Carlos de Jesus on his film The Devil is a Condition, Ituri Pygmys, and John Coltrane.
G: Tell me about your background. Where are you from and how did you get into filmmaking?
C: I was born in Puerto Rico before there were flights coming from Puerto Rico to the U.S. My mother brought me aboard a ship where I celebrated my first birthday on the high seas. I was then raised here in El Barrio. I lived there until I was around 18 or so when I was accepted at New York University. Since that time I’ve lived all over the place, but essentially down in the Village. I was mostly dabbling and then when I finished college, I had a Fulbright to France before coming back here. I had just gotten into the arts. At the time when I was in France on the Fulbright, I was studying French literature. But then while I was there, I took a U turn and just got into all the arts: photography, music, dance, and poetry. Around 1972 or so, there was a program at Channel 13 that was training young Latinos and Blacks in the medium of television. A young woman was part of the producer’s program and she was working with top notch Hollywood producers where she got one of them at the film rental houses to give her some equipment for maybe two weeks or so. She asked me to direct a documentary. I forgot now who came up with the subject of housing, but there were lots of housing protests then. I said to her, “what do I know about film directing?” I never made a film and she says, “I like your sensitivity and that’s what I’d like in the film,” so she provided me with a cameraperson and an editor. That’s the genesis of The Devil is a Condition, which happens to be the first documentary film that I made.
G: Can you tell me anything about the immediate reaction? I remember seeing this film for the first time and it is almost certainly the reason why I embarked on this project in the first place if that says anything about my own reaction to it.
C: Once completed it was shown to Mariam Jimenez, who was a curator of different types of Puerto Rican films, maybe with the Young Lords. I can’t remember because it was such a bubbling of activity then. Either way, she submitted the film to the Whitney Museum for a week of Latino filmmakers. While it was screening there, two women from the French Cultural Institute attended the screenings, got hold of me and asked if they could send it to the Grenoble Film Festival for Short Films. And lo and behold, it went there and it was nominated for first prize!
G: You mention this “bubbling activity.” Can you speak to the ways in which this was manifesting itself in TV and in film?
C: At Channel 13 then, there was a takeover by a group, the name isn’t coming to me, for greatest representation for Puerto Rican culture on the channel. I wasn’t part of the group, but I knew them all. They all came from 109th St. and I was from 110th. They did this takeover and the station literally stopped programming. From that takeover they managed to get enough money to start Realidades. Realidades was operating at 13, these guys I knew, and they got a call from another PBS in New Jersey who were looking for a Latino producer. Pancho Cintron who was the executive director at Realidades, he told me about it and so I went for an interview at PBS New Jersey who I showed the film too. Long and short of all, they hired me to start a program, which I named Imágenes. We’re talking about 1973 and if I’m not mistaken Imágenes is still on the air today, as we speak. I stayed with it for about three years then I left to come to Channel 13 to work with Ellis Haizlip, who had then created a 26 part, half hour series called Watch Your Mouth!
G: One of the things I want to present along with the film is the relationship between Puerto Ricans and African Americans. The idea being that that these two communities, especially in New York, share a certain bond and linkage that I can recall personally because I’m from here. I think you don’t really see that really represented in film and it feels like perhaps that camaraderie is not really depicted today. This is certainly my experience growing up and I think it’s a concept that a bit difficult to get at, but I think your film does a seamless job of it. And it’s not by storytelling, just by truth. It’s a documentary.
C: Right because The Devil is a Condition is both groups. The producer who I mentioned, Olaiya, she’s African American. Those housing struggles that the film deals with are three different communities in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. There were two components of that community in Brooklyn; it was Black and Puerto Rican at the church with the priest. The community in the Bronx was also Black and Puerto Rican, while the community in Manhattan was Latino. The film itself of course is the composition of both. Take the opening music track, that’s the Last Poets, a group that was mixed. They are the precursors of today’s rap. One member was of course famously Puerto Rican, Felipe Luciano.
G: I think that is one of the major successes of the film. It brings together these two groups in a way that doesn’t even require thinking. It doesn’t come off as forced or overly academic.
