Art For The Taking

RDACBX BANNERMACHETERO Screens today (6/29/13) in the Bronx @ 7PM as a part of the Rebel Diaz Film Festival • 1303 Louis Niñé Boulevard Bronx NY 10459 • SCREENING IS FREE!!!

The following is an old interview from 2005 when the first short version of MACHETERO was completed. It was originally published on a web site called GeoClan… The link no longer exists but GeoClan does and they are doing some good work so check them out

An Interview with Vagabond:

Illegalist Cinema: Art for the Taking

Interview by Walidah Imarisha 

Being an independent filmmaker, in this land of Hollywood multi-million dollar blockbusters with special effects on steroids and scanty story lines, ain’t easy. Being a political Puerto Punk filmmaker who wants to explore the concept of terrorism post 911 past the waving flags definitely ain’t easy, according to New York native Vagabond. But he’s been doing it for 15 years, armed with his philosophy of Illegalist Cinema and a do-it-yourself ethic. His newly released film Machetero (shot partially on location in Philadelphia), starring Isaach de Bankolé (Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, Coffee and Cigarettes, and Not4Prophet (vocalist for the band RICANSTRUCTION), marks a new stage in his career of an important voice that is constantly questioning, challenging, pushing and subverting people’s boundaries.

Walidah: When did you get started in the film business?

Vagabond: 1989, I got my first job from an ad in the Village Voice (a weekly newspaper in New York). It paid $50 a week. In my third week I got a raise to $75 a week, plus subway tokens.

Then I went to work on Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, where I got paid nothing, not even tokens. On film sets, they have to feed you if you work so I went to work for Spike so I could eat. Then on weekends, a friend of mine from the one-year of college that I did was working with the prop department, and he would let me take these huge boxes of Captain Crunch from the Korean grocery store that was across the street from Sal’s Pizzeria in the film, and I would eat Captain Crunch on weekends. After that, it was about 9 months before I started getting enough paid work to support myself. In those days, I weighed in at about 125 lbs.

W: When did you start making your own films and why?

V: One of the first films I ever made, Ricanstructing Vieques , was a punkumentary about the U.S. military occupation of Vieques, Puerto Rico. I made it with a band called RICANSTRUCTION, a political Puerto Rican punk band from out of New York. I did some music videos before that for RICANSTRUCTION.

But my first serious piece of film or video that I actually completed was for a

T-shirt company that I had started in 1990. It was a four-minute music video/commercial that was meant to play in stores and get people interested in the ideas behind the t-shirts. It didn’t really sell any shirts but it made people stop and stare at the screen for four minutes and ask why. Which was a success for me since I’m more into selling ideas than products.

And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to make films, to sell ideas that I felt weren’t being explored. And I mean sell in a positive way, as in to present and convince an audience of something they would not have initially considered. The second reason I got into making films was to tell stories that weren’t being told. I always wanted to be a storyteller. When I was a kid I had a voracious reading appetite, I would read five or six books at a time. And I loved comic books and the way that you could tell stories using graphics. I taught myself to draw and I went to a specialized high school here in NYC for art to pursue my dream of becoming a comic book artist. I struggled with the medium of comic books for years and never felt as though I could create enough drawings for the stories I wanted to tell. Wanting to make films came out of that frustration.

W: Can you tell me more about your filmmaking philosophy?

V: Well, I have a kind of anti-manifesto that I came up with that I try to use as a guide to make films. I call it Illegalist Cinema: the Cinema of Cine-automatic.

Illegalist Cinema is: 

1- a cinema of poverty

2- a cinema of acquisition

3- a cinema of misappropriation

4- a cinema of rebellion

5- a cinema of illegality

It’s an anti-manifesto because it puts art above all things, above laws and punishment, above conditions and criticism. Art is king in the anti-manifesto of Illegalist Cinema. Art and radical rebellious ideas, both politically and aesthetically. Machetero and all my other films are made on the principles of Illegalist Cinema. The Illegalist Cinema anti-manifesto allows me to free myself of the self-imposed fears that the film industry manages to instill in people who work in the industry.

W: This may be a redundant question, but what makes your films any different from other movies that are around?

V: With the advent of digital technology allowing filmmakers to put anything they can imagine to film, I think the only frontier left to explore is that of story structure. I try to find new ways in which to structure a film and still tell a story. I like experimenting with the elements of structure, the plot, subplots, the characters, the relation to time and space within a story, using these elements to not just tell the story but to have the structure in some way be the story itself.

W: What films have you worked on, and what films have you made?

V: I’ve been working in the film industry for 15 years now and I’ve worked on everything and anything that could possibly pay the bills: films, commercials, music videos, industrials, you name it. I’ve worked with the some of the best in the business like David Lynch, Barbet Schroeder and Spike Lee, and I’ve worked with the worst. Working with the best is good but you learn more from working with the worst. Working with the best can be deceiving, in a certain way; they make it look easy. Working with the worst is where you can see all things that have a potential to go wrong… go wrong and make say to yourself, “Whatever I do, I don’t want to do it like this.”

