“Ode to Pablo” Q&A with writer/director Adelina Anthony

Ode to Pablo_PBS (1)

The new digital short film Ode to Pablo, a unique intersectional coming of age story, is part of the 2019 PBS Online Film Festival.  Written and directed by Adelina Anthony and presented by Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB), the film is produced by AdeRisa Productions. Two AdeRisa films have premiered as part of earlier PBS Online Film Festivals – the acclaimed Amigas with Benefits and Gold Star, which earned the People’s Choice Award in 2016. LPB recently sat down with Adelina to talk about her film, and what inspired her to tell this interesting story. 

[LPB] Ode to Pablo is a unique intersectional coming of age story where a young queer deaf Afro Latino is challenged to a game of pickup basketball by local boys, quickly challenging the idea of masculinity, queerness, and disability through this everyday interaction. What inspired you to tell this story?

Writer/Director Adelina Anthony

Writer/Director Adelina Anthony

[AA] My friend, Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano, was the first gay Xicano to introduce me to the world of Deaf Queer peoples in San Francisco. This was over three years ago. I remember feeling humbled by the realization that as progressive as I believe myself to be as a Two Spirit Xicana lesbian artista—I really knew very little about our vibrant Deaf Queer communities of color. I am now on the lifelong path of learning about my Deaf and other marginalized queer siblings. As we move toward more inclusion in our society, Deaf LGBTQ+ people of color leaders are continuing to make their own stories known and we should all do our best to pay attention and learn.

Well, since that time, I wanted to find a way to shine light on a Deaf Queer Afro Latino character—not as a representative of the entire community—but as a way to enter a very personal world that might make us take pause and question our own assumptions about Deaf Queer and gay Latinx persons. The first assumption I wanted to tackle was around race/ethnicity, especially for our young men of color. As Michelle Alexander made clear in The New Jim Crow there’s an implicit bias that we all walk around with because of how ubiquitous and systemic racism and anti-blackness are in our everyday lives.

I wanted my Deaf character, Pablo, to be Afro Latino because we don’t see enough Black representation in our Latinx stories. In the original script, Pablo had an Afro Latino father. This way his character wouldn’t be the only Black body on screen carrying the burden of that representation. When Pablo came to me as a character, he materialized before me as a young man who was having problems connecting with his father. An argument ensued between them and this is what sent him fleeing to the streets with his basketball. It was the personal story that drew me in—his deafness was an important part of him—but not the source of conflict between him and his hearing father. (Because of unforeseen circumstances, the story had to change to meet our production dates and the father character was later excised.)

Pablo, as a Deaf character navigates the hearing world by sometimes “passing.” Similarly, when I would watch our actor, Ian Vasquez (Pablo), walking to our rehearsals it’s not like anyone observing him on the sidewalk could tell he was Deaf. The most visible marker for our actor and the character in our culture is his Blackness. And in our society, this is what makes him vulnerable to racial profiling by police, racists and others who might make assumptions about his masculinity. As Ava Duvernay brilliantly showed us in her series, When They See Us, Black and Brown boys are daily criminalized for merely existing.

This is why I wanted the other Latino characters to be of varying shades of skin color—from brown to blanco; because when it’s not about their skin color being viewed as a threat, it’s the mere fact that they have gathered as a group. Also, heterosexuality is almost always the default assumption about males who express their gender on the more masculine side of the gender spectrum. In this respect, I also drew a lot of inspiration from the work of self-taught artist, Hector Silva, especially around his incredible breadth of work with gay homeboys. These are his friends and members of our queer communities who counter the narrative around Brown masculinity, class, and sexuality.

[LPB] I know you had an extensive pre-production process, which included casting a non-actor who is deaf, and even learning ASL. Can you elaborate on that?

[AA] Yes, it took us a couple of months to find Ian and we started looking for the ideal actor back in January 2018. It was a challenge, but we persisted because we knew he was out there. Ode to Pablo_10We were adamant about casting a Deaf Latino in the role—no exceptions, because Deaf actors/persons should play these roles. And I’m grateful that my producing team shares in these values of representation in our casting choices. Because if casting the right person doesn’t really matter in the end—then why write with any specificity in mind? Even the best of actors can’t always give you what a person with the embodied knowledge of a specific character brings to the role.

We were affirmed in this when we started privately screening the film and our Deaf viewers noted that it was very clear to them that Ian was the real deal. We actually found Ian through our company’s co-producer, Karla Legaspy, who remembered hearing about him through Ana Bernal who had conducted a queer playwriting of color workshop. She put us in touch with Ian via email.

