Filmmaker Interview: Celia Novis (Sole Survivor)

Tom Wolfe said that “One belongs to New York instantly.” Celia Novis, journalist, screenwriter, and director, knows a lot about that.

Her second feature film, Sole Survivor, brings us closer to La Nacional – Spanish Benevolent Society, the only living witness from what once was Little Spain, the Spanish neighborhood in the Big Apple. The movie has achieved the Spanish Consulate’s official support and a crowdfunding campaign has been started to allow Celia to perform her passion, giving voice to the unknown.

We meet with her in Miami to talk about La Nacional’s living history, the Spanish culture in New York and the other main focus of her documentary film, Art.

What is so special about La Nacional that moved you to make this documentary?Celia_filming1

La Nacional – Spanish Benevolent Society is the oldest Spanish society in the United States. It was founded on 1868 and performed a crucial function for the Spanish immigrants who arrived after 14 or 15 days on a boat. It was the first place they would go to, hungry, without any money, without knowing the language, and there they could find food, clothes and even rooms where they could sleep. It was, let’s say, like being home thousands of miles away.

It is also the only place that survived from what once was Little Spain, the Spanish neighborhood in Manhattan. Although they had good times in the 40s, 50s and 60s, after that there was a period with a lot of criminality related to drugs and Little Spain disappeared. La Nacional was about to be sold five years ago, but it survived, it is the only survivor. That’s why we called the movie Sole Survivor.

What do you think kept it in place? 

Some people, descendants from Spaniards, lovers of the Spanish culture and people from the neighborhood started a fundraising and joined forces in a campaign aimed to stop the society’s closing. It was the only footprint of a neighborhood that had been very important, with up to 40 Spanish businesses. In the block between 7th and 8th Avenues, in 14th St. and a little bit of its surroundings, Spanish was the only spoken language. There were even 15.000 Spaniards registered, although this is still an unsure number. La Nacional was its only living footprint. Some people saved it and now it is living its second golden age.

Has the new wave of immigration helped this new golden age?  

La Nacional is not a charity anymore, as the Spaniards who come to the city nowadays, come in a different way. We arrive to the States with a better education, knowing the language and with the medical insurance covered. Right now, it is a center of cultural meetings, where we get together to share our culture and encourage people to learn Spanish. We also celebrate New Year’s Eve, eating grapes of course! Traditions are kept between Spaniards and people who are interested in the Spanish culture.

Painter Domingo Zapata joins you in this journey called Sole Survivor. What is the role of Art in this movie?

It plays quite an important role. The movie has two main focusses: La Nacional, which speaks in first person and the painting that Domingo Zapata creates after our script. He gets inspired in the script and, according to his way of understanding art and understanding our movie, he composes a painting. Thereafter, in the movie, we go from some elements present in the painting, which refer to a specific time or detail that caught his attention, to the history of immigrants and the society.

Like a guiding threat…

Indeed, it is the guiding threat. And it is something I knew from the very beginning. Manel (Ferrera, co-producer) met Domingo and always wanted to shoot him painting. He has so much strength in camera, he is a camera animal! At the end, that did not come through but I stuck with the idea of including him in our movie about immigrants. Domingo is an immigrant himself, who came to the United States fifteen years ago and reached his American dream. He loved the story and he is actually going to donate the painting to La Nacional. And here, there is a wink. In this society, there are a lot of legends. They say that among all the pieces that the artists have left there, there was a Sorolla, which of course disappeared when the society was plundered. He donated the painting in the first golden age of the center and, now, Domingo is going to donate his in the second golden age. It is like a mirror story, I just hope this painting does not disappear. To me, it is great that La Nacional is so full of legends; I love to think that every story has an aura of mystery. If you give the same importance to facts and legends, you will get a beautiful story.

You said that there were 15,000 Spaniards registered and mentioned how important La Nacional was to them. But, how important was that wave of Spanish immigrants to New York?

Somehow, they kept the Spanish culture alive in the city. They still settled in, as many of them stayed in the United States and put down roots. Therefore, they are grateful to America but do not forget where they came from. This is good for the city because, in my opinion, New York is the world’s capital city, the melting point, thanks to the fact that all these communities were able to find their place to settle and show to the other communities their roots and traditions.

It is also said that Lorca, Dalí, Paco de Lucía… A lot of important people were there. We know that Fabri Salcedo, original from Spain, was a myth for American soccer, and member of the society. Also Josep Camprubí, Catalan who founded El Diario La Prensa, the most read newspaper in Spanish, joined La Nacional. We are talking about people who helped spread the Spanish culture around the United States.

You have got the support of the Spanish Consulate in New York. What does this reinforcement mean to you and to the movie?

Truth is it was a surprise. We applied for the aid and, when they gave it to us, they told us that it is not
usually given to audiovisual projects, but to plastic arts. Therefore, it is the only movie supported by the Consulate.

How so?

Because they love it, it was about time that someone spoke about this center. For us, it was a great

happiness but it also meant a great responsibility, the kind of responsibility that we love. And now, thanks to the Consulate and to the support given by La Nacional, this is the official movie. At the end of the day, having this support means being reinforced by the Spanish Government.

It has been a year and a half since the process started. How has the documentary evolved?

foto profile en el subwayIt has been a difficult evolution. First, Manel moved to Miami in August, so my right-hand man was no longer in New York. Right now, I have more help, but at the beginning I had to do the jobs of a lot of people myself. Research requires time. And we are talking about living history, so there is a lot of information, new data come up… On the one hand, research has been hard and, since the center was plundered, a lot of documents got lost. And, on the other hand, we have been asking for financial aid from our friends, people interested in the Spanish culture, and with that little money we could shoot what we were discovering. What we knew for sure, we shot.

In short segments.

Exactly. Besides, sometimes we have just a witness about something, and he is a man in his 90s.
So… Let’s go! This has been the process so far. That’s how we saw that unless we started a crowdfunding, we would be out of work. And we could not allow ourselves to not pay a team or not shoot a scene.

What about the campaign? It has been going on for a couple of weeks…

It has been well received. Of course, we are receiving support from friends, people who love us and family, but it looks good, we have hope. I don’t think we are asking for a big amount. For a documentary film, we asked for $25.000, which is not all we need, but at least will allow us to keep moving. And when other investors see money, it is easier for them to invest. It will help a lot if we achieve the goal.

This is your second feature film after On Vampyres and Other Symptoms. How do you feel in this second movie compared to the first one?

I feel a little more endorsed, I would say. And more prepared, of course. They are very different stories but have something in common. My first feature film was about a Spanish director who was more well-known in England and the United States than in Spain. Despite being a recognized genre director, he almost died in the anonymity in his own country. Somehow, I want to give voice to the unknown. And this is, for me, the connecting point to this new movie, which is giving voice to something I find interesting and important and is unknown. This is my passion and having the Consulate’s support, inspires hope in me and gives me more serenity and strength to take risks when I am telling the story.

What are your projects for the future?

There are some things going on. With our production company we have some projects in mind, some TV show and some other documentary film. We already did brainstorming and wrote the first drafts. Also, there is a project that I love. It is a script for a fantastic-horror movie. I don’t think about it every day, but it has definitely been in every important moment of my life. It is the story I developed at the Cuban Film Academy (Escuela de Cine de Cuba – EICTV) and finished at the New York Film Academy. It happens between New York and Barcelona, and I have been developing it during important moments and in important places to me. I would like it to be my third feature film and, in this case, it would be special. Besides, I have the first draft and all the sequences in my head. When I am done with Sole Survivor, I would like to get this one started.

-Marta Ligero

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