How a VHS of ‘Los Sures’ Sparked a Movement to Preserve Williamsburg’s Latino History

'Los Sures' Photo: Ellen Tolmie

“If you can survive Los Sures, you can survive everything.” It doesn’t quite have the ring of that famous lyric from New York, New York, but the line, from Diego Echeverría’s 1984 documentary Los Sures, about the south side of Williamsburg, gets at what life felt like in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City in the 80s. Profiling five residents of this mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican barrio, Echeverría’s film exposed how poverty was affecting the Latino community in the city.

To say it now exists as a time capsule doesn’t quite do it justice. Whether following Marta, a single mother of five going grocery shopping with her four daughters, counting down her food stamps and explaining how she often fears she won’t have enough to take care of her family, or seeing Tito, a young man proudly talking about how he steals and strips cars for a living, Los Sures gives you a snapshot of community beginning to be ravaged by drugs, violence, and poverty but which feeds on its own resilient spirit. What’s most surprising is the empathy with which Echeverría tackles his subjects. Having come from a television background and having closely followed the cinema verité movement of the 1960s, Echeverría came to this project with a clear mission: to understand Los Sures and its residents not from a place of indifferent sociology or dispirited documentary — one which would focus on “issues” and “causes” — but from a place of joy. “It wasn’t just about telling stories,” he told me, “but layering in a whole culture that was very lively and beautiful and which expresses itself in many different ways: in music, in dancing, in religion, in language.”

Thus, while you see Evelyn, a community organizer, rallying against junkies and their negative effect on the community and see it firsthand as Echeverría’s camera’s surveys the streets, you also get plenty of happy scenes that speak to the spirit of the neighborhood. You see spiritualist gatherings that pulsate with religious fervor. Breakdancing battles that showcase how raw talent electrified a street corner. Moments like these are what originally jumped out at Echeverría. Having worked doing many television news pieces on poverty-stricken places in New York, there was no denying that Los Sures offered him a great fit for what he hoped to accomplish: “It was a unique environment that was speaking out loud to me,” he told me, “I don’t know how to describe it. Places tell you stories in different ways. There was such a vivid environment in that neighborhood. Such a coherence in that community. Such a sense of solidarity that you felt in the streets. You really felt they had created a really vibrant community in spite of the fact that they had plenty problems.”

“Places tell you stories in different ways. There was such a vivid environment in that neighborhood. Such a coherence in that community.”

Part of this, he admits, had to do with its geography. While the Bronx and East Harlem were in themselves more permeable neighborhoods, closely connected to Manhattan and the city at large, Los Sures was almost a place onto itself, cut off from its surroundings. Having grown up in Puerto Rico (he was born in Chile), Echeverría also felt a kinship to this barrio and its people. He and his crew spent close to six weeks getting the know the neighborhood. That he and his associate producer, Fernando Moreno, spoke Spanish no doubt helped them develop the close relationships that made Los Sures such an intimate affair: at one point Echeverría’s camera feels almost intrusive as it enters a bedroom where a shirtless Tito is laying around in bed with his girlfriend and their kids.

Los Sures premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1984 but nothing in its reception back then could have predicted the impact it’s having three decades later. That in its reviewThe New York Times mistakenly suggested “los sures” referred to the people depicted (“the southerners”) rather than the neighborhood itself, was perhaps an early sign that Echeverría was really interested in presenting a decidedly local history. It was informed by the work, for example, of Oscar Lewis (author La Vida; A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty) but it rightly refuses to walk you through, as that same review suggested, “the past that created it and… the possibilities of the future.”

Photo: Ellen Tolmie
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“I wouldn’t say it was a forgotten film, but as it usually happens with documentaries, it just lay dormant.”

“I wouldn’t say it was a forgotten film,” Echeverría told me, “but as it usually happens with documentaries, it just lay dormant.” That is, until State of Fear director Pamela Yates, who moved to Williamsburg in the early 2000s casually mentioned Diego’s flick to Christopher Allen, the founder and executive artistic director of the recently launched organization UnionDocs, which had set up shop just down the block from her apartment.

“We thought it’d be a great film for them to see,” she recalls. “If you’re a documentary filmmaker and are really committed to social change you never really know how your films are going to be received and what kind of impact it’s going to have. And even when you feel impotent to change things — when you’re photographing a neighborhood which was registered as the poorest neighborhood in New York City — as a documentary filmmaker the most important thing you can do is document it. And that’s what Diego did.”

And so, she brought out the VHS copy of Los Sures she still had with her and put it on for her neighbors at UnionDocs. Allen and his staff were blown away by it and immediately got to work on screening it for the public. Throughout the events they set up in the neighborhood they began to see how residents of the area were responding to this look into their history. Soon after, they made it their mission to restore the film, an endeavor that, Allen stressed, wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the New York Public Library who had in their archives, it turns out, the most pristine copy of the documentary around.

But they didn’t stop there. In 2009, UnionDocs set out to work on a piece they called Living Los Sures, a massive and ongoing project on and about the history of the neighborhood with Echeverría’s film functioning as its spine. Thus far, Living Los Sures has worked on three different fronts. They’ve created over 40 short documentaries (Southside Short Docs) inspired by the 1984 flick and by the neighborhood today; they’ve created an interactive oral history of the neighborhood (Shot by Shot) structured around the 326 shots that make up Los Sures; and they’ve begun collaborating with the doc’s original subjects to create work that broadens and updates their stories. Thus far, they’ve profiled Marta in an interactive web video (89 Steps) that follows her as she wrestles with the decision to leave the neighborhood, and they’ve commissioned local artist Jose Luis Medina to paint a mural celebrating the life of Cuso. In Allen’s words, Living Los Sures tries to “look at both the history and the not-too-distant past of the neighborhood to try to create new connections through documentary work.”

What Allen and his team have helped create in Echeverría’s wake is nothing short of astounding. This is local history made tangible and virtual at the same time. Its community-driven spirit is enhanced and bolstered by its sleek, web-savvy packaging. As Yates put it, “Without having Los Sures, and without having UnionDocs having the foresight to incorporate that film into their collaborative there’d be no connection for lots of people in the neighborhood. That, to me, is the real impact of it, that it values that history, that historical memory, and creates a connection where none might have existed.”

The vitality and urgency of this endeavor asks us not to embalm the history of los Sures in some long forgotten past as if the name and its legacy had disappeared, but to look for it as you walk its streets in 2016. It’s still there, still striving, still thriving.

Los Sures plays at Metrograph in New York City, April 15 – April 21, 2016. It will be screened alongside Andrew Parsons & Laurie Sumiye’s hybrid animated Southside Short Doc, Of Memory & Los Sures.