Media Production: A Tool for Grieving

by Crystal Herrera Pereira

The truth is, the idea of making a film was intimidating to me. I hadn’t realized it was something I wanted to do until I crammed myself into a seminar room with almost thirty other students, predominantly women, in hopes of securing a spot in Video as Inquiry, a course designed for fourteen. Throughout the semester Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner approached film and visual media not as if it were for Hollywood but as a method of knowledge production to inquire about our hierarchical and social realities. As an ethnicity and race major and low-key creative individual, I was hooked.

My preconceived conception of filmmaking as a glamorous and privileged style of work was dismantled and decolonized. What originated as a field dominated by white heterosexual men could no longer suppress the emerging voices that would challenge its biased production of knowledge. Media thus could also be a tool for the voice that wants to be heard. Professor Negrón-Muntaner challenged me to see deeply, understand the context of what I was seeing, and shift my perspective. I could never watch the same type of films again, and after reading bell hook’s “The Oppositional Gaze” from her book, Black Looks: Race and Representation, I confessed that I could never look at my husband the same way too.1

Our class sessions served as labs of inquiry. Probing, probing. Asking countless questions. Bouncing ideas off one another. Professor Negrón-Muntaner’s flexible teaching style didn’t center her own ideals or knowledge but was about having conversations. She stimulated us from active listening to active learning and prompted us into actively participating in our own learning. Over and over again she would tell us, “I learn from you,” removing the traditional barriers that result from presuming the instructor’s superiority. Even more importantly, she treated us as filmmakers in need of encouragement to inquire and visualize.

My film initially was going to be an experimental documentary about generational eating differences in the Puerto Rican side of my family. Vague, yes. But while I was honing in on that logline, an international pandemic took place, shifting the university off campus and online. Numerous classes were cancelled as professors and students alike redesigned the remainder of their semesters; for us, that meant we lost the much needed technical workshops for media production. Relieved that I no longer had to commute, the joy was short lived when I started receiving daily texts and calls from family and friends who had either contracted the virus or lost someone to it. It was unreal. The sounds of sirens and funerals were endless. As gatherings became prohibited, everyone stopped sharing funeral details, but the prayer requests kept coming. Deaths were occurring at high rates in my community, and technology was the only way we could show up for one another. I spoke to my mother—a health care worker in Rhode Island—daily and to my dad, incarcerated in the Caribbean, when he was allowed calls. Death threatened us at every moment on a scale so visible it could not be denied. Filming became my tool to process, to write, to question, and to grieve.

I did not intend to make the film I produced, to highlight the racial disparities experienced by communities of color during this COVID-19 outbreak. I was seeking only to document what my family was going through. Many other students decided to document their COVID experiences as well, bringing life to our collective film series, Days With(in), for which I am an associate producer.2 But my racialized reality became apparent during our last days of class as we shared what we had created. The clips from most of my peers were filled with so much light, warmth, and love. Though containing fear and anxieties about future uncertainty, they also offered freedom elevated by beach scenes and vibrant music. I am grateful that their films and conversations helped me further anchor my film, regardless of our varying experiences. As a woman of color, with a long-suppressed voice and without easy access to knowledge of the means of media production, it is no surprise the focus my film exhibited. So, I made a film. It may not be the greatest, but it taught me how to use media as a tool to engage critically, unapologetically, and honestly.

1 bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 115-31.

2 Since June 14, 2020, we have released films in this series every Friday, and the last film is set to air on August 14, 2020. A Q&A will take place on August 21. Films can be viewed on Vimeo, and details can be found on our Facebook page. My film, Community & Grief, was released July 24, 2020.

Crystal Herrera Pereira is a nontraditional general studies student at Columbia University pursuing a degree in ethnicity and race. Crystal traded in her chef shoes for her studies to critically examine the disparities and inequities she witnessed growing up in regard to her community, health, and food. Committed to her studies, family, and community, Crystal volunteers at Booker T. Washington Learning Center in East Harlem, mentors and bakes with youth, and also serves community dinners at the Church of Resurrection. Her last project, A Recipe for Food Justice, was published in January 2020, and she is currently working on an extension of that project, which focuses on agro-ecology and health in Puerto Rico under Dr. Frances Negrón-Muntaner.