BL&D Interview - Pedro Bermudez
HIS ONE-TIME SCREENING OF HIS DEBUT FILM 'HASTA MANANA' WAS A SUCCESS, BUT PEDRO BERMUDEZ IS FAR FROM CONTENT. MORE FILMS, MORE SCRIPTS AND HE WANTS IT ALL TO HAPPEN RIGHT HERE IN HARTFORD. SO BUCKLE UP AND ENJOY THE SHOW. JUST MAKE SURE TO SMILE FOR THE CAMERA.
INTERVIEW & PHOTOGRAPHY BY: JOSHUA JENKINS
EDITING BY: QUENTON NARCISSE
JOSH: It's a week later since the showing. How does the feeling of being back here and seeing the type of space it is now compared to your impression of seeing the turnout?
PEDRO: That event was overwhelming. We were gonna do one screening - one screening that was sold out - and that was it. I didn't think we would do it three times. It said a couple things to me. It said that beyond whatever interest the movie generated - of course the subject matter, I knew going in would be interesting to some folks. It'd be a lot of curiosity. But beyond whatever the film generated, what the event showed me was there's a need for people in the community to see their neighbors [and] to see the reality that they might not know about in the city they live in. To see that represented on the screen, that's what it said to me. And it said it to me in a very clear way. That was probably the most beautiful thing of the event. [It] was experiencing that need.
J: As far as art from minorities in this area, you know that's not a common thing you come across or just art in general. So it's impressive to see. You have that outlook to do an art form that you have a passion for, but doing it in a way that's gonna make an impact - a direct impact from where you're from.
P: That's the beautiful thing about film - it's so accessible. Everybody's watched movies. Everybody loves movies, and they're interested by film. So using film to bridge that divide where you can have people - just regular people from the community - come in and experience something and enjoy it just as much as people who may be more experienced in filmmaking and who are holding onto and looking for the value of ideas behind the film. Both sorts can enjoy just as much, and for me, that's actually very special. I want whatever I create to be relatable to folks [and] to be accessible. And the last thing, I don't want it to be divisive and feel like it's exclusive to any one group.
J: Even the approach of making it a short, I feel like sometimes you get the impression that it's directed towards a certain genre, whether it's a genre or something else. It's speaks about a certain situation because you don't have a lot of time to tell a full story. But one thing I notice with yours is that it definitely had a lot of different layers. Like the first scene - I thought that was pretty amusing, trying to get the chicken. Then, you start seeing the turmoil and reality that you mentioned a lot of people go through in this area. What was your approach to find that dynamic that can kind of cross between a different range of human emotion?
P: The approach was in telling this story of a grandfather and a grandson - a real story by the way that a lot of Puerto Ricans experience because still to this day, we know that Puerto Ricans live with these incredible patterns of migration back and forth between the United States and the island of Puerto Rico. So what that does to families is still something that we deal with every day and how that tears families apart [and] brings them back together in strange ways. So, that's something that's very real, and we knew that was a very important part - the important part - of telling that relationship. That was the most important part of the film.
The other thing that we wanted to do was illuminate this underground culture of cockfighting that follows Puerto Rican communities all throughout the United States. Wherever there's a disenfranchised Puerto Rican community, chances are this subculture exists there. It follows people from the island where it's legal to the United States. So in terms of negotiating all those different layers, what we wanted to do is to have all those layers work together to advance the overall story. So, suddenly the cockfighting [and] seeing two roosters trying to kill each other and one kill the other, you get the sense that it's something symbolically to do with the grandfather's own struggles. Not in any way that's very literary, not in any way that hits people over the head, but in ways that I just wanted to present those two separate things and create a question where the audience could then fill in the answer however they choose to, knowing that those two things are connected somehow.
J: You're making this film and it's directed towards the Hartford community. It's based in Hartford. What sort of subtleties do you notice with Latin American culture within Hartford as opposed to around America that you've maybe been exposed to?
P: When you think about walking up and down Park Street, it's full of these incredible polar opposites. You experience the warmth of the people. You experience this incredible pride of where they come from. You can walk up and down Park Street and never hear a word of English spoken. These are marks of sincere pride, even amongst the people who can speak English perfectly. Friends of mine have told me it's like a badge they wear,"Yeah, I've held onto my accent so I'll always know where I'm from and that's how I present myself." All these things are about identity [and] how you choose to present yourself.