C: No, it’s, if I can say so myself, like a toned poem. Like I said earlier it was my first film and probably the one I’m most endeared too aesthetically. Perhaps because I see it, not as what I learned later of a strict documentary, but this is a feeling.
G: Can you speak at all about how the film was received by people of the actual communities?
C: When I returned from the Grenoble Film Festival and got the position at New Jersey PBS as the executive producer, one of the first projects that I aired was the film. How was it received by the Puerto Rican community in New Jersey and parts of New York? The only way that I can answer that is to say that in the time that I was at PBS, the viewership to the station grew by 300%. Perhaps that is why it’s still on the air. It was also screened [in New York] at various venues including Museo del Barrio and various libraries. Also, the Department of Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter organized some things around it.
G: On the subject of reception, the film is certainly charged in its political convictions. Do you know if it incited any change in housing?
C: I would say that if anything it has gotten worse. Perhaps to some extent, there were small, little increments of success. That you happen to be working on this festival now, maybe this project plants the seeds for the struggle to continue. You know? La lucha continua. The struggle continues and that’s positive. If the struggle doesn’t die, then that’s positive. What changes has it brought it about? Well, maybe small changes. I just happen to document those housing struggles there in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. In the Bronx, I remember the people living in the building they held the rent in escrow. So perhaps that struggle itself, not the film, maybe there was an incremental change for them. Maybe they were able to get better services. Did the film have anything to do with those incremental benefits? It’s hard to say, but the fact that you’re working on this now to me says, hey well yes there is some success. At 40 years later, you’re still picking up on it and it planted the seed. It makes me proud if I heard you correctly.
G: You did. Part of this is that it seems that there was a real incentive for institutions to put money and resources into Latino filmmakers to tell their own stories. Where did that go? I don’t see it anymore as far as those types of programs. There was an interest to make these voices heard, but why did that go away? My gut tells me that it’s social; things like crack happened in the community, but it feels hard to grasp. You have the 60’s, the 70’s, and the 80’s where artists from our communities were picking up cameras and working, then it seems to stop at a point.
C: There was not the technology that we have today. Digital technology makes it possible for just about anyone. With $5,000, you can set up your own film production today. Back then, no! It was very, very fucking expensive! To make a film? The Devil is a Condition was made with loaned equipment to the producer. The film was, let us say, “liberated” by the cameraperson who was working at Channel 13. In addition, there was a German company that was producing journalist type television shows. They found out what we were doing and check this out, they called us in and they said “we will provide you with the film,” because they could not get into the communities to shoot the protests on housing. They gave us film stock and film development so they could use it for their television program in Germany. And that’s how The Devil is a Condition was made. I would say that there is no cause to despair because the process itself has it’s own redeeming values.
G: I have to ask about the music. You talk about it being a “toned poem,” it’s hard not to consider how the music contributes to that.
C: First of all, that’s the music that I loved most then and still love now: Jazz. And it’s not necessarily just Jazz as an umbrella thing, I mean there are musicians who I thought were just phenomenal: Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane. These guys are my spiritual leaders. What I was experiencing then was that correspondence between the feeling of that music and the theme I was pursing with the film and the visuals. I see it as a correspondence. They stand alone, but then they’re running parallel and at the same time corresponding emotionally with each other. I had never made a film, but I was dabbling in photography, music, and dance. When I was offered the opportunity to make the film and once I made it, I said look at this, filmmaking incorporates all of these different mediums that I was into. That’s what film does. That is what cinema is about. It wasn’t difficult for me to make those connections. Let me tell you something also very curious about my style of working. Let’s go back to even before I made The Devil is a Condition. I was listening to a lot of Jazz and at the time the folk singers came along. I’d listen to the folk singers and I could not connect to that music at all. For this reason, I’d say, wait a minute; this is not music at the level of Monk, Coltrane, or Dolphy. It’s not. Like I said, I went to France on a Fulbright to study the poets and it’s not poetry at level. So it’s neither one or the other. And now I find myself working in the medium where I say, “well you know, this is not pure photography, nor is this pure poetry.” But it works.
