MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN was shot during a heat wave in Washington Heights. For two weeks we ran through basement tunnels and underground chambers. For two months we got thrown out of shopping malls, chased by cops, and cursed by a local palero.
The palero believed that our army of ICE agents was real, that we were filming a government documentary of ICE arrests, and that we were deporting the palero’s friends and neighbors en masse. In a neighborhood like Washington Heights it is difficult to shoot a movie, with rumors of a spiritualist curse swirling around it. The writer/director visited this palero and – with great diplomacy and respect – they cleared things up and cast the palero in the film.
On July 4th a car screeched to a halt, four real ICE agents jumped out and volunteered to assist a street arrest. We explained it was only a movie and offered to cast them for our next scene. For some reason they declined the offer. As the shoot progressed, our entire crew noticed the intensity of neighborhood reaction to our ICE agents. Fear, resentment and ridicule would greet us in each new location. A portion of every daywas spent explaining who we were, what we were doing, and how our fictional arrests – through a strange media alchemy – might actually reduce the number of future ICE arrests.
As the writer/director, I understood this fear on a profound level. When I was eight years old, the FBI raided my house at 3 am. They accused my father of being a G-2 Cuban spy and deported him to Cuba. I never saw my father again.
The filming of MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN left us all with three insights. First is the power and reach of celebrity. Every day, people swarmed around the film’s star Angel Salazar, who is best known for his role as “Chi Chi” in the 1983 movie Scarface. Several times daily, people would demand selfies and autographs and yell “Chi Chi get the yeyo!” just like Al Pacino did, 34 years ago.
The second insight is that – in this age of sequels and superheroes and CGI – one of the few ways to preserve truth is with humble people, non-actors, simple stories and real, unadorned locations.
The Italian neo-realists did it; so did Flaherty, Truffaut, Cassavetes and Satjayit Ray. That is what we tried to accomplish as well, in MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
The final insight came from the neighborhood itself: Washington Heights. It is named after our first US president. It contains the busiest bridge in the world (300,000 vehicles per day), the oldest house in Manhattan (Morris Jumel Mansion), and a history rooted in our Revolutionary War. And yet 100,000 of its residents are living in shadows, ridden with fear, and treated as if they don’t exist.
All across this nation, entire communities and cultures are treated in the same manner. It is no longer an isolated Meursault, Raskolnikov, Ralph Ellison or Howard Beale. More and more, we are all being isolated and marginalized. Sending smoke signals to each other, and praying that we might be heard.
We are all writing notes from underground.