Just going into its third summer this year, the Stony Brook Southampton digital filmmaking program can already boast an impressive success story: 2011 digital filmmaking workshop participant Andrew Padilla won Best Documentary Short in the 2012 Puerto Rico International Film Festival for his “El Barrio Tours,” a film about the gentrification of East Harlem’s El Barrio.
The film is now slated to receive its New York City East Harlem premiere on Friday, April 5, at 6:30 p.m. at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work at 119th Street and 3rd Avenue.
When he applied to the first-ever digital filmmaking conference in Southampton in 2011, Mr. Padilla was exactly the sort of student the new film program was hoping to attract: passionate about the stories he wants to tell and eager to do whatever it takes to get them told on film.
“Entrepreneurial” is the shorthand Stony Brook Southampton MFA in Theatre Director Nick Mangano uses to characterize students like Mr. Padilla.
After the filmmaker took part in the first conference, his face graced the poster for the 2012 program, something that seemed to make him a little uncomfortable.
“I’m better behind the camera,” Mr. Padilla said.
And that’s where the 23-year-old Spanish Harlem resident has been for the last few years—behind the camera—when he wasn’t at his day job as a paralegal. The subject and location of his film, East Harlem, is the neighborhood where he grew up and the challenges faced by other longtime residents such as himself. Also known as “El Barrio,” the neighborhood is home to 24 of Manhattan’s 102 public housing developments and, if developers have their way, luxury condominiums and a new name: Upper Yorkville.
Interviewed last spring in El Barrio shortly after completing the documentary, the tall and slender filmmaker wore neat blue jeans, a crisp denim shirt and a dark wool jacket. His dark eyes, jet black hair and carefully trimmed goatee showed his Puerto Rican roots and set off a nose he said was broken in a pillow fight.
Despite being camera-shy, Mr. Padilla was self-confident and well-spoken. With a degree in political science from Fordham University, he sounded like an idealistic politician as he explained his goals as a filmmaker.
“There is nothing wrong with better housing, lower crime, better food and services,” he began, “but when the people who made the neighborhood a desirable place to move into must leave for those services to be enjoyed by new residents, that’s a problem.”
The filmmaker said he hopes that by sharing what is happening there through the medium of film, people in other neighborhoods across the country suffering the same fate will know they are not alone and residents will be inspired to do something before it’s too late. If residents get involved in politics and community groups, Mr. Padilla said, they can take ownership of the neighborhoods they are working to improve.
His film features interviews with Representative Charlie Rangel and Judge Edwin Torres, author of the novel “Carlito’s Way,” as well as East Harlem residents, small-business owners and activists as they explore what gentrification is doing to the place they have always called home.
On a tour of El Barrio, Mr. Padilla pointed out several ghostly four- and five-story walk-up buildings that had been kept deliberately vacant by the owners of street-level shops, making the streets quiet and lifeless after dark. He longs for the area to be restored to the lively, bustling and colorful neighborhood it once was, he said.
Mr. Padilla took on all jobs—director, director of photography, cameraman, editor, producer, grip and publicist—for his film. His project at the 2011 Southampton Digital Filmmaking Conference, “The Doc,” was a comical take on working with others in documentary filmmaking. It was during the Stony Brook Southampton conference that he learned how to manage a crew, he reported.
“When you’re not in a creative circle,” he said of his earliest filmmaking efforts, “it’s hard to find people who are driven and can afford to take the time away from working to pay the bills.”
In Southampton, for the first time he had people who could crew for him, and all the lighting, camera, sound and editing equipment he needed to do the job right.
The filmmaker has also made a feature-length documentary, “The Women I Love,” which follows a young man returning to the Dominican Republic to confront his father, who had abandoned the family. Mr. Padilla said he hopes that his film efforts will educate and motivate people to “make significant changes in their lives and the futures of their community.”
Mr. Padilla has always had a passion for championing New York City’s working class. At first he thought it would be as a lawyer defending those who could not afford to defend themselves, but as he conceded on his tumblr page, “I didn’t want to wait till I was 25 or 26 to make a tangible difference in the lives of others,” the 23-year-old wrote. Digital filmmaking has given him an avenue for change, he said.
His advice to other young filmmakers? “Be true to your experience, no matter what it is. People will relate even if they’re not part of it.” For his part, Mr. Padilla said he believes that Stony Brook Southampton is in a unique position, as part of a state school, to make it possible for students like him—who don’t have the resources available for traditional film schools—to become filmmakers and bring some very different voices into the mix.
“No other film schools do this,” he said of the way he envisions the film program developing. “You would be ushering in a crop of film school students who had a vastly different experience than those who normally go to these programs, and the unique works that could be created would be the ultimate payoff.”
“El Barrio Tours” will be screened on Friday, April 5, at 6:30 p.m. in the theater at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, located at 2180 Third Avenue in New York. For ticket information, visit elbarriotours-eac2.eventbrite.com.
Catherine Zimmermann is an MFA in Creative Writing candidate at Stony Brook Southampton.