Filmmaking Unexpectedly Becomes a Family Affair

Filmmaking Unexpectedly Becomes a Family Affair

BMC alum Edwin Martinez is a Bronx-born filmmaker whose first feature documentary, To Be Heard, won awards at DOC NYC, Seattle International, Nantucket, San Diego Latino and Sarasota film festivals. As a cinematographer he has worked on feature-length fiction and documentary films including Rachel Is, Leave No Soldier, Las Marthas, and What Alice Found (winner, Special Jury Prize, Sundance). After graduating from the SUNY Purchase Film Conservatory, he earned a Master’s in Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has worked as an instructor in various youth media programs in Boston and New York City. Edwin is currently developing several feature-length projects, including Rooftop Films grantee The Last Doo Wop, while producing films for educational, government and non-profit organizations. He also likes to bake.

Making a film about teenagers can be one of the most fulfilling experiences for any documentary filmmaker. You just better make sure you have enough food in the fridge.

I completed a 5-year documentary called To Be Heard, about 3 teen poets growing up in the Bronx. A few years into making the film, my doorbell rang one night. Standing in the hallway alone and red-eyed was one of the girls from the film. Her mother had just kicked her out of the house, and rather than get into another fistfight at home– both events that occur elsewhere in the film– she packed a bag and left. Sitting on our couch, in front of a plate of food growing cold, she sobbingly told my brother and I (he was my roomate, and the film’s sound recordist) what happened. It was then that I realized we had become much more than crew to these 3 young people. We had become family.

During the film’s run in festivals and theaters a few years later, I found it consistently strange how I was often asked how I’d been able to get the main characters in the film to open up and be so honest on screen. My answer was always glibly the same; it wasn’t that hard.

I think it’s true of any teenager, but maybe especially those who I spend time with, that they spend most of their days being tamped down. Parents tell them how to live, teachers tell them what to learn, friends tell them what to say, cops tell them where they can’t be, bosses tell them what to do, and much of the public looks down upon them as some sort of alien nuisance. They live in a world where they are allowed to determine almost nothing about their lives. No one hears. No one listens. No one cares.

So, when you show up in a young person’s life and you care, and you listen to them, and you treat them as an equal, and most importantly you keep showing up– well, it’s such a rarity that you will find they are desperate for it. They need it. You don’t have to get them to be open about their lives, their pains, or their dreams. They are bursting at the seams. All you have to do is ask.

At some point I realized that these amazing young people, who had given so much of their lives to me and my camera, weren’t doing it because they wanted to be in a movie. There was something deeper at work. This was further confirmed when, after years of filming, one of the girls told me she’d always assumed the film would never get finished; a sentiment the others– to my annoyance– seconded. Yet despite that, they still often asked us to come out and film them, to visit with them, and spend time together. We, and this crazy project, had become a part of their lives. After all the time we spent with them shooting and hanging out, we’d become inextricably woven into each other. It was at the same time scary and beautiful, a human connection both precious and profound. I’d started out making a film about 3 kids and ended finding up finding 3 siblings.

So that crisp fall night, when Karina had nowhere to go and needed our help, I did what any big brother would do for his little sister. I made her dinner, let her cry, and left the camera on the shelf.