G: At what point in the process did the music come? There are these rather beautiful, extended long shots of the streets playing out over the duration of an entire track. How was making those choices for you, specifically the relationship with aligning some of those visuals, with a genre like ‘Free Jazz’?
C: There’s a French film director, Claude Lelouche who I heard say that he does not begin a film with the script; he sits down with the composter and works out all of the different emotions before he writes. I had never heard of any such process. I did not start out with the music. One exercise that I teach, I’ll suggest to students that if they don’t what the soundtrack is going to be like, they should find a piece of music that they like. Not to necessarily shot the film to the music, but absorb that soundtrack and have it part of your system. When you go out to shoot, let that music run in your head and that will inform whether you are going to do a tracking shot, or a tilt, or a pan, or this or that. For The Devil is a Condition, perhaps because I didn’t have many interviews, I don’t recall exactly why at the time, I said well I’ve got this music. I remember showing it to an Anglo-American woman in film at the time, and she felt it had too much music! I don’t think it does. I think they run equally parallel, but music can be trap.
G: All the music was of your taste correct? Can you speak a little bit more about your connection to these artists who you call your “spiritual guides”?
C: Yeah man. I mean Coltrane? Coltrane? Shit! You know just yesterday in fact, somebody wrote an article comparing Coltrane to Einstein in their processes. If you understand Einstein, you know he’s a theoretical physicist. As a theoretical physicist, these ideas would just come to him from somewhere. He’d say, “oh yeah, E=MC2,” then he’d give it to the experimental physicist to prove what he conceived. In this article, [the author] says Einstein was improvising in the same way that Coltrane was improvising, around certain mathematical formulas if you will. Think about Coltrane’s Circle of Fifths. Goosebumps. Of course Coltrane carries it to a spiritual level and Einstein, Is that spiritual? Of course. It’s that correspondence again. You know the etymology of art is “ar-“. To fit together, that’s what it means. Since we’re talking about music, take harmony. Look at the “ar-“ in there. Harmony is then, in it’s simplest form, is three voices sounding as one: the alto, the bass, the soprano. Arithmetic, which also has that “ar-“, is fitting numbers together. Arithmetic as we know is a man made science. But that little man made science, can get us to the moon. So take that “ar-“ concept to not only fitting together within their own sciences, but also in this correspondence between image and text. The music and the film footage. In the correspondence between the mathematics of Einstein and the improvisation of Coltrane. It all comes together. Albeit perhaps in an abstract sense, but it all comes together. I’m a firm believer in all this stuff. And I don’t necessarily feel like there’s anything abstract in any of this, it’s just about how we see it. Are we open to see these relationships and these associations?
G: It’s crazy just to think about the things you’re saying now with my relationship to the film. It’s unbelievable to me still that it even exists because it’s truly a composition of all my interests. I tell people to this day, “I can’t believe this film exists.” In some ways, it does feel like some higher divine work happening as something that came together for you 40 years ago and then I happen to find it completely by chance. Between Puerto Rican people, the housing struggling, and free jazz, I still can’t believe this was created and I easily could have missed it.
C: I’m happy to hear that. I will suggest to you, because I keep hearing in your voice that you seem to be despairing a little bit over what changes has any of this wrought, that the only constant we really have is change. I wouldn’t despair. I’m a firm believer in the process no matter how long that may take. Even the struggle for housing, it’s just a grain of sand in this wide, wide universe. And there will be change. I believe in change. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing. Perhaps I can say, at some point the change has to come. Otherwise, we will end up destroying ourselves.
G: Thank you for saying that.
C: In the mythology of the pygmys in the Ituri forest, they acknowledge that there was a period in their sensorium, in their existence where they were a violent society. But they realized without altering their behavior, they would disappear. So they altered it. Today, to the extent that they still exist in the Ituri forest, that they are documented as anthropology as the epitome of non-violent society. If that means anything to me in our society, it’s that with our technology, we can make the world aware how we’re on the verge of destroying ourselves. There’s a hope. Maybe that’s what I’m getting at. Keep the faith.