My Journey with "Los Sures"

The director of the essential 1984 portrait of Williamsburg introduces his film.
Diego Echeverria

MUBI is exclusively showing Diego Echeverria's Los Sures (1984) in a new restoration September 3 - October 2, 2016.

Diego Echeverria. Photo by Ellen Tolmie.

From the moment, in 1971, that I arrived to New York City to study film at Columbia University, I found a vibrant and welcoming Puerto Rican community that provided support and continuity to my own life. I was born in Chile, but raised mostly in Puerto Rico where I had witnessed almost half the population of the island forced or enticed to emigrate to the US, primarily to New York City. Learning about many of the problems and challenges they faced in the city, and living experiences tied to our shared identity, affected me deeply. This became part of my own world, my own reality, as I tried to find my own place in New York and become a documentarian. 

Before I started work on Los Sures, which was released in 1984, I had worked for several years as a Producer/Director of short documentaries for news and current affairs programs in local and network television. There, I had made many stories about Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in the country, about the issues, problems and events affecting their lives. Yet, they were stories told with a top down approach, so typical of a traditional broadcast reporting style that often leaves out elements that are the essence of how people live and confront the many challenges in their lives.

Los Sures was an attempt to break away from that formula both stylistically and subject-wise. I had left CBS News a few years before and become a freelance producer doing longer format documentaries for PBS-distributed programs. But it was difficult to do more personal work. The desire to explore the issues of poverty and of marginalized communities found little echo. Then I heard that WNET, the PBS station in New York, had a unit called the Independent Documentary Fund or, for short, the TV Lab. David Loxton was the wonderful Executive Producer who headed this project and, with his staff, agreed to support this personal exploration of one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods with a film I had wanted to make for many years. Their support and encouragement was essential.

Los Sures was a vibrant Puerto Rican community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that had not drawn too much attention and was not as well known as others in East Harlem or the Bronx. Walking those streets one immediately felt a magnetic attraction to it. There was so much going on at all times, and it had such a forceful character and sense of identity that I had not experienced in other places in the city. I have always felt that Los Sures chose me and our team to tell their story at a very difficult moment for most of its inhabitants. We found five wonderful people who allowed us into their world without any conditions, knowing that they would be revealing very personal aspects of their lives. Los Sures is as much about their personal struggles and challenges as it is about a community that, as a whole, is a rich environment of neighbors beset by problems and poverty.

One of my greatest joys as a documentarian has been to see this film, made 33 years ago, come back to life with a younger generation. At the time it was released in 1984, it received some attention: it was showcased at the New York Film Festival that year and in several other festivals across the country and abroad, it garnered moderate attention in the press with several good reviews and was shown on PBS. Then, aside from some screenings in a few colleges, it was dormant for about 30 years.

Five years ago, UnionDocs, a center for documentary based in Los Sures, discovered it and decided to create a project based on the film. This web-based initiative became Living Los Sures. It consists of a series of short documentaries created by young filmmaking fellows at UnionDocs, an interactive people’s history called Los Sures: Shot by Shot that annotates the original film with the memories of dozens of longterm residents, and other inventive projects that update the stories of many of those who were in the film and revive the history of this community as it has changed over the years. This project also made possible the restoration of the film, many articles and much media attention, and a theatrical distribution that has been successful beyond any possible expectation. Early this year in New York, it ran for 7 weeks straight and is now beginning to be shown across the country and abroad.

This revival and response to Los Sures has meant very much to me personally. It is not often that a documentary film gets a second life after so many years. This is permitting the film to be part of a deeper reflection on the history of Puerto Ricans and other Latino immigrant groups in the U.S. and to validate with a new, broader public the communities they have built, their experiences, difficulties and achievements. In all these ways, it is demonstrating another critical aspect of the power of documentary film.

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