narration), and representative and significant representations of artifacts, including art works. In filmmaking aesthetics, she is more mainstream than, for example, the unconventional works of Errol Morris or Frederick Wiseman.
I hope the following interview will generate interest among universities (in composition, civilization, conversation language classes), colleges (in women’s studies, history, art, film, language, sociology, or ethnic studies), NGOs, including social workers and government agencies that work with Latinos, the largest and the fastest growing minority group in the United States, so that people know about these films and use them to foster understanding. It is also my hope that the following interview and viewings of her films generate further explorations into the nature and impact of her work. (See Figure 4, The American Dream, 2003.)
This interview was conducted during a visit to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire as part of the Visiting Scholar program funded by the office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences. I am grateful to him for making her visit possible. In the interview, Fritz discusses her early years as a filmmaker and as a veteran, her early films, and her latest projects. I have translated all her responses from Spanish.—Eva Santos-Phillips
Cineaste: You are German and Mexican by birth. What place and culture do you identify with?
Fritz: How interesting. Well, I spent thirty years of my life in Mexico. I was raised in a bilingual/bicultural home. Because my father is German, we would speak German and would get together more often with my father’s German family than with my Mexican family. At Christmas, for example, it was totally German, with German Christmas carols and gifts that Santa Claus brought during the night. On my mother’s side, we obviously spoke Spanish and ate Mexican food, although she would also make German dishes. At thirty, I married a Puerto Rican and left for Puerto Rico, where I had a son. Though Mexico and Puerto Rico share a language, because Puerto Rico is Caribbean, it is also a different culture. And because of Puerto Rico’s political status, a person can feel as if he or she were not in Latin America, or at least that was the way I felt. At the beginning, it took me a while to find the island’s roots, to adapt.
Cineaste: How did you become involved in filmmaking?
Fritz: I was studying communications at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico and wanted to be a journalist. So, I started working at a newspaper. But, when one of my film professors asked me to be his production assistant because he could not be with the crew all the time, I found out that I loved looking through the camera to see all I could find by using image and sound. I thought that it was much more interesting than the written word. Afterward, I started working as a freelance filmmaker and had no idea that I would be a director. I began trying out as a camera assistant, directing assistant, and production assistant. Anyway, from the bottom up, you begin trying out all the different jobs. I worked on many documentaries.
Later, I began a steady job for about a year in postproduction for Cine Difusion for the Secretary of Education in Mexico. There were super-good directors working on educational documentaries. That is how I learned about postproduction, an aspect of the filming process I was not acquainted with. From there, I began editing on an American film being filmed in Mexico. I went to Los Angeles as an assistant for three months and began to edit. Upon my return to Mexico, I began editing documentaries and from there, I established myself as an editor of women’s films, about women directors. From editing to directing is a jump. Later, I worked with Colectivo Cine Mujer in Mexico. We appointed a young woman to direct one film; later, I directed one about Yalalteca women in Oaxaca and I loved it. I decided then that directing was what I liked best because it gives you the opportunity to really disseminate your vision. I worked on a couple of projects with my ex-husband, he directing and doing the production and me editing, but I began to direct from then on.
Cineaste: How do you describe your occupation?
Fritz: I consider myself a filmmaker and professor. I combine teaching in the communications department at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in Puerto Rico with filming. Luckily, since the teaching calendar gives me some free time during the summer, I do the producing, directing, fundraising, and editing then.
Cineaste: What are you working on now?
Fritz: I am working on two pieces. I have been trying to make both documentaries and fiction since 2000, when I first directed a fiction film. I am preparing the fictional film America’s Dream (Sueño de América) [based on Esmeralda Santiago’s book of the same title]. At the same time, I am preparing a documentary about women in the Puerto Rican Vega Alta jail as parallel stories about the women and stray dogs, because there are thousands of stray dogs in Puerto Rico. As a matter of fact, in the United States many people adopt stray dogs because they tend to make good pets. So, I created a parallel between the abandonment of the stray dogs—involving the beatings they receive, their abandonment, and mistreatment—with the women in jail, since the majority of these women, who come from very dysfunctional homes, have been beaten and abandoned. I created this parallel because the women and dogs are placed together and each learns from the other. The women learn about organizing a routine of feeding, bathing, and training the dogs, and the dogs in turn give the women unconditional love and loyalty. At the end of the training, however, both are separated again.
Cineaste: Would you talk about the film project that you most recently finished?
