“A movie is a camera and a screen, but the movie is the movement from the camera to the screen and back from the screen to the camera or the audience. The movie is not on the screen, neither in the camera. It’s between them. There is plenty of space for plenty of movies. The trouble with Hollywood movies is that they are in the camera or on the screen but nowhere else.” – JLG
This is a warning to those looking for something they are accustomed to; Machetero is not a typical film. It’s open and unapologetic about what it is and what it has to say. It’s a film about revolution, revolution in both a political sense and in a cyclical sense. It’s a restless film that refuses to be boxed in and defined by a single genre or form. It’s a drama but it’s also a musical. It’s a feature film but it uses elements of the music video form. It’s an art film that isn’t pandering to an art house audience and doesn’t ostracize any other audience. The decisions to make Machetero in this way; were deliberate. The theme of revolution couldn’t exist solely within the confines of the plot but had to inform every decision of the filmmaking process. The structure of the film, the casting, the musical score, the utilization of songs as narrative voice, the use of voiceover dialogue and the application of text within the film were devices that were taken into careful consideration in the making of this film. Other non-artistic concerns such as the miniscule budget and the employment of guerrilla production tactics influenced these filmmaking decisions as well.
Everyone says they want to see innovation and evolution but when it comes along it’s tangled and messy and unfamiliar and not at all what we either imagined or hoped it would be. In order to appreciate that tangled mess of unfamiliarity to find the beauty that exists within, the ideas of the past have to be let go in order to properly see the possibilities of the future.
Machetero’s cinematic roots are firmly planted in such films as Gillo Pontecorvo’s, The Battle of Algiers, Ivan Dixon and Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door and Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. A common theme between all these films is the use of violence between oppressors and the oppressed. Machetero is another film that attempts to deal with this issue of violence as a means of oppression and violence as a means of liberation so drawing inspiration from these films and these filmmakers only made sense.
The theoretical and ideological ground that MACHETERO stands on is found in Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s manifesto Towards A Third Cinema and Julio Garcia Espinoza’s essay For An Imperfect Cinema. Third Cinema is an alternative to First Cinema and Second Cinema. First Cinema is classic Hollywood filmmaking and Second Cinema is the auteur driven European art films. Third Cinema is cinema that comes from third world colonized countries and deals with those issues of imperialism on the terms of those who suffer under colonization and is cinema created primary for those who are struggling under the colonial condition. Imperfect Cinema is an aesthetic call to arms to experiment with new forms of filmmaking. If Hollywood filmmaking is “perfect” cinema then those who are searching for new ways in which cinema can be used must reject the “perfect” cinema of Hollywood and embrace imperfect cinema. Machetero is third cinema of an imperfect nature.
Violence is the language of oppressors and it will eventually force those it oppresses to communicate in the same way. The struggle to control the terms that surround this cycle of violence are important in winning the hearts and minds of a world that exists outside of the conflict. One of these terms is “terrorism”. It’s definition is in a constant state of flux, a loaded word with a hair trigger, always slightly out of sync in the way it’s understood and in the way those who wield power, use it. It’s a word wholly subjective and dependent on the perspectives one may hold. As the cliché says, one man’s revolutionary is another man’s terrorist. Terrorism does not ignite in a vacuum. In the age of the satellite, in the age of the visual sound bite contextualized and realized within the ravenous 24-hour news cycle where access to information is almost effortless, there is little critical thinking-taking place. Now the words terrorist and terrorism have become control devices used to bolster an interpretation of events and galvanize support for a singular mindset on issues of oppression and colonialism. This especially has become more evident with the events of the tragedy of 9/11 and the US corporate media’s lack of critical analysis in the aftermath.
The inspiration for Machetero came from these contradictions and motivated me to use the issue of US colonialism in Puerto Rico as the context, specifically using the example of the Puerto Rican independence movement in exploring the ideas of terrorists and terrorism. From 1492 to today there has been an aspect of the independence movement in Puerto Rico that has been violent. Machetero is a not a true story, but an amalgamation of people and stories that are real and the film references some of these people and events.
