From a Hurricane's Ruin, a Puerto Rico Community Grows—on Film

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Two small children, a brother and sister, in a sparse room with gallons of water in the background
Two siblings in the Puerto Rican town of Comerío, after Hurricane Maria. A new film, 'We Still Here,' chronicles the community's rebuilding—and their fight against inequity. (Courtesy Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi)

It’s been nearly a month since Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico, leaving the entire island without power. Two weeks after the hurricane, over 100,000 residents still had no electricity.

Fiona, one of this season’s most powerful storms, made landfall almost exactly five years after Hurricane Maria.

Maria, the 2017 storm that caused nearly 3,000 excess deaths, also brought about a visit from then-U.S. President Donald Trump — during which he nonchalantly tossed paper towels to those in need.

This gesture was emblematic of the response many people felt the U.S. territory received from the government as a whole.

It raises the question: what’s the proper response when natural disasters are coupled with manmade oppression, not just in Puerto Rico, but across the United States? What form does justice take in a place that’s been under-resourced, disenfranchised and suffering from the lingering impacts of colonization? How can you truly rebuild after a disaster without addressing preexisting problems?

Members of the 'We Still Here' cast in Washington D.C.
Members of the ‘We Still Here’ cast in Washington D.C.

Bay Area-based filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi says he has a clear understanding of what justice doesn’t look like.

“It’s not throwing paper towels at people like the ex-president did, and it’s not throwing water bottles out of helicopters like FEMA and the military did,” Jacobs-Fantauzzi tells me during a phone call.

After spending time in the Puerto Rican town of Comerío in the wake of Hurricane Maria five years ago, he’s come to understand that the key to moving toward justice involves people power.

“It’s letting everybody get involved in the recovery process,” says Jacobs-Fantauzzi. “Bringing your skills, your talents — really a bottom-up process where it’s centered in love, centered in community and being able to dream of the future you want to create together.”

Jacobs-Fantauzzi is the director of the documentary film We Still Here, which follows a group of young people working together in Comerío to restore their hometown.

The film shows people stepping in when the government isn’t present. Pitching in to build houses and community spaces, and sharing joy with one another. But the multilayered story didn’t start off as a film at all.

Jacobs-Fantauzzi originally left the Bay Area to bring donations to the island back in 2017. “Then the next thing you know, we’re in Comerío, we’re giving out solar electric lights and food, and sending people home,” says Jacobs-Fantauzzi. “And then we realized they don’t have a roof over their head.”

A man in a blue t-shirt and necklace stands with folded arms, wearing a hat, against a blue background of sky.
Bay Area-based filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, the director of 'We Still Here.' (Courtesy Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi)

Jacobs-Fantauzzi and his team started off shooting videos to raise awareness of the situation and the need for resources. Young folks in the community gravitated to the cameras, so Jacobs-Fantauzzi, along with his brother Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi (former Berkeley mayoral candidate and co-founder of Clenched Fist Productions), began teaching workshops. “And then maybe four months later, we look at all the footage we have, and decide to do a film together,” says Jacobs-Fantauzzi.

They started with a 10-minute reel, then a 30-minute version before reaching an hour-long iteration. They showed their work around the community. People were brought to tears of gratitude as they watched reflections of themselves via a mobile solar-powered projector and speakers.

Jacobs-Fantauzzi emphasizes that the film was a collaborative process. He’s the director, his brother is the producer, but this film is a partnership with the community; specifically the young leaders featured. It’s a process he refers to as “participatory action filmmaking” or “just storytelling,” and says it allows for amplification of a community’s story, as opposed to traditional methods of “mining or extracting.”

The method also allows the film’s people to grow and develop naturally before your eyes.

Throughout the film, Mariangelie Ortiz, who at the time was 24 years old, emerges as a vocal leader. At one point, Ortiz leans on song and dance for a moment of joy in the midst of the hard work. In another scene, Ortiz is in the halls of congress in Washington D.C., chanting alongside Puerto Ricans from throughout the diaspora, demanding that their people be recognized.

Mariangelie Ortiz and a young person from the community posing with paint brushes during the hurricane recovery effort.
Mariangelie Ortiz and a young person from the community posing with paint brushes during the hurricane recovery effort. (Via www.westillherepr.com )

Alongside Mariangelie Ortiz, a young man named Jerriel “Yeyo” Cátala, and a cast of community activists, the concept of art itself is a main asset to this story. It’s a hell of a notion, given the situation at hand. Why art at a time like this?

“In the middle of despair, in the middle of love, in the middle of your greatest joy, I think art is what you go to to express how you’re feeling and who you are,” says Jacobs-Fantauzzi. “It’s so important to let the positive, the anger, the negative, the beauty out, and not keep it bundled up inside. And art is that expression for so many of us — the way we’re able to let those emotions out.”

In the end, it’s the art and the joy, combined with the raw beauty of Puerto Rico, that shines in this film. Beyond that is the larger concept of just storytelling, as well as the application of the just recovery method — a process by which those most impacted have a say in how the community moves forward. It’s a method than can be applied anywhere.

Here in California, for example, economic inequality is rampant, the cost of goods are through the roof, far too many of us are unhoused and earthquakes are a constant threat. I shudder at the idea that we may one day have to deal with similar circumstances.

One step in the right direction? Giving space to those who’ve been impacted the most to tell their stories.

As a part of the 13th Annual Fist Up Film Festival, ‘We Still Here’ screens at the New Parkway Theatre in Oakland on Sunday, Oct. 16, at 2pm. A Q&A follows with director Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi. Details here.

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