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On the Record: Sonia Fritz

On the Record: Sonia Fritz

Documentary filmmaker Sonia Fritz is a professor of literature and cinema studies at the University of El Sagrado Corazón in Santurce, Puerto Rico. She directed “About Bands, Lives and Other Tunes,” which won her the Ariel Award for best documentary and co-directed Chapters 1 and 2 of the PBS series “Latino Americans,” which won a Peabody Award and Imagen Award in 2014. She has directed over 25 documentaries on migration, gender, and art and culture. On Nov. 27, the Center for the Study of American Democracy and the Latinx Studies Concentration sponsored a screening of her film “Community Projects and Migration in the Production of ‘After Maria: The Two Shores’” in honor of Puerto Rican Heritage Month.

How did you become involved in filmmaking?

When I studied communications in Mexico City, I started working as a production assistant for a director who was a professor at the university. Then, I freelanced from one job to the other to the other, mainly doing educational stuff, and then I moved to being an editor and producer and we formed a collective of women, Colectivo Cine Mujer. But then I moved to Puerto Rico and started a whole different project, because Puerto Rico is similar to the U.S. in the sense that you have to raise your project and the proposal, you have to get the money for them, and that was very different from Mexico where you could freelance from one job to the other. My first documentary was on a woman painter, who, for me, was like the symbol of what I was looking in terms of roots in Puerto Rico, like the beautiful landscapes and women inside their homes, but with the contrast of the interior-exterior, and maybe some shadow. And then I was able to do four more features, so I have five feature films, but documentaries are easier to make, like, this one we made in five months.

Out of all your works, do you have a favorite? Why?

I think ‘America,’ the feature film, is one of my favorites — one, because it took me like 10 years to do it. Second, because I think it’s very revealing of the situation of a woman, not only in the Caribbean, but the situation of a woman who has to struggle so much to overcome a bad relationship. I think that’s a universal story, sacrificing to give a better life to their kids. Also because it was very hard to make. We shot it in 18 days and it did really well. It took me literally all over — I was in Turkey in a women’s Film Festival in Ankara, I went to Rabat in Morocco, I went to Spain and to various Latino festivals in the states.

What are some challenges you have encountered as a filmmaker? What is your experience like coming from a minority background?

What I think the main challenge as a woman director is that it’s the world of male. I mean, we’ve seen it with the MeToo movement very obviously, but they trust a man much faster than they trust a woman. So that’s one thing. I really have to fight to pursue my projects but I think the worst challenge is the money because you need money to do these projects, even if it’s $40,000. You need the cash to pay people and to move around. So that to me is the hardest part.

Can you talk a little about the project you worked on about the Latino community in Ohio?

I did projects on a Puerto Rican community in Lorain, Ohio, which is the first time that I visited Ohio. I was invited because they have a Puerto Rican Cultural Center, and they wanted to see one of my films. When I traveled, I realized that this is such a well-organized community and they had a story. They had migrated during Operation Bootstrap in the ‘50s, the quality of life was pretty good but they were rejected when they arrived. They had to live in the same steel mill, because they couldn’t live in apartments, they wouldn’t rent it to them. The cafeterias had signs — no dogs or Puerto Ricans allowed. They even screened them — they had to look white, blue eyes, and you find people like that in the mountains. So in the beginning, they were really ostracized, so they had to overcome so much and they were so well organized that I did that piece.

What would you like to film in the future?

I have three projects, two documentaries. Actually, one is in the process and I haven’t found the money to finish it. It’s called ‘Mariachis with Trousers.’ It’s about a group of women mariachis from New York City.  They are very diverse, very talented musicians, they do fusion and mariachis. I followed them for three years and now I need to find the money to finish. They won a Latin Grammy and now two of them have babies. So it’s like, the whole story evolved and I haven’t been able to finish it. I’m waiting to see when the moment comes that I can close the project.

Do you have any advice for people who are interested in pursuing film as a career?

To me, the most important thing is to tell the story. Once you tell it, even if it’s not the best camera, the story is there and you’ll get money to develop the next story. There’s so much need for content, visual content, that I think you don’t have to specifically go to work with Hollywood; there’s so many other outlets. So I think just do it. Do it and pursue your dream and work. You do have to concentrate work hard and get organized, but I think for every good job you have to do that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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