Fritz: I think the documentary Little Immigrants (Pequeños inmigrantes) is my best documentary. It’s the one I like best and I believe it to be the most accomplished. At the same time, it required a lot of work because the filming took about a year. It is a story that is very close to me because it is about an undocumented Mexican mother who left her two children in Mexico but, at the end, after ten years of separation, all of them are together again. So, with me being a mother, Mexican, and an immigrant, there are many connections. It is a moving story about María and her two children that shows how children are the latest victims in the migration process. It also shows the enforcement, or the reinforcement, of the border, with the building of the wall. It makes the viewer question whether the children want to immigrate or not, whether they are going to face hardships or not, whether they are going to be at the mercy of the coyotes [people who are paid to help others cross the Mexican/United States border illegally] found at the border. The children or their parents don’t know whether they are going to be detained, whether they will be sent to transitory houses where they are treated as prisoners until the families can find additional money the coyotes are demanding for the children’s release. You can imagine how difficult it must be for a mother or father to decide if their child should go through this process. The parents must want to be reunited with the child badly enough to go through with it.
Cineaste: How many people work with you to make your films?
Fritz: It depends. If it’s a documentary, normally there is a producer, with me directing, a photographer, a sound person, and maybe also a camera assistant who can help with lighting. Sometimes I start to do the photography myself, up until a certain point, then I contract a photographer for the final process to take the most beautiful shots that can support the film’s visuals. Normally it is a small crew. For a fiction film you are talking about fifty people, including actors, technicians, makeup artists, wardrobe consultant, extras, and so on. It is more complex logistically.
Cineaste: What do they contribute to the filmmaking?
Fritz: It depends on the small crew. The photographer is like your eyes. And the sound person—well, if it does not have good sound, it does not convey the story well. Now that there have been more technological advances, the visual requirements for a film are more demanding. We are now working in high definition because television stations want only high definition. The projects require that you work with competent people, right? So, they contribute enormously. I couldn’t do it without them.
For fiction films, it is the same way because, for example, if you don’t have a production designer for the Leverett home in America’s Dream—to have the furniture, the chimney, the thermostat, the heater, the paintings with their copyright clearance—it couldn’t get done. If the costume designer doesn’t understand how your characters are making a transition from Caribbean colors to New York’s cold weather, or, at the end, when the colors are beginning to warm up and their lives begin to warm up, too, metaphorically, you would not be able to tell your story the way you should. Then there is the makeup artist who shows the bruises. Everyone is important—it is teamwork.
The script work is quite lonesome and the beginning of the research is very solitary but, once you have the money and you can put together a team, you are working jointly. Later, in the postproduction you are working with an editor. I like that feedback, especially in the documentary, whose structure is difficult to find because it isn’t always so clear. It is also about how you select your best shots so they have the best rhythm. But you need to find the documentary’s structure so that the narrative works and that requires a lot of time.
We began working with a New York editor, Miguel Piquer, whose work I had seen and liked a lot. He took the film up to a certain point and it stopped working, so we gave it to another editor with whom we worked in Puerto Rico. He took the film and began to tie up the loose threads and it seems to me he did a good job. Afterward, the music person came in along with the sound mixer who takes care of audio levels and who adds the helicopter, car, and door effects that help tell the story.
Cineaste: Some documentary or experimental filmmakers want to help the people that the film represents. Do you?
Fritz: Ah, that’s right. I think that now, for example, with the women in the jail project, I want to create an awareness that the women are there because they have had a very difficult life, that there are issues of race and class. We want to understand them as human beings that deserved an opportunity, in this case with the dog program that helps the women rehabilitate. I believe there should be a dog rehabilitation program in each jail and there should be more rehabilitation programs in general. Also, in the jails the women are treated like men. If they are pregnant, they have their babies in the hospital, handcuffed and monitored. They can’t even touch their children.
In my documentaries about Dominican women in Puerto Rico, I was interested in conveying an understanding that Dominicans don’t come to Puerto Rico to take Puerto Rican jobs or to get free treatment in the medical system. Dominicans are contributing individuals who happen to be undocumented. If it were not for the Dominicans, the Puerto Rican day care centers and nursing homes would not function and domestic workers would not be available in Puerto Rico. We could not leave the house and do our jobs if we did not have someone to do these jobs: to look after the ill, to do menial work, and construction. It is all in the hands of the Dominicans. There is a rejection of them and prejudice and I think it is due to lack of information. I do think that the documentary helps create an awareness of the complexity of the problem. I hope we can accomplish something. Above all, I am interested in representing women’s stories.
Cineaste: Have any of your films helped bring about some change?
Fritz: Yes, I want to believe they do, but it’s difficult to know how much you have achieved in changing how people think, how much awareness you have created. It is difficult to evaluate it, isn’t it?
