26 March 2016

A Puerto Rican Experiment in Social Films

At a time when Latin American and other Third World national cinemas began to finally receive their long overdue recognition, the need emerged to develop a plan for the methodological study of the Puerto Rican cinematic tradition. Undertaking this project, Ines Mongil-Echandi and Luis Rosario Albert concentrated their analysis on the collection of over 100 films produced by the Division of Community Education during the 1940s through the 1960s under the sponsorship of Governor Luis Munoz Marin. These films represent a national artistic expression whose great value was internationally recognized at the time but which after 40 years lacked an analysis based on modern historical studies of film.

This essay results from an extensive research project about Puerto Rican cinema, inspired by the enthusiastic participation of Jay Leyda, professor of film history at New York University, and supported by Exit Art, a nonprofit art organization in New York City. The essay provides a general overview of the Puerto Rican cinematic tradition, films as a visual presentation of the historical process of a developing nation. It is meant to situate Puerto Rican cinema within the context of worldwide practices and to serve as a contribution to the historical studies of Third World national cinemas.

These films constitute a unique collection. They were produced as part of an innovative approach by the Puerto Rican government to organize and educate the adult population of Puerto Rico. The creation of the Division of Community Education meant the consolidation of ideas shared by a group of creative and political figures among whom were Governor Munoz Marin and his wife Ines Mendoza, Jack and Irene Delano, Edwin Rosskam, Rene Marques, Fred Wale and Carmen Isales.

The program of the Division of Community Education combined the production of educational materials - books, posters, and motion pictures - a with a program of field work and community organization carried out mostly in the rural areas of the island. The combination was to become a force in the lives of the people, something to stand on and to act by. The program had as its base the 'idealistic' purpose of changing peoples' attitudes by group discussions and community action. Their goal was summarized in the preamble of the Act which created the Division of Community Education in 1949 under Puerto Rico's Department of Education. It was written by Munoz Marin in English and Spanish to ensure that his intentions were well understood:
'The goal of community education is to impart basic teaching on the nature of man, his history, his life, his way of working and of self-governing in the world and in Puerto Rico. Such teachings addressed to adult citizens meeting in groups in the barrios, settlements and urban districts, will be imparted through moving pictures, radio, books, pamphlets and posters, phonographic records, lectures and group discussions. The object is to provide the good hand of popular culture with the tool of basic education. In practice this will mean giving the communities and the Puerto Rican community in general the wish, the tendency and the way of making use of their own aptitudes for the solution of many of their own problems.'
The project of stimulating self-help in the communities relied on Munoz Marin's ideas that the community should not be 'civically unemployed' and that the government was not solely responsible for the social well-being of Puerto Rico. The Division was his favorite project since it reflected his ideas of education. It cultivated democratic participation by the community in the solution of their problems thereby building an infrastructure that raised rural levels of living, maximized the scarce fiscal resources for the local public works, and enabled industrialization. In this sense, the Community Education program was a part of a larger project of industrialization developed by Munoz Marin attracting United States capital to the island under the program 'Operation Bootstrap.' As well, the program inscribed within the parallel 'Operation Serenity' the concept of a satisfactory way of life and culture for Puerto Ricans. The dramatic and widespread achievements of 'Operation Bootstrap' have tended to overshadow the great accomplishments of the Division of Community Education as a program which represented Munoz Marin's concern with the non-economic aspects of Puerto Rico's rapid economic and social transformations. The favoritism of Munoz Marin towards this project is revealed in the fact that many of the films produced were premiered at the governor's mansion.

The entire Community Education program was constructed as a complex educational machine consisting of four interrelated parts: Administration, Field and Training, Production, and Analysis. The Production Section was divided into three units - Editorial, Graphics, and Cinema - which produced three different educational and audio-visual materials: booklets, posters, and films. The production of educational materials began in 1946 with the Division of Visual Education of the Public Recreation and Parks Commission. The Graphics Unit was headed by Irene Delano who introduced silk-screen printing techniques to the island. Jack Delano became the director of the Cinema Unit, while Edwin Rosskam occupied the position of editor and chief of the Production Section. One of the major tasks of this first team was to begin a campaign of recruiting the best Puerto Rican talent who showed interest in learning and developing the crafts of writing, graphics, and filmmaking.

The films are inscribed within a government-sponsored production model of documentary films that underline the educational purposes with a creative use of cinema. The first films done in the Division of Visual Education, written by Rosskam, a former editor for the New Deal program at the Farm Security Administration, and directed by Jack Delano, a photographer for the FSA's Photographic Unit, constitute an experimental phase within the production of educational materials.

The experience of the Division of Visual Education proved that the production of educational materials within the island's limited budget was possible. This established the model for the production of the films of the Division of Community Education. Films that were meant to challenge and change the attitude of a traditional, rural, adult population required a specific style and mode of production.