I’ve made a few films, Ricanstructing Vieques, which I mentioned before. I made a short film called Requiem , which is from a longer feature-length script that I wrote about a young man haunted by a personification of his own innocence.

Then there is another short film called Amor + Rabia that I’m extending this year into a feature. That film is about three Puerto Punks searching for a place to live freely and when they can’t find it, they decide to create it by starting a revolution.

Then there is my newest film just completed, Machetero, about a French journalist interviewing a so-called Puerto Rican terrorist about his decision to use violence in his cause to free himself and his people.

Then there have been a bunch of music videos along the way.

W: Tell me more about Machetero.

V: Machetero is about the so-called terrorist, but it’s also a story about a young Puerto Rican kid growing up in the streets of the ghetto and how he grows up to be the next Machetero. (The Macheteros were the farmers and sugar cane workers in the late 1800s that fought to free Puerto Rico from Spanish colonial rule and fought to the United States invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898. Since then the Machetero symbol has become an icon of Puerto Rican resistance. In the 1960s, a group of Puerto Ricans decided to call themselves Macheteros and were both a clandestine armed organization and political party fighting to free Puerto Rico from the United States colonial domination.)

W: Your work is obviously political. Do you think that audiences connect?  Or, do you think the politics in it turns them off?

V: Audiences connect with the strength of ideas and stories and characters. Politics is a game for politicians and I can’t stomach politics. My work tends to be about people caught in the gears of a system that doesn’t give them the room to be what they want to be and the struggle to extricate themselves from the system that is imprisoning them. My work may be seen as overtly political because it’s based on real problems that exist right now.

Nobody really sees many of the mainstream movies that play in your local multiplex as being political because they don’t have a direct or obvious correlation to the world in which we live. Movies like Collateral Damage or Black Hawk Down are political but in a more mainstream way and it could even be argued that those films are actually propaganda films for U.S. imperialism. My work references current day struggles from the other side, so it’s seen as more political. Audiences for the most part have been positive about my work, even those who might not agree with my particular views on the situation and that might be because I’m trying to relate how politics affects people.

W: Politically (or not politically, since you don’t like that word!) why was it important to make Machetero now? How is it relevant?

V: The theme of the film is centered on the unending cycle of violence. The recent events of 9/11 and the refusal of the corporate controlled media in this country to critically look at the situation were the inspiration of the film. Terrorism is not something that grows up in a vacuum. There is a cause and effect like anything else in the world. The word terrorist and terrorism are thrown around to easily without any context or understanding of the situations that create terrorists or terrorism. Machetero is a direct response to that and tries to give those ideas a context.

W: It’s obviously more difficult for independent filmmakers that for those that have the backing of a studio. Can you talk about some of those differences, and tell me why you don’t go the easy route and work in Hollywood?

V: There are two ways to define independent filmmaking now. The first way is a more traditional way of thinking of independent film, which is in terms of riskier, more daring and adventurous and experimental films made by filmmakers who refused to have outside forces determine the outcome of their films.

The other way to define independent filmmaking is strictly in terms of financing. The recent Star Wars films and The Passion of Christ are examples of this. George Lucas and Mel Gibson independently financed those films themselves and made the films they wanted to make without any outside interference, but they are hardly what we would consider independent in the way that I mentioned before.

The difference between Hollywood and real independent filmmakers (I say “real” because the term independent in regard to filmmaking is something that’s been abused for marketing and profit purposes) is access to money or access to the resources that money can buy. As soon as someone has a financial stake in something, it becomes their right within the film industry for them to have an opinion about what’s being said or how it’s being said. I’ve watched the way Hollywood or record companies and advertising agencies look over the shoulder of a writer or producer or director and question this or that, or want to have the ability to have input in something that they really should just leave alone. However, if you can have access to those resources that only money can buy either without paying for them or getting away with paying for them at a fraction of the cost, then you can level the playing field and create a film in which there is no one to answer to but yourself.

In my opinion, it’s not necessarily easier to do the Hollywood thing. Hollywood wants input in the work it finances and Hollywood’s input is about money and nothing else.

One of the things that I learned while making Machetero is that having the freedom to say what you want the way you want to is the strongest asset a true independent filmmaker can possibly have.



3 thoughts on “Art For The Taking”

  1. Hello there,
    Your spirit of a warrior and thirst for justice is admirable.
    Protecting the weak and standing for something is strength
    Violence is violence is violence.
    Learned this the hard way, over and over. The one that doesn’t involve dead people is this:
    I used to think spanking my children wasn’t violence. It was the only way to make them understand, honor and become good people. Thought they would walk all over me and grow up to suck if I didn’t do my duty. I saw no alternative.
    Life sucked all around.
    It wasn’t till after I made an almost miraculous commitment to not spank again, that I began to understand what the alternatives were. ( It was hard to keep and I failed a few times. )
    There were no alternatives for me before I made that choice. My only way was violence toward my children.
    I like the third way better. So do my children. It is a journey. The path didn’t reveal itself till I was walking it. Years passed before spanking didn’t pop into my head as the solution for this or that.
    You fight for the children, perhaps they would appreciate a third way.
    May you be blessed, or whatever, peaceful warrior.
    : )

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