Two Western Queens filmmakers are getting some recognition. Astoria resident Jonathan Caouette premiered his second documentary last month, while Jackson Heights resident Marisol Gonzalez has fundraised her goal amount to begin a professional edit of her film, “Children Behind the Wall,” about the recovery of drug- addicted children in Tijuana.
Caouette’s first personal documentary “Tarnation” circulated the film festival circuit in 2003 to much acclaim.
With a budget of $217, the autobiographical, self-exploratory film combined Super 8mm film, photographs, video and audio recordings to tell his story of growing up in a family suffering from mental illness.
Caouette has returned to his family’s story with his new documentary film “Walk Away Renee,” which had its North American premiere in Brooklyn in June.
Caouette, 39, was born in Houston. A self-described “outcast,” he never considered himself to be a part of any community despite being both gay and Jewish.
“I feel like I metamorphosized so much internally that I just don’t land in a comfort zone,” he said. “I don’t necessarily identify with a group of people.”
With his new film “Walk Away Renee,” he continues exploring the relationship with his mother, who is suffering from bipolar disorder, as he drives her from Texas to an assisted-living center near his home.
“I felt like my mother needed to find a way to walk away from her tumultuous past as herself,” he said.
Caouette says that the people who could most identify with the film are those who have dealt with a family member or a loved one who has suffered from mental illness.
“Walk Away Renee” is available on demand on SundanceNOW’s documentary section.
Just like any aspiring filmmaker, Caouette fell in love with cinema. Eschewing the mainstream films of the time, he became “obsessed” with underground cinema. Attracted by the cult films of Peter Greenaway and John Waters, Caouette saw something in these alternative movies that didn’t feature moralistic protagonists who save the day and get the girl.
“There were so many weird caricatures, heightened versions of a lot of people I could relate to that were in my own life,” he explained.
After working some “really weird odd jobs,” including at a hair salon, he moved to New York City in 1996. He lived a nomadic lifestyle, staying in various places including parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Caouette’s intention was to always be a filmmaker but he found that the prospect was hard to reach, mainly for financial reasons.
While not abandoning his filmmaking dreams, he began to focus on acting. It was an audition for the controversial, NC-17 rated film “Shortbus” that would lead to him making his debut film “Tarnation.” After missing the original audition, he wrote a letter to the director, John Cameron Mitchell for an audition. In 24 hours, using Apple’s iMovie, he edited down an audition video with an Eric Bogosian monologue and a monologue from a battered woman set to a Joni Mitchell and Le Tigre song.
He got the video to the director, who after watching it said to Caouette, “whatever this is you’re working on, you should finish it.”
Mitchell suggested to Caouette to enter the finished product in the MIX Film Festival, a LBGT experimental film festival. It received praise at the festival and, with the help of Mitchell and director Gus Van Sant, was released to North America with great critical acclaim.
“My whole life changed at that point,” said Caouette about the film’s success.
Gonzalez, a producer at HBO for the last 13 years, began working on her documentary “Children Behind the Wall” in 2007 when she decided to supplement her day job with freelance writing.
One story that peaked her interest during her foray into news journalism was a story about a 7-year-old who crossed the border into the United States. She wanted to delve deeper into the subject and began brainstorming about a film about crossing the border from Tijuana.
Through friends of friends she met social worker Paula Debra who had lived in Tijuana for 30 years. Debra invited Gonzalez to see the situation first hand.
After a few days in the border town Gonzalez decided that the story wasn’t new or compelling enough for the film. Nevertheless, she was already there. Debra asked her to come with her to a drug rehabilitation center for minors, called Cirad.
Gonzalez met many children from the ages of seven to 14 years old who were recovering from hard drugs. The emotional impact was strong, and even more so because her own daughter was 7-years-old at the time. Additionally a cousin in the Dominican Republic, where she is originally from, was entwined in a life of drugs and prostitution, who died this year.
“I felt guilty that I didn’t do something to help her,” she said. “Sometimes it’s easier for families to look the other way.”
She began working on the film with the thought that it could help families confront difficult situations with their own relatives and step in before a hard life of drugs claims their loved one.
“I don’t know if it will help change drug policy, but if it can help save one child that will be good,” said Gonzalez, adding once completed she hopes the film can be used as an education tool at seminars and in schools.
Following her initial trip to Tijuana, she returned several more times. She heard the stories of boys and girls in Cirad and began to film them. Many grew up in poor families with their mothers working as prostitutes in order to support their children.
In many cases these kids were given drugs to run from dealer to dealer. Little by little the children were gifted some of the product to try for themselves. And then they were hooked.
“You looked into their eyes and there was nothing there,” Gonzalez said. “Their brains were fried from these hard drugs. They had lots of access to it. It was like ice cream.”
The film will be made up of the stories of these children as well as those of social workers who work with them on a day-to-day basis at Cirad.
With the footage she has so far, Gonzalez and junior editor Steve Rentas have created a rough cut of the documentary. Some networks have already expressed an interest in completing the film.
Her next step, which she hopes to complete this summer, is to create a final cut of the film. So far, many people have pledged to help her achieve the goal.
Alexandra Taveras, Jenny Guerrero and Josue Lopez led a Zumba class on Monday, which raised $612 for the documentary.
Also, Gonzalez joined the sponsoring website called Kickstarter. The site allows people to pitch their projects and determine a goal. Then friends, family members and any supporter who stumbled among the pitches can donate to the project for a small gift in return.
If the person reaches the goal, all the money is taken from everyone who pledged and given to the cause. If the goal is not reached, no money goes to the cause.
Gonzalez’ goal was $13,831. When pledging ended on Tuesday she had raised $14,433.
Backers will receive gifts such as post cards, rough cuts of the film, posters and a basket of natural products made by campesinas (women farmers) in Queretaro.
“There is a lot of momentum,” she said.