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Latino Public Broadcasting Interview with Mitch Teplitsky

This interview originally appeared on the the website for Voces, the television series that broadcast Soy Andina.

This is your first film. How did the idea begin to document both characters’ journeys to Peru?

The project has its roots in my 20-year friendship with Nélida. We met soon after she emigrated to New York City in 1989. I was volunteering at the International Center as an English conversation partner for immigrants. Neli was also a member/volunteer. I was seeking someone to practice Spanish with, and was introduced to her. We became friends.

I started to go to her Peruvian folk dance group presentations, usually in Queens or Paterson, NJ. Over the years, I got to know the people in her world. I admired her culture, traditions, the way she and her community maintained a deep connection to their homeland, especially through activities that recreated Peruvian fiestas. There was a sense of identity and joy I felt missing in my own culture.

Meantime, in 1995 I started a six-year tenure as marketing director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I obviously saw a lot of films, including documentaries. It was a great job. But I started to notice feeling envious of the filmmakers who presented their films!

I remember when “Buena Vista Social Club” came out, how popular that was, and thinking what if I could make a doc that transported the audience to the Real Peru, as “Buena Vista Social Club” did to Cuba? The only docs I’d seen about Peru were about terrorism or travelogues to Macchu Picchu.

Well in 2000, Nelida told me she was returning to her village to host the traditional fiesta. I decided to accompany her, and plunge into the making of this film—not realizing of course quite what I was getting into!

When we started, we didn’t even know Cynthia. Two years after shooting Neli’s return to Peru, we were trying to edit a first rough cut. We had put up a website at an early stage, to build buzz and funding. And someone who knew us both – Pancho Rodiguez, a great musician whose Grupo Wayno played Peruvian music in New York – told Cynthia about our site. She called me out of the blue, telling me how excited this film was for her, and asked how she could meet Nelida. So we all agreed to meet – at the Peruvian restaurant Pio Pio in Queens, and you actually see that in the movie. And that one meeting, I knew we had to weave her story into this – the younger generation’s reconnection to roots, inspired by the immigrant.

So we postponed editing to shoot Cynthia’s story for a year, in New York. We edited another trailer, had more fundraisers, resumed editing. And then—to my surprise—she won the Fulbright! Which of course led to postpone editing yet again. I moved to Peru to follow her one-year stay there.

What was your biggest challenge in making this documentary?

Wearing my producing hat – money. (I wish I had a more original answer, but….) Never enough of it, always worrying about it. I remember at times being in Peru witnessing and filming these amazing Andean fiestas, yet my head was elsewhere, wondering how far I was to the nearest internet place where I could make desperate calls to funders back in the USA, having run out of funds.

Or course, the upside is that, by having to constantly fundraise, I became a good fundraiser – always a good skill – and all these prospects became people to add to our mailing list and fan base. By the time we released the film, we had thousands on our mailing list.

On the storytelling side – different challenges at different stages.
When following Nélida’s story in the first year, I sometimes overstepped my boundaries. Andean people are shy and private, even the more extroverted Neli. It took us a while to negotiate when I could shoot, and when to back off. I’m grateful to her for hanging in there, and allowing me to continue. She grew a lot too, and I saw plenty of times when she could command a camera or microphone with the best of them!

With Cynthia, shyness was not exactly a problem – she was a born performer with a big New York City personality. The challenge with her was keeping up with her in Peru. She would take off on treks to remote places with hardly any notice, and I’d be scrambling to buy bus or plane tickets and try to track her down by cell or text.

Finally, during editing – the big challenge was integrating two connected but distinct stories. It took us a while to figure out a structure that I think serves the film really well – but it took months and a lot of help from our excellent editors Diana Logrera and Ingrid Patetta, and story consultant Fernanda Rossi.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently during production and post-production? Is there anything missing?

During the earlier stages of production, I wish I had hired a skilled sound recordist more often—good sound is so essential and I made the common first-time filmmaker mistake of sometimes skimping on that.

I regret not making a more pursuasive case to Cynthia to allow me to accompany her on her spiritual sojourns to the Amazon and Andes. I probably wouldn’t have won that battle, but wish I’d tried harder.

Finally, working in Peru, you can never have enough good beer and pisco on hand to thank the crew at day’s end. I wish I’d included a line item in the budget for that!

In post-production: looking back, I don’t think I would/could have done things much differently. It was a long, sometimes difficult process, lots of trial and error, and I don’t see how one avoids that.

One small thing I wish I’d done perhaps. I wanted to tape and show the crew doing Pervuvian dance over the credits! Would have been funny, and convey how personal this film was, how the film team actually became part of the part of the whole community. I think by the end, we were just too tired to set that up.

What impact do you hope to have with this program?

Well, “Soy Andina” has already had an enormous impact, with more to come with the broadcast. Thousands of people – many Peruvians of course, but people from all backgrounds—have met, befriended each other, collaborated around the making and showing of the film. It’s just been a huge community-building endeavor. I personally know dozens of Peruvian-Americans, close to Cynthia’s age, who have made trips to Peru and/or begun studying Peruvian dance here in the USA. It’s fueled outpouring of pride.

Besides that, the film celebrates and promotes Peruvian culture, which is stunningly rich yet gets so little attention outside the country.

And I’m real happy about that. Tons of people have gotten turned onto the dances, music and events portrayed in the film. And while the film isn’t explicitly political, I think it’s contributed to better understandings and appreciation of immigrants in this country. This is a positive story about immigrants in the USA, at at time when we tend to get flooded with negative stories.

What advice would you give an emerging filmmaker?

Pick a story and characters you are really passionate about, because that’ll help sustain you through the inevitable ups and downs.

Collaborate! “Independent filmmaking” is a misnomer to me. With some exceptions, this is collaborative, interdependent work. Join filmmaking organizations, go to conferences, get feedback, return calls and emails. You’ll need and want the support, and it’s great to reciprocate.

As my co-producer/massage therapist Bruce Markow likes to say: “take a deep breath…and take care of yourself.” When I felt burned out, I got discouraged, didn’t enjoy the work. And my fundraising suffered. You know, I asked my donors why they supported this project. Almost all responded “your enthusiasm.” I was most enthusiastic when I exercised and ate well.

Have a trust fund, rich uncle or spouse, or save money from other jobs. Don’t expect to make a living doing this work.

Take responsibility for learning the business/marketing side. Or find a producer to work with. Unless you already have the funds, or aren’t much concerned who sees your work.

Why did you choose to present your film in public television?

Ever since I first heard about VOCES before the first season, it’s been my first choice for any potential TV broadcast. The program’s mission and audience so clearly matched ours. We wanted to bring a story about an underrepresented Latino culture to the broader Latino audience – and a still bigger public television audience that appreciates cross-cultural stories.

I was also interested in public television because of it’s reputation, prestige, and general excellence – a place where quality programming matters, not just about grabbing ratings and selling advertising.

Finally, I’ve noticed how public television has been rapidly expanding their presence on the web, investing in technologies to extend programs and marketing resources online. That’s important to us, since we’ve a strong presence on the web for years – from our website, blog and ezine, to more recent social media sites. This is the future of video storytelling, I believe – being able to share and interact with audiences across multiple platforms. LPB and public television get that. 


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