So walking along Park Street since I was a kid, I've always been struck by all the different things I can see - all of the spectrums of life that I can see on any given block walking down Park Street. Because right next to - and we've all seen it - the drug addict that's throwing up, you get, ya know, the little kid who's testing out his bicycle for the first time and he's really excited about it. You get the pastor preaching on the corner. You get the lady who's walking her kids and they're all dressed to the nines because they're going to church. It's this incredible melding of humanity, and I guess what I wanted to do - I had a very clear idea from the get-go - was I wanted to show little aspects of all those things. The beauty, the tragedy, the social ills, but to do so in a way that felt honest. For example, you have a drug addict with who - by the way, I'm working with non-professional actors - these are people who are sharing their own experiences.
J: Right, I remember he was saying, "You showed them who the character was supposed to be" and he was like, "Yeah, I know that guy. He's my uncle." [Laughs]
P: Yeah, yeah and you know, these people [and] these characters are portrayed in ways that are very true to who they would be. So part of them being truthful to who they actually would be is just looking at any human being. We're all capable of moments of warmth and tenderness [and] we're all capable of ugly things, too. So I wanted to be very truthful to that. So the drug addict is not just a drug addict. It's so easy for us to label. When we walk down the street, that's what we do left and right. On a daily basis, we go, "That person's a drug addict. This person's a so and so," and we throw around these labels.
It's so convenient, but obviously that's not real life. That's not a three-dimensional world even though that's not the world we live in. What I wanted to do with these characters was give them shades of humanity and have them do little things to balance them out, so the guy who's getting high on drugs is also the guy caring for this little chickling for no real reason other than he enjoys it. He enjoys carrying for this little animal. And on top of that by the way, he also wouldn't struggle or hesitate to sell it if he had to [to get drugs], so there's all this real stuff.
J: Yeah, situations can never be clear cut - you definitely get the sense of that because there's moments where I wasn't sure if the grandfather was, ya know, gonna live or not. There was definitely a point where you just weren't sure what direction that was going to go. But then, it kinda brought it back to where it was like this is someone that is going through some struggles [and] at the end of the day, he loves his grandson and you can see that that's the priority. Making sure that he's alright.
J: Speaking of the grandson, what was the actor's name?
P: Michael Ortiz.
J: How old is he?
P: He was 13 when we cast him. He was amazing to work with. He was so courageous. He wasn't scared, and he's naturally a shy kid.
J: Yeah, I noticed when he didn't want to speak at the reception.
P: Yeah, but I say he was courageous because think about it: you're a 13-year old kid. It was really - like all the actors [and] all the non-professionals especially - in many ways some of his own life. His mom is awesome, and you know, that's very different. Like his mom is very involved in his life, and she wants to make sure that he's alright and taken care of. But he's also made that trip from Puerto Rico to the United States [and] found himself having to swim in the deep end so to speak. Make friends, learn the language, assimilate to the culture. He lives a block away from - you know what? He's on Park Street. They just moved. So he lives right there, and he knows all of those things we're portraying. He lives with all of these things. But it was interesting working with him because what clicked for him was tapping into memories of his upbringing. Tapping into stories that his friends tell him. It was very personal is what I'm saying, and that's why I say that he was courageous because he was able to share that. He wasn't afraid to share that, which a lot of us, would be.
J: One thing I find interesting: you said that - and you spoke about this before the film started - you guys finished this dramatic scene and everyone was really joyous and was kind of stuck in the mindset of the reality of a child really living in this situation. And for anyone in this area - the Greater Hartford community - even if you're not a direct product of how deteriorating this area can be, you have family members that are [affected]. It's a degree of separation away. How important is it to give a kid like that an opportunity to do something he has interest in to hopefully pass on that torch and inspire his peers to do so?
P: Well a couple different things on that question. We had a casting director out of New York and she's like legendary. Her name is Ellyn Marshall-Long [Ed. Note: correct name is Ellyn Long Marshall]. To give you an idea, she was raised in Harlem, was a dancer [and] she's probably in her late 70's now. She was one of these people that you met [and] you say to yourself, "Okay, I'm going to make a mental note of everything she's telling me here" because just being in front of her [and] being with her, you say this woman is full of stories and I want to hear all of them. So we worked with Ellyn [and] we asked her to work with us. Just looking at the stuff she's done, she's cast movies that I loved. She's cast Piñero with Benjamin Bratt; she's cast El Cantante with Marc Anthony; Maria Full of Grace - a bunch of movies that I really enjoy that featured Latino actors in very prominent ways.
And nothing against Ellyn at all - she's amazing at what she does. I just remember the early casting sessions and we're looking to work with this 13 year-old kid that we haven't found yet. We're in New York, and in come a row of 12, 10, 13 year-old kids but they're all show kids. Ya know? They're all the kind of kids you see in Cheerios commercials in Spanish. And some of them are wearing bowties, and you say to yourself real quick and you know real quick, "As talented as they may be...". One kid comes in and he says, "I speak five languages", and he's going through the whole [speech] - as talented as they may be, they're not the kid you're looking for.
