2023 Woodstock Film Festival: A Conversation with Filmmaker Set Hernandez
The Hudson Valley is all abuzz over the upcoming 2023 Woodstock Film Festival, running this September 27th – October 1st. To celebrate this much-loved local event, INSIDE+OUT brings you an ongoing series of interviews with filmmakers showcasing their films in this year’s festival.
We launch this series with indie film Director, Writer, Producer and Editor– Set Hernandez, to talk about his film, unseen, an intimate portrait of an undocumented immigrant blurs the lines of conventional documentary as his subject’s journey becomes part of his own story. Set follows Pedro for more than six years as he confronts political restrictions to obtain his college degree, secure a job in his field of social work, and support his family, all the while gradually losing his vision. Through experimental cinematography and sound, unseen, winner of the Emerging Filmmaker Award at the 2023 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and the 2023 CAAMFest Documentary Competition Award, explores the intersections of immigration, disability, and mental health. It is a film about the things we often don’t show others and the things we eventually reveal. It is a film about being vulnerable, and the poetic, life-affirming experience of a courageous and unforgettable human being.
INSIDE+OUT UPSTATE NY: Tell us about your latest film which will be shown at this year’s festival.
SET HERNANDEZ: It’s hard to talk about “unseen” verbally because it operates in many different layers simultaneously when you experience it cinematically. At face value, unseen is a coming-of-age story that follows the story of Pedro in his pursuit of becoming a social worker while navigating his life as a blind, undocumented immigrant. As a young person, Pedro hopes that achieving his goal would help him give back to his parents and serve his community as a mental health care provider. Instead, when he finally reaches his goal, new problems and uncertainties emerge in his life, particularly because of his immigration status. So what will Pedro do with this realization?
At least… that is the main story of the film. Once you watch it, you’ll realize that this synopsis is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other layers operating within the narrative of the film.
What inspired you to choose a career in the film business, and what was your journey?
I should say that I don’t think of my work in filmmaking as a career, at least at this stage in my life. I find filmmaking too financially unsustainable to consider it a career. However, filmmaking for me feels like a deep yearning in my belly that I have to pursue. As a queer, undocumented immigrant originally from the Philippines, I rarely (if ever) have seen representation of my lived experience in film. Sure, I’ve seen films about queerness, and about immigration, and about being Pilipino, but I have yet to watch a film that brings all of these realities together. All this to say, I’m choosing filmmaking as a path because I want to unleash the stories buried in my heart and share with others my unique vantage point of the world.
I also don’t want to glamorize my journey, because it is not easy at all to be an indie filmmaker, regardless of your background. But when you add on top of that being a person of color and being an undocumented immigrant, there really are so many structural barriers to confront! What has been helpful for me in my journey is finding a community of mentors and fellow creatives who provided me with guidance and camaraderie in the face of all the challenges. I have been part of organizations like A-DOC (Asian American Documentary Network) and Firelight Media that served as the foundation for me in this journey. When I realized that there were other undocumented filmmakers navigating the same obstacles that I was, I ended up organizing with them, which led to me co-founding the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective. As I always tell my collaborators, “The only way to the mountaintop is together.” Filmmaking cannot be done alone, and it’s important to seek out a community to help us in this journey.
I would be remiss to not share my most profound thanks to the Woodstock Film Festival, Meira Blaustein, Alex Smith, and Sabine Hoffman who brought me into their inaugural filmmaker residency where so much of unseen’s narrative took shape. Thank you Woodstock family!
What was your most rewarding or the most challenging project to date?
I always have a hard time with comparative words like “most” when I talk about the projects I’ve had the privilege of working on. At this point in my journey, I’ve directed one feature and 3 short docs, impact produced 2 projects, and am currently developing 2 scripts. Each project has led me to meet new collaborators, develop creative relationships, and make sense of my life through the artistic process. In that sense, every project I’ve worked on (and have yet to work on) signifies a distinct milestone in my journey that offers incomparable challenges, rewards, and adventures to better hone my craft as an artist. Reflecting on all of them, I profoundly believe that not one of them can be qualified as “the most.”
What are your thoughts on technology and the changing landscape of the TV and film industry?
It’s easy to feel the doom and gloom of a techno dystopia, where only a handful of streamers and ultra rich people from the Global North get to decide what kind of programs will get wide distribution all over the world – a world where AI and algorithms get to shape culture. I also feel that these days, so many of the top tier film festivals that claim to “support independent filmmakers” have ultimately become contributors to the independent film industrial complex. Instead of championing independent filmmakers, they’ve become marketing tools for streamers who want to bring visibility to their latest “content.” As I become more immersed in the film industry and the way distribution works, I would be lying if I say that I don’t feel worried about this picture.