The first four films produced by the Division of Visual Education between 1946-49 (Jesus T. Pinero, La Cana, Informe al Pueblo, La Voz del Pueblo) combine the use of factual footage with a voiceover narration that reaffirms the information provided by the image. The simple language of the first productions was based on statistical reports made at that time, that the average educational level of the adult rural population did not go over the fourth grade. Una Gota de Agua (A Drop of Water, 1947) marked the beginning of a production model later developed by the Division of Community Education. The use of factual footage and voiceover narration is accompanied by the convincing testimony of a 'real' nurse urging the people to boil water, adding the use of natural actors.

By the early fifties, the production, educational, and aesthetic model of the Division was clearly defined. Aside from using nonprofessional actors (members of communities) to play their life-stories on films, the films were shot on location in the Puerto Rican countryside. Entire crews spent months living with the people who were the actors, creating a relationship between them and the film producers that resulted in a great realism.

The films addressed two different aspects of education: information on specific community problems and events and messages to provoke the change of prejudicial or negative attitudes. With this aim, the use of drama was included as a way of appealing to popular emotion in order to provoke the desired change of attitudes. The films represented the problems of the adult rural society in a dramatic and realistic style and were based on true stories of the communities as they were reported by the group organizers.

Some of the most common problems presented by the films as subject matter were: concrete community problems such as building bridges, roads, schools (Los Peloteros, 1951; Una Voz en la Montana, 1952; El Puente, 1954); consumer and market education (Una Gota de Agua, 1947; Pedacito de Tierra, 1952; Juan sin Seso, 1959); old leadership (El Cacique, 1957); timidity (Ignacio, 1956); women's rights (Modesta, 1956; Que Opino la Mujer, 1957; Gena la de Blas, 1964); cooperative action (El de los Cuatro Cabos Blancos, 1955; Caminos del cooperativismo, 1961; El Yugo, 1959; Accion Comunal, 1959); labor and social well-being (Las Manos del Hombre, 1952; La Cana, 1947; El Hombre Esperado, 1964; Informe al Pueblo #1, 1948); and popular culture (Nenen de la Ruta Mora, 1955; La Plena, 1957; El Resplanador, 1962).

One of the most important features of these films was that it they included the villagers and farmers who formed the majority of the Puerto Rican population. The films represented aspects of Puerto Rican jibaro (country person) everyday life, within their own context of labor and social relations. In general, the representation of the jibaro is not exploitative or paternalistic. In this sense, the films break away from the 'pastoral nostalgia' and the misrepresentation of the jibaro found in bourgeois Puerto Rican literature. Instead, the films represent the jibaros' recognition of themselves and the solutions of their problems as a group. However, not all of the problems facing the Puerto Rican rural population round a democratic solution. The films tend to portray an idealized vision of rural life in Puerto Rico that responds to the program's main purpose of promoting community meetings and, thus, changing attitudes. Different from other occidental 'official' film productions that pose a problem and a solution, these films are concerned mainly with the representation of the process of the community's recognition of its own problems.

All across the island the Division's group organizers arranged community meetings to bring the message of democratic participation contained in the films and books, often going over difficult terrain in jeeps equipped with portable electric generators, a film projector and screen. On the day of the screening, the group organizer had already visited the community to distribute the books and to place the posters that promoted the film screenings and called the people to the site of the screening by playing music on the loudspeakers. The music attracted entire families who walked down the mountains bringing with them musical instruments to play along during the 'festive' occasion. The films, based on everyday life of the rural people, created within the audience a sense of identification and stimulated discussion with the group organizers of their problems in relation to those portrayed in the films.

Two weeks after the screening of the films, the group organizers met with the communities to discuss the way in which the films provided valuable information for solving their common problems. The group organizer was responsible for reporting back to the central office on the nature of the audience's reaction and the establishment of a relationship between the communities. These responses determined the content and themes of future films.

With these films, the rural communities became the spectators of their own situation, seeing themselves and the solution to their problems represented on the screen. This became a fundamental part in the development of the Division's production model. Stimulated by the films toward the solution of their own problems and improving their lives, they began constructing public works that resulted in government savings of millions of dollars annually, at the same time contributing to the democratic development of the society as a whole.

After the first few years of production the films began to receive artistic recognition in the international film community. Amilcar Tirado's film Una Voz en la Montana (A Voice in the Mountain) won a Diploma of Merit in the 1952 Edinburgh Film Festival. Modesta, directed by Benjamin Doniger with the Puerto Rican cinematographer Luis Maisonet, won the First Prize in the 1956 Venice Film Festival and particpated in the 1957 Melbourne Film Festival.

As part of their professional training, the members of the Cinema and Editorial Units began to participate in the Robert Flaherty Seminars, a documentary film organization on the East Coast founded by Frances Flaherty, which included well-known film critics and filmmakers such as Erik Barnouw and Willard Van Dyke. The films were enthusiastically received and praised for their simplicity of cinematic narrative and dramatic documentary style which used natural actors. In 1955, through these seminars, Willard Van Dyke was invited to the island to train a new group of film technicians. His work in Puerto Rico resulted in the production of El de los Cuatro Cabos Blancos (The One with the Four White Hooves) and a short film about flowers, Mayo Florido (Flowering May).

