FILM ACTIVIST JAMES DUARTE TALKS STRENGTHENING COMMUNITIES AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
James Duarte is a cinematic storyteller, creative consultant and political activist born and based in the Bronx. Passionate about the arts, equality and justice, he is driven to fuel creativity and awareness among his peers and audiences. In 2013 James graduated from the City College of New York with a BFA in Film & Video Production and has produced work that has gone on to screen at venues including the HBO Latino Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Hollywood Shorts and MoMA. In this special interview, Nectar News Editor Nicole Johnson speaks with Duarte to learn more about the relationship between film and activism on the local stage in the Bronx and in the national political arena.
NJ: Your interdisciplinary career path is very inspiring. What do you consider yourself professionally and what inspired you to enter into the many industries you participate in?
JD: First and foremost I’m a filmmaker. When I was nine years old I just wanted to own a camera. My parents bought me a camera and I began following this dream to make films. I went to a performing arts middle school in the Bronx. I also went to the Theater Arts Production Company School and I was blessed with the opportunity to meet mentors that have supported me and opened a lot of doors for me. I became a Tribeca Film Fellow back in 2006 and I was a part of Downtown Community Television Centers TV youth Program. I also received my BFA in film at the City College in New York. So I’ve been working and creating as a filmmaker for a while now, but ever since Obama began his campaign for the presidency I’ve been inspired to get involved and do more for my community. When Obama began his campaign I started getting involved in voter registration drives, some grassroots organizations and several local campaigns in the Bronx. I really got a sense of how politics works during that time. At the same time I got really disillusioned. As you can imagine, living in the poorest congressional district in the nation there is a lot issues of poverty, public health and unemployment. I got to a point where, there was so much to do, yet we lacked the resources and the education in our communities to really organize and really care for each other. It felt like the community was just struggling to put food on our own tables which made activism that much more difficult. I recognized a real disconnect and realized why there is so much distrust and disengagement, and such low voter turnout especially in underrepresented poor communities of color. I decided to channel a lot of that into my film work. Therefore a lot of the film work that I do is concerned with political and social issues and critiques.
NJ: So it sounds like you haven’t separatedyour work as a filmmaker from your work as a political activist?
JD:Right, I don’t have a separation between my film work and my political activism. I’m currently working on an MFA at Brooklyn College at the Fierstein Graduate School of Cinema. I’m in the program full time and I’ve been working part time at Apple on the Upper West side location for the past two years. We just opened a new location at the World Trade Center and I’m there now as a Creative where training and working in the educational department of our retail experience. I’ve been a very special place in my life where I am able to have these pioneering opportunities, not only at my high school as the first graduating class, but also with this new MFA program and my position with Apple. All of these opportunities have allowed me to thoroughly explore bringing film and political activism together. I really don’t see a separation, it’s all connected.
NJ:How did you get involved with the Dominican Film Festival?
JD:My mom was born in the Dominican Republic and although my dad was born here, he was raised in Ecuador. So I like to say I’m Ecuaminican, a unique mix of the two that you can really only find in New York. There is a lot to celebrate and a lot of heritage to honor here in the Bronx. So for me, it was a natural to gravitate to the Dominican Festival, which was an event I heard a lot about in college as an undergraduate. I decided to reach out to Armando, the founder of the festival, and we really hit it off. I’m thankful to say we still have a great working relationship. He brought me on as a volunteer right after I graduated in 2013. I showed him my passion and expertise for what he was doing and he promoted me to Creative Director. I’ve been in that position now for three years and we just had our fifth annual festival in Washington Heights. The festival really seeks to bring the emerging Dominican film community with the established Dominican film community. We have Dominican artists in Hollywood, in the Dominican Republic and around the world;Michelle Rodriguez, Zoe Saldana,Victor Rasuk, just to name a few. Our mission is to bridge the gap between the two communities with this week long festival platform that is presented right in our neighborhood, right in Washington Heights, in the Bronx. We’ve received offers to bring the festival downtown but the objective is to keep the arts alive uptown, right here in our community, north of 125th st. One of our main goals is to keep it accessible to the community, and thankfully the response has been amazing and it’s becoming one of the premiere events in Washington Heights. I’m also the Associate Manager of the Ecuadorian film festival which is celebrating it’s 2nd annual this year. Ecuadorians are also a growing community in New York city and I’m just excited to dig my feet further into Ecuadorian cinema because ideally I want to use my MFA to travel. Traveling is one of my hobbies and I’m interested in becoming a producer who can work on international collaborating productions. USA with Spain. Spain with Brazil. Dominican Republic with Mexico. The Latin American film market is growing, there is a lot of opportunity there and I really want to lend my voice and my talents to growing those industries.
