A Tribeca Filmmaker's Journey Comes Full Circle
For the first time in its 21 years of existence, female directors outnumbered their male counterparts at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. One of these directors, Gabriella A. Moses, attended with her feature debut, Boca Chica, which earned her a well-deserved Nora Ephron Award. A graduate of NYU’s film program, Moses has been writing and directing for years with her first short, Las Mañanitas, premiering in 2012. Since then, Moses has directed several shorts and written numerous screenplays, all while maintaining a career as a talented production designer.
A longtime New Yorker, we sat down with Moses to learn more about her journey and her experience as a first-time feature director at Tribeca with Boca Chica, which tells the story of Desi, a 12-year-old Dominican girl living in the beachside community of Boca Chica. Moses tells this story with an empathy and imagination that is characteristic of her filmmaking.
How has New York shaped you as a filmmaker?
Gabriella A. Moses: My mother moved to NYC from the Dominican Republic when she was a child….My parents met here and I was born here. I went to NYU for my undergrad at Tisch. I made my first films and all my shorts up until my latest one (Sin Raíces) here, so New York has not only been fundamental to learning the craft of filmmaking and finding lifelong collaborators but also formative in shaping the stories I’ve since gravitated towards as a first-gen Dominican-Guyanese American filmmaker. NYC is where everything began for me.
Where do you find inspiration in the city?
GAM: I find inspiration within spaces that shaped my family in the city. I love people-watching whether it be at the corner store or in the park or the subway. I’m constantly transcribing conversations and watching interactions that resonate with me. There’s just so much we’re experiencing together here in NYC since we’re constantly commuting, cohabitating in buildings and breathing together.
I have noticed that a lot of your work is told through a young, female perspective.
GAM: In the beginning, it was for the obvious reason. I went to film school and you see all these kids telling stories they don’t know so everyone says: “Write what you know!” I’ve always identified with what was at my core and I was obviously very young in film school, so what did I know? Coming of age stories and my teenage years.
I’ve also almost exclusively told mother-daughter stories. And it’s interesting that then Boca Chica, which I did not write, came to me. And that’s why I really couldn’t say no.
Why did you feel compelled to tell this story?
GAM: This specific idea for Boca Chica came to me from Sterlyn Ramírez, our producer, who was in treatment stages with Marité and Mariana. We then all shaped the details of the story together. I, however, had decided I wanted to tell a story around sex tourism specifically in the DR, my mother’s homeland, several years earlier. I had witnessed what was happening when I worked at the Mariposa Foundation in the Dominican Republic and I knew that sex work in general can be very empowering for some women and then incredibly oppressive for others, particularly when young girls and underage minors become involved. They are trafficked within these systems as adults and it’s become a disturbing draw in terms of people coming to parts of the island or to other destinations in general, because this does not just happen in the DR.
I think it is important that we highlight that nuance and start a discussion. With all of my work, I know I don’t have the answers but in raising questions and exploring new perspectives, I hope to open up a dialogue and to provide one strong point of view. For me, it was always important that this be told through a child’s perspective because there is a lot of learning that happens within that space and there’s a lot of innocence lost.
There is a lot going on beneath the surface in Boca Chica—not just on an emotional level but also in the visual depiction of the landscape. You shot the island with such a luscious eye and yet there is a much darker underbelly beneath all those crystal blue waters.
GAM: When we see a lot of these stories about trauma in the Caribbean, they are set in kind of a little more impoverished areas. There’s a tendency to lean into rawness and realness and the documentary style, which we were able to, you know, create and capture a bit of that texture.
I’m in love with close-ups, as anybody who watches this film can tell. Very decisive POV coverage is what we went towards. But, for me, I think I wanted to honor the dignity and beauty of the island and what someone who’s raised there also sees within that world, which is such a vibrance in life. Through sound design, we wanted to communicate this constant war of the ocean. There’s a kind of this duality in both El Timbre, the script I had been developing, and in Boca Chica. It was very important for me to say: “Paradise has a way it’s commercialized and presented for tourists”. But what is that perception versus reality?
There’s this side to being raised and being proud of the place you come from. There’s a kind of cross-section of these worlds where darker things come into play, when money is involved and when survival is a part of the world. I always said that this film is about the secrets we keep to protect our family and our home and our dreams. So when you’re talking about surfaces, it’s like those secrets that are kept under the surface. I wanted to honor our beautiful country but also talk about some real issues that are happening, like you said, “under the surface”.
Tell us about your experience with the Tribeca Film Festival…
GAM: Tribeca is a massive one. I started out as a volunteer at Tribeca my freshman year at NYU. And then the next time I came back to the festival must have been as a production designer on a short. I was lucky enough to win a camera package for my third short, Leche, through their program and then I did the Through Her Lens program that Chanel sponsors. That was one of the most rewarding experiences because we got one-on-one time with Katherine Bigelow, which was massive, and got to take these Masterclasses. It has been such a huge launch board for careers. AV Rockwell and Nikyatu Jusu, the last two Sundance Grand Jury Prize winners, were also winners of the Through Her Lens program. That space has been incredibly supportive.
It’s a younger festival but it’s really growing and continues to hold its space. Robert De Niro at the director’s brunch the other day was like, “I thought I was only going to do this one year and here we are”. I’ve been in New York on this side of things for sixteen years now so I guess my relationship with the festival has been around that long. It’s rewarding to have gone through those programs and to go on to make Boca Chica and have that premiere here–in NYC, where there’s the Dominican diaspora, where there’s family and friends and my community–that has been really rewarding.
What do you think sets NYC filmmakers apart?
GAM: I think there’s a different sense of innovation and fearlessness with an indie NYC filmmaker. The industry is alive and well here but it’s not running things like a machine like in Los Angeles. I think there’s a real spirit of independence when it comes to finding collaborators and what tools will best be suited to tell your story and perhaps because it’s not as supersaturated by “how things should be done” that we can experiment a bit and do things our own way here.
Are there any NYC-centric films that have made an impression on you?
GAM: There are an incredible amount of NYC-centric films that have been impactful but I would say Raising Victor Vargas (dir. Peter Sollect) was the first film that to me felt like the NYC I experienced visiting my abuelos during the summer in the Frederick Douglas Houses where my mom spent her adolescence and early adulthood. It showcased the Dominican community in a loving and real way that truly touched me. Smithereens (dir. Susan Seidelman) also comes to mind since I shot an early film in B&W 16 mm at the DBA venue that used to be in Williamsburg in 2009. A professor told me that short’s essence reminded him of Smithereens. I’ve always been fascinated to explore subcultures of music and fashion in my work too so that film really encapsulated a generation to me, one that I romanticized since I wasn’t a part of it and then searched for as I became an artist in NYC.
WORDS Hillary Sproul
PHOTOGRAPHY by Erik Tanner/Getty Images