I’m looking at a calendar and I have just realized that Maria
Full of Grace is slated to come out precisely nine years and
eleven months since the day I moved to New York. They say that when
you’ve lived here for ten years you can officially call yourself
a New Yorker. But I am trying figure out whether I really feel like
a “New Yorker.”
I find it hard to believe I have been in this city for almost ten years.
As I write this I’ve just gotten back from another press trip.
I’ll be here for maybe three weeks before I get on a plane again.
In my fridge right now there’s half a jar of peanut butter, a
quarter jar of jelly, a carton of milk that has gone sour, and an unopened
bottle of champagne. That’s it. Seriously. My friends tease me
constantly that I am never in New York. The truth is I have never really
been able to stay put for very long since well before I went into production
on the film.
Maria Full of Grace is my first feature.
On one level, it’s a tense story about a seventeen-year-old girl
from the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia who swallows a half-kilo
of heroin in thumb-sized pellets and boards a plane for New York. But
on another level, it is the story of a young woman who feels trapped
by the confines of life in a small town and is looking for a way out—searching,
as it were, for a situation where she feels more truly at home. Once
Maria begins to move she keeps on moving throughout the film.
Pretty much the first question I always get asked by journalists, especially
when they find out I am not Colombian, is how I got interested in this
story. The implication is that the story seems far afield from who I
am—me, a Jewish kid from L.A. who has lived in Berkeley, Paris,
Chicago, Prague and now New York. I have, after all, never swallowed
drugs and carried them on a plane to the U.S. And I’ve never been
a seventeen-year-old girl in Colombia. But like Maria I am constantly
moving, always looking for something new.
I move around because when I am in a new place my eyes are more widely
open, my ears more sensitive. For me, filmmaking is about looking outward,
listening to other people’s stories and then finding a way to
translate them onto the screen. Researching the film was a long process
of hundreds and hundreds of conversations with all sorts of people—from
former drug mules in prison to women working in flower plantations in
Colombia, from Customs inspectors at Kennedy airport to Colombian immigrants
The result is that many Colombians who see the film comment that it
feels like it could have been made by a Colombian. But the same Colombians
sometimes say that while everything in it feels authentic and familiar,
the style of cinematic realism is something foreign to them, not so
common in Colombian films. So in a sense, I am Colombian but I am also
This half-in half-out feeling is something Colombian immigrants (and
many other immigrants for that matter) have often related to me and
which I made a point of putting in the film. There is a scene where
one of the characters (Carla) describes the pain of not being able to
be back in Colombia for a birthday but then immediately describes the
pride of living in New York, where she can make enough money to send
back home. The day we shot the scene (in the heart of the Colombian
community in Queens) I came out of the apartment-set to find a Colombian
man—about sixtyish, with pressed blue pants, a plastic shopping
bag in one hand—standing in the hallway by the monitor. He lived
in the building and had been on his way up to his apartment when he
stopped to watch the scene and listen in on the dialogue through the
open doorway. He pulled me aside and told me how much he related to
the character’s ambivalence, living in this great, cold city,
so far from “home.” And then he thanked me—for giving
voice to this feeling, for giving it enough importance to put on screen.
I will never forget that.
The film is finally finished now, and a month ago I traveled to Colombia
for the premiere there. Standing in front of several hundred people,
I told the audience (in my now Colombian-accented Spanish) that although
I am not Colombian I have come to feel “un poco Colombiano.”
Much to my surprise the audience instantly burst into applause. I was
completely taken aback. As if my feeling of being Colombian were being
confirmed, accepted. After so many years of working on this film, after
all of my moving around I have found another home of sorts, in Colombia.
I don’t think I have ever felt quite that sort of embrace even
here in New York. I came to the city almost a decade ago in order to
make films and in spite of those ten years I still feel half-in half-out
of being a New Yorker. Just as I am half-in half-out of being a little
bit Colombian. It is a sort of condition I am coming to accept, this
half-in half-out-ness. But I realize that I would have it no other way,
for this is what crystallizes my vision and sharpens my hearing. It
is what makes me fully at home, as a filmmaker.