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LatinoBuzz: Interview with MACHETERO filmmaker Vagabond

LatinoBuzz: Interview with MACHETERO filmmaker Vagabond

To say
Machetero, the award winning debut feature film by Vagabond, is unique in
nearly every way is an understatement. Machetero is film that is a punk style,
gritty and technically not structured in a traditional manner but yet with
specific and intentional use of voice over, text and songs to shape the
narrative in what Vagabond describes as an ‘Avant Garde Musical’. The subject
is set around an idea that resonates even more today with the question of who
is considered a “Freedom Fighter” and who is considered a “Terrorist” in the
face of land occupation but uses the resistance movement in Puerto Rico to US
colonialism as its theme – a controversial subject matter that hasn’t been
explored much in fictional cinema. 
Vagabond made Machetero, guerilla, no budget,
“what-the-hell-is-a-permit?” style with friends for over ten years believing
with drive and passion that it would find its audience one day. 

LatinoBuzz: How important was this film for you to hold on and believe in it for so

Vagabond: I wrote the script for Machetero in 2002 and I’ve been working on and off
on this film for about 10 years. Machetero was initially conceived as a short
film and so there was no intent to make it a feature but the first cut I did of
the film was 45 minutes and making it shorter was not an option because the
ideas we were exploring about terrorism and terrorists in a post 9/11 world
were so dense. Our only option at that point was to improvise what we had into
a feature length film. Holding on
for that long and believing in the film was easy. On an artistic or creative
level I wasn’t trying to make Machetero I was trying to let the film make
itself and allowing for that process took more time than someone might take
with a project. I learned to be patient with Machetero and the reward for that
patience was an understanding that I make films because I have a question that
only the process of making a film can answer. The other element that tested my
patience was that I work within the constraints of having very little in the
way of resources and almost no money and that dictated the pace of production.
The real test to my belief and my patience came after I made the film and I got
rejection letter after rejection letter from US based film festivals. I was
happy with the film, I thought I did some interesting things with structure and
storytelling but it didn’t seem to click with anyone in the US. It shocked me
because I had Isaach de Bankolé in the film and he’s worked with some of the
most interesting filmmakers in the world, Jim Jarmusch, Claire Denis, Lars Von
Trier, Nicolas Roeg, Michael Mann. I mean, Isaach is no slouch, he’s careful
who he works with and he chose to work with me on Machetero but it didn’t seem
to do anything for me in terms of having a name or a star helping you to get
into festivals or get the film some recognition. That was something that kind
of shook my belief. It wasn’t until we started doing festivals outside the US
that we started to get some traction and my faith for staying the course was
five awards overseas.

LatinoBuzz: How
important is it that Latinos support a project such as this?

Vagabond: If we’re
talking about Latino’s supporting this project because it’s made by Latino’s
and the subject matter is Latino in nature then I think that happens
organically. I’m self-releasing Machetero and I went to the Puerto Rican Day
parade to promote it by handing out thousands of postcards and for the most
part when I told people this was my film, 95% of them were genuinely interested
in supporting it. i think that Latinos are like anyone else, they want to see
their own do well. If we’re talking about Latino support in terms of helping a
film or filmmaker into mainstream success, I’m not sure how important it is for
Latinos to support a project, because I don’t think that Latino support of a
project helps brings mainstream attention or success. And that’s not just
something that’s true for Latino’s but true for African American filmmakers as well.
There isn’t an pipeline in place in the US by which Latino or African American
films or filmmakers are lifted up by their own and guided into wider
recognition. I think we as people of color like to believe the myth, that if we
are supported by our own people then we can create that pipeline. But the
pipeline doesn’t exist and wishing it, doesn’t make it so. There aren’t any
mechanisms that Latinos or African Americans have that act as a conduit to
finding a wider audience. There is no apparatus that we’ve built that allows us
to decide who we want to uplift and represent us outside of our own community.
There are no places that people outside of our community go to find out, who we
as a community, are supporting. i think that part of the fault for that, is on
us as a community for not creating a pipeline that feeds the mainstream.
However, i also i think, that a large of part of why that pipeline doesn’t
exist is that the mainstream likes to choose who and what it likes, to
represent us, so that it can maintain it’s own power.