Serendipitously, Prof. José Aguilar-Hernández screened our feature film, Bruising for Besos, at his Cal Poly Pomona campus that same January. That’s where I met Julia Dominguez. She was a student there and because the film impacted her so much she introduced herself to me; and let me know she was an ASL interpreter and that if I ever needed anything…

Bueno, in that moment, I felt like the stars were aligning for us because I knew we were going to need a team of ASL interpreters to make this project happen. I sent her the script immediately and she responded with enthusiasm. That’s how Julia became our lead ASL interpreter and Associate Producer. She brought us Raylene Lopez and Gregorio Nieto, who became part of the ASL team that supported the entire rehearsal process.

From them and from Ian I learned very basic ASL ways to communicate, especially the signs I would need for actual directing: cut, action, again, etc. I am still learning the basics. Like any language, it has regional and cultural inflections. Ian has a special way of signing because of his own personal background. Over the rehearsal process our ASL team really became familiar with his nuances. And for the production shoot days, Julia gathered a few more ASL interpreters who all gave us their best. Again, it would have been impossible to execute this project without them.

We also couldn’t have done it without the Yusef Omowale and Michele Welsing from the Southern California Library in South Los Angeles who provided the rehearsal space. Ian lives in Compton and we wanted to facilitate our gatherings in the nearest location for him. The first session was just about checking in with Ian, ensuring that everything in the script felt true to his or the experience of other Deaf peoples he knew. Although I had initially consulted and shared the script with Deaf gay friends and gay Latino allies, of course, it was critical for me to have Ian’s feedback. After all, he was going to be embodying the role, and if anything felt off—I needed to change it.

It was a relief to hear that for him the script felt on spot. He could relate to the characters, the choices, and the street basketball. He knew how it felt every time he had to expose himself to other boys as a Deaf person during those games in new neighborhoods. The original script had voice-over, and although I knew beforehand that not all Deaf people hear inner thoughts (many see their thoughts visually), I wanted to figure out that part of the script during the rehearsal process. I ended up finding a way to illustrate Pablo’s inner thoughts, which is different from Ian. In a larger work we could explore the myriad ways in which Deaf peoples experience this.

Needless to say, for those few rehearsal months it was a joy and a privilege to work with Ian and the ASL team. He actually has some theater experience from his Deaf high school, so some rehearsals were just about adapting the performance style from stage to screen; or teaching him how to break down a script with beats and playable action. And, of course, we had to invest time in teaching and rehearsing ASL with the nondeaf actor in the role of the father. It was really special. One of the most memomrable pre-production and rehearsals periods of my directing life.

[LPB] What difficulties did you encounter during the making of Ode to Pablo? How was it to work with and direct both deaf and hearing actors?

Ode to Pablo_7[AA] Well, the biggest difficulty came from losing our actor in the role of the father. He booked a union job a mere few weeks before production dates, which required him to join SAG-AFTRA. We were very happy for him, because he’s talented—but it put us under a lot of pressure as indie producers. Looking at our calendars, we wouldn’t have had enough time to get the SAG-AFTRA paperwork in on time, amongst other things, including additional costs.

And being an actor myself, I knew there was no guarantee that scheduling on his new show wouldn’t become an issue for us. We already had our crew and cast members booked, as well as the location we were able to rent through Abeni Carr, the Principal at College Bridge Academy High School. But the bigger heartbreak was the investment we took in teaching him the ASL for his role and the rehearsal bond forged between him and Ian. There was not enough time to go through this process again with another actor.

Thankfully, I had structured the story in a manner where the Father-Son scenes were at the beginning and at the end of the screenplay. Once I extricated that character, I still had Pablo and this very special interaction with Julian and his friends. I had about 24 hours to re-write some ending scenes and when I submitted the re-write and explained our dilemma to Latino Pubic Broadcasting they were very open to this script changes. As usual, they supported me/us and really believed in the project even as it transmuted.

Overall, working with Deaf and hearing actors in and of itself wasn’t a challenge because of the ASL team. I did spend time in rehearsals ensuring we made respectful connections happen between Ian and the lead actors. The actor in the role of Julian is also a very conscious and kind, young man: Louis Reyes Chavez. In auditions it was between him and another young actor, but the other Latino actor admitted he would have an issue kissing another male. We respected him for his honesty. And because we never make assumptions about the sexuality of the actors we audition, once we do get close to a final casting decision we ensure every actor understand what the entire role entails. Alas, because of homophobia… these are the casting difficulties we still face as LGBTQPOC creators.