Cineaste: Is there a film in particular you wished had this effect?
Fritz: When I made Visa for a Dream (Visa por un sueño) in Puerto Rico, it was very clear that it did give information in the same way that the book on which it was based did. I mean, the first book that came out says, “Look, statistics point out that the Dominicans are not living off food stamps.” The book was very important. It broke down that prejudice and I think the documentary achieved this as well. I remember we had its first screening at the University Theater [Sagrado Corazón University] which basically filled up with the Dominican community. We had to have a second screening. I brought a musical group to play Dominican music and found la picadera—snacks—and it became a real party and celebration for the Dominicans. I never expected it. But to have two showings, back to back, because there wasn’t enough room for everyone and for the Dominican people to celebrate it so strongly, was for me quite surprising. Later, in New York, the same thing happened when the second part: Dreams Ensnared: Dominican Migration to New York (Sueños Atrapados: La migración dominicana a Nueva York) was shown, and it was well received.
Cineaste: What are your objectives as a filmmaker?
Fritz: To tell stories, to reflect a current reality that I think is important to be known and to capture it as faithfully as possible so that I can promote it. In the case of fiction films, I am interested in recounting women’s stories, definitely, and children’s stories. In fact, the last feature film I made, The Stars of the Estuary (Las estrellas del estuario), is a beautiful adventure story about children. The son is very angry because the father left the home after a divorce. So, the father and son go on an adventure and the son rebels. At the end of the trip, they find the treasure they were looking for, and the son also discovers that his dad is there for him.
Cineaste: When you make a film, do you have an audience in mind?
Fritz: It’s strange, but I don’t think too much about the public. I think I get more motivated with the people about whom I am recounting stories and then later I think about the public. I think that I tend to make, above all, documentaries that are educational and cultural, so I tend to approach social subjects. Whether the film is shown in schools, at universities and later on television, the filmmaker does not have any idea who has seen it. If the films are televised by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), you hope to have an interested audience.
Cineaste: Visa for a Dream, Dreams Ensnared, Little Immigrants and other films deal with similar issues. Can you talk about how and why you have selected certain topics?
Fritz: I think the subjects come to me. For example,
Visa for a Dream is partially based on an essay, “La migración de mujeres dominicanas hacia Puerto Rico” written by an author I knew, Luisa Hernández Angueira. The woman who researched the topic of Dominican women was teaching in a Dominican neighborhood of Puerto Rico. Believe me, since I had immigrated to Puerto Rico, I found in the women’s immigration story something of my own story. When I finished that project and found out that two of the women that I had interviewed had moved to New York, I said to myself, “The story continues; it does not end in Puerto Rico. There is a bridge that they are building in Puerto Rico so that they can later cross over to New York.”
Then, through Luisa Hernández, I met Ramona Hernández who was writing her dissertation about Dominican women in New York. We connected immediately. I said to her that I wanted to do a second part to the story and asked her if she wanted to collaborate with me. We talked and I raised the money, I don’t know how. We went for a weekend, literally “camping” at a friend’s apartment in Washington Heights in New York. We rented a pickup truck to carry the equipment from here to there. Ramona was with us most of the time, but sometimes left her research assistant with us who, in turn, took us to meet her family. So the research assistant ended up taking part in the documentary.
Cineaste: Have you worked with a variety of filming equipment?
Fritz: I started in Mexico. We filmed documentaries in 16mm. Later, the technology changed to video. I remember that the first documentary I made in Puerto Rico about Ismael Rivera, with my ex-husband, was in ¾” Umatic videotape. Visa for a Dream, I think was also filmed in ¾” video. Afterward, we made the move to Betacam and later we went to MiniDV. Now we are filming in high definition with the Panasonic P2 and we will soon be filming with the Red, the best HD camera. So, technology keeps advancing and it liberates you.
Cineaste: Do you do any editing now that you mainly direct?
Fritz: No, though I was an editor. When I went on to directing, I began to work with editors. Generally, if I am directing, I prefer to work with an editor because I get feedback and that helps me. I do like the relationship of working as a team and now there is this tremendous editor, Raúl Morchand, who worked with us in Little Immigrants. Editors also have something to add to the films. Work also goes faster with digital technology. Morchand has digital editing techniques ironed out whereas it would take me too much time to edit the film.
Cineaste: How do you get funding?
Fritz: For documentaries, most of the time, from the Puerto Rican Foundation for the Humanities. These are National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funds and that usually gives me enough money to finish. For producing, I borrow the equipment from the university, which is free, and sometimes I receive a $2,000 mini-grant. The Puerto Rican Cultural Institute has sometimes also funded my work. For fiction films, it is different. I have produced them through the Cinema Corporation, which gives eighty percent and our producer puts up the other twenty percent—-that is, part of our salaries, office materials, etc. It’s very difficult now with the current economic situation. Before, it was easier to find funding for tying up loose ends.
