Movie Review: Landfall

Hurricane María was, and is, such a traumatic experience for so many Puerto Ricans that no mention is ever made of Irma, the Category 5 hurricane that skirted the island on early September 2017, leaving thousands homeless and millions without power. Irma was part of a brutal one-two punch that left the island’s infrastructure in tatters. When María made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane a couple of weeks later, it not only devastated the island but literally blew away the covers that protected an uncaring, corrupt, two-party system that had drained all of the island’s resources as well as the pretense that we were not a Third World country and that the U.S. government would always be there to rescue us. The aftermath also made clear the long term the impact the federally-imposed Junta’s austere fiscal policies had on those resources, physical and human. 

Cecilia Aldarondo’s poignant and poetic new documentary Landfall, currently streaming nationwide as part of DOC NYC until November 19 (appropriately enough, the day we “celebrate” our “discovery” by Columbus), shows us an island that is still suffering from collective PTSD…and one that is under attack by a different kind of vulture than the hedge funds the island’s government owe millions of dollars to: Silicon Valley. Aldarondo captures the feelings and anxieties of many Puerto Ricans in the years leading up to the ouster of Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló. But one can’t watch Landfall without thinking of more recent events as well: the series of devastating earthquakes and aftershocks that hit the island’s Southwest early this year, the government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, this month’s elections were both majority parties (the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party and the pro-Statehood New Progressive Party) each received less than 40% of the vote for the first time in their respective histories, and the recent discovery of hundreds of boxes of uncounted ballots that may well change the election’s outcome.

You will not find talking heads from island politicians justifying their actions or of academics and experts weighing in much less any news footage revisiting the destruction caused by María. Instead, Aldarondo opts to subvert the conventions of the traditional issue-oriented documentary and even of the travelogue by focusing on regular people. Yes, there are dozens of beautifully composed shots of the island’s natural beauty, but they are not touristy in feel. Instead, the way they are shot and edited to composer Angélica Negrón’s minimalistic and at times wistful score hint at the calm, the peace of mind, many in the island hope for as they face one challenge after another. “You just never take a break,” one of Aldarondo’s subjects says at some point in the film (Aldarondo never identifies her subjects either, opting to create a symphony of voices). “[There is] no space to stop and reflect.”

Aldarondo travels all over the island, visiting those spots most affected by this disaster and those where the haves are playing a role in determining the future of the have-nots, from the mountain town of Orocovis in the island’s center to the Western municipalities of Mayagüez and Rincón, from the island municipality of Vieques to the tourist destinations of Dorado and El Condado, outside San Juan. Her subjects are not the ones you expect to see on a travelogue: a septuagenarian farmer who lost everything in the storm and a young woman who still dreams of owning her own farm; a community leader who turned one of the many schools shut down by the now federally-indicted former Secretary of Education Julia Kelleher into a community center to help the homeless; and a family in Vieques who refuse to move from their ancestral home as their neighborhood is taken over by those who want to turn the entire country into a tax haven. (There’s, of course, the trauma caused by years of feeling the earth shake underneath you and the skies roar above you, not to mention waking up to the sound of gunfire as the U.S. Navy used most of Vieques as a training ground before they finally packed up their bags and left after decades of protests by its residents).  

Instead of restaurateurs and government officials hawking the wonders of the island —Aldarondo lets the industrial films from the 40s and 50s she sprinkles throughout do that job for her— she gives us a father and son team of real estate developers showing off one of their multi-million dollar apartments in Dorado, a cold, mostly white impersonal habitat that seems to come straight from one of those HGTV remodeling shows; and a different set of developers and government officials pitching Texan Blockchain guru Quinn Eaker a beachfront property that they label a “gated community on steroids” for his cryptocurrency dreams. Aldarondo even manages to sneak into a Blockhain conference where Yaron Brook, Chairman of the Ayn Rand Foundation, remarks that the Police Department is the only government asset that should not be privatized and that Puerto Rico should establish the “kind of regime” (his words, not mine) that would make it profitable for these Silicon Valley vultures to live in the island. She travels briefly to New York, to Wall Street, to interview one of the many Puerto Rican professionals who have left the island in search of opportunities. “This city is harsh,” he observes after a homeless man with mental health issues walks by, speaking out loud, briefly breaking his train of thought. “I don’t like living here,” the young man adds, fighting back tears.

Aldarondo also finds poetry in her journey: a fisherman and his son hauling traps full of lobsters; roosters and pigeons walking on a parking lot, the pigeons, swooping and covering a SUV as it drives into the lot and a man steps out to feed them; even an abandoned classroom, books, desks and chairs strewn all over the floor. It’s a film full of beautiful visual accidents as when during the interview with that young farmer, the image suddenly goes dark as the clouds cut down the available light Director of Photography Pablo Alvarez Mesa was using: a sign of the storms to come. Even the director’s conversations with Queer activist and DJ Lale Namerrow, sitting on a beach at night, Lale’s smartphone the only source of light as she shares footage of the many protests that led to Rosselló’s resignation, are breathtaking in their beauty and intimacy. Equally powerful are the film’s final images, as the simple act of cleaning San Juan’s streets and painting over the graffiti left behind after the protests turn into an echo of Lale’s own words early in the film: “We have a short memory. We always try to move on. But we can’t turn the page.” People in Puerto Rico do have a short memory. Pro-statehood candidate Pedro Pierluisi was elected governor of the island with only 33% of the vote. You may paint over this recent memory but the aftershocks of María will be felt long after Landfall’s credits end rolling.

Landfall screens as part of DOC NYC until November 19. Included with the screening ticket is an exclusive pre-recorded Q&A with Cecilia Aldarondo (Director), immediately following the film. Aldarondo will also reflect on her documentary during a Facebook Live event on Thursday, Nov. 19 at 1 ET on Facebook Live.

Landfall will also air as part of the PBS documentary series POV’s 34th season in June of next year.