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By: Rebecca Martin
Puerto Rico is a place I did not know a lot about. I almost went to San Juan on a vacation once, but had to cancel last minute because of an illness. Besides knowing it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth, I had no knowledge of the politics over there. Puerto Rico has been a part of the United States ever since 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. The territory does not have the same rights as the states and they are treated like a colony. There is an island that is part of Puerto Rico that seems to be getting the brunt of it in terms of pollution and colonialism, an island called Vieques. Filmmaker Glorimar Marrero Sánchez wanted to make her feature debut connecting to a cancer her mother passed away from in 2013 as symbolic of what is going on in Puerto Rico. She made up a character, who wasn’t based on her mother, but from the same generation as her.
The woman is Noeilia, played by Isel Rodríguez, who is very famous as a comic actor in Puerto Rico. This film, “La Pecera” (“The Fishbowl”) is not a comedy, but Glorimar’s casting director saw her dynamic talent and thought she would be perfect for the role. And she was. Also, Isel had family ties to Vieques, so she was aware of all the aforementioned turmoil, according to Glorimar, who is a Puerto Rican filmmaker, screenwriter and interdisciplinary artist. The movie is a beautiful portrait of a woman who turns 40 and decides to stop taking treatments for her cancer. She accepts her fate and returns to Vieques, her childhood home, for some healing. There is a symbolic mirror between Noeilia and the colonialism and pollution in Puerto Rico that commands the viewer’s attention. In our conversation, Glorimar and I talked about the direct connection to cancer and Puerto Rico, and the challenges it took to finish the film during a pandemic, earthquake and hurricane. The film premiered at Sundance 2023 in the World Dramatic Competition.
What brought you to this project?
Before 2013, I was working on writing short films, and I wanted to explore working on developing a a feature-length project. In 2013, my mother died of colorectal cancer, so that was a very big loss for me. I decided that I wanted to work with that kind of disease for a character, but I wanted to work from a biographic perspective. I wanted to show this kind of disease in another type of character who was very different than my mother. But when I was doing the research, I wanted to develop this character’s story. I really wanted to work with colonialism and that’s why I decided that Vieques would be the ideal set-up to talk about sickness, pollution and colonialism. I also wanted to use the body of a woman to reflect the negligence of the U.S. regarding what is going on inside of Vieques. That is the genesis of this story’s development
I wanted to talk about the actress, Isel Rodríguez, who you cast as the main character, Noelia. I love that she plays a forty-year-old woman. Could you talk about how you got her for the role, and the importance of representing a woman in her forties onscreen?
It was important to work with a woman of my generation. Isel is a very well-known actress in Puerto Rico for comedy. Her body of work in comedy is impressive. She is very active in her craft and belongs to a theater collective. My casting director suggested her and I thought that choice was interesting, so I decided to try it. Isel did an amazing job during the casting session because she is very connected to the character because of her own experience with Vieques. The grandmother of her two daughters is from Vieques and she lives there. So she’s been traveling to Vieques for many many years. Isel knows the real situation of Vieques, and I think that really helped her in being able to transform herself into a woman from Vieques. She is a very talented and dynamic actress. I originally did not have her on my mind, but I was open to the casting director’s suggestion. So that was a very essential element to making the film.
You said in your “Meet the Artist” Sundance video that it took ten years to make this film amidst the challenges of hurricanes and the pandemic. Can you talk about those challenges and how you overcame them?
The initial challenges are getting the financing in place for an independent project. This is really the long road for independent filmmakers. I understood this was going to take me a lot of years, but not this amount of years. I think that having the hurricane really pushed things a year, and then we had an earthquake in Puerto Rico during the pandemic period. All of these natural incidents kept pushing the project a little bit more, then a little bit more. We could not work at that time, we were surviving. Luckily we were able to develop a contribution from Spain. Having funding from Puerto Rico and Spain really helped get the resources that we needed to do the film.
Also, companies from Puerto Rico got on board to help support the film. We got really big offers from these companies that wanted to partner with us. This helped me and the whole team to finish the shooting. It was also challenging to shoot during the pandemic. We were able to start shooting at the end of 2021, and right after Omicron, we were able to finish the shooting.
Can you go a little deeper in how you were using the main character with cancer as a symbol of the turmoil that was going on around the country?
The cancer is a colonization of the body, and the symptoms represent the colonizing of the body. Her disease is a mirror of what is going on in Vieques, which is a contaminated island. Vieques is in paradise, but there is pollution in that paradise. It’s still there. The authorities are not doing anything. Showing the symptoms of this sickness is like showing the pollution of Vieques. The pain that is coming from the body is colonized at the center of the stomach. And by having that pain as a graphic expression, a very real one, we can mirror that with the bombs and the military pollution that is in Vieques. Nature, soil, and water is like the body.
It’s interesting how the main character, Noelia, is often contained in a bathtub. Is that related to the title of the film, “The Fishbowl”?
“The Fishbowl,” for me, is that thing we need to look at. That thing that we have to pay attention to. The fishbowl is where we contain water. The water is just there, but we have to look at it. Also, Noelia is in the bathtub because she is creating this area to be in touch with water. She starts in the “The Fishbowl,” and then at the end, she returns to it. Maybe I can use the title as a question. What do we do with the fishbowl? We need to break that fishbowl. We need to break it so water can flow. We have to pay attention to it. There is a scene in the aquarium where there are objects that represent the contamination that is under the water. Everything is contained, but what are we going to do about that? It’s the fishbowl that we have to really pay attention to.
What do you hope people see in your film?
I hope they can see their right of self-determination, because it is this quality which the character needs that is related to what Puerto Rico needs as well. Self-determination is very relevant for me and also the rights of terminal patients. They should have the right to do whatever they want. It’s not fair to have the healthy ones tell the sick ones what to do. It’s not an equal relationship. So that is very relevant for me, and also to see the symptoms of colonialism, and how its sickness produced by exploitation violates human rights over and over. My greatest hope is that people can connect to the elements of that, because we need to talk about colonialism. It’s a situation that promotes a lot of inequality.