That being said, in the end we were spared any stress because Louis nailed the callback as Julian; and as an out queer actor he had no issues with the innocent kiss that takes place between the two characters. It actually made us extremely happy to have two out queer Latinos in these lead roles—it’s how we prefer to cast. Again, it’s because we always aim to cast actors who reflect the characters as much as possible. Plus, they both knew how to “butch” it up. So if you’re watching closely, you’ll see these moments where their bodies relax and feel queer because the characters are actually feeling safe together. Ian and Julian just knew how to be in their bodies and they valued this story. I think this might be the first tender gay Latinx kiss on a platform like PBS? Or one of the very few. These actors understand how many LGBTQ+ Latinx youth are hungry to see themselves reflected in mainstream platforms. The fact that we can educate our audiences on PBS is monumental and a great responsibility.

Finally, it’s indie filmmaking. So there’s always the difficulty of trying to shoot something of quality within a modest budget.­­­­ And there are always unexpected surprises when you film! For Ode to Pablo, the original gaffer the cinematographer hired took a union job a few days before the shoot. When you’re asking people to work for indie rates, we can’t ever begrudge them an opportunity to make union rates. It’s their living. But, again, it put an extraordinary amount of pressure on us as producers. We actually had to postpone for a short while until we could figure out all of the moving pieces with budget increases, permit extensions, and schedules.

The cinematographer (Leah Anova) to her credit, stayed on with the project even as it was in major flux. Our cast and our ASL team stayed very flexible and committed. Fortunately, for Marisa Becerra (producer) and me, we’ve been very blessed to have some core production team members we can always rely on; they’re our indie family. This time around it was people like Jean Kim, Mary Brown, Garrett Kynard, Tina Zimmer, Minerva Jazmin Zapata, Marlene Beltran Cuauhtin, Nancy Chargualaf Martin, Karla Legaspy and newcomer to our team, Sade’ Robinson, who came in at the last minute to help make this happen because the original team that was hired couldn’t work with our new production dates.

At times, these difficulties and other challenges made Ode to Pablo feel like we were birthing a breech baby! But we knew we owed it to Ian and our Deaf Queer communities to find a way to make this happen. This was Ian’s first professional short film, and for our ASL team too. Thankfully, Ian, the other cast members and the ASL team had a great experience on set. Now they have some experience on a production set and we hope it continues to open doors for all of them.

[LPB] Equal representation in Hollywood for women, people of color, and perhaps even more so for people with disabilities has historically been few and far between. How do you see your role as a Latinx filmmaker today? What impact do you hope your film will have on the current discussion of diversity and equality?

[AA] I hope our film will demonstrate the need to support Deaf and other marginalized creatives. To be clear, this is not a Deaf film. If we want to see a truly Deaf artistic work then we Ode to Pablo_4have to support Deaf writers, directors and other creators. But, at the very least, Ode to Pablo shows that casting Deaf actors of color are out there—ours was queer too, which made it extra special! Ian is a very creative person. If he was supported fully, we are sure he would create something original, meaningful and needed in our communities.

In the end, AdeRisa Productions is not Hollywood, we work with ultra-low budgets and a different set protocol. But if we had the financial means of a Hollywood studio, we would get behind him and other Deaf Queer artists who are out there. Hollywood is still overwhelmingly about huge budgets controlled by white men and decisions based on name actors—there are a few women of color and queer people of color who have been able to make strides within that framework. They’re our best hope for change within the industry.

In my/our small way as Latinx filmmakers we hope the cultural impact we have with the stories we’re shooting contribute to necessary dialogue and change for our society at large. We hope the actors we’re willing to take a chance on prove that the talent is out there in our communities; and that the way we have always hired queer women of color, people of color and allies in our crews (long before it became a talking point in Hollywood)—is a welcome change in how we make work together.

Ultimately, how AdeRisa Productions chooses to run production sets is part of how we contribute to forward-thinking Latinx works. As indie filmmakers we can make different choices if we have the political and spiritual vision to do so.

[LPB] You made a lot of interesting stylistic choices, particularly with sound to help better portray Pablo’s experience as a deaf person. Can you explain your motivation behind that? and how you were able to strike a balance between experimentation and a traditional narrative?

PBS_OLFF_2019_160x600_40kb[AA] When the father character/story had to be removed, it made me really think even more about the purpose of the film. I felt I had been very intentional as a writer about uplifting a character from our marginalized Deaf Queer communities. But as I pondered deeper, I realized the more radical and creative aesthetic act was to center Deaf audiences too; meaning, I wanted to create a way for us as hearing persons to get a small sense of what it means to experience story without all of the audio information.

