This essay results from an extensive research project about Puerto Rican cinema, inspired by the enthusiastic participation of Jay Leyda, professor of film history at New York University, and supported by Exit Art, a nonprofit art organization in New York City. The essay provides a general overview of the Puerto Rican cinematic tradition, films as a visual presentation of the historical process of a developing nation. It is meant to situate Puerto Rican cinema within the context of worldwide practices and to serve as a contribution to the historical studies of Third World national cinemas.
The program of the Division of Community Education combined the production of educational materials - books, posters, and motion pictures - a with a program of field work and community organization carried out mostly in the rural areas of the island. The combination was to become a force in the lives of the people, something to stand on and to act by. The program had as its base the 'idealistic' purpose of changing peoples' attitudes by group discussions and community action. Their goal was summarized in the preamble of the Act which created the Division of Community Education in 1949 under Puerto Rico's Department of Education. It was written by Munoz Marin in English and Spanish to ensure that his intentions were well understood:
'The goal of community education is to impart basic teaching on the nature of man, his history, his life, his way of working and of self-governing in the world and in Puerto Rico. Such teachings addressed to adult citizens meeting in groups in the barrios, settlements and urban districts, will be imparted through moving pictures, radio, books, pamphlets and posters, phonographic records, lectures and group discussions. The object is to provide the good hand of popular culture with the tool of basic education. In practice this will mean giving the communities and the Puerto Rican community in general the wish, the tendency and the way of making use of their own aptitudes for the solution of many of their own problems.'The project of stimulating self-help in the communities relied on Munoz Marin's ideas that the community should not be 'civically unemployed' and that the government was not solely responsible for the social well-being of Puerto Rico. The Division was his favorite project since it reflected his ideas of education. It cultivated democratic participation by the community in the solution of their problems thereby building an infrastructure that raised rural levels of living, maximized the scarce fiscal resources for the local public works, and enabled industrialization. In this sense, the Community Education program was a part of a larger project of industrialization developed by Munoz Marin attracting United States capital to the island under the program 'Operation Bootstrap.' As well, the program inscribed within the parallel 'Operation Serenity' the concept of a satisfactory way of life and culture for Puerto Ricans. The dramatic and widespread achievements of 'Operation Bootstrap' have tended to overshadow the great accomplishments of the Division of Community Education as a program which represented Munoz Marin's concern with the non-economic aspects of Puerto Rico's rapid economic and social transformations. The favoritism of Munoz Marin towards this project is revealed in the fact that many of the films produced were premiered at the governor's mansion.
The films are inscribed within a government-sponsored production model of documentary films that underline the educational purposes with a creative use of cinema. The first films done in the Division of Visual Education, written by Rosskam, a former editor for the New Deal program at the Farm Security Administration, and directed by Jack Delano, a photographer for the FSA's Photographic Unit, constitute an experimental phase within the production of educational materials.
The first four films produced by the Division of Visual Education between 1946-49 (Jesus T. Pinero, La Cana, Informe al Pueblo, La Voz del Pueblo) combine the use of factual footage with a voiceover narration that reaffirms the information provided by the image. The simple language of the first productions was based on statistical reports made at that time, that the average educational level of the adult rural population did not go over the fourth grade. Una Gota de Agua (A Drop of Water, 1947) marked the beginning of a production model later developed by the Division of Community Education. The use of factual footage and voiceover narration is accompanied by the convincing testimony of a 'real' nurse urging the people to boil water, adding the use of natural actors.
By the early fifties, the production, educational, and aesthetic model of the Division was clearly defined. Aside from using nonprofessional actors (members of communities) to play their life-stories on films, the films were shot on location in the Puerto Rican countryside. Entire crews spent months living with the people who were the actors, creating a relationship between them and the film producers that resulted in a great realism.
The films addressed two different aspects of education: information on specific community problems and events and messages to provoke the change of prejudicial or negative attitudes. With this aim, the use of drama was included as a way of appealing to popular emotion in order to provoke the desired change of attitudes. The films represented the problems of the adult rural society in a dramatic and realistic style and were based on true stories of the communities as they were reported by the group organizers.
One of the most important features of these films was that it they included the villagers and farmers who formed the majority of the Puerto Rican population. The films represented aspects of Puerto Rican jibaro (country person) everyday life, within their own context of labor and social relations. In general, the representation of the jibaro is not exploitative or paternalistic. In this sense, the films break away from the 'pastoral nostalgia' and the misrepresentation of the jibaro found in bourgeois Puerto Rican literature. Instead, the films represent the jibaros' recognition of themselves and the solutions of their problems as a group. However, not all of the problems facing the Puerto Rican rural population round a democratic solution. The films tend to portray an idealized vision of rural life in Puerto Rico that responds to the program's main purpose of promoting community meetings and, thus, changing attitudes. Different from other occidental 'official' film productions that pose a problem and a solution, these films are concerned mainly with the representation of the process of the community's recognition of its own problems.