NJ: As an activist that uses film as a part of your civic responsibility, what are things that have surprised as you’ve furthered your involvement in the political atmosphere?
JD: What continues to surprise me on a daily basis is that, at the end of the day we are all people and sometime we get caught up in these big ideas like “government” and “the market”, but in actuality it’s just people behind these institutions. Every time I’m involved I’m just surprised at how accessible these people are. Not only people who are in power but people like my neighbors. I may not say hello to them everyday, but when I do decide to talk to them we find out how like minded we really are and how we are going through the same struggles. With respect to politics, it’s a power struggle. The allocation of resources, who is getting the money to fund our schools, to fund our parks, to have a police force that is safe and a part of the community, etc. For example, it can be intimidating to be a part of your police precinct meeting, but it has to be done. For me and my experience, reaching out and spending that face time with our elected officials, the candidates, with police officers and breaking that barrier is the struggle and is the harder work because we have all of these insecurities and fears that we get caught up in. Coming to the realization that we are all just human beings that also have our own insecurities, is what we can use to connect. Focusing on that to bring our communities together is what I’ve learned works. It’s very hard because of the divisiveness and the political climate that we are in. The media seems to provide a narrative that really distract us from things that are important like our humanity, and they focus on the not-so-nice things of our humanity. It’s not to say that those things aren’t happening, but when we promote those behaviors to an extent that it’s almost non-stop and unbalanced, that is where it gets dangerous. People become afraid and they are in fear. My mom is living in south of Orlando and I am openly gay, when I woke up to that news of the Orlando shooting, it was so devastating. This is still happening. Unfortunately, when it hits close to home that is when we sort of wake up and want to take further action. I think that we have to come together as a community on so many fronts and that is why I film. Politics is really rough it’s a contact sport, but film requires a community. You can’t make a film alone. You have to bring people together behind a vision, a dream, and you have to make it happen. That is the beauty that I find in film making. The beauty that I find in politics is, that there are those days that you do get justice. Things do begin to move in the direction of the greater good and in the name of justice and equality for all. I firmly believe that we are still living in the greatest country in the world. It has provided so many opportunities for those who have come before me and it continues to provide me with new opportunities everyday. My story is only possible in this country, in this time, but I still recognize that there is a lot of work to be done. Our history in this country is rough, as a minority as a Latino, but we cannot forget that Martin Luther King was alive 50 years ago. That struggle still continues and it has evolved. We have to help people, inform them and educate them because otherwise they simply become a part of a vicious cycle. I don’t want my community to continue to be a part of that, so I’m working really hard and making myself the best that I can be so that I can pay that forward.
NJ: When we first consider the term “resources”, we typically result to money. What are the resources that you do have and the resources that you wish you had as a film activist?
JD: It’s interesting because we are living in a time where we don’t necessarily need money to make things happen or to build things. There is so much power in human capital and we have the internet. Although we are paying for access to it, the internet is in fact accessible. There is WiFi everywhere, and everybody has a device of some sort which means that we are more connected than ever before. Despite that, I still believe we have this amazing opportunity to cultivate that power for larger social movements, activism and dissemination of information. But the meme, is something that will play a major role in how we move forward with our activism. What we saw during the Arab Spring, and the Occupy Movement and what we are seeing with #FeelTheBern is the power of the virility, because we are all connected. You cannot destroy or evict and idea that has already come. When we can finally create a message that promotes an idea that we can all get on board with, something that touches everyone, that will be the spark. How do we connect the dots between social media, social movements and the power of storytelling? Something powerful and revolutionary can come to life in between those three points. It’s an evolution though. It will go round and round and round, and eventually we’re going to come to an intersection where something big will happen. What it is? I don’t know, but I think when it happens, we will all know.
James serves as the creative director for the Dominican Film Festival, associate manager for the Ecuadorian Film Festival. During the 2016 presidential primaries James became one of the youngest members of the New York delegation pledged to Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention. Learn more about James’ work by visiting his websites and social media pages.