For the film I just finished, America, the Cinema Corporation is coming in as an investor not as a moneylender from the Cinematographic Fund, which in and of itself is interesting. We have a super-good cast, so I imagine that they are betting on the cast and our experience.
Cineaste: How do these efforts for getting grants affect your overall work?
Fritz: I don’t have as much money as I would like to make my pieces. So, I think that the quality is not the best. That is why I am not working with the best equipment. I don’t have the best lights or have dailies. But, ultimately, I believe that it is about conveying the story.
Cineaste: How do you get distribution for your films?
Fritz: I established a relationship with The Cinema Guild in New York. They distribute several of my documentaries since I made Puerto Rico: Art and Identity (Puerto Rico, arte e identidad), which is a collection of paintings, engravings, sculptures, and ceramics. That documentary chronicles a good portion of the history of the fine arts in Puerto Rico, which was not documented anywhere else. Later, Third World Newsreel was interested in Carnivals of the Caribbean (Carnavales del Caribe) because they work more closely to Africa and African roots. Regarding Little Immigrants, I went to the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto and had taken a trailer. I made a pitch and this woman from Filmoption saw it and became interested in distributing it.
Cineaste: What can be done so that your films get wider distribution?
Fritz: If I could have more money and travel to more markets, maybe I would be more proactive. There is also a reality: we are in the tiny island of Puerto Rico. I am sure if we were in the United States, it would be easier, but from Puerto Rico you have to reach out to bigger distributors. Now, for example, with the film Manuela and Manuel—I am executive producer of this one—we were able to sell it to Regent through Latido, Spain’s distributor.
Cineaste: Have you ever done any work for PBS?
Fritz: Directly, no. We’ve submitted proposals. We proposed Little Immigrants, not directly to PBS, but to POV (Point of View). We submitted it to Latino Public Broadcasting and it didn’t go through. But some of my work has shown on PBS. WGBH in Boston accepted the documentary Myrna Báez and POV accepted María de las Mercedes Barbudo and Puerto Rico: Art and Identity was shown by WGBH (Boston PBS) and Channel 13 (New York PBS). They have also been shown by Channel 6, Puerto Rico’s PBS station.
Cineaste: When you do get funding from special groups, like NEH, are there strings attached?
Fritz: NEH in Puerto Rico is a little strict regarding its vision of the humanities. It has to be, strictly speaking, about history. For example, we asked for a finishing grant for the film The Stars of the Estuary (Las estrellas del estuario), a film that is more environmental but also social in the sense that it shows how Puerto Rican families are reconfigured, that traditional families are no longer necessarily the norm. We also thought that it was more like social anthropology in terms of the setting. There is the subject of history because it begins with an animated introduction of this young black man who could be in Piñones—the Afro-Puerto Rican coast—and buries this treasure. Then the Spaniard appears and puts him down with the boot and whip—so you are bringing up, indirectly, the topic of slavery. It wasn’t accepted by NEH. I mean, they gave us the money but with a lot of hassles. I called them by telephone and they said, “Look, this project was not what we expected.” Yet, we were just asking for money for the subtitles in English.
Vega Alta Women—Confined (Mujeres de Vega Alta—confinadas), the one about women in jail, cost us a lot of money. NEH gave us funding for the conferences because it is about non-aided minorities and, in that sense, it was all right. The first documentary that I submitted to NEH was about Myrna Báez, the Puerto Rican painter. The first time we submitted the proposal, they didn’t want to sponsor it even though she had already achieved so much. I had to ask why they didn’t sponsor the film. Their response was that the focus was not what they were looking for. Finally, I submitted it again and they sponsored it.
Cineaste: Do you think that men and women come to filmmaking with different objectives or attitudes? If so, what differences do you see?
Fritz: You know, I haven’t given a lot of thought to how men get involved and about what they do. I do like to know what women directors are doing because I share with them the craft and I like to know how they convey stories. I admire many of them; they are my role models. So, I am more interested in that. I want to know about their creative process, how they finance. We share information at festivals.
Cineaste: What are the major problems that you have experienced as a filmmaker?
Fritz: Fundraising is the biggest problem. Once you have the money, you can film. Then, the dilemma becomes whether you take out a scene or not, if this character works better or not. It is all part of the creative process. The reality with filmmaking is that we need money to produce. If you have your equipment—and thank God I have the university to lend me the equipment—what you also need is money to pay people and for the postproduction, the musicians, and travel expenses to move around.