Two weeks after the screening of the films, the group organizers met with the communities to discuss the way in which the films provided valuable information for solving their common problems. The group organizer was responsible for reporting back to the central office on the nature of the audience's reaction and the establishment of a relationship between the communities. These responses determined the content and themes of future films.
With these films, the rural communities became the spectators of their own situation, seeing themselves and the solution to their problems represented on the screen. This became a fundamental part in the development of the Division's production model. Stimulated by the films toward the solution of their own problems and improving their lives, they began constructing public works that resulted in government savings of millions of dollars annually, at the same time contributing to the democratic development of the society as a whole.
As part of their professional training, the members of the Cinema and Editorial Units began to participate in the Robert Flaherty Seminars, a documentary film organization on the East Coast founded by Frances Flaherty, which included well-known film critics and filmmakers such as Erik Barnouw and Willard Van Dyke. The films were enthusiastically received and praised for their simplicity of cinematic narrative and dramatic documentary style which used natural actors. In 1955, through these seminars, Willard Van Dyke was invited to the island to train a new group of film technicians. His work in Puerto Rico resulted in the production of El de los Cuatro Cabos Blancos (The One with the Four White Hooves) and a short film about flowers, Mayo Florido (Flowering May).
The program continued to attract international interest. In the 1950s the Museum of Modern Art presented an evening of Puerto Rican films. the RCA International Division published a bilingual booklet in recognition of the accomplishments of the Division of Community Education and as sales promotional literature for its own products. Furthermore, RCA made its own 30-minute color film: The School House on the Screen. The United States Information Agency and UNESCO began to distribute the films worldwide and they were shown in Italy and Latin America as an example of educational materials used by community action programs to stimulate adult education.
In retrospect, the Division of Community Education's cinematic production forms part of the great wave of the realist aesthetic and 'agit-prop' experience. In England, John Grierson, with the sponsorship of the colonial Empire Marketing Board, began to produce labor-oriented informative documentaries with the social and commercial protection of the state. Already in the late twenties Grierson posed the documentary filmmaker's aesthetic and social mission to 'bring the citizen's eye in from the ends of the earth to the story, his story of what was happening under his nose... The drama of the doorsteps' (quoted in Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, New York, Oxford University Press, 1974).
Under different historical conditions, this aesthetic wave is evident several years later in American documentary art of the thirties, in the work of WPA arts projects, the Photographic Unit of the FSA, Frontier Films, and especially in Pare Lorentz's New Deal films The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). Pare Lorentz's case relates to the Puerto Rican documentary tradition because his sponsor was Rexford G. Tugwell, a member of President Franklin Roosevelt's brain trust and the last U.S.-appointed governor of Puerto Rico in 1941. Tugwell became the sponsor of an office of information which visually recorded the life of rural Puerto Rico. The office of information later produced John Ferno's film Puerto Rico (1947), one of the first documentaries made about the island by a member of the New York documentary film movement.
Italian Neo-Realist Cinema served to reaffirm the artistic possibilities of educational films in terms of using nonprofessional actors and location shooting within a dramatic style in the films of the Division of Community Education.
An analysis of the general results of the work of the Division of Community Education is certainly out of the scope of the our essay. However, the material goal of sharing responsibility for the construction of local public works between the government and the community promoted the development of an infrastructure in the countryside that constituted part of the political justification of the program. Therefore, the impressive number of local public works accomplished should not be the only measure applied to the spiritual goal of achieving a change in the people's attitude toward democratic participation.
The achievement of this goal of democratic consciousness is even harder to determine considering that the program of the Division of Community Education took place together with other government programs which were often contradictory. For instance, the massive migration movement of Puerto Ricans necessarily obstructed the Community Education effort. Also, while the Division of Community Education promoted women's rights, the government was launching a massive birth control campaign which resulted in the sterilization of a third of the female population of child-bearing age.
The films continue to represent a visual memory of the political and economic transformations which took place in Puerto Rico in the mid 20th century. To us, this collection shows a cinematic expression that is typically Puerto Rican, especially during the first 15 years of production. The Division of Community Education produced the most important body of films of a national cinema that exemplifies the aesthetic possibilities of the dramatic documentary style within the specific purposes of a government-sponsored adult education program.
[This is a slightly edited version of the article 'Films with a Purpose: A Puerto Rican Experiment in Social Films' by Ines Mongil-Echandi and Luis Rosario Albert, which was originally published in the film and video monthly journal The Independent, Vol. 10, No. 6, July 1987, pp. 11-14. The authors, who held Master's degrees in Cinema Studies from New York University, were at the time of its publication working as associate researchers for the film archive project of the Luis Munoz Marin Foundation and film consultants to the Department of Education's film preservation project.]