Although Frisly Soberanis is set on becoming a filmmaker, he is in no hurry to major in film. The 19-year-old just finished his first year of college and is still undeclared.
His approach to film is similarly understated. To him, it’s not about filmmaking itself but about storytelling–his own, and that of others. And his most recent film, Madurando, shows that he can use his own familiar story to tell an amazing cinematic story. He pieces together take bits and pieces of his own experiences and made his family was a character in it; he cast his own mother and younger brother in his film.
Soberanis’s experience growing up as an undocumented youth has inspired his passion as a filmmaker. His main character in Madurando is a young man in a struggling immigrant family, trying to get a job to pay for his disconnected cellphone, who eventually connects to something greater in his life.
Recently, Soberanis has teamed up with the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a group that campaigns for the rights of undocumented youth, to create a PSA to push for the New York Dream Act.
I spoke with Soberanis last week as he finished up his freshman year at Brooklyn College to talk about his new short and other things undocumented.
JS: Talk to me about your obvious passion.
FS: I’ve been attracted to visual mediums for a long time. Everything that is visual is attractive and it draws people. You’re seeing something happening. Filmmaking is a wonderful tool and art. You get to create and share stories that unite people and start conversation. You have control, to some degree, of whatever you’re filming. When I came to the U.S. [from Guatemala] in 2001 we settled in Williamsburg, before it was gentrified. I’ve been in queens for a long time now. Big Latino community. There was an afterschool program called El Puente. We did a couple of green screen projects [a film format that involves using color schemes to layer images] that were really cool. It was mostly fooling around with cameras!
The moment I grabbed a camera it sparked something in me. When you grab a camera, people get to see what you’re seeing. You’re bringing people into your own body. When I started high school I did a documentary about a military program I was in. It was about hazing.
Please do tell me more about this documentary about hazing in the military program.
I wouldn’t necessarily say I did it on hazing, or if I had a clear position on it. I was in the program and it helped me out with discipline and commitment as well as confidence and motivation. I just happened to film a “motivation time”. You decide.
It was a [student] cadet program. It was definitely something that I was thinking about. Thinking if the DREAM Act passed, I could join the army. I liked the discipline. I stayed in the program. It wasn’t intended to do a documentary on hazing. It didn’t portray the program as bad or good. But it opened a bit of conversation. That’s what got me into the Tribeca Film Institute. In order to apply to the Tribeca Film Fellows program or any of their programs you had to submit a film you had done. I submitted my short doc, and they loved it. After speaking to them and participating in one of their programs I applied to the fellowship and got in.
Was it hard to get the Tribeca Fellowship because of your status?
I actually just graduated the Tribeca fellowship. I didn’t really tell them about my situation. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I had to tell them because they wanted to help me with my college application…. Thankfully they didn’t push me to the side. They shared my story and shared my [college] funding campaign. They embraced me and gave me more tools to tell my story.
So back to your short film, Madurando. It was amazing! What was the inspiration behind it?
It’s the first short that I direct. I was writing a script during the fellowship. A month before we shot, I felt that i wanted to do something that I could relate to. Something that my mom can relate to. I needed some type of personal relationship to it. I was thinking about stories and I thought about my brother and how he used to be a delivery boy and struggles in my family.
How did you decide on the cast?
Someone told me that I should cast someone who is the character in real life. The main actor is my younger brother. The mother is my own mom. We had a couple of days of rehearsal. They helped me with the story. I just called friends and see who wanted to help out. There were no professional actors.
What did your mom say when she saw the finished product?
My mom loved it. I edited in my house so she was there all the time. I was constantly showing her the rough cuts and any updates. I showed it to one of my friend’s mom who is undocumented and she started crying. She was very happy because that was our truth. She was happy that people were sharing stories that she could relate to.
The NY Dream Act hasn’t passed. What has it been like to be an undocumented college student?
It’s hard knowing that you go to school, and you’re there four times a week, and your family is at home going through financial problems. Knowing that i have to sacrifice some things in order to go to school. The same reasons that you are trying to go to school are holding you back. Being undocumented you appreciate things that others take for granted. You know you are there for a reason. You know a lot of your undocumented friends cannot go to school. You definitely feel humbled. So my first year was definitely a sweet and sour experience.
How much of your life do you put into your films? I remember working on DreamersAdrift pieces and not having enough time because I had to work. Was it tough working on this piece because of your circumstances?
It definitely was not easy. What I love about filmmaking, and what people don’t know about it [is that you can’t] do this all by yourself. Filmmaking is a collaborative thing. One of the main things that I learned is that the way to do something is [to get] support from people who are equally passionate. I found the best crew I could possibly find and they helped do it. I got DACA [the new temporary legalization program for undocumented youth] before I did the film so thankfully I got a job, and it wasn’t as hard. … We probably spent $900 on the film, which is nothing, but I was able to get a scholarship from Tribeca. What I’ve been doing so far–[my undocumented status] hasn’t really held me back so much. If anything it has motivated me and made me want to be better.
Any upcoming projects?
We have have a lot of projects coming up. I partnered up with some of my filmmaking friends and created PlayFrisly. We’re actually going to try to launch a Kickstarter for a feature film about a Mexican and Dominican couple. It’s a comedy about two different cultures.
Read more about Frisly at Undocumenting.com.