'Los Sures': Film Review

A verite doc about poverty shadowed by unspoken after-the-fact gentrification commentary.
4/15/2016

See Williamsburg before it was the ground zero of hipsterism.

Could the subjects of Diego Echeverria's Los Sures, an early-'80s look at a poor Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhood, ever have imagined their turf would one day be more desirable to moneyed New Yorkers than the Manhattan spires they saw across the East River? The ironies of gentrification will be a chief attraction for this lovely new 4K restoration of the 16mm original. But that theme is just a bonus in a picture whose in-the-trenches look at poverty is humane and, sadly, perpetually timely.

A narrator informs us that we are entering "the poorest section of New York City" but then largely stays out of our way, deferring to verite portraiture of five residents of the Williamsburg streets south of Grand Street. ("Sur" meaning "south" in Spanish, "Los Sures" are South 1st, South 2nd, and so on.) Three women and two men introduce us to their worlds, each getting a chunk of time to herself.

Though all acknowledge economic hardship, they've had varying degrees of success standing on their own feet: Young adult Tito, who has come to believe "you can't trust nobody" on the street, still lives with his mother; Cuso, in his forties, struggles in the construction trade but is at least in a position to hire neighbors as day-laborers.

One woman, Marta, is a single mother of five on welfare and food stamps; Evelyn, a community organizer, looks at the struggling women she works with and understands "I am them, at another level."

It's through Evelyn that we get the most critical assessment of the effect drugs have had on this neighborhood. Where once dealing and consumption were secret activities, now the trade is a street-commanding fact of life. The same complaint was being heard in Harlem, the Bronx and elsewhere, as addiction and the lure of easy money eroded once tight-knit minority communities.

Ana Maria, the film's oldest subject, offers a window into one of this particular enclave's distinguishing features, attending a spirit-possessed church that appears to practice a flavor of Santeria. Speaking through a medium to the spirit world, she tries contacting her oldest son, who evidently died under traumatic circumstances.

This straightforward piece of ethnography does no editorializing, and refrains from cutting between stories to imply connections we can make for ourselves. It's a time capsule, but viewers who walk in expecting to gawk — "hey, that dump is now a boutique I can't afford!" — will find they quickly stop their ironic location-scouting and pay attention to these stories. With only slight variations, each is still playing out in many corners of the city.

 

Distributor: UnionDocs

Director-Producer: Diego Echeverria

Executive producer: David Loxton

Directors of photography: Mark Benjamin, Alicia Weber

Editor: Kathryn Taverna

Venue: Metrograph, New York City

In Spanish and English

57 minutes

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