Beyond the current political and social issues of the day I wanted to explore a character that was obsessed with the idea of freedom. That character is Pedro Taino, whose very name is symbolic. His first name comes from the great Puerto Rican independence leader of African descent Don Pedro Albizu Campos. His last name is derived from the name of the indigenous people of Puerto Rico. The role of Pedro Taino is played by Not4Prophet who is the lead vocalist of the political pro-independence Puerto Rican punk band RICANSTRUCTION, as well as the hip-hop duo X-VANDALS.
I wanted to redefine the idea of freedom as a rejection of all social institutions and conditions. Institutions like school, work, religion, military service and prison. Conditions like poverty, crime, racism and violence. Pedro is confined and stifled by all these things and he is searching for a way out of it all. As his very name suggests he’s a character trapped in a life long struggle to seek freedom both for himself and for his people. His character is the catalyst for the story.
Pedro’s decision to use violence as a means to free himself is one that interests French journalist Jean Dumont. Isaach de Bankolé plays the role of Jean Dumont in the film, Issach is something of an international film star he has worked with many world renowned filmmakers, among them Claire Denis, Jim Jarmusch, Nicolas Roeg, Lars Von Trier, and Michael Mann. Issach’s character was used to create the central conflict in the film.
Jean acts as the clear-headed moral compass to balance out Pedro’s all-consuming obsession for freedom at any cost. Jean’s role is to ask the questions that the audience wants to hear. It’s his character that takes the audience through the film trying to make sense of the way in which Pedro views the world. Jean is a journalist in the purest sense he never reveals his position or casts any judgment on the way in which Pedro sees the world. He questions it and challenges it but never judges it. In many eyes Pedro is seen as a terrorist, Pedro and those who agree with his tactics see Pedro as a freedom fighter. Jean sees his role as a journalist as bridge between these two viewpoints.
THE YOUNG REBEL
The thematic cycles of violence in the film are emphasized and realized most in the character of the Young Rebel. Kelvin Fernandez, a non-professional in his is his first starring role exhibits a raw natural talent as The Young Rebel. Kelvin’s character is symbolic on a number of levels and whose perception is open to multiple interpretations.
At times he’s a younger Pedro and at other times his own character, making his own decisions. If the Young Rebel’s role in the film is interpreted as being a younger Pedro, then the case is made on how the violence of colonialism, destroys the lives of the colonized. If the character is interpreted as being the next generation of ghetto youth, growing up to be the next Machetero, then the same point is made. If the Young Rebel is seen as being both a younger Pedro and the next Machetero, then the very character of the Young Rebel embodies the theme of cyclical colonial violence.
The first half of the film is raw, uncut, unadulterated rage. It’s an all out assault on the sources of colonial violence, militarily, corporately, and politically. And the reasons for the violent response against that oppression come mostly from a place of justified anger. It’s not until the introduction of Doña Maria that we can feel any sympathy for Pedro or the Young Rebel. Dylcia Pagan plays the role of Doña Maria. Dylcia Pagan brings a certain level of authenticity to the film. She is a former member of the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nationalista – Armed Forces of National Liberation) a clandestine group that fought for the independence of Puerto Rico here in the US. She was arrested, charged with seditious conspiracy and wound up serving 20 years in US prisons as a Puerto Rican Prisoner of War.
Doña Maria’s scenes shot in Puerto Rico are the first time that the film allows you to physically see what Pedro is fighting for. The Young Rebel remembers Doña Maria in a dream where she sums up 500-years of Puerto Rico’s struggle to free itself from the colonial condition. In doing so she realigns the origin of the rage, anger and violence seen in the first half of the film to be coming from a source of beauty, dignity and righteousness. Doña Maria’s scenes are rooted in a painful sadness that can only be alleviated through a struggle for freedom. She tells a young boy that he must grow up to fight for Puerto Rico’s independence. Later on in the film Pedro remembers Doña Maria reading a poem by the pro-independence Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos to a group of children. Among those children is the young boy Doña Maria spoke to in the Young Rebel’s memory of her. The poem she reads to them is called Dawning’s and offers an insight into a history of Puerto Rican struggle as it foreshadows the life of the young boy. Is the young boy Pedro? Is he the Young Rebel? The fact that both Pedro and the Young Rebel share memories of the same mentor once again reinforces multiple interpretations. Doña Maria’s role in the film is also an intentionally nebulous one, is she a Mother? Grandmother? Godmother? Aunt? Mentor? The history lessons she gives to the young boy and the poem she reads to the children are part of an oral tradition in Puerto Rico that any one of those people could embody and maybe she isn’t any one of them at all but all of them at once.
Machetero’s structure is built around the taped interview between Pedro and Jean. A major part of the dialogue coming from an audiotape allowed me the freedom to separate the sound from the visual and use that displacement of time and space as the backbone for the structure. The audiotape of the interview moves the narrative in a logical way but I wanted to create a sense of doubt about the order in which we hear of things. The tape is rewound or sped up or is stopped and started again in order to create a sense that there is more to the conversation than what we are hearing. Much in the same way an editor edits a story in a newspaper or magazine or the way a producer does for television. I wanted to use the sound of the tape recorder in an extreme way to hide and reveal in the way that editing does. Jean controls the play back of the taped interview in the film in much the same way the editing of the film is controlled by the editor, creating a self-reflexive context for the way narrative is used in film.
The audio of the tape-recorded interview created a narrative that allowed me to play with both time and space in the film. At the beginning of the film the audio of the tape is playing while the images of the film lag behind to define the roles of each of the characters. As the film progresses the images catch up to the tape as Jean and Pedro meet face-to-face and we see Jean recording the interview with Pedro on the audiotape that has been telling the story thus far. When Jean and Pedro meet it’s the first sync sound conversation between the two characters. At the end of the interview the tape is still playing and the images of the film are now moving beyond the moment of the interview. And yet the questions and answers of the interview are still coming from the tape, so that now the audio taped interview is lagging behind the visual images as the images move the story forward. The audio taped sound recording of the interview remains constant throughout the film and the images go from being flashbacks to real time to flash forwards.
SONGS AND STRUCTURE
Machetero features several songs from the album “Liberation Day” by RICANSTRUCTION. The “Liberation Day” album was a concept album centered on the liberation struggle of Puerto Rico. While writing the script I listened to Liberation Day and found the songs influencing the narrative and the way in which the film could be structured. The songs became a source of narration for the film and helped shape and define the themes of the film.
LYRICS AND TEXT
Placing the lyrics of the songs in the center of the screen on top of the images provided more information out of the same sound and image. The songs could poetically reinforce the images and the images could remain literal. This concept of using the songs and seeing the lyrics on the screen became a structural engine for the cyclical theme that runs through the film. In the editing process I realized that the songs with the lyrics on the screen were acting as a narrator’s voice to the film. Three levels of narration already existed, the tape-recorded conversation between Jean and Pedro, the visual story of the Young Rebel, and the excerpts of the anti-manifesto scrolling up across the screen as either The Young Rebel, the Young Girlfriend or Pedro himself read them. The songs with the lyrics on the screen provide a fourth layer of narration and added another dimension to the film. In a classical sense RICANSTRUCTION and the songs from the “Liberation Day” album, are modern day Greek chorus.
The film is divided into six sections or Acts, Dream In Porto Rican, Pedro’s Grave, Breakfast in Amerika, Shithouse Serenades, Jihad Seeds and Liberation Day. Each of the sections is marked at the beginning with a title. In a structural sense the film is made up of Six Acts. The songs are the marking points of the beginning of the each Act in the story. Even the titles of the songs correspond to the way in which the film is structured.
ACT I – DREAM IN PORTO RICAN
The film’s prelude opens with Dream in Porto Rican, which is a list of demands and desires for a better future. It’s a declaration for freedom from the ills of a colonial mentality and immediately set the tone for the film. Dream In Porto Rican deals with the introduction of the two main character Jean and Pedro and their desires. Jean wants to know Pedro’s story and Pedro wants his story told so that his desires are understood.
ACT II – PEDRO’S GRAVE
The song Pedro’s Grave deals with Puerto Rico’s historical violent struggle for independence during the 1950’s and the section of the film named Pedro’s Grave deals with the violent history of Pedro’s use of violence as a means to forward his political beliefs. Pedro’s Grave illuminates the actions that have brought Pedro to prison and Jean to interview him, it also introduces the character of the Young Rebel and his metaphorical “death” of surviving on the streets in a manner that will mean certain imprisonment and or death.
