Mexican filmmaker Sebastian Diaz based in New York, recently co-directed the documentary Toñita’s, with Beyza Boyacioglu. It was shown in February at the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight 2014. Diaz completed the short documentary Toñita’s during a fellowship in 2012-2013 with UnionDocs Collaborative Studio in Brooklyn. The short documentary follows the regulars of Toñita’s, the last Caribbean social club in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Owner, Maria Toñita Cay provides a space that has resisted change in a neighborhood that has undergone a rapid socio-economic transformation over the two past decades. In 2010, Diaz co-directed the documentary Brilliant Soil, which followed Herlinda, a Purepecha indigenous potter who uses lead-free glaze for her creations. His work has been exhibited in Madrid, Vienna, and Mexico City. The following interview took place in February.
You directed the film together with Beyza Boyacioglu, describe your process of collaboration.
It was a super enriching experience as we both came from different backgrounds and brought different perspectives to the process. Beyza comes from the field of visual and computer arts while I have done lots of documentary films. It was great to bounce ideas and learn new stuff from one another. Beyza has an acute ability for the craft of film-making and has been interested in documentary arts for a long time, so it felt as working with someone who had been doing documentaries for a while.
Since we were both drawn to shooting, originally we thought of switching back and forth between cinematography and sound recording. As we moved forward it made more sense to each stick to one task. Although I am very passionate about cinematography, I quickly realized Beyza’s natural ability and great eye, and I think we couldn’t have made a better choice, as she did an outstanding job with the camera. Also, at the early stages we had more people reacting negatively to being filmed. I was more aware of those vibes because I speak Spanish and was doing sound, but Beyza would just focus on whatever she was shooting without picking up any of that.
As far as co-directing, we were on a constant dialog about where the story could evolve as situations and our original plans kept on changing—which is almost a general rule about documentary film-making. A very helpful thing was having the UnionDocs CoLAB studio project meetings, as we had access to a lot of feedback from a group of other artists and mentors also invested in the project.
We edited the film together in a very organic way. We decided which scenes or sequences each of us wanted to cut, then we would get together to assemble, watch, and readjust. Sometimes I would give a second pass to a sequence cut by Beyza or vice-versa.
You capture the essence of Toñita’s Club and the important role it plays in the community with poignancy. It is the last Caribbean Club in Williamsburg, in what has become one of the trendiest areas of the city. What initially captured your attention? How did the project develop?
Toñita’s is produced as a part of 2013 Collaborative Studio from UnionDocs, an organization based in the Southside of Williamsburg, also known as Los Sures by the Hispanic community that has a long history there.
The program is designed to generate content which may form a part of a larger project called Living Los Sures. This multi-faceted project restores Diego Echeverria’s 1984 film Los Sures, makes it accessible to audiences online, remixes local histories through a web documentary platform, and reinvestigates Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn today through a collection of short films.
A Puerto Rican friend of Beyza told her about the Caribbean Sports Club and she and some other fellows from the Collaborative Studio asked around until they found it. We were fascinated by this place and its people, and we started to hang out there. At the time I was thinking of developing my project for UnionDocs around block parties and was talking about collaborating on this idea with the club’s resident DJ. Beyza was thinking of doing a project involving the club’s owner Maria Toñita, so eventually Beyza and I decided to join efforts and do a project together about this space and its owner Maria Toñita Cay, who we found intriguing and admirable. We really just wanted to celebrate the lively community and culture that we enjoyed being around at the club. By giving a voice to some of the regulars in the documentary—including DJ Sando—the issues of displacement of the Caribbean community from Williamsburg emerged and we were compelled to also dig more about it.
You are working on a full length documentary that will expand on the themes you explore in Toñita’s. How is that project evolving?
It’s going slowly but surely. We have continued to shoot some important events in the neighborhood, such as the Southside reunion Block Party, where DJ Sando from the Caribbean Club participates each year. We have also done additional, more in-depth interviews with some of the characters. An important reason to extend the piece into a feature is to explore deeper on the historical past of the Puerto Rican community in Williamsburg and its cultural heritage and identity. We are hoping to incorporate archival materials to contextualize and help contrast the changes of the neighborhood. In that sense, UnionDocs owns the rights to the amazing documentary Los Sures shot in the Southside of Williamsburg in 1984. We’re also planning to show Puerto Rico, hopefully following some of the characters as they visit their hometown. We’re ready to shoot that and it really just depends on when the characters plan to go visit. We’re currently doing some grant writing and hope to get a push through that effort, but regardless, it’s a great exercise that really forces you to think about your project. We are considering to do a crowd-sourcing campaign but haven’t determined that yet. If we do, that’s something that becomes a project on its own involving a lot of work, so we’ll see.
What advice would you have liked to receive as you started your career in film and visual media?
Doing documentary films is for crazy people. But the bright side of it, though, is that the satisfactions are huge. You get to meet amazing new people and new ways to experience the world, thus getting a new understanding to your own reality. Maybe a good advice would have been to study business and personal branding—aside from creative stuff—as that’s the most challenging “art” that I struggle with in terms of finding resources to create work. There’re people really talented at selling themselves and able to build projects as business models, beyond the artistic craft of film-making. I always knew it’s a competitive, challenging field, and I think that people who do documentary do it because there’s something bigger than you, and you will do it no matter what. But maybe that advice would have given me a skill set I lack today.
Although I love the freedom of the DIY spirit—which is how I’ve always done work—its hard and sometimes frustrating to not be able to focus more on creating and less on worrying about how to pay rent.
What area of the city would you like to explore next?
There’s a project in the neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn that I’m personally interested in working on. The changes in that area are very similar to what’s been going on in Williamsburg, with the displacement of old-time residents being priced out, the washing out of community, and stuff like that, but one of the main reasons I’m interested on this project is the group of people I’m developing it with. The main character was raised in Bushwick and is very passionate about Brooklyn and his neighborhood in particular, where he is a performing arts promoter.
Beyond doing projects, I would like to explore more the area of Queens and the Bronx, as I haven’t been able to spend as much time there as I would like to. South Bronx is a place I definitely would like to explore, just because of its cultural history in being the birthplace of the original hip hop cultural movement. I’m pretty sure that if you don’t know people, there’s probably not going to be much to explore by visiting, but just the romantic idea of being there is appealing to me. And for some a reason I don’t even know, I’m really curious of going on a day trip to explore Roosevelt Island.
Interview and text by CLACS MA Student José Raúl Guzmán