The Two-Way Mirror of Disruptive Mentorship

By Edwin Martinez

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Firelight’s 2019 Documentary Lab Retreat dinner with 2018–2020 fellows

I’ve never been good at asking for help.

Part of this is learned and part is inherited, I’m sure, by a slew of things– being a cultural immigrant, a product of machista culture, and a childhood bussing to magnet schools where I learned early that it was socially safer to mask any vulnerability than be openly myself. As I grew older these coping mechanisms, left unchecked, shaped me into someone who became so proficient at hiding that I eventually forgot it was a tactic. It became just what was, the mottled wallpaper so familiar it went unnoticed. This went on for years until recently, just at the moment cracks were showing, a few key people, new mentors in my life, dropped some well-placed grenades in my lap and changed everything.

In 2010 I made this film called To Be Heard, for which I was originally hired as a shooter but eventually moved up to be editor and co-director. Because it was set in my Bronx neighborhood, and I was the only POC on the team, I felt a special commitment to ensure the portrayals of my hood and our three young stars were on the level. Despite that the original idea for the movie was not mine, I poured my whole soul into making the movie.

When the film came out it did well in some ways and in other ways not so well. This being my first film, I wasn’t equipped to process the ways in which the film faltered and what that meant for me both as an artist and someone trying to develop their career. I also struggled comprehending the particular way this affected me differently than my white collaborators. Without a clearer (and self-compassionate) understanding of the racial and economic context at play, I internalized this dissonance as personal failure. The risk-averse hermit crab emotional defense system from my youth whirred back to life. Up went the old wallpaper and along with it the subconscious acceptance of my career as a creative laborer for other people. I buried myself in other people’s work and convinced myself that was all I needed.

All these thoughts swirled in my mind as I drove through the rain heading to my first retreat as a 2019 Firelight Fellow, racked with first day of school jitters. But underneath was something deep and new, a reservoir of calm that I was finally on the right path and I knew people had my back.

Documentary Lab fellow Edwin Martinez behind-the-scenes for his film ‘Cosricans’

Over the past couple of years I have had the profound fortune to connect with a few special people who have been insightful, brave, and caring enough to see me in ways I did not yet see myself. Facing this– a glass aperture for them, an opaque mirror for me– has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’d so convincingly internalized a story not my own that I could barely see through the illusion. My only way out was to look inward and deal with the shame of life choices that belonged to no one else but me. It has been a climb through despair, guilt, defensiveness, fear, insecurity and heavy helpings of therapy.

This is much of what decolonizing means to me, to engage in a process where you dig into the subtext and history of moments to fully understand context across time, class, race, history and your own soul. Almost above all, this hard work taught me that I did not have to do it alone. It helped free me from the toxic myths of my upbringing, that being vulnerable was a deficiency and needing help meant you were weak. These moments of disruptive mentorship played (and still do) a critical role in helping me re-imagine who I can be in the world, on my own terms. Sometimes you need someone who, with love, is willing to call you out and potentially fuck up your whole world view.

Unfortunately, not all our spaces are like this. I’ve been to many labs, panels or professional talks that espouse “best practices” for filmmakers to find cinematic or career success. Do this, shoot this, go to this festival, get this agent, sell to this distributor and so on. However, many of these spaces omit the socio-political context of what “best practices” really means. If you are part of any marginalized group, following the narrow road doesn’t exactly mean the same thing as it might for a young, straight, white, male filmmaker. Just because they get an agent out of their premiere doesn’t mean you will. Teaching such pathways as implicitly normative upholds a status quo that often excludes many of us. The net effect is the clear message that this road must not be for me, these practices are not meant for us. So then, where do we go?

Being an introvert, a code-switcher, and a person of color, every time I enter a room full of people I instinctively get a read on how much of myself I can be in that space. It’s like setting the dial on a soul-thermostat. In the wrong room my natural temperature can be labeled as angry, opinionated, difficult, or dismissible. In most of my professional spaces I am compelled to keep this dial low. However, as I entered the room of our first Firelight retreat, covered in the tell-tale rain of a late arrival, I immediately felt different.

Taking part in this space so lovingly held by the Firelight team of Loira, Chloe and Ximena allowed me to relax and let my thermostat rise safely. I was able to say what I needed to say, to push and be pushed with a baseline assumption that we were all here for each other. It’s impossible to express what it feels like to all of a sudden not have to hedge yourself with every comment, to code-switch yourself into silent oblivion, paralyzed by the tacit need to apologize with each inhale of a truth you intend to utter. Instead, in group sessions and private conversations, I was able to share my hopes and dreams for myself and my project through the fawn-like fumbling of my newly found creative confidence. I allowed myself to be searching and open, even confused and unsure, of where my movie was going. I could be vulnerable and supported, because everyone else was on the same shaky boat. Being in a group of remarkable people all struggling through their own creative process, simultaneously confident and unsteady, grounded me in the power of joining a community where I can, perhaps for the first time in my career, practice being myself.

It’s so dumb and obvious, that if you feed something it grows, but so many of us struggle with believing this as a personal truth. Why would we, when so much of our history has said the opposite? It took (and is taking) a tremendous amount of emotional and relational support to help me figure out how to do something new, invest in a new story of my own making. And I don’t think I’m alone. We all need spaces where we can be our oxymoronic selves, terrified badasses trying to carve out space we may not feel is ours to own. It is in these in-between spaces of potential and kinetic energy, the moment between reflection and action, the breath between the lightning flash and the crack of thunder, that so much beautiful work can be done.

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Edwin Martinez is a Bronx-born filmmaker whose work explores the intersection between people and macro social structures. His work has screened theatrically and on major television, news and streaming outlets. Edwin’s award-winning first feature documentary TO BE HEARD was named a New York Times critics pick and “one of the best documentaries of the year.” His most recent film, IFP Lab supported, PERSONAL STATEMENT premiered as the opening night film of 2018 AFI Docs and broadcast on America ReFramed. He has also worked as a producer, editor or cinematographer on many feature documentaries including EL EFECTO CLEMENTE (ESPN), LAS MARTHAS (PBS), RACHEL IS (PBS), CITY OF TREES (PBS), and Webby award winning mini series THE MESSY TRUTH. Edwin is a Concordia Studio Arist in Residence and Firelight Media Lab Fellow. He earned a Master’s in Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education as a Gates Millennium Scholar. He is an Assistant Professor of Film in the SUNY Purchase Film Conservatory and making a film set in post-hurricane Maria Puerto Rico, COSRICANS.

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