At the same time, it’s hard for me to only dwell in my worries because I also feel profoundly inspired by the efforts of independent filmmakers and thinkers within the film community who are pushing HARD against the current status quo. As we speak, there are emerging efforts to reimagine distribution platforms that don’t just rely on the top streamers. There are collectives being led to support underrepresented voices in film beyond the existing capitalist structures. This kind of work doesn’t get enough attention, but it’s the kind of work that creates the building blocks for cultural change.
As Ursula Leguin said:
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.”
Fortunately, these realists are here and have been here. I see them, already with their sleeves rolled up.
What is one question you’re constantly asked or what’s the biggest misconception about what you do?
The biggest question I always get asked about unseen is “HOW: How did you decide on the style of the film? How did you shape its structure? How did you meet Pedro (the main protagonist of unseen)? How did you finish the film considering all the structural barriers?” I think the question of “How” in itself is the biggest misconception of the work I have done with this film and continue to do.
For me, “How” is an effort to rationalize the filmmaking journey. “How” feels like a way to describe the process that got us from beginning to now. In my experience as a filmmaker however, so much of what led me to where I am now cannot be explained. If anything, it feels like there’s a Spirit that has been guiding me to the right places, to the right people, to the wisdom that allows me to discern what to do when a fork on the road is in front of me. (Some call it intuition, but I would argue that this energy is not only within me (which is how I perceive intuition) but rather, an energy that’s surrounding me.) I don’t know how many other filmmakers can relate to this experience, but I think the biggest misconception about filmmaking (and perhaps life itself) is that we can rationalize something that is not often logical.
Can you put your finger on what makes a great Director, and who inspires you?
A great director knows how to humble themself. Because we are in charge of so many big decisions related to the film, I feel like directors can easily feel the pressure to always have an answer and a strong opinion about everything. I think a great director knows how to build a team of collaborators they can trust, who will help them make decisions whenever they need that additional guidance to make the best film possible. That same humility is what allows a great director to surrender to the aforementioned Spirit and the illogical, creative process of making a film.
In terms of who inspires me, a lot of people inspire me – whether they be other directors or not. But when I read this question, the first person that actually came to my mind is my mom. My mom has been operating as a single parent for the last decade. As an undocumented immigrant woman, she had to support her three children through high school and college, at a time when there were not a lot of resources available to our community. In spite of that, my mom was able to give me and my siblings a meaningful life. I’m sure my mom had moments of doubt, but she surrendered herself to the process of parenting. She also trusted me and my siblings to make decisions for ourselves and not control our lives (even though some of us decided to be indie filmmakers, for better or for worse! Haha!) No doubt: it is from my mom that I learned how to be the person and filmmaker that I am today.
What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
I am currently working on a feature-length screenplay called “dream boy” – which I also started developing when I was at the Woodstock Film Festival Filmmaker Residency in 2021. (So much goodness from this program!) This film is a meditation on rejection and finding one’s self-worth, through the vantage point of a chubby, closeted gay, undocumented Pilipino teenager. In essence, this is the kind of film I wish I would have seen when I was coming to terms with my queerness and immigration status. Who knows when or how long this project will take to make, especially with the state of the film industry right now? But just as the flame kept on burning to bring unseen to life, I trust that same fire will rage on for “dream boy.”
If you could have one superpower what would it be?
Each of us can go through our day without feeling warmth and kindness from another person. So many of us can feel heartache and pain, and no one is there to hold space for us. This isolation is probably why so many human beings are bitter and not compassionate. On the other hand, I feel so lucky that everyday of my life, I have loving friends, family, and community that always make me feel embraced, even on those difficult days. If I have a superpower, I want to have an infinite amount of life force and emotional energy so that I can hold space for every person who needs someone to hold space for them and listen to them non-judgmentally when they have no one to talk to.
I think Grace Lee Boggs was the one who said “Change Yourself to Change the World.” I feel like it’s easier to change ourselves for the better when we feel love and kindness from other people because we recognize we are part of a larger community. When we recognize we’re part of a larger whole, we can feel motivated to be our best selves and share that version of ourselves with others. If holding space for another person would allow me to contribute love and change in their life, maybe that’s how I can make a contribution (even if small) to changing this world that I’m a part of.
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Founded in 2000, the Woodstock Film Festival (WFF) is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization that nurtures and supports emerging and established filmmakers, sharing their creative voices through an annual festival and year-round programming to promote culture, diversity, community, educational opportunities and economic growth.
WFF provides innovative mentoring and inspired educational programs benefitting filmmakers, students and diverse audiences, while serving as a powerful cultural and economic engine for New York’s Hudson Valley and beyond. Such efforts have consistently resulted in the festival being hailed as one of the top regional film festivals worldwide. The Woodstock Film Festival is an Oscar®-qualifying festival in the short film categories – Live Action Short Film, Animated Short Film, and Documentary Short Film.