The program continued to attract international interest. In the 1950s the Museum of Modern Art presented an evening of Puerto Rican films. the RCA International Division published a bilingual booklet in recognition of the accomplishments of the Division of Community Education and as sales promotional literature for its own products. Furthermore, RCA made its own 30-minute color film: The School House on the Screen. The United States Information Agency and UNESCO began to distribute the films worldwide and they were shown in Italy and Latin America as an example of educational materials used by community action programs to stimulate adult education.

In retrospect, the Division of Community Education's cinematic production forms part of the great wave of the realist aesthetic and 'agit-prop' experience. In England, John Grierson, with the sponsorship of the colonial Empire Marketing Board, began to produce labor-oriented informative documentaries with the social and commercial protection of the state. Already in the late twenties Grierson posed the documentary filmmaker's aesthetic and social mission to 'bring the citizen's eye in from the ends of the earth to the story, his story of what was happening under his nose... The drama of the doorsteps' (quoted in Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, New York, Oxford University Press, 1974).

Under different historical conditions, this aesthetic wave is evident several years later in American documentary art of the thirties, in the work of WPA arts projects, the Photographic Unit of the FSA, Frontier Films, and especially in Pare Lorentz's New Deal films The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). Pare Lorentz's case relates to the Puerto Rican documentary tradition because his sponsor was Rexford G. Tugwell, a member of President Franklin Roosevelt's brain trust and the last U.S.-appointed governor of Puerto Rico in 1941. Tugwell became the sponsor of an office of information which visually recorded the life of rural Puerto Rico. The office of information later produced John Ferno's film Puerto Rico (1947), one of the first documentaries made about the island by a member of the New York documentary film movement.

That the first group of people who worked in the production of educational materials in Puerto Rico was composed mainly of American artists and social workers tied to the New Deal programs constitutes an important aesthetic and ideological influence on the Puerto Rican documentary film tradition. On the other hand, the impact of the Italian Neo-Realist Cinema served to reaffirm the artistic possibilities of educational films in terms of using nonprofessional actors and location shooting within a dramatic style in the films of the Division of Community Education.

An analysis of the general results of the work of the Division of Community Education is certainly out of the scope of the our essay. However, the material goal of sharing responsibility for the construction of local public works between the government and the community promoted the development of an infrastructure in the countryside that constituted part of the political justification of the program. Therefore, the impressive number of local public works accomplished should not be the only measure applied to the spiritual goal of achieving a change in the people's attitude toward democratic participation.

The achievement of this goal of democratic consciousness is even harder to determine considering that the program of the Division of Community Education took place together with other government programs which were often contradictory. For instance, the massive migration movement of Puerto Ricans necessarily obstructed the Community Education effort. Also, while the Division of Community Education promoted women's rights, the government was launching a massive birth control campaign which resulted in the sterilization of a third of the female population of child-bearing age.

Nevertheless, one of the most important contributions of the Division is in its cultural products. Millions of booklets were distributed and discussed in community gatherings. the films had a wide exposure between the 1940s and the 1960s with an audience of over 2,000,000 viewers. The production section of this government division became a workshop which gathered some of the most talented Puerto Rican artists. Writers like Rene Marques, Pedro Juan Soto, Emilio Diaz Valcarcal, and Jose Luis Vivas Maldonado gained experience and exposure. Graphic artists Irene Delano, Felix Bonilla, Carlos Raquel Rivera, Lorenzo Homar, Rafael Tufino, Isabel Bernal, and Antonio Maldonado developed a fine graphic tradition. Filmmakers such as Jack Delano, Amilcar Tirado, Luis Maisonet, Oscar Torres, Benjamin Doniger, Marcos Betancourt, and Angel F. Rivera were responsible for the production of a unique collection of social films. For these artists, some of whom have been associated with the independence movement in Puerto Rico, the educational artistic effort of the Division of Community Education was a patriotic mission which furthered the development of Puerto Rican society.

The films continue to represent a visual memory of the political and economic transformations which took place in Puerto Rico in the mid 20th century. To us, this collection shows a cinematic expression that is typically Puerto Rican, especially during the first 15 years of production. The Division of Community Education produced the most important body of films of a national cinema that exemplifies the aesthetic possibilities of the dramatic documentary style within the specific purposes of a government-sponsored adult education program.

[This is a slightly edited version of the article 'Films with a Purpose: A Puerto Rican Experiment in Social Films' by Ines Mongil-Echandi and Luis Rosario Albert, which was originally published in the film and video monthly journal The Independent, Vol. 10, No. 6, July 1987, pp. 11-14. The authors, who held Master's degrees in Cinema Studies from New York University, were at the time of its publication working as associate researchers for the film archive project of the Luis Munoz Marin Foundation and film consultants to the Department of Education's film preservation project.]

1 comment:

  1. Donald Thompson's article 'Film Music and Community Development in Rural Puerto Rico' is a worthwhile companion to this piece. Originally published in the Latin American Music Review in 2005, it's available through Project Muse here.