“This film is a manifestation of our love affair,” laughs director Laurie Collyer, speaking about her creative partner, Robert Torres, whose family is the subject of the documentary Nuyorican Dream, which screens at Outfest. “If he had been straight, we would have had an affair and it would have eventually ended. But with him being gay and me being straight, we had the love affair very differently. And we [got] a movie out of it. That’s our baby.”
Nuyorican Dream is an ambitious and often heartbreaking child. It’s a film about the construction of identity, public and private, and about how all our source material — family, sexuality, race, class, the government’s role in our private lives — can collapse on top of us. At its core it’s about how we respond to that collapse. Through the multiple identities of Torres — firstborn son in a large New York–based Puerto Rican family, social activist, educator, big brother, doting uncle, urbane gay man — Collyer has crafted a documentary that filters macro politics through the micro battles of everyday life. Tracking five years in the life of the Torres clan, the movie captures their exhausting battles with drugs, the prison industry and the devastating side effects of being snagged in the welfare system.
“When I first came to this project,” says the 33-year-old Collyer, a former social worker who specialized in special education, “I was gonna show how people need welfare. Now, after five years of watching this cycle of dependency — and I say ‘cycle’ because you’ve got the drug dependency, you’ve got [Robert’s brother] Danny’s prison dependency, where he’s looking to that system to keep him in line — I see that it all stems out from reliance on welfare. I actually believe in beefed-up, improved social services. But welfare is not one of them. People have to do for themselves.”
Collyer, who comes from a middle-class New Jersey family and has been an activist since high school, met Torres in San Francisco in 1990 when both were working for social services. She’d already made a documentary short, Thanh, about a disabled Vietnamese student she’d met in her special-ed class. Collyer and Torres clicked over their shared interest in the prominence of race and class in determining how funding and discipline in public education were ladled out. “I was very impressed with the fact that he was actually from one of these at-risk families,” says Collyer. “I started photographing him for photo classes and sort of fell in love with him.” Nuyorican Dream potently reveals Torres as a gay man of a kind rarely recorded in queer film or otherwise — a family’s golden boy, its most resilient and reliable element.
Collyer applied to NYU film school at the same time she started work on Nuyorican, realizing that she needed to acquire the movie-making skills to do the story justice. The project became her thesis film. Although the documentary (executive produced by Jellybean Benitez and John Leguizamo) won huge audience acclaim at Sundance earlier this year, the filmmakers are still struggling to raise money to pay for the film. “If we don’t raise it, we can’t get the movie into the communities that it’s about — the educational market, kids in high school and universities, people in drug rehabs and prison, on the margins of society.”
Collyer is currently working on a documentary about how former prisoners adapt to civilian life, as well as a fictional feature film about a woman who tries to piece her life together after being released from prison. (“I’m obsessed with the prison industry in this country,” Collyer admits.) She’s most proud of the way she’s been able to make her political points without alienating the audience.
“One thing you notice in Nuyorican Dream is that it has a lot of political things to say,” Collyer notes. “But I think it’s subtle. I think people who are less aware of issues of race and class and sexuality and how they connect may miss a lot of what’s actually being said. But that’s okay because once you start telling people what to think instead of what you think, they turn off. Even if they agree with you.”
LAURIE COLLYER’s documentary NUYORICAN DREAM screens on Saturday, July 8 at OUTFEST 2000: The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival | Films, videos, seminars and panels from July 6 through 17 |