Residents share their stories on camera

First time filmmaker Lucy Aponte (left) in the audience at BronxArtSpace for Mott Haven Home Movies on June 8. Photo: Miamichelle Abad

Fledgling filmmakers wear their hearts on their sleeves

Esther Gonzalez felt nervous when she looked around BronxArtSpace and saw people chattering. In front of them a big screen read “Mott Haven Home Movies.” In just minutes, her own, first-ever film would be getting its premier viewing.

Gonzalez’s film was one of 10 documentaries that aired on June 8 at the gallery on East 140th Street, all made by Mott Haven residents who had never made a movie before. 

For six months leading up to the event, The Mott Haven Home Movies project, which was organized by the iD Studio Theater, provided Bronxites technical guidance free of charge, to tell their stories on celluloid. Project director Lucia della Paolera said the inspiration came from the hit show MTV Cribs, where celebrities flaunt their luxurious homes.

In “Maria” by Erielkina Pizzaro, the audience visually tours the apartment of a woman who maintains a garden in front of her home in Patterson Houses. The garden, she said, helps her feel like her native Puerto Rico is still with her.

“Amor Es” explores the definition of love through man-on-the-street interviews. It was one of the evening’s few light-hearted pieces.

Lucy Aponte was surprised when the crowd applauded after watching “In Search of,” in which she takes viewers for a ride along 138th Street while tracing steps she took as a child searching for her mother, who had abandoned her. Aponte, who was raised by her grandmother, never experienced a mother-daughter bond. She decided to film that void.

“I remember special occasions like Christmas time or New Year’s when everybody was saying ‘Happy New Year,’ and all the little kids are running to their mothers, and my siblings and I would back off because none of them were our mother,” she said. “I used to go into a room and cry.” When younger, Aponte thought her pain was unique, but she later came to learn it wasn’t so.

“So many people have this experience and they get caught in it and don’t know they can survive it. I think I found a way to survive it,” she said. She wants to use her film as a springboard to a bigger project exploring the issue.

Jessica Castro had planned to film herself dancing at home and interviewing her parents, but that all changed over the course of the program. Through her film “#Dancesavedmylife,” she shared her transition, going from a home filled with love and music to one where her father heard antagonizing voices and her mother struggled to cope with his mental illness. “It ended up being more about the story of my childhood and them and where we are now, and who I am now,” said Castro.

Castro used scenes of herself dancing, to demonstrate what she felt when her father’s condition began to deteriorate and her mother struggled to adjust. Her film recounts the schism of being popular in school, then hiding in her room after returning home, to avoid dealing with her parents’ pain. Castro said she learned a lot from watching her own film.

“It made me realize how much I have of my mom and how much I have of my dad,” she said. “Sometimes it takes something like this to really see the similarities and to see that you’re not so different from your parents.”

Esther Gonzalez called her piece “Innocence and Freedom” a small victory she is eager to share on social media. It tells the story of her brother Orlando, who was convicted of killing an elderly woman in 2005 and has been locked up since then. Gonzalez maintains her brother is paying for a crime he did not commit, and that their aunt falsely testified against him. The film, she said, was her way of helping to free Orlando. “I believe a hundred percent that someone would see it and probably want to help my brother.”

Gonzalez’s experience with the project has motivated her to start a new project she wants to call “The Inmate’s Voices,” to tell the stories of the incarcerated who want to talk about their lives.

“I just want to give the inmates a chance to express themselves,” she said. “Not a lot of inmates have someone to talk, and I would want to be that person.”

BronxArtSpace’s director Stephanie Lindquist, who witnessed some of the filmmakers in action, said the experience moved her.

“I was so touched by everyone’s story and how honest they were, and how generous they were,” she said.

The project was funded by grants from the Bronx Council of the Arts, the Greater New York Arts Development Fund Program and a Neighborhood Grant from the Citizens Committee for New York City.