Documentary Review: Puerto Rico, years after a hurricane’s “Landfall”

There’s no footage of Hurricane Maria’ pounding Puerto Rico back in 2017, back when the storm made landfall and wrecked the island.

We don’t see the gas lines, people lining up for water, the months of governmental indifference in San Juan and Washington.

No, there’ll be no paper-towel tossing here.

Cecilia Aldarondo’s “Landfall” is an impressive, impressionistic and intimate overview of the unhappy “Island of Enchantment” as it stands today, years after Hurricane Maria hit.

She ends her film with scenes of the street protests that brought down the island’s corrupt government in 12 days back in 2019. But everything that comes before is people reminiscing about the “tragedy” of Maria and “the real disaster (that) happened afterwards.” New Orleans level devastation, all levels of government services lost, decades of mismanagement, postponed infrastructure and incompetence all came home to roost.

People on the farms of Orocovis, in the beachfront tourist cities, on Vieques Island were cut off. “We didn’t know when help from the U.S.” was coming.

Those warehouses full of cases of bottled water that was never distributed? They’re shown here, and the natives are still furious about that.

Aldarondo, director of “Memories of a Penitent Heart,” travels the length and breadth of Puerto Rico, Bartolo to Dorado, San Juan to Rincón, sketching in lives interrupted but getting back to dinner-party-normal, fishermen back to harvesting spiny lobster, farmers hitching up oxen to the plow again.

But beyond all that, there is youthful discontent and island-wide fury at “The Junta,” the Obama-appointed fiscal management board trying to get the island’s debt under control.

In mid-crisis, outsiders are still looking for ways to cut costs and services.

Luxury real estate developers are cashing in, luring blockchain/crypto-currency hipsters into buying mansions. That’s a hustle that amounts to an entire chapter of “Landfall,” with Brock Pierce and other tycoons of digital currency trying to sell the island on becoming a haven for their online business and a tax shelter for their class of entrepreneurs.

Aldarondo captures a heated meeting with locals, with Pierce losing his temper but holding his own, in Spanish and English, with skeptical Puerto Ricans, who see this blockchain pitch as another short-term “gain,” like the island’s brief flirtation with industrialization in the ’50s and 60s.

Using old newsreels and tourism promotional films, she paints a portrait of past promise, and promises broken. If the Bitcoin billionaires get their way, will Puerto Rico progress into some status other than “territory/colony?” Not if that means taxes.

That’s one of the take-aways from “Landfall,” which will be on PBS’s “POV” series next year, but can be streamed during its Oscar qualifying run via DOC/NYC this week. As Puerto Ricans march, take over abandoned schools to house themselves in co-ops run like communes, and fight off complaints about “socialism,” none of the mostly-unnamed interview subjects makes any noise about “statehood.”

One member of the New York Puerto Rican diaspora complains about the city not being “my country.” Do they want independence? Will there blockchain mogul money behind such a push?

“Landfall” doesn’t really ask such questions, or answer them. Aldarondo was going for something more impressionistic and kaleidoscopic. But the documentary makes this much clear. The days of ignoring and neglecting Puerto Rico need to end. Puerto Ricans remind us that they deserve it, and that from now on, they insist on it.

MPA Rating: unrated, some profanity, smoking

Credits: Directed by Cecilia Aldarondo. An ITVS/POV release.

Running time: 1:34

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