Behind the Camera: A Q&A with DREAM Legend Dominick Torres

by | May 26, 2021 | 0 comments

While studying filmmaking at Massachusetts’ Wheaton College in 2019, DREAM Legend Dominick Torres traveled to Puerto Rico on a faculty-led trip to research the effects of Hurricane Maria on the island. In past years, students taking these types of trips later produced films recounting their experiences, but Dominick felt a larger story could be told through his lens. His project proposal was awarded Wheaton’s Filmmaker-in-Residence grant, and the result was the documentary Aguante, chronicling the history and rise of gender-based violence in Puerto Rico. Dominick partnered with the team at DREAM to screen the documentary for DREAM Charter High School students this past spring.

Now graduated from Wheaton and pursuing a career in filmmaking, Dominick sat down with DREAM to discuss his inspirations, film’s impact on the world, and advice for DREAM’s first graduating high school class. “One of my mentors always tells me, ‘The ability to imagine is the ability to create and exist,’” he says. “It’s that ability to imagine as being a way to create a new reality.”

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

DREAM: How did you get into filmmaking?
Dominick Torres: When I was in middle school, I really liked acting. So I worked with one of the acting teachers. I was always reading monologues. I loved that whole world. Then came the high school selection process. I went for an audition, and it didn’t go well at all. I still wanted to be in this industry, and I was wondering what else I could do. I found the Academy for Careers in Television & Film, a school based on the production side of film work. I took the first class, and that was all she wrote. I fell in love immediately with the ability to mold and scaffold a story.

DREAM: Much of your work has ties to social justice, history, and a look into how present-day issues have taken shape. Can you speak to why those things are important to you in your work?
DT: I often attribute a lot of my work in the social justice community to the work of my grandmother [Carmen Vega-Rivera]. She was someone who was very dedicated to the world of human rights and social justice, and did a lot of non-profit work. She actually worked a lot with [DREAM Executive Director] Rich Berlin. She was always teaching me the importance of uplifting the voices of vulnerable communities. That has always stood with me, time and time again. It’s a visceral reaction that I have, that I can’t fight making commentary, or bringing to light something that I feel hasn’t gotten enough attention…if I hear some stories of a community that is in a vulnerable state, I feel a duty to uplift that voice and give them a platform to share their experiences on—give them the ability to carve up space in the world.

DREAM: One of your more recent works is Aguante, which highlights the ongoing issue of femicide in Puerto Rico, an issue that has escalated again recently. What sparked your interest in this topic?
DT: I was going to Puerto Rico to do research and figure out what I wanted to make a film about, and I was doing research with a lot of people. One of the quotes that sparked how important this was was when we were talking about post-[Hurricane] Maria. A lot of people in America were talking about how this natural disaster was the worst thing to ever happen in Puerto Rico…but when I went there and I was talking to a lot of academics and activists, they were talking to me as if the problem was long-before Maria. They talked about Maria as more of a situation that brought to light the faults in which their society was designed—those structures focused around colonialism, racism, homophobia, transphobia. They brought all of these other issues to light, and they also talked a lot about sexism and violence against women…I was mind-blown…I was like, this is what I need to make my film about. This is a structure that’s built around the patriarchy. This is something that needs to be dismantled. I bunkered down and said, “This is what the film needs to be about.”

DREAM: How do you think filmmaking can make an impact on the world?
DT: One of the most powerful tools is the human experience. We live in a world where we like to quantify and measure a lot of things, which is great because it gives a scope, it gives a sort of perspective. But I think filmmaking allows for the nuance to exist, in that we’re looking at the human experience, specifically in documentaries, very closely modeled after the anthropological methods of research, and we’re looking at the human experience and human movement and interpersonal play and institutional play at the citizen level…So I look at my craft in the documentary world as a vessel to communicate these understandings of the human experience…That’s where I find the importance of storytelling, which then can be narrowed down to filmmaking—as telling stories, sharing human experience.

