The origin of “Secadora,” Elyssa Aquino’s first short film, goes back to an afternoon a couple of years ago when she was talking with a friend while they were both learning to play guitar.
It was then that the issues of race and identity emerged.
For Elyssa, a Dominican raised in the Bronx, it was entirely natural for Dominicans to simply identify as Dominican. For her friend, who is Black, it was surprising to learn that many on the island did not identify as Afro-Latinos.
Thus, a simple conversation gave birth to a short film that explores sexuality and identity and the importance of difficult conversations.
“Secadora,” tells the story of Cynthia, a photographer played by Talisha Liburd, and Laura, