5 Questions with Ángel Manuel Soto, the Director Taking Puerto Rican Cinema to New Heights

'La granja.' Courtesy of the filmmakers.

In awarding La granja (The Farm) with its award for Best First Latin American Film, the Guadalajara Film Festival praised director Ángel Manuel Soto for offering a vision of Puerto Rico that remains all too unknown. This is not the tourist-ready Puerto Rico you know from postcards and beach resort ads. This is a bleak look at the island from a filmmaker intent on exposing the current problems that face Puerto Rico. Despite having been made over four years ago, it’s even more timely now given the escalating debt crisis which has led to close to one million people leaving the island to flee its economic downturn.

A young boxer is used as a hitman. A middle-aged woman attempts to steal a baby. A fat kid in a bike is drug mule. In the world of La granja, Puerto Ricans are all at their wit’s end, forced to make drastic decisions to get by. Offering a gritty look at the island, with colorless buildings and clouded skies as its backdrop, Soto’s film is unflinching in its portrayal of a number of desperate characters. Even the opening sex scene, which is surprisingly candid and inviting, turns a darker not only when you see the girl shooting up, but when you realize it’s a sex tape in the making — a crucial plot point that’ll bring various strands of the film together.

Remezcla called up Soto to congratulate him on his recent award and to talk about the political subtext of this brutal and urgent film. Check out some of the highlights below, including some real-talk on what he sees happening in his home turf.

On Taking Inspiration From Amores Perros

When I wanted to write this story, I’d been talking with Guillermo Arriaga. And the way he goes about this type of writing is very inspiring, especially given his subject matter. Every character is a mirror character of one self. So I thought there was a way that I could put that to work in La granja. I have a lot of feelings against the status quo in the island, and I kept wondering how to write this while being true to them. So that’s why I went in that Amores Perros-structure. To tell the story of La granja which represents the struggles of the Puerto Ricans’ heart and how they’re oppressed by the system.

On Working With Child Actors On Those Gruesome Violent Scenes

Well, we tried to make it fun. (Laughs) “You’re going to kill kids, let’s make it fun!” The boxer kid he’s a real boxer and right now 21 or 20. When we got him he was pretty young and we had to constantly make them feel like we weren’t taking it too seriously. I developed a relationship with them for months before we started shooting and after the casting period. I spent a lot of one-on-ones with them. And then, like the young kid being beat up: he was a natural! You could snap your fingers and tell him to cry and he’d do it. He really wanted to act. The same thing with the fat kid with the bike, he always wanted to be an actor but he never got cast because he was fat and this was his big break so they were all very grateful. The boxing kid the same thing, he was a little rising star and getting all this attention — he was very eager.

On Painting A Bleak Portrait of Puerto Rico

“Sometimes you don’t realize you’re oppressed until somebody shows you a mirror of yourself.”

Getting it made was a challenge because of the budget. Getting it done at the time wasn’t as bad as one would expect. Because we went in naive and eager to make a film and every obstacle on our way we wanted to face it. Looking back, it wasn’t that different than the situation that we’re in; where we have to make stuff work with what we’ve got. It’s a very good representation of what’s going on with Puerto Rico right now. Making it back then, I guess, it wasn’t a problem even though the subject matter is anti-establishment. I had very good reception from the government at the time — it was only when the government changed that I got some push back from the Puerto Rican Film Commission. And I do believe it has to do with the current economic situation. At the same time, it portrays a Puerto Rico that is not that far away if we don’t take action. And you know, opening your eyes and realizing that you’re wounded is never nice. That’s what I hope to do, and that’s what La granja’s been doing whenever I show it. It opens a dialogue about what can be done to Puerto Rico to keep it from getting this way. And some people don’t want to hear that.

On Facing History With Metaphor

Well, the Puerto Rican situation — nobody really knows what to call it, nobody really knows what it is. Yes, everybody knows that we have a U.S. passport but they don’t know that we’re second-rate citizens. We just go our way because we think we’re protected, but really aren’t. And the thing is we are that abandoned child that longs for the father’s hug and he will never get that hug. As long as we don’t realize that situation, Puerto Rico will still be in debt forever, Puerto Rico will still have the Jones Act, Puerto Rico will still live under antique colonial oppression — just for a passport. I feel like a lot of people I show the film to around the world, they agree. And that’s the thing, sometimes you don’t realize you’re oppressed until somebody shows you a mirror of yourself and that’s what’s going on.

I made this film four years ago with the hopes of being a mirror and looking at yourself in an introspective way, and realized that sometimes you are like the woman is dying to give birth but who’s just dying. Or you are Lucho who longs to love but is being used and oppressed. Or we are like Fausto who has to sacrifice his son in order to make ends meet. It is these types of symbolic oppressions that I wanted to show — the way I was feeling at the time. This is the way a lot of Puerto Ricans are feeling. And when you bring history and the metaphors together it makes sense that the best way to change is realizing how fucked up we are. And I think it’s coming. Slowly, but surely. It’s a shame that it has to happen with, you know, austerity measures, closing schools, doctors leaving the island, the young working class leaving the island, taxes up to the roof… it’s getting there when it seems like La granja and eventually people will become animals if they don’t wake up.

La granja is playing at both Urbanworld Film Festival and the San Francisco Latino Film Festival during the month of September 2016.