Machetero, which screens this Thursday, Oct. 29 at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, is a film whose guerrilla production matches both the film's visual aesthetic and its narrative. It tells two stories concurrently: one in which imprisoned revolutionary Pedro Taino (Not4Prophet) is interviewed by a journalist (Jarmush regular Isaach De Bankolé, pictured), and the other about the political awakening of a young man (Kelvin Fernandez) on the streets of New York. As directed and written by Vagabond, Machetero's radical politics extend to the film's non-linear narrative, and its use of on-screen titles, foregrounding the revolutionary literature passed amongst the characters, as well as lyrics from the soundtrack by the NYC-based band Ricanstruction (of which Not4Prophet is the lead singer). Recently, I spoke to Vagabond about the film's intersections of art and politics.
Could you say a little about the word "Machetero," where it comes from, and why you chose it as your title?
The direct Spanish translation of the word "machetero" is someone who works with a machete. However, there is a cultural definition to the word that is unique to Puerto Rico. The "Macheteros" were sugarcane field workers who fought against Spanish colonial rule, and when the US invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 during the Spanish-American war, they fought against the Americans as well. In the late 1960s, Puerto Rican independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios started a clandestine armed organization called "Ejercito Popular Boricua" ("Popular Puerto Rican Army"). Puerto Ricans throughout the Diaspora called them "Macheteros".
The title of the film comes from a saying the Macheteros had, "¡Todo Boricua Machetero!" ("All Puerto Ricans Are Machetero!") which connected Puerto Ricans to their revolutionary past. When I thought more about that saying, it seemed to me that what the EPB was trying to do was to create this idea of the Machetero as warrior and protector of the Puerto Rican people in much the same way that the Samurai is in Japan.
How did the revolutionary politics of the film affect your aesthetic approach to the film?
The film had to be radically unconventional in the same way that guerrilla warfare is radically unconventional. The reason revolutionaries use guerrilla tactics is because they don't have access to fighter jets or tanks, so they make do with what they have. They become resourceful with their tactics in order to achieve their goals. It was the same with making Machetero. The structure of the film was devised in a way to make the shooing of the film easier. The use of voice-over in the film allowed us to shoot most of the film without having to worry or rely too much on shooting sync sound. The voice-over dialogue was recorded first so that we could juxtapose images against it. As a result, we could shift images and timelines around because the voice-over dialogue was the foundation from which the rest of the film was built on. As long as the voice-over dialogue had some sense of continuity, the images that accompany it had a freedom that could not otherwise be afforded to us if we shot the film conventionally. Since the film thematically is about finding a way to achieve freedom, it only enhanced the theme to have a certain freedom in the narrative structure to the film. The on-screen titles were also another way of playing with the narrative structure in the film, since many of them either allude to character and time or thematic issues the film raises. The subject matter of revolution doesn't allow for conventional filmmaking or conventional storytelling.
How do you see your film fitting into the larger framework of politicized cinema? You mention Solanas and Getino's essay "Towards a Third Cinema" on your website, but I was also reminded of Paradise Now.
I actually read Solanas and Getino's "Towards A Third Cinema" toward the end of making Machetero. I came across the essay and immediately thought that this is what Machetero is. For those not familiar with Third Cinema, First Cinema is Hollywood commercial film and Second Cinema is the European art film or the European auteur film. Third Cinema is a response from the third world to create a cinema that would reflect the reality of poor and struggling people and inspire them to extricate themselves from whatever situation oppresses them. When the essay was initially written, it was calling for third world filmmakers to create a cinema that was reflective of their reality. Although I was born in Brooklyn and have lived in the US all my life, and a majority of Machetero was made here in the US, the colonial condition that Puerto Ricans have lived under both on the island and in the US has been one of third world proportions, so I felt comfortable relating Machetero to Third Cinema.
I made Machetero to raise questions about the way in which the labels like "terrorist" and "terrorism" are used and what that means to people who may feel that the only means to free themselves from these oppressive situations is to use violence. That violence is often described and defined by the state and its media apparatus as "terrorism". One of the ideas that I'm trying to put forward in Machetero is that violence is a language that oppressors choose to use and that those who struggle against it and respond in kind are speaking the same language as their oppressors in an effort to get them to use another means of communication. However this decision to use violence as a means of communication is not a decision that oppressed people come to easily. This may be where you see a parallel to Hany Abu Assad's film Paradise Now, which was definitely a source of inspiration for Machetero.
In recent years there has been much controversy surrounding rights of filmmakers to shoot on the streets of New York. As an independent filmmaker, what was your experience like?
One of the things I do to make a living is provide location services to production companies, so I know what I can get away with and what I can't get away with or at least how much of a risk I'm taking if I do decide to work outside "the regulations" or "the law." I shot everything but one scene in Machetero without permits or permission. That doesn't mean I didn't have problems with the police. There were five different encounters with law enforcement that varied from simply hiding from the cops to being arrested. Before I made Machetero I wrote a manifesto called "Illegalist Cinema: The Cinema of Cine-automatic" that put art before legality in the filmmaking process.
Over the years I've seen the tightening restrictions that the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting has put on independent filmmakers. It used to be easier to make a film in this town but lately it's been getting harder and harder. That being said the Mayor's Office still needs to make it easy enough for larger productions to come to the city and shoot, and as an independent filmmaker it's important to exploit some of those incentives to our own benefit.