Cineaste: Do you think it is more difficult for women to make films?
Fritz: Oh, yeah, without a doubt.
Cineaste: How so?
Fritz: It begins with the problem of credibility, whether you are good enough because, unfortunately, those who are dividing the pot are more often men than women. In the foundations, in the Cinema Corporation, it was previously men who distributed the loot. Now a woman is in charge of the Cinema Corporation. But because we live in a sexist society, there is always the doubt that a woman can deliver. I believe things have changed a little bit but, if you compare the number of women and men who direct films, you will see that the majority are men.
Cineaste: What would you like to film in the future?
Fritz: There is a documentary I would like to make about women motorcyclists and another one about police, because I think they reflect a lot about our society. I would also like to make one about girls who at eight years old are already wearing high heels. I am interested in how mothers raise their daughters, making them grow up faster than necessary, and what happens to those girls that don’t have a childhood.
I realized how much this concerned me when I went to China with the film The Stars of the Estuary. There, I met girls the same age as the Puerto Rican girls I am talking about. It seemed to me that in China the girls were still children. In Puerto Rico, however, I don’t know if it is because it’s the Caribbean, where girls mature faster and begin to be sexually active earlier than in other countries, there is the issue of mothers pushing the girls, and the girls see beauty pageants as a way of life, as a way to stand out. All these issues about participating in beauty pageants—it’s just dreadful! We Puerto Ricans follow beauty contests as if they were the most important things in life. When you participate in them, nothing else matters. Little girls, who from a young age have been modeling, are watching all of this. So, it just breaks my heart to see them walking in high heels when they are eight years old. Yet, we can’t judge. Maybe what should be done is a comparison between girls in China or in Mexico with girls in Puerto Rico, without judging, to find out why these things happen.
Cineaste: Do your films reveal, document, penetrate, or analyze reality?
Fritz: I think it is good to penetrate a reality, capture it, reflect on it, and disseminate it. As for analyzing, I don’t like to add a narrator’s voice that analyzes or interprets. I liked, for example, that in Little Immigrants I had to use the narrative voice to navigate the history because it was so complicated. I had to use the narrator’s voice because it was difficult to understand the story. I don’t attempt to make an analytical sociological work. I am looking for people to understand the context in which it is filmed. I want the characters to tell the story and, at the end, for the audience to arrive at its own conclusions. Of course, there is no objectivity. I think you take the structure by the hand and you select from what each character says. In thi
this way, whoever speaks has a narrative line and a vision. I prefer for the ending to be open. In fact, I try for endings that are not too closed, for there instead to be a recap, a montage of visuals. I think a lot can be said visually without using words. Visuals can say so many things. There are also many signs in Spanish that, if you do not know how to read them, you lose half of the story.
Cineaste: What other filmmakers have affected your filmmaking or impressed you?
Fritz: Many. I see a lot of films, so I have probably forgotten titles, directors—men and women—who have impressed me and truly influenced me. Not long ago, an Argentine documentarian was giving some workshops at Sagrado Corazón [the university where Fritz works]. He had brought some documentaries from Brazil that people in Puerto Rico don’t have opportunities to see. He brought one I enjoyed very much. I like women directors from Latin America and the Latinas in the United States—I follow them a lot. I like Lourdes Portillo and Natalia Almada in terms of documentarians. Regarding fiction films, there are a lot of influences, starting with the classics. Yesterday we talked about Citizen Kane, which is a great film, a great cinematographic lesson. I also like Casablanca. It’s a romantic cinema I enjoy. I like Almodóvar a lot as well as Jane Campion, Maria Luisa Bemberg, and María Novarr. Isabel Coixet and Isiar Bollaín are two of my idols.
Cineaste: What recommendations do you have for other independent filmmakers?
Fritz: The recommendation I give my students is to do, to film, to produce. They should try to convey stories, finish their projects, and persevere. I think this is more important than talent and you can see that throughout one’s career. In fact, it happened with my ex-husband. He was super-talented and yet he hasn’t produced very much. At the end of the game, what counts is drive, perseverance, and constancy. Above all else, don’t give up, keep trying. If I am told “no,” with the same fresh face I return. I am persistent. You have to get used to being turned down. You will hear “no” to an interview, there is “no” money, “no” to many things, but you turn around and keep trying.
Eva Santos-Phillips was born in Puerto Rico. She taught in universities in California and Wisconsin. During her tenure at the University of Wisconson-Eau Claire, she taught Latin American literature and civilization and, until her recent retirement from teaching, published on women’s issues in literature, film, and art.
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