When director Antonio Franceschi approached 26th Ward Alderman Billy Ocasio early last summer for help shooting on location in and around Humboldt Park, the alderman needed some convincing. Filmmakers who'd shot in the neighborhood before had more often than not contributed to its image as an impoverished wasteland of hustlers, heroin addicts, and homeless people.
"Too often," Ocasio wrote in a recent letter to the bilingual newspaper EXTRA, "our community is pigeonholed by stereotypes established by outsiders. Financiers and producer only back movies that perpetuate these stereotypes because this is the only thing they know about a community."
So Franceschi sat down with the alderman and went over the script with him. Impressed by the story, which recasts Division Street as a husky, blue-collar Latino bohemia, Ocasio quickly got behind the project, helping arrange shots at a Logan Square el stop, the Humboldt Park boathouse, and the exterior of the 14th District police station, among other sites.
Franceschi, who grew up in Bucktown, had long planned on making a movie in Humboldt Park. Urban Poet, his first feature, follows Rita, a young Puerto Rican woman, as she battles to win the annual Latino Cafe Slam Competition. The film hits every hot-button neighborhood issue: Gang violence threatens Rita's father, a cop and single parent. A shady promoter seduces her coworker at the diner with promises of a break in showbiz. Her boyfriend's job as a construction foreman depends on his willingness to play union buster for a gentrifying developer. But Franceschi, the former producer and director of Siempre Caliente, a late-night entertainment magazine format show that ran on Telemundo for a season, was unprepared for the groundswell of local support the project generated.
When funding for a $500,000, 35-millimeter version of the movie didn't pan out, Franceschi decided to shoot on digital video. He hit up his industry connections for donated equipment and convinced his friends in the neighborhood to act, shoot, and edit without pay.
"It was really a mesh of people who were saying, 'Let's get it done, we want to see something positive here, it's been a long time coming,'" says Gloricelly Martinez-Franceschi, the director's wife, coauthor and leading lady. "Some were parents who were staying with us till the wee hours of the morning just to finish a shot."
To anyone familiar with Humboldt Park politics and culture, the film is an Ocean's Eleven of supporting roles and cameos: Ray Rubio, a Spanish-language radio personality and former Puerto Rican soap star, plays Rita's father. Jose Lopez, head of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, appears as a teacher. Salsa Chicago director Miguel Mendez was cast an opportunistic construction boss. Xavier Nogueras, a member of the hip-hop group La Junta and owner of Boca Studios-a Division Street ad agency and recording studio-stars as Rita's streetwise rival, Vidal. His brother Jose, another La Junta member, and local hip-hop artist Chi-Ill put together the sound track of break beats and salsa dura rythms. Poet Michael Reyes, who runs Batey Urbano, an
all-ages, alcohol-free Division Street club with a well-respected open-mike series, wrote Rita's poetry.
The 98-minute feature paints a picture of a neighborhood in transition: the noises that frighten residents aren't just gunfire and screams, but the encroaching rumble of cement mixers and sandblasters. Audiences "might not recognize it as Humboldt Park," says Franceschi. "It shows Humboldt Park for what it is today, not what it was 10 or 15 years ago. I had people tell me, 'This isn't Humboldt Park, there's no graffiti.'"
Alderman Ocasio and Congressman Luis Gutierrez will host a screening of Urban Poet and Sudor Amargo, an independent Puerto Rican film, at 7 PM on Friday, April 11, 2003 at Roberto Clemente High School, 1147 N. Western. The movies will be followed by a panel discussion with the directors.