Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Kristal Sotomayor
By Travis Trew, Programming Associate
A recent graduate of Bryn Mawr college, Kristal Sotomayor parlayed her interest in filmmaking into an internship with PBS’s POV series, and has received a fellowship with Scribe Video Center to produce a documentary about immigrant rights in Philadelphia. A very personal essay film incorporating poetic narration and family photos, To My Motherland explores the complexities of immigration and integration in the United States.
PFS: How did To My Motherland come about? Were you still a student when it was made?
KS: Yes, I was still a student at Bryn Mawr College. During fall break, I took a digital storytelling workshop at Haverford College. I honestly just wanted the time and the space to create my own work, which I kind of didn’t have at the time. In class, you basically have to work with a restrictive prompt. But for this workshop, they provided the equipment, and you had to use archival material—whether it was photography, footage, or audio that you owned or found online. I ended up using my own audio and my own photography and footage. I really wanted to use that time and opportunity to make something that I could show. I’m so glad I did that workshop because the film has gotten into film festivals all over the US and Europe. Through a Film Studies Program Fellowship from Bryn Mawr College, I got to go to Germany to watch my film premier at a film festival. So I made the film while I was a student, but it’s really helped me form the beginning of my career. It was my first real opportunity to figure out my voice and what I wanted to say. Ever since I made this film, it’s led me down this path to being a documentary filmmaker.
PFS: What made you decide to incorporate your own family photos and videos in the project?
KS: The summer before making this film, I had gotten a Hanna Holdorn Grey Fellowship from Bryn Mawr College to go to Peru, which is where my family is from. So I went to Peru and filmed and photographed my family. A lot of the photography in the film is from family photo albums that I had never seen before. When I got this opportunity to make a film during fall break, I knew that this was the story I wanted to tell, because I was trying to process a lot of feelings and thoughts that I had, and that a lot of my friends have also had. Being first generation in this country is really difficult because you feel connected to where your parents are from, but at the same time you grew up in the US, which isn’t always so diverse and accepting of different cultures and languages. The workshop sort of guided me to make what I needed to make and say what I needed to say. The workshop had us investigate certain questions such as: How do you tell your personal story? And what are some different methods of storytelling? I decided to take some time and write down my ideas and thoughts, and it turned into this poetic narration. Then I found the clock sound and it all just worked so well together.
PFS: Yeah, I wanted to ask about the clock sound, because it is so prominent throughout. What was the significance of that for you, and what do you think it added to the project?
KS: When I first heard that clock, it made me think of the first image that I used, of the mantel with all the photos. On one side, there are all these photos of my family in Peru and on the other side, there’s me, my brother, and my mom. So one side is Peru, the other is the US. The clock sound has to do with the idea of home. There is this home that’s there, a physical house that people live in, but you can only hear it. You can’t even really see it. It really ties in with the themes of the film, which are home and belonging.
PFS: Do you feel like you processed your own family history and your own connection to your family and culture in a different way after going through the process of making the film? Do you feel like you look at it differently now that you’ve made this very personal work of art?
KS: I think that ideas of belonging are constantly changing. Making this film did help me understand my place and where I was at that moment in time, but I think it constantly changes so it’s a process of always trying to redefine yourself. I think, at that moment, it really helped me process what I was thinking and feeling. But those feelings of, “Where am I? Do I belong? Is this my home? Is this the language that I want to speak in and tell my story?” are constantly changing. Right now I’m not in the same place as I was when I made the film, but I still always look back on it. The same feeling of not always being able to 100% connect to your ancestry is still there. But I think the place where I’m coming from is a little bit different since I graduated college, because I left Bryn Mawr College, which was my home. Then I moved a bunch of times after graduating. Another aspect of home is where my family lives in the US and where the other half of my family lives in Peru. The community I live in now, in South Philly, is different. And that’s why I ended the film with a shot of the street because you’re constantly moving, there’s no sense of stillness or belonging. Belonging is not still, it’s a journey, a process. It’s constantly finding your home.
PFS: How do you want to continue this practice of making documentary films? Do you want to continue in the essay film vein?
KS: As a filmmaker, I want to try everything. I want to do the normal talking head documentary, I want to do music videos, and I want to do TV shows. I want to do everything. I’m currently making a documentary about the Latino immigrant rights organization, Juntos, in South Philadelphia, which is going to be a combination of vérité and interview. As I’ve improved in my craft I’ve realized that each story demands it’s own narrative style. I really wanted to make the film I’m currently working on solely vérité. But I realized that if I really want to get the story across, I had to have interviews in it. It’s all about the story you’re trying to tell, and the form that best fits the story and message.
PFS: What stage are you at with the film that you’re making about the immigrant community in South Philly?
KS: Right now I’m in primary production. The project started when was awarded a Film Scholar Fellowship from Scribe Video Center in September, and I’ve been shooting for about two month now with Juntos, trying to figure out who my characters are and what the storyline will follow. And I think I’ve finally found them. It was a struggle and a really long process. I love everyone at Juntos and even though I’m not from South Philly, I really feel like I’m becoming part of their community.
To My Motherland will screen on Friday, May 11 at the Prince Theater’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.