‘Los Sures’ Comes Back to Life

A "Los Sures"-themed mural in the Uniondocs building, designed by comic book artist José Luis Medina. (Photo via Uniondocs)

A “Los Sures”-themed mural on the UnionDocs building, designed by comic book artist José Luis Medina. (Photo via Uniondocs)

This story was originally published in Spanish in El Diario’s special issue for the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

When filmmaker Diego Echeverría shot the documentary “Los Sures” in 1984, the eponymous Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn was one of New York’s poorest and most forsaken areas. Today, this small, tight-knit, South Williamsburg community is on its way to becoming one of the best documented and recognized in the city.

The documentary’s revival 30 years later is part of a wide-ranging multimedia endeavor entitled “Living Los Sures.” “We call it an expansive documentary in four different parts that are also growing,” explained director Christopher Allen, founder of UnionDocs, a documentary filmmakers’ collective which set up shop in the neighborhood in 2002.

The first part entailed restoring the original film in collaboration with The New York Public Library. “We will be screening the film this summer, and releasing it on DVD and digital download in the fall,” said Allen, who first saw the film when fellow documentary directors at Skylight Pictures showed him a VHS copy.

“Even though it was very low-resolution, we realized it was a history that we wouldn’t otherwise get access to,” said Allen. “It opened my eyes to the struggle the neighborhood went through, and made sense of the strength of the community today.”

UnionDocs has also restored 35 short films centered on the neighborhood today and made by nearly 60 artists.

Additionally, there is the “89 Steps” interactive website, which focuses on Marta Avilés, one of the documentary’s protagonists. Three decades after the original film, Avilés weighs whether she should sell her apartment and move to Florida to be with her children or stay in the neighborhood where she fought so hard to have a dignified home.

Marta Avilés is one of the documentary’s protagonists. (Photo via Uniondocs)

Marta Avilés is one of the documentary’s protagonists. (Photo via Uniondocs)

Finally, the “Shot by Shot” project examines each scene in the original film and sets out to find new stories about the community. “We show these shots to the people who’ve been here for years, and ask them: ‘What do you see? What can you tell us about this shot?’” said Allen.

Thanks to a crowdfunding campaign, they were able to continue doing interviews. So far, they have spoken with 40 neighbors. “We have 326 shots and we have over 500 stories that are attached to those shots.”

In the future, the collective plans to add educational programs, and they recently painted a “Los Sures”-themed mural outside their office, designed by comic book artist José Luis Medina.

Christopher Allen and Diego Echeverría. (Photo via Uniondocs)

Christopher Allen and Diego Echeverría. (Photo via Uniondocs)

A Chilean among Boricuas

The massive initiative to recover the documentary came completely unexpected to Diego Echeverría, its Chilean director, who was raised in Puerto Rico and currently lives in Miami.

“This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever gone through,” said the 68-year-old filmmaker. “The fact that a group of young people in Williamsburg have created a documentary filmmaker collective, that they have seen the film and that it inspired them… It wouldn’t even occur to me. It was like a gift.”

Echeverría, the director of numerous documentaries in the U.S. and Latin America and a former United Nations official, said that “Los Sures” came to be after he moved to New York to study filmmaking in 1971.

“Because I was raised in Puerto Rico, I had a very close relationship with that community from the moment I arrived [in New York],” said the former producer for NBC and CBS. “When I started working on TV, I began documenting everything that had to do with the reality that the community had to face: discrimination, lack of services, cultural adaptation difficulties…”

The documentary [Living Los Sures] was made possible by producer David Loxton, who financed it and presented it as part of his series “Nonfiction TV” on WNET/Channel 13.

Echeverría sought to create a film with a more intimate format than a journalistic report. He was looking for “[stories of] human revelation that allowed people to tell me about their everyday realities from the inside,” said the filmmaker.

He was also aided by then-reporter for El Diario/La Prensa Fernando Moreno, who served as associate producer. Years later, Moreno went on to serve as editor-in-chief of the newspaper.

The “Los Sures” three-month shoot followed five characters, some of whom Echeverría has been able to locate recently. One of them is Tito López, who appears in the documentary as a youth who stole a car. “He is an extraordinary figure,” said the filmmaker. “He was a young man who was lost in those days and didn’t know how to define his life. Talking to Tito 30 years later is very exciting because he is now a fully-realized man who never set foot in jail again.”

New times, new tensions

Although three decades apart, both Echeverría and Allen went through similar processes as they developed their projects. Both relied on the assistance of community organizations such as El Puente and Southside United HDFC – Los Sures, as well as local churches and community leaders. However, they both also had to earn the trust of the residents.

In 1984, insecurity and crime prevailed in the neighborhood. “There was a drug trafficking problem, much distrust, but we had people who supported us from the inside,” said Echeverría.

In Allen’s case, his problem was to fit in as a non-Latino artist among a community wary of gentrification. “It took us time to build trust and relationships,” said the filmmaker, who hails from North Carolina. “We weren’t parachuting for a month to do a documentary. I think we approached humbly and it became clear to everybody that it was a collaboration.”

The neighborhood’s transformation due to gentrification is precisely one of the themes that the “Living Los Sures” project brings up repeatedly.

For his part, Echeverría is not worried that Los Sures will lose its Puerto Rican identity, and he remembered how he spoke to people in 1984 who also longed for the old days when Williamsburg was a busy dockland.

“Immigrants who came in the 1930s remembered how they disembarked nearby and that there were little hotels where they could stay for the first few days,” said Echeverría. “Williamsburg was a Jewish and European immigrant community back then, and there is still a Jewish community there. There is always some remnant of that past.”

More information at www.uniondocs.org/living-los-sures


  1. Pingback: El Diario features Los Sures - Documentary Film, Radio, Photography | Presentation + Production | Williamsburg, Brooklyn

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