In short, I want hearing audiences to struggle with sound. Striking that balance came from the good feedback I got from Latino Public Broadcasting early on. One of my earlier rough cuts had almost no sound, just some music at the start and end. It was really informative to get feedback even from the most progressive of my hearing friends. One queer friend in particular who considers herself an ally told me how much she appreciated her own challenges around taking in a story with almost no sound and no captions. Once I incorporated the feedback from LPB, and added open captions, I found not only did it help hearing audiences understand more of the narrative, but this became true as well for my Deaf screeners and their relationship with Pablo.

It was important for me to always privilege and sit with feedback from Deaf viewers first, and then take in the responses from hearing audiences and allies. What I landed upon was a narrative that experiments with de-centering and de-familiarizing sound for hearing audiences, which is not a Deaf experience—but works against our hearing “norms.” The film isolates and heightens certain sounds and diminishes the value of speaking languages. In a way, our auditory sensibilities do this all of the time. We’re constantly filtering sounds out, usually subconsciously. We can also tune into specific sounds.

The sound design works hand in hand with Alex Valenzy’s rhythmic, energetic and beautiful score. I wanted that electro pop music sound which is a staple of gay culture. And if you’re listening to the basketball bouncing and catching, those isolated sounds are reminiscent of a drum machine. More importantly, there’s a metallic sound that comes up in moments of aggression between the boys. It’s a way to call attention to something that is seemingly so natural around masculine figures—but the hope is that the unnatural sound calls attention to any act of violence as something that we should view as unnatural; something not to be taken for granted just because it occurs between male figures.

Of course, there are just a couple of moments of silence. For me, the moment of most intimate connection had to happen in silence because I wanted to put the viewer as close to Pablo’s POV as possible. We’ll see how audiences respond, but I’m happy with the creative risk-taking because it’s rooted in deeper meaning and questions about our hearing privileges.

[LPB] What do you hope your audiences will take away from the film?

[AA] I hope audiences take away great admiration and respect for Pablo. We make assumptions all of the time as hearing and able-bodied persons about the experiences of others. I want both queer and nonqueer audiences to remember that LGBTQ+ sexuality exists in all forms of humanity and nature, so that we keep questioning why we assume heterosexuality is the default experience. Moreover, I really hope audience leave with the desire to see the film more than once, because the meaning deepens with each viewing. It’s a conversation starter, for sure.

[LPB] Why is public media the best platform to showcase this story?

[AA] I love the public media platform! Where else can we reach national audiences and tell stories with fresh perspectives? I’ve been an educator all of my life and in various forms, from teaching artist to college lecturer. For me, filmmaking is an extension of not only entertaining, but really engaging our communities with societal issues that need to be brought to the forefront. I believe in the power and medicine of our storytelling.

[LPB] Can you tell us what project you’re working on now?

[AA] At this very moment, AdeRisa Productions is in pre-production with our dear friend, D’Lo, who is a transgender queer Tamil Sri Lankan-American talent. He’s written a hilarious comedy, Ro & Shirelle, about two transgender friends on a road trip. I don’t want to give away any more details at this point, but I’m very excited to direct the project in the coming months.

Also, I’m the screenwriter for The Daily War, a short that will explore PTSD and homelessness through a former Latina Vet character. Karla Legaspy will be directing it and I know she’s going to do an amazing job, which is why I offered her the script. She won the LPB Public Media Content Fund this year, so it will be another project that aims to educate our communities through poignant storytelling.

Those are the two projects on the horizon for 2019. It’s not easy being a Two Spirit Xicana filmmaker, but I’m blessed that LPB has consistently funded my scripts (whether I or others direct them); moreover, to have Marisa as my producing partner and the backbone of AdeRisa Productions, well, she provides me with unconditional love and support. And the same gratitude goes out to our communities, those audiences who keep following and supporting our works. They keep me/us inspired.

About the filmmaker

Adelina Anthony (Writer/Director) is a critically acclaimed and award-winning queer Xicana two-spirit lesbian artista who hails originally from San Antonio, Texas. She works in various mediums and is best known for her provocative, comedic solo performances. Along with Marisa Becerra, she co-founded AdeRisa Productions, and returned to film as an actor, writer, director and producer. AdeRisa’s films Gold Star and Amigas with Benefits premiered on PBS’s Online Film Festival.442 Views

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