LatinoBuzz: Do you
think more films should be made about the political history in Latin America
and the Caribbean?

Vagabond: Yeah I do. I think there’s such a lack of films on the
political history of Latin America and the Caribbean coming from filmmakers in
that region or from out of that diaspora and I think that we need a barrage of
them. My film is often criticized by people for not being everything to
everyone, not so much because they find Machetero lacking but because our representation
on so many issues is lacking. Especially on a political and historical front.
Puerto Ricans aren’t used to seeing their political history told and so they
don’t know when they might see themselves or their stories in a film again. I
wasn’t surprised to hear people ask me why i didn’t shine a light on every
aspect of Puerto Rico’s history because there are no films about Puerto Rico’s
political history. So the criticism that’s being leveled at me and at Machetero is one that’s coming out of frustration, out of the lack, out of the need. Once
I tell them that I did all that I could with what I had they begin to realize
that Machetero is just one film trying to fill a space that needs to be filled
by dozens of films by Puerto Rican filmmakers. This isn’t just a problem in
Puerto Rico but also in the Dominican Republic and Haiti and Jamaica and El
Salvador and Guatemala and Nicaragua and a number of other places. The need for
these people to have their own political history included in a cinematic form
is dire. And not by someone coming off the almighty mountain of Hollywood in
some twisted version of Cinematic Manifest Destiny but a cinema that comes from
the people of those countries shaping their own national cinema.

LatinoBuzz: What
story do you want to tell next?

Vagabond: I’m working on trying to put together a few projects. One of
the projects I’m working on is a film about former US held Puerto Rican
Political Prisoner of War Dylcia Pagán. It’s called Freedom On Layaway and it’s
a documentary that focuses on her arrest, imprisonment and release but the
documentary is framed within a narrative structure. I’m also working on a crime
genre film about a young man who is forced into a life of crime in order to
save his family but it’s difficult because he’s got a strict ethical code that
he lives by and that creates conflict with the criminals he runs with. If my
luck holds I may be able to shoot that starting this fall. If that doesn’t
happen I’ll try and shoot another film that I have on deck that’s the modern
day retelling of the Jesus Christ story. Except Jesus is Puerto Rican and born
in a Casita in the South Bronx and his disciples are considered a terrorist
cell. Needless to say he’s crucified all over again because people don’t seem
to learn from history. A real dream project of mine though is a film about the
FBI assassination of Puerto Rican independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios.
Filiberto was kind of like the Puerto Rican ‘Che Guevara’. He was killed on
September 23rd, a Puerto Rican national holiday known as El Grito De Lares,
a holiday marking the violent uprising against Spanish colonial rule in 1868.
Filiberto was on the FBI’s most wanted list and even though he lived in
clandestinity, he wrote articles and gave radio and television interviews. As
he lay shot and bleeding to death in his home his last audio speech could be
heard at the Grito De Lares celebration just a short distance away. When Dylcia
Pagán commented on the assassination she said it wasn’t just an attack on
Filiberto but an attempt to kill the independence movement in Puerto Rico. It
just doesn’t get any more political, historical, dramatic or cinematic than

Naturally Vagabond would self distribute, grass roots style at the
Clemente Soto Velez Theater – which holds greater meaning that the theater is
named after a Puerto Rican nationalist, writer and activist – in NYC’s Lower East Side on June 12th for
an initial one week run through June 19th. Screenings will include
Q&A’s. For more info check out
their website: and ‘Like’ them at

Written by Juan Caceres and Vanessa Erazo, LatinoBuzz is a weekly feature on SydneysBuzz that highlights
Latino indie talent and upcoming trends in Latino film with the specific
objective of presenting a broad range of Latino voices. Follow
 @LatinoBuzz on Twitter and Facebook.


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