ACT III – BREAKFAST IN AMERIKA
Breakfast In Amerika talks about way in which the US government cracked down on the Puerto Rican independence movement of the 1980’s and the section of film that follows shows how the government cracked down on Pedro. Breakfast in Amerika illustrates the cost of the colonial condition on both Pedro with his imprisonment and the Young Rebel’s struggle to survive in the ghetto. It also introduces the character of Doña Maria who gives a brief historical glimpse into the colonial condition that connects the history to the present.
ACT IV – SHITHOUSE SERENADES
Shithouse Serenades is a song about confounding the traps, the plans and the destiny of destruction that others have laid out for you and creating your own traps, plans and destiny for those who have marked you as expendable. Shithouse Serenades marks the beginning of the transformation of the Young Rebel into the next Machetero who has decided to shape his own destiny instead of being forced to follow the path laid out to him by the colonizers. Pedro also snatches his fate back from his oppressors by escaping prison to continue his struggle.
ACT V – JIHAD SEEDS
Jihad Seeds is a song about the inescapable cycle of violence and that section of the film is the climax to Pedro’s untold story of the Young Rebel growing up in the streets of an unforgiving ghetto, into the next generation of Machetero and in a way forced to answer the violence of his oppressors with a violence of his own. Jihad Seeds is conclusion of Pedro’s story as he makes his body a sacrifice to his struggle. The word Jihad means “to struggle” and as the seeds of struggle, the seeds of struggle are represented in the film as the Anti-manifesto to be passed on and sown in the Young Rebel. The Young Rebel realizes that he must also pass on the seeds of struggle to others so that they can be free. The passing of the Anti-manifesto from one to another opens up yet another cyclical theme in the film.
ACT VI – LIBERATION DAY
Liberation Day is a thematically similar to Dream In Porto Rican in it’s declaration for freedom on it’s own terms. These two songs bookend the film and create another cyclical device that emphasizes the theme of cyclical violence. The two songs differ in tone in that Dream In Porto Rican is more of a rallying cry and Liberation Day is delivered as more of a threat. With Liberation Day the Young Rebel’s transformation is complete when he goes back to get reclaim the machete. This also completes the cycle that was introduced in the beginning of the film where the Young Rebel sadly buries the machete. The cycle continues however in the voice over of the the young girlfriend as she reads the last installments of Anti-manifesto in the last scene of the film.
The colonial violence of oppression can only be answered with the violence of the oppressed. The oppressors only respond to violence with more violence and a seemingly unending cycle is perpetuated. There is a difference between the violence of the oppressors and the violence of the oppressed. Oppressors use violence to subjugate. The oppressed use violence to usurp. This cycle of ongoing colonial violence that is so rampant in our world is the central theme that I wanted to explore in Machetero.
Since the theme of the film is about cycles, the structure, the characters and the plot of the film had to reflect a cyclical nature. Pedro talks to Jean about the violence of his oppressors and how he comes to his own response of violence. The story of the Young Rebel unfolds and mirrors the story that Pedro tells of growing up under the rule of his oppressors. Doña Maria recounts a history of Puerto Rico’s oppression first by Spain then by the United States. The Young Rebel seems to be coming to the same conclusion that violence is the only logical response to the colonial condition. Each of these things emphasizes the cyclical nature of the film and it’s theme.
To further stress the cyclical themes of the film I used title cards that symbolized a particular time period, past, present and future. These classifications were not so much chronological to the plot as they were a way of identifying a representation of time within each of the main characters in the film. Pedro represents the past, and in doing so represents the history of the Puerto Rican independence struggle with both his words and his actions. Jean represents the present, unsure of where it stands and searching for answers in the past to find a better understanding of the present as it tries to move forward into the future. The Young Rebel represents the future, hopelessly weighed down with a history of violence that must be confronted if he is ever to be free of it.
In creating this film I wanted the thematic content of revolution both as a political force and as a natural cyclical force to permeate as many of the machinations of the filmmaking process as possible. I wanted to create a popular art film that treated a general movie-going audience with openness and intelligence, an audience that is too often numbed into a simplistic vision of what cinema is. The genre and form of most “art” films tends to ostracize a general audience unfamiliar with the wide possibilities cinema has to offer and in doing so only succeeds in further ghettoizing certain forms of expression within cinema. I wanted an art film that didn’t feel the need to do that. I wanted a film that entertained as well as it informed. I wanted a film that sparked dialogue and debate. I wanted a film that could move between these boundaries and borders with a self assured ease. Machetero is my attempt at making that film.