DREAM: What opportunities has filmmaking given you?
DT: Filmmaking has been great because a lot of my work, at least in the documentary world, has been centered around creating educational and informative material. So I’ve gotten to incorporate my films into a lot of classrooms around the world…I’ve gotten to meet with a lot of people and do talks and bring some of the researchers with me to talk at events…It’s been very rewarding to be a part of, in the sense that we can get people to listen and become engaged with material that otherwise could pass them, and on the flip side, give material to people who are yearning for something to be brought up about these topics. People who are like-minded and want to do something and have already been feeling this way, and so now this is a tool to bring these people closer together—in that moment is where we can have true change in the world.

DREAM: Are there things that you learned at DREAM that helped you to pursue this work and this field?
DT: Baseball, in my eyes, teaches you two really big lessons in life. One is the ability to be comfortable with failure. The fact that you can have a .300 batting average, which just really means you’re failing seven out of 10 times, and you’re deemed a Hall of Famer—it’s a sport that’s very unique in that you learn to live within failure. That there really and truly is always a next time. And not that you’re always waiting for the next time, but you’re becoming better in that timespan for next time…In filmmaking, there’s tons of times where I’m going to write something and it just doesn’t work out, or I’m going to try to make a film happen and it falls through…Rather than just looking at these moments where you couldn’t do enough, you find your victories and take those lessons on with you to the next project. In that same vein, baseball is also a game of patience. You could be standing in the outfield for four innings and not see a single baseball come your way. You begin to learn a lot of patience and discipline, and how to be in full control of your body and be very aware of your existence because of that patience…Specifically for me, it’s been channeled through film, but these are skills that permeate all aspects of any career.

DREAM: Is there a DREAM Maxim that you think you affiliate yourself with, and why?
DT: Teamwork Makes the Dream Work…Baseball really taught me that ability to work within a team…I genuinely trust the person up next. I’ve done my work, and I trust my teammate to truly come through in their responsibility, because that’s why they are there. I brought them here because I trust them. In filmmaking, that means everything. If I hire a camera operator, I truly believe that this person will accomplish the role of getting the shot that I truly want, and I have to really trust them to do that. In all types of departments in the film industry you have to have that faith, so that’s definitely been one that sticks with me and is truly important.

DREAM: We have our first DREAM Charter High School class of seniors graduating in June. Do you have any advice for them?
DT: I think it’s really important that people take time to take care of that burning desire that’s inside them. That thing that motivates them. And let that be truly who you are, because you’ll find yourself in a space where it’s incentivized, it’s desired, and it’s in a space where it will flourish. Oftentimes we make a lot of compromises, especially in the professional world, because we know money is important. But there’s still this part of us that feels unfulfilled. I’ve seen a lot of people do that, especially in the film industry, and I want people to be really honest with who they are, and try to take some risk and know that it will be ok. If you’re really chasing what you love, you can figure it out. I’m not saying this to sound idealistic. I’m saying this because you deserve to be happy, and the work should be fulfilling. It shouldn’t feel like monotonous, robot work. You should really love it every day you do it, because it’s who you are. That was something that was really important for me to explore more, and take further risk on, and it’s why I do my own projects…There’s that urge inside of me that feels responsible, that I have to say something, and if I don’t do it, I begin to feel lost and outside of myself. I want the next generation of people coming up to feel empowered enough to make that decision and make space for themselves in that way, because happiness is so important.

 

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DREAM

DREAM started in 1991 as Harlem RBI, a volunteer-run Little League for 75 kids in East Harlem. Three decades later, the organization serves 2,500 youth across East Harlem and the South Bronx through a growing network of inclusive, extended-day, extended-year charter schools and community sports-based youth development programs. By developing an education model that is responsive to the unique academic and social needs of every child, DREAM is creating a future where all children are equipped to fulfill their vision of success.

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