'Landfall': Film Review | Tribeca 2020

Blackscrackle Films
A studied and sober look at Puerto Rico’s dire state.

Laura Poitras ('Citizenfour') executive produced Cecilia Aldarondo's portrait of Puerto Rico following the disaster of Hurricane Maria.

[In the wake of the Tribeca festival's postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.]

For those of us whose memory of Hurricane Maria boils down to footage of President Donald Trump scornfully tossing out paper towels to a crowd at a disaster relief center, Cecilia Aldarondo’s documentary Landfall offers up a welcome flipside: images of Puerto Ricans proudly and painfully trying to rebuild their island amid a failed local government, inadequate U.S. assistance and a horde of Silicon Valley vultures swooping in to carve up the remains. Premiering in Tribeca’s documentary competition, a selection of which was revealed to the press after the festival was postponed, this sobering study of catastrophe and recovery could find berths at other fests, as well as airtime with pubcasters and streamers.

Aldarondo, a Puerto Rican who grew up in the U.S., offers up a multifaceted portrait of post-Maria P.R. that toggles between several distinct communities: young activists combating controversial governor Ricardo Roselló, who would be ousted in July 2019 after widespread protests; farmers trying to keep their crops and cattle alive despite the destruction and lack of resources; real estate execs hoping to sell off their luxury properties to high net-worth buyers; residents of the tiny offshoot island of Vieques, where decades of U.S. military testing has laid waste to the land; and a group of locals who take over an abandoned school, transforming it into a shelter for those left without a home.

While hopping around the island to provide a variety of viewpoints, Aldarondo digs back into Puerto Rico’s history as a U.S. territory meant to provide low-wage labor and pristine white sand beaches to its possessor, with industrial films from the postwar period advertising it as a capitalist windfall seated in a tropical paradise. However, the reality in the years leading up to the hurricane was a far cry from that rosy picture, with P.R. suffering a massive debt crisis, high unemployment and a poverty rate skirting 50 percent.

When the Category 4 hurricane hit land in September 2017, the result was nearly $100 billion in damage and over 3,000 casualties, many of them resulting from a crumbling infrastructure and ill-managed relief efforts that failed to reach victims. In other words, Maria was a natural disaster whose blow could have been softened with adequate governance and a lot more attention from the U.S. Those islanders interviewed by Aldarondo are marked by both personal trauma and a sense of bitterness, with the ousting of Roselló seen as the culmination of two years of mass public contempt.

Contempt is also directed at a band of cryptocurrency gurus, lead by The Mighty Ducks child star Brock Pierce, who arrive on the island to proselytize the get-rich-fast schemes of blockchain technology. Dishing out PowerPoint presentations filled with eye-rolling business school clichés (“Show me real opportunities and I will show you real solutions”), they promise “a tool to bring people freedom,” though they mainly seem to be taking advantage of the territory's favorable tax regime. The fact that they also have one of the worst senses of style in recent memory, with one of them sporting what’s adequately described as a “weird beard thing,” only underlines how they don’t belong.

Landfall doesn’t always explain everything we’re seeing, with onscreen titles only used to pinpoint specific locations, but it nonetheless builds toward a comprehensive study of Puerto Rico’s troubled state, allowing the sights, sounds and especially the people to speak for themselves. Some exquisitely shot cinematography by Pablo Alvarez-Mesa and sharp editing by Terra Jean Long focus almost exclusively on the present — footage of the hurricane itself is almost never seen — revealing an aftermath of devastation that gradually gives way to hope.

Production company: Blackscrackle Films
Director: Cecilia Aldarondo
Producers: Ines Hofmann Kanna
Executive producers: Charlotte Cook, Laura Poitras, Sally Jo Fifer, Justine Nagan, Chris White, Sandie Viquez Pedlow
Cinematographer: Pablo Alvarez-Mesa
Editor: Terra Jean Long
Composer: Angélica Negrón
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)

In Spanish, English
91 minutes