P: It's very specific. That kid - the person you're looking for needs to be actually the character. He needs to be that person. So we figured that out very fast. So in meeting Michael, we were at the Three Kings Parade. We're on Park Street and they're passing out gifts, and Michael taps me on the shoulder asking where to pick up the gifts - thinking that I work there. And I knew immediately that yeah, this is the kid that I'm looking for. Just something about the way he was standing, you could tell that this kid had a certain poise. I don't know what it was. We got very lucky in finding him, so to answer your question, for very practical reasons, that character needed to be the real thing. And we were lucky enough to find it in Michael. And then secondary, I get to know him a little bit, I find out that he makes movies on his mom's iPad.
J: Right - you mentioned that.
P: And I say to myself, "How can we get him at Real Art Ways? Working Neighborhood Studios? How can we help him?" So, on many different levels, it was just blessed. It was just very fortunate.
J: Aside from the production of this film, you also have Revisionist. Touch on that for a bit.
P: Revisionist is a production company that I own with some partners, and they helped me create this film after we received the grant. Special thanks to Real Art Ways for helping us secure the grant, and find that grant through the Roberts Foundation. Thanks to the Roberts Foundation, Lisa Curran [and] thanks to Will Wilkins here at Real Art Ways. So, my partners helped me create this movie. Luca Del Puppo, our cinematographer; Kaitlin DelCampo, our producer; They're both based out of New York.
When we get the chance to all collaborate on, say, this project or commercials that we do, it's always a great time. So, we are very interested in doing [and] creating more content. I'm very interested in creating more content in the regional area. We did a commercial for Hartford Prints back in October, and we brought in a very talented director named Lucy Malloy from New York, who's just a joy to work with. We're looking for more opportunities to do that. More than anything, I'm looking for more opportunities to just create higher quality videos, films in the area where we haven't seen much. It's very far from saturated here. So that's what I want to do. That's what I want to focus on.
J: Even getting into the concept of 'hey, I want to work with film', I imagine just the steps to get it to the point where you even idealize that aspiration to then start this company [is a lot] towards the beginning. Around what time did you know that film was what you wanted to do?
P: I was an undergraduate. I was entering my first year at the University of Hartford, and my advisors said, "Look, it's time to choose a major." So, it was either going to be architecture; it was either gonna be some other skill, some other vocation. And I thought to myself, 'What do I really love? What has never felt like an obligation to me?' What has felt, instead, like some sort of obsession? It was film, since the age of ten. I could remember those trips to Blockbuster and picking up all sorts of stuff that I had idea what it would be about, but [I had] just this obsession with this moving image.
J: Any particular films or directors that stood out?
P: I mean, there's so many, right? And so, if you ask me now, that started the process. Getting into film school and then I worked at ESPN when I got out. The University of Hartford was great, but I wasn't making anything. Then, I went to Los Angeles and I studied at the American Film Institute. I studied directing. And then I came back here. And when I came back here, I started teaching film and I always thought when I come back here, what can I be doing that I love? What projects can I be working on?
So many film directors that I love, among the many, one of the real influences or people that I keep watching especially related to this movie was the work of Andrea Arnold, and her work in Wasp on a short film that she directed. Her work in Fish Tank. And what I love about Andrea's work is, say in Wasp - and I think it's like 25-something, 20-minute short film - but what she does is she tells a story of a single mom living in the hood of, like, outside London. But they're living in absolute poverty and this single mom is raising four kids by herself. She's very young [and] she's got plenty of sexuality still. She wants to live her life and enjoy it. And she runs into a guy that she used to know - that she used to see. And he asks her on a date.
She's got nobody to watch the kids, so she brings all of the kids with her to the bar and she asks them to wait outside, pretending that she doesn't know them so she can go on this date. And the whole time, nothing really happens. Nothing tragic happens. But the point is that we're all expecting one of those little kids to get hit by a car, to fall off of a bridge. We're expecting the worst to happen. We're realizing that we expect the worst to happen because she's expecting the worst because she's guilty. She knows that she's guilty of putting her kids in incredible danger. They're all under the age of ten, but she's got a right to pursue her own pleasure. So what happens is that, yeah, we judge her but we don't actually condemn her. We don't hate her - we empathize with her.
