Blackstar Film Fest 2023 Interview: Andres “Jay” Molina and Alexis Neophytides on Getting Poetic Justice in “Fire Through Dry Grass”

If anyone had a unique vantage point to experience how the pandemic put strains on an already precarious social safety net, it was the residents of the Coler Specialty Hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York, a chronic care facility specializing in rehabilitation and long-term aid for those dealing with paralysis. It was a lonely place, but not an empty one as the long-term patients, mostly confined to wheelchairs already, were sequestered to their rooms without being able to spend time with one another in communal spaces and had to watch helplessly as then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency. Rather than being at a safe remove as the island had been for years, however, the residents of Coler were put in peril when the clinic was brought back online as a temporary hospital, with Mayor Bill de Blasio suggesting there was an empty wing that anyone who lived there knew was not the case.

This might never had been questioned if the residents not been filming all along, initially planning to make a film on the extraordinary artistic project they had taken up as the Reality Poets, expressing themselves in ways their corporeal form have not allowed for, and instead eventually making “Fire Through Dry Grass,” a truly stunning exposé of the poor conditions that both the residents and the medical staff of Coler had to endure as the care facility was overwhelmed with new patients with COVID symptoms, and proper PPE masks were few and far between with preexisting residents forced to share rooms with them after the infectious nature of the virus had been well-known. While poetry remains in the film made by Andres “Jay” Molina,” a longtime denizen of Coler, and Alexis Neophytides, both in a figurative and literal sense when Zoom calls are arranged between rooms for the Reality Poets to share their work, the film captures the raw experience of those who have spent much of their lives fighting to be heard ultimately turning their words into collective action for their biggest battle to date, starting a movement Nursing Home Lives Matter aimed at getting accountability from people holding positions of power for such carelessness and neglect.

In speaking up and holding receipts, “Fire Through Dry Grass” shows where the power really lies when the Reality Poets and OPEN DOORS, the organization that first started as a support group for survivors of gun violence, rally around a common cause and their voices are bound to reverberate upon the film’s world premiere this week at the Blackstar Film Festival in Philadelphia, en route to a broadcast premiere on POV on PBS in October. On the eve of the film’s debut, Molina and Neophytides spoke about how they delivered such a rare perspective from inside Coler, ensuring the film would stay true to how the residents there saw a dire situation unfolding and how making art proved not only to be a way to cope but to have their voice resonate loud and clear.

How did this come about?

Jay Molina: It happens that basically they put a patient with COVID in my room in the nursing home where I live, and I have a lot of underlying conditions, so I felt threatened. I felt like the facility wasn’t taking care of me and that they just put this man there in order to give me COVID so I could die. I called Jennilie Brewster, the co-director of OPEN DOORS at that time, and we had a conversation about this and she actually told me, “Jay, but you are a filmmaker. Why don’t we make a movie about it?” Alexis was already somebody that I had worked with before and it was obvious that we invited her to be part of it too,

Alexis Neophytides: This is where I do my bragging about Jay – Jay actually taught himself to be a filmmaker [from] YouTube how to do After Effects and how to use Premiere and all of that, so he was making short films and doing visual poetry before all of this. Then he got a grant from the city to work with a professional filmmaker, and I had an old professor friend who was friends with Jay who lives on Roosevelt Island where the nursing home is and I lived there for my whole childhood. She knew that, and she introduced Jay and I and we hit it off and Jay essentially hired me to mentor him.

The early stuff that you see in the film, Jay wanted us to make a film about the Reality Poets and I was helping him in a mentor capacity, but then when he and Jennilee wanted to make [a film related to the pandemic], it just happened that I had just put out a short about Ethan who was in “Dear Thirteen,” the kid who ran for governor, and they had seen it and they invited me in as a co-director.

Were most of the Reality Poets already outfitted with cameras because of the artistic project?

Jay Molina: No, actually, we started thinking how are we going to film all this? And we came up with the idea of getting GoPros and we basically got two GoPros, and I strapped them to our chairs, and we started just going around the facility and recording because I didn’t want to be out there with a big camera. Everybody in the facility would be like, “Oh, he’s doing something.” I wanted to be as [discrete] as I could.

Alexis Neophytides: There’s some very early self-recording that Var, one of the Reality Poets, was doing before the GoPros on his phone [which] wasn’t for a movie, but just to show people [what was happening] because it was so terrifying what was going on.

The poetry is still in the film, but in a different way than you probably imagined. Were you actually composing for some of those sequences together – they come across as an elegant baton pass – or did you find later that the verses were complementary of one another?

Jay Molina: We are the Reality Poets, so we write poetry all the time and what you see in the film we were writing during the pandemic. We would just meet together, write the poems and recite them to each other and then as we kept writing them, we kept putting them in files and then we realized that we can use that for the film. They might be a little edited, so there might not be a whole poem in there, but the essence of it that’s in there.

Alexis Neophytides: And some of the poetry that’s attached to the backstories were poems from before the pandemic, like Var’s poem and Vince’s poem.

Jay Molina: Yeah, and my poem too. The one in Spanish from Tito, that one is maybe from the 1990s. He wrote that to his mother, when he was acting up and his mother decided to send him to the Dominican Republic to chill and then he wanted to come back here and that’s why he wrote that poem to her.

Alexis Neophytides: That’s cool, I didn’t realize it was that old. Some of the other poetry you’ll see, as Jay was saying, they’re the Reality Poets, and a lot of times we’re using their poetry for activism and that bubbled up during this time in the pandemic – the frustration, the anger, and Jay put out that poem, “Coler Max Prison” as a response to the lockdown.

Jay Molina: Yeah, because we couldn’t see our family for a year. They wouldn’t let us come outside, so the frustration led me and other Reality Poets to write poems about that.

The poetry is accentuated with graphics in a really beautiful way and just knowing Jay’s background, was that was an exciting part of this process for you?

Jay Molina: Yes, it was. That was actually an idea that Alexi and I had, and even though I didn’t do the animation myself, I had a lot to do with putting on graphics, especially with the poems. We had a fantastic animator from Argentina, Guillermo Mena, and he did all the animation himself, but we worked together very closely.

Alexis Neophytides: Usually you don’t get a chance to work with someone from such an early stage, but we were working with him for almost a year-and-a-half in a really collaborative back and forth way, so it really informed the edit, rather than just sending him something that was finished and seeing what he could do. We love him.

Alexis, you may have answered this before, but given your work on this and “Dear Thirteen,” which really channeled the experience of adolescence around the world through the eyes of its subjects, I get the sense you really like to get out of the way of the people in your films to let their perspectives really shine through, which I think is easier said than done. How do you see your role on projects like these? 

Alexis Neophytides: It’s interesting to hear you talking about them because someone else had seen both films, and in my mind, [I wondered] would anyone be able to tell that I had a hand in both of these? I wasn’t sure, but I think that’s maybe what you’re saying. This is totally different than [“Dear Thirteen”] because Jay and I are partners for this film, but even from my earlier work, although obviously you grow as an artist as you make more things and learn and hopefully become a little bit more nuanced in the way that you’re interpreting things. [I’ve thought of] filmmaking as really a lot of listening and holding space for someone to tell their story. That’s really important in life and particularly in documentary filmmaking.

So I’m not really interested in my point of view of someone. I’m more interested in their point of view and trying to figure out their point of view through mine is always a dance, but respect for the people in the film and for their story and what they want to tell is always there, and this is really something that was already within Open Doors, the group themselves — real respect for each other. They were already doing collaborative work with other artists from the outside too, so it was like a really perfect fit.

Jay, was there something that was really important for you to come across?

Jay Molina: Actually I let everything out — everything that I was feeling, everything that I was going through, and there was a scene there towards the end that I was really emotional. That was one of the ones that affected me the most because I was missing my mother, my sister, my nephew and niece, and that was getting to me at that time, so everything that I was feeling came through.

Was there anything that happened that changed your ideas of what this was about or how best to tell this story?

Alexis Neophytides: There were so many things because the story was unfolding while we were making it, and Jay and the rest of the folks inside Coler were constantly in danger, so it was balancing out how are we making a film, but first and foremost, what’s going on with everyone and how are they going to be safe. That was really scary and hard, and I don’t know [how it was] for Jay, but I would imagine some of this is like blocked out because it was so traumatizing, but then you’re like revisiting all of this all the time in the edit.

Jay Molina: Yeah, while we were making the film, a lot of things came through. All these decisions that the facility were making that led us to being in danger was the main fight that we have. It wasn’t even really the people that were here [at the facility itself]. It was really people from up above, telling them what to do and making us feel like we don’t really matter because these people that are up above don’t live here. They don’t know what we’re going through. They don’t know how we live. And they’re putting us through all this. So it started feeling like the only way we could get away from this is to get our own apartments, our own places to live, because living here [at Coler], we’re always going to be institutionalized and part of a group that somebody else is controlling, so we came to the conclusion that we’ve got to do something big. That’s why we started Nursing Home Lives Matter because we needed to get to the people [who live in Coler] in power. We needed to make them see that the decisions they are making are wrong and they’re putting us in danger.

Alexis Neophytides: And there’s a lot of talk in the disability community about moving out of long-term care into independent living, but you can’t always do it and there are plenty of folks who don’t have any other choice, so it’s not just about moving somewhere else. It’s really about making nursing homes and long-term care facilities as they should be, really more homes rather than institutions like Jay is saying. But we would also would never want for someone to [leave the film] with this idea that they want Coler to be closed. It’s not about that. Roosevelt Island is an amazing place to live, and there are a lot of great things about it. It’s about demanding respect and having a voice and a seat at the table — essentially, the Nursing Home Lives Matter Bill of Rights, where it’s all laid out there.

“Fire Through Dry Grass” will screen at the Blackstar Film Festival on August 5th at the Perlman Theater. It will be available to stream via the Blackstar Film Fest platform on August 6th through August 8th. It will premiere on POV on PBS on October 30th.

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