Fellowship awarded to Miami filmmaker for interactive work

arts / Article

Above: Alterations trailer by Juan Carlos Zaldívar

For some eight years now, filmmaker, video artist and programmer Juan Carlos Zaldívar has been working on seeing his interactive short film Alterations come to fruition.

Based on a script of his own, the story is in tune with what has been happening lately with the transgender community in its struggle for civil rights and respect.

Securing funds for a film is no easy chore, however, especially for one where there are no superheroes, explosions, or aliens. This work focuses on the relationship between a young trans person, J, looking to reconnect now as a woman with her mother, who has suffered a heart attack.

Thanks to a $7,500 fellowship from The Robert Giard Foundation and to a Hatchfund campaign, Zaldívar is on the way to finishing Alterations. Of the film, the foundation’s president, Carl Sylvestre, has stated: “With humor and tenderness, Juan Carlos depicts two individuals working to come to terms with the past while navigating their immediate pains.”

The film, shot in Miami, stars performance artist Dani Arranka as J and Betzaida Ferrer as mother Mary Jane. It’s an example of the growing community of indie filmmakers in Miami who are gaining attention nationally for their work.

Above: Performance artist Dani Arranka.

“I’ve been working on this project for a long time, since the beginning of the whole buzz on the transmedia movement,” said the Cuba-born Zaldívar, 48. “It’s always a little bit hard to describe this project, so I kind of just started doing it. There weren’t a lot of sources of funding for something like this.”

The situation has improved. This past May 19, The Robert Giard Foundation, in partnership with The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies of the City University of New York, announced that Zaldívar was their 2015-16 Fellow.

Named after the late photographer Robert Giard, The Foundation’s annual award supports an emerging, early- or mid-career artist from any country working on a project that deals with issues of sexuality, gender, or lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersex identity.

“I think that, beyond the monetary thing, which of course is really important in finishing the film, for me, what is really exciting is what the work does when it’s completed,” said Zaldívar, a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Not just in entertaining, but to start a dialogue or join a movement to further an idea. And I think the [Giard] award kind of plugs Alterations into academia, and people who will be aware of the work, and possibly write on it or use it.”

Although a short movie (15 minutes), Alterations is complex because it is made in a way that invites the viewer to be active, not passive. It uses sophisticated software that creates a world within a world, or a whole other movie, about an hour long, that the characters will be working on and the public will be able to experience and explore.

“The thing that makes this film different is that we wanted it to be interactive,” explained Zaldivar, founder of Phonograph Films, an art and media production, post-production and exhibition company currently based in Miami Beach.

“One of the characters in the film is making a film,” said the artist, a Knight Arts Challenge winner in 2013 for co-founding the Miami Filmmakers Collective, a group of filmmakers living and working in this city.

“And what’s going to happen is that when you’re watching the film,” Zaldvívar revealed, “you’ll be able to click on the computer where the character is working or some other places, and you’ll be able to access that larger film, which is set in little pieces, with the idea that you can put it all together as a puzzle.”

This concept and the plot of the film captivated Dani Arranka, the performer who plays the role of J.

“I was so attracted to Juan Carlos’ vision, once he fully explained who the character was that I would be playing!” Arranka shared via e-mail. “Not that I'm transgender; I consider myself to be an androgyny. I was born this way, and I plan on dying this way!”

For the 30-year-old, who comes from a Colombian background and grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, there was a connection with J.

“I was able to relate to the character’s relationship with her parents and her journey to self-acceptance,” said Arranka. “The twist between the mother and son [daughter] dynamic is just brilliant and fresh.”

The movie comes into being at a time when the transgender community has become part of the national conversation in this country, with former U.S. Olympian Bruce Jenner transitioning into Caitlyn Jenner and gracing the cover of the most recent Vanity Fair issue, and transgender actress Laverne Cox, who was on the cover of Time magazine last year, as one of the stars of the hit show Orange Is the New Black. Closer to home, Miami will be holding its first TRANSART festival to celebrate transgender artistic talents from June 11- 30.

“This isn't your typical transition movie,” stated Arranka, who has a background in music and dance, and who expects to release his debut album later this year. “This movie is about self-acceptance, accepting others’ differences, overcoming your fears and forgiveness.”

Besides taking Alterations to the film festivals circuit, Zaldívar also has in mind another project that he’s been working on for some time now, and that may have found its moment. It’s known as Violenta, and it’s about a male superhero who possesses special powers when dressed as a woman.

Whether it’s bringing technology and storytelling together, or expanding the notions of fiction to embrace groups not commonly associated with it, Zaldívar seeks to do work that excites and moves.

“The idea that there is still very little representation from LGBTI people making this kind of work,” he said, “is something that I wanted to tackle head on… My original mission is to get people to think about how we judge things and how we accept things.”

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