And the other thing that Andrea Arnold - and by the way, she's grabbing details of her own life, her own upbringing; she says her mom was something like this - what she does to the audience is she places you at the edge of your seat for the whole time that you're watching this. You expecting something really awful to occur, and it never transpires. And how skillful that is! She knows exactly where the audience is at all times. She knows that you don't have to go melodramatic with something that the characters - actually living their real lives - is already dramatic enough. You just trust that they'll push the narrative forward. So when I think of great filmmakers, I think of her and she's making movies right now. So she's absolutely one of my influences. She's telling stories that are just about regular people, and that's more than enough.
J: I think the biggest attractions to film for me is it's kind of an escape for a second, but so much of that can be drawn interpersonally. You have this fear that something bad is going to happen and you expect that out of a movie, but the biggest thing is just having that connection with a character and empathizing at the end of the day.
P: That's the beauty of film. You could for two hours time or 18 minutes time - whatever the duration - you could sit in a dark place surrounded by strangers and allow yourself to feel as somebody else would feel. [Somebody] that you've never met or never had something in common with. I mean, in and of itself, it's kind of its own magic.
J: What do you see happening next?
P: More movies, more films. I'm working on a feature script. It's also a Hartford story and just to tell you a little bit about it, one of the histories I want to revisit that I don't want to say has been glossed over but in some has been forgotten, is the gang warfare in Hartford in the early 90's. It was devastating. It was a devastating part of our history, and that's what I'm looking at the moment.
J: For me, mostly all of my family was North End. And you always knew sort of passing that border that you're getting into another area. What do you see different as far as your upbringing in this area as opposed to this time period that you're speaking of?
P: My upbringing coincided with a lot of that, so I remember being eight years old being at summer camp in the North End, next to Barnard Brown. I think it's Sacred Heart Church. I think. I remember vividly: I'm about eight years old - Iook down the street, and I see the largest parade I've ever seen and they're all wearing yellow and black. And it was a funeral for a Latin King member that was killed. I remember being in school and having the gangs flow through there, and feeling very much like they were in control. Apart from whatever friends I had that were loosely affiliated or whatever it was. But it's that feeling that this is very much a part of our history and it's still a part of our living history in a sense that a lot of the guys that were in the gangs are getting out of jail now, and coming back to Hartford and trying to figure out their lives and what's next for them.
Specifically what I'm interested in is I'm interested in something that breaks the cliche. Whenever we think of a gang story, I'm interested in a real life story that occurred in Hartford where the gangs were agents of some social change as it relates to organized labor. That's a real thing. That really happened, and at least coming into the story, what I'm drawn to. So, we'll see where it takes me [laughs].
"Wouldn't this city be so much better off if we consistently looked for the value of something? If we sought out the charm, the culture - those things that are worthwhile? Wouldn't we be better off?"
J: You painted a pretty vivid picture of that, but you also mentioned that you attended UHart. What changed and gave an impression that you decided to pursue a higher education as opposed to the individuals you mentioned are getting out of jail now?
P: I was very fortunate. I was very fortunate. My father was a teacher. My mother is still a teacher.
J: And you also teach at UHart.
P: I do teach at UHart. And our father - we always lived either poor or we lived just working-class. Nothing above that. But through our parents, we always had access to higher expectations for our own education. We had access in having parents who themselves were educators. We had access to certain amounts of advocacy for our own interests. So what am I saying? When I was in first grade, my first language was Spanish. My parents - you know, first generation from Puerto Rico, coming over here - Spanish was the only language I spoke up to the age of six. I'm in first grade and I'm now in English only. So naturally, as any little kid would do when they're hearing a language they've never really heard before, I started laughing every time the teacher spoke to me. And I remember the teacher thinking that something might be wrong developmentally with this kid, and suddenly they want to leave me in the same grade.
I was lucky enough that my father was able to meet with that teacher and say, "Are you kidding me? No, when he was in Spanish, he was above everyone else. What are you talking about here? There's nothing wrong with this kid. He's just learning the language." He was able to advocate for me. But it makes me wonder how many kids didn't have that. How many kids were retained a grade? And then, yeah, you stay back - what does that happen for your sense of self? What does that happen for - again, this identity question: who do you think you are and what your capabilities are, when you have someone else telling you what they think. So, we were lucky in that sense. Our parents were very educated in that sense. My father came up as poor a Puerto Rican family gets in rural Yabucoa, which is an agricultural town. It's like saying you're from Mobile, Alabama. They even have a funny accent there.
So he came up there, and got by on talent and talent alone. He was lucky. He was fortunate. And though we never had resources [and] never really had a lot of money, we had expectations so that's how I was able to do it. So, we were living - at least when I was much younger - in parts of Hartford where my friends didn't have access to any of that stuff; the advocacy that I'm talking about. But we also knew that we were supposed to continue our education and we always had that feeling. That was the differentiating factor. And a lot of luck, I suppose, because even with expectations, one screw up and suddenly everything goes away.
J: You touched on something that I thought about earlier - the misunderstanding of culture. I've always identified Hartford as being very dominant with a Puerto Rican community. How do you think that this community may have struggled with misconceptions, or even lack of acknowledgement with what this group of people can offer? Speaking of minorities in general, too?
P: That's the one thing about Hartford that I know you'll agree with is if we consistently have one thing going for us as a city, it's our diversity. That's a real thing. If there's one valuable, one source of wealth that we've had that has gone totally unused, it's that you could find yourself in a neighborhood where suddenly you have incredible Latin cuisine or restaurants and people are speaking the language, and the music and all this. And then you go up [the street] a little bit and find yourself in a neighborhood that's authentically Jamaican with the same incredible food and same incredible music that is theirs. And it goes on and on, right? I mean, whether it's Italian culture, Bosnian culture, whatever it is - it's almost like we've never been unified in our pride, in our sense of ownership over all of that. So that's been the problem. Now, in terms of what you asking in a sense of - how would you describe it? In a sense of Puerto Ricans getting a bad rep?
J: Yeah, I would say that some people would consider Park Street to not be a great place to drive down. But little do they know, they have this incredible restaurant called Aqui me Quedo. I guess it's like misconceptions or it's misconstrued. Even someone that's foreign, and they haven't been given the opportunity to be accepted into an environment and then how we can share? How can we learn from one another?
P: I hope this makes it in because do you know Julia Pistell?
J: It rings a bell, but I'm not familiar.
P: Julia Pistell told this story; I forgot where we were. It might have been an open mic night or something like that. She's at Sea Tea Improv. She heads that up.
J: Oh okay, I know of her now.
P: Julia Pistell tells this story about following her now-husband, then-boyfriend to Hartford, and she came from New York. So she's coming from New York City and her husband is at work, so she arrived mid-day, weekday. She's in Hartford now, and he goes, "Well, just get a cab. This is the apartment. The keys are whatever, you'll be fine. Just get there and wait for me, we'll connect in a little bit". She goes, "Oh no, don't worry about it." She's from New York [so] she goes, "I'll just walk around for a little bit [and] get to know the city." So she leaves Union Station, walks around for a little bit and somehow - first of all, she's wondering where are all the people [laughs]. Cause it's Hartford.
J: "Why is Starbucks closed at 5:30"? [Laughs]
P: Yeah, and she's like, "Where are all the people?", especially after she left the little downtown area. And nobody was out to lunch and suddenly it's just, like, empty. And she stumbled upon Park Street somehow. And she said it clicked with her. She says, "Oh, this is where the people are! This is their Main Street. Their Main Street is actually Park Street!" Because it was the only street that any sort of vibrancy to it. So she's walking around and she's like, "Oh, there's a lot of Latinos here. It's interesting - this is what the city is all about. Oh, okay."
So, they have dinner that night with some friends and at dinner, she tells them - proud of herself - "I've found your happenin' street all by myself. It's Park Street." And they were horrified, and they told her to never do it again and she was placing herself in severe danger. That she could've been raped or killed or whatever. And they poisoned her - as people do [and] as our nightly newscast does - they start poisoning you, and they say to you, "Don't go there. It's bad. It's unsafe." And suddenly, you start believing it if you hear it enough and that's what happened there.
I think the lesson is now - is Park Street a Disney World? No. Of course not. Very far from it. So, it's real. There are people dealing with all sorts of problems there. There's incredible poverty there. There's drugs everywhere there. But there's a real vibrancy there as well. There's warmth - there's pride. There's great restaurants. There's culture. So I guess what I'm getting at is when you say, 'How do you feel about Park Street getting a bad rep or whatever it is,' what I would hope is that people open their minds. Open their minds up more beyond simple deductions of what a place is. Open themselves up more and experience something for themselves, and then draw their own conclusions. But fully available as human beings to experience something for themselves. If they're not willing to do that and are just going to go off some newspaper headline that explains why this place is terrible, that's not good enough for me. That's not real.
So, I would say is, wouldn't this city be so much better off if we consistently - and I'm preaching to the choir - looked for the value of something? If we sought out the charm, the culture - those things that are worthwhile? Wouldn't we be better off? Wouldn't this be the city that are we are very proud to live in? So, in part, that's how I see it as well. It's our job to make it what we want it to be.