Filiberto Ojeda Rios was a controversial figure when he lived. He was a Puerto Rican revolutionary who fought to free Puerto Rico from US colonial rule. He was not afraid to use force to achieve those means and founded clandestine organizations such as the EPB (Ejercito Popular Boricua – Popular Puerto Rican Army) also known as Los Macheteros to carry his vision for a free Puerto Rico by any and all means necessary including the use of violence. Not surprisingly that political stance got Filiberto and Los Macheteros labeled as a terrorists by the US government.
Filiberto was a fugitive and one of the most wanted men on the FBI top ten list for 15 years. The FBI finally caught up with Filiberto on September 23rd of 2005, launching an assault that resulted in Filiberto being shot and wounded. Many claimed that this was not an operation to capture Filiberto but to kill him. Filiberto was left to bleed out from his wound for almost 24 hours. The outrage that this sparked in Puerto Rico and across the world carried the controversy of Filiberto’s life into his death.
A new documentary titled Filiberto, is exploring the issues of a man who was described as a terrorist by some and as a revolutionary by others. The complex nature of Filiberto has even followed him into the financing and production of the film. i interviewed a producer of Filiberto, Freddie Marrero about the project.
vagabond: Filiberto Ojeda Rios is a pretty complex and polarizing figure in Puerto Rico. What specifically drew you to wanting to do a documentary about him?
Freddie: I was drawn into Ojeda Ríos’ story by the reaction his death had on the people of Puerto Rico. It was very intriguing to see so many people of diverse backgrounds coming together to show their respect to him during his wake and burial. San Juan Archbishop and former governor Rafael Hernández Colón attended his wake. Children came out of school along the route towards the cemetery. It was something out of the ordinary to see hundreds of people participating in the farewell of someone on the FBI Wanted List. A bandit? A criminal? A hero? A terrorist? A patriot? So many questions, that we decided to begin shooting to find out who he really was.
He advocated armed resistance against US imperialism and founded clandestine armed organizations that carried out violent operations against US interests. Those seem like things that an Archbishop and a former governor would want to distance themselves from. It’s a strange thing because most Puerto Ricans don’t seem to support independence but Filiberto seems to have been celebrated as a folk hero to Puerto Ricans. Is that a dynamic that you’re trying to explore in your film?
Yes it was rather strange, almost like something that came out of a kind of magical realism. His funeral was attended by so many people. It was as big as Luis Muñoz Marin’s and bigger than Luis A. Ferré, former governors of Puerto Rico. That’s something that we’re exploring in the film along with other expressions such as the many murals, graffiti, artworks and music made in his honor. He had an impact on many people as individuals but also on people in a collective way as well. Yet so few people truly knew Ojeda Ríos. Most people knew one of his multiple dimensions. Let’s not forget he lived underground for almost four decades! (More than half his life.) So he was Felipe Ortega, trumpet player, for folks in the music circles. He had plenty of nicknames for his comrades in many militant organizations, the public first knew about him by the press and later on he became a public figure rendering clandestine interviews or sending out his own recordings on audiotapes, that were to be burned just after their dissemination to avoid becoming any sort of evidence on his whereabouts. So the documentary will try to, by means of diverse testimonies and archive material, put everything together so that people would get a better sense of who he was as a whole human being.
A major part of Filiberto’s adult life was spent being an anti-imperialist revolutionary. Many people don’t know or just aren’t clear about the colonial relationship that the US has had with Puerto Rico since 1898. How difficult was it to inform the audience of that history while still keeping your focus on Filiberto?
That’s very challenging. It still is. To tell the story of Ojeda Ríos knowing that part of the the audience would not know the basic context of the U.S. and Puerto Rico’s unique political relationship. For instance the date September 23 has a special meaning on this story for several reasons (Grito de Lares 1868, Ojeda Ríos breaking his monitoring bracelet and going underground in 1990, Ojeda Ríos Siege and Death in 2005) and that’s something we need to weave into the narrative without loosing our focus. The solution we’ve found to this is that the documentary works the dialectic between Ojeda Ríos’ life and the history he lived in. So there are many scenes of a historical nature that would fill in those who don’t know anything about Puerto Rico’s history.
The FBI kept Filiberto under constant surveillance until he went underground in 1990, and you managed to get FBI agents who were familiar to the case as well as wire-tap recordings and surveillance photos, how difficult was it to gain access to that information?
There’s a lot of information and documents that exists because the Indictment (H-85-50 TEC) against those accused of being part of the Wells Fargo robbery is still open. As you know, Víctor Manuel Gerena (AKA Aguila) is the fist name listed on the indictment and to this date he still is at large. He has the distinction of being the longest featured person on the FBI’s Ten-Most Wanted List. That means that all the information regarding that case is still available. However, it was difficult and it’s still an ongoing process gaining access to parts of that information. You have to think that we are talking about hundred of boxes of paper, hundreds of audiotapes and thousands of pictures. So it’s a lot! We’ve gained access to a good sample of all that information, that was used as evidence in court, and it’s something that will add to the production value of the documentary, as the public will be able to see some of these pictures and listen to some of the wire-taps themselves.
You managed to get some international support for the film, how did that come about?
What has allowed the project to move forward all these years is the support from the international film community that we’ve received. A couple of years ago, during the development stage the project received awards in the Nuevas Miradas market in El Festival del Nuevo Cine Latinoaméricano held in La Havana, later on we received the prestigious Chrubusco Post-Production Prize at the Film Market of the Festival Internacional de Cine de Guadalajara. We have established a co-production partnership with Panafilms in Caracas. We have a distribution deal in place with Casa Comal in Guatemala. And we’re soon attending The SunnySide of the Doc in La Rochelle with the support of The Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the U.S. We did carry out most of principal photography during 2011 with the support of the Programa Ibermedia which is an international Fund Based in Madrid. So many wonderful people and institutions from all over the world recognize the merits of this project and want the story of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos be told.
It seems the controversy of your subject has followed you into your production. Your production company Proyecto Chingara is suing the Puerto Rico Film Commission for breach of contract. The Puerto Rico FIlm Commission promised to lend almost $100,000 to the production and then decided not to because they thought the film would be political partisan?
Unfortunately that’s right. They approved a production loan for $93.4K and we worked together as partners finding the remaining finance. They supported us all the way into getting the Ibermedia Loan which completed the financing. But then they made an about-face and withdrew the funds. We found ourselves in the midst of a production process without funds to complete the documentary. With local and international deals we had made with the support of the Corporación de Cine (Puerto Rican FIlm Commmisson) and now they just walk out on their responsibility. So there was really no other option but to sue them with two goals: 1. to have them fulfill their financial obligations towards this documentary and 2. to reestablish the confidence of international funders and investors with local producers and institutions. We know these legal channels take time so we have been working on a crowdsourcing campaign where people who would like this story to be told can help collectively fund the documentary. The URL www.proyectochiringa.org will take you to our campaign where you can watch a teaser and make a donation. So far people from United States, Puerto Rico, Spain, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Costa Rica, Canada, United Kingdom and The Neatherlands have donated to help complete Filiberto.