Filmmaker Anthony Nardolillo Makes Spanish Harlem Come to Life in ‘Shine’

Courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival

After spending some time on the set of the 2007 dance movie Stomp the Yard with his actor friend Columbus Short, Italian-Puerto Rican dancer and filmmaker Anthony Nardolillo wondered why a feature about dance had never been set in the Latin music world. Instead of waiting around for someone to do it, he started working on the script himself.

His new film Shine tells the story of two brothers, Jr. (Gilbert Saldivar) and Ralphi (Jorge Burgos), once celebrated salsa dancers from East Harlem, who become estranged after the death of their percussionist father (David Zayas). Interested in making something more than just a dance movie, Nardolillo decided to incorporate the issue of gentrification he saw happening in New York City and around the U.S.

He creates tension in the screenplay when he reunites Jr., who stayed behind in his borough to dance, with Ralphi, who moved away and now works for a company that is trying to strip the East Harlem neighborhood of its identity by buying everyone out of their homes and businesses.

With Nardolillo behind the camera for his first-ever feature film, the spirit and atmosphere of East Harlem radiates in each scene, especially when the characters express passion for their Latin culture through music and dance. The soundtrack keeps the narrative energized with Latin rhythms playing from beginning to end. The soundtrack includes music performed by Junior Perez (“Desnudate” and “Quemando”), Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon (“El Malo”), Marc Anthony (“Vivir la Vida”), Tito Puente (“Salsa y Sabor”) and Ray Barreto (“Arrepientete”), among others.

During an interview with Remezcla, Nardolillo discussed his love for East Harlem, how he’s seen Brooklyn change over the years and how cities can be progressive without losing their cultural identity. He also talked about what he thinks it’s going to take for more Latino-centric stories to be told in Hollywood.

Director Anthony Nardolillo. Courtesy of 13 Paces.
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Shine makes its world premiere during the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York on September 22.

UPDATE 10/8/2018: Shine is currently playing in theaters across the country. List of theaters is here.

On his relationship with East Harlem

I grew up in Brooklyn, but being a dancer, I would wander the streets of Spanish Harlem. I was there when they had the salsa museum. I would go to the record store, La Casa Latina. I’ve known a lot of the artists there for the last 12 years. I have an affinity for [Spanish Harlem]. It’s a long ride [from Brooklyn], but I love the neighborhood. It has a special place in my heart.

On what makes East Harlem so unique to New York City

I love what it stands for. It’s iconic. Every block is crystalized in time. It’s like you’re going back to a time where the sounds, the people, the energy, the smells, appear to be what they were in the 60s and 70s. When I was location scouting and researching and interviewing, I would wander every block. There is something nostalgic about it. People are very proud of those streets. It’s something I appreciate.

On the gentrification of Brooklyn

The house that I grew up in is one of the only houses that is still there. They’ve put in McMansions. Where I grew up, there were a lot of mobsters. You’d have all the guidos on the block and all the cafés and bakeries, but now all that stuff is gone. I mean, you go to Williamsburg and it’s trendy and hipster and I like it. There is a fresh look to it. But it’s sad because you’re used to seeing something a certain way and now it’s gone. You want to strike a balance. You don’t want to strip your identity.

‘Shine’ courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival
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On balancing a neighborhood’s culture with new developments

We can articulate that there can be a happy medium, but having it actually exercised is not happening. The whole genesis of gentrification is development, but economic development is bringing in jobs and improving facilities and better utility services. You come under the umbrella of economic development and what is happening is that they are taking things away and completely replacing them. They’re not necessarily enhancing things. The balance has to be enhancing and maintaining the identity. You can’t strip the heart and soul of the neighborhood.

On what he’s learned about himself as a first-time feature film director

I’ve been humbled in the moviemaking process. I’ve learned how incredibly difficult, arduous and challenging it is to complete a film. It’s a marathon. I’ve learned to be patient. If you allow yourself the time, the day will come. The key to success in a film is preparation and doing your research. I will take that lesson to my next film.

On sticking together as Latinos in the film industry

I’m not frustrated, but it’s so hard to get a movie made and on top of that the resources are not at our fingertips. What I’ve talked about with other Latino filmmakers and my colleagues is that we need to stick together. With [Shine], there were Latinos in front and behind the camera. If you stay together, you can really move. I think that’s what we need to continue to do as a film community. We need to continue to support each other. Even a head nod can go a long way. If we can do that, we will have our place at the table because right now we don’t. There is a scarcity of [Latino] content. The mainstream only knows what Hollywood has chosen to tell, unfortunately. If we stick together, we can expose more of the true Latino narrative from our perspective.

‘Shine’ courtesy of Urbanworld Film Festival
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On working with actor David Zayas

It was validation of my career. He pulled me aside and told me [Shine] was the most enjoyable set he had ever been on and that I was doing what God intended me to do. It was such a special moment for me. David brought the film to the next level with his creative integrity. He is very talented. He’s from the neighborhood, so he brought a special glow to the movie. He elevated everyone’s performance.

On his own dancing abilities

I definitely can bust some moves. I had originally written [Shine] to star in it. I was a dancer before, so I’m from that world. But I’ve matured over the years and realized as a first-time director, there was no way that I could give it the love I needed to give it in front and behind the camera. And honestly, I’m happy where I am behind the camera. But if you throw on some mambo, I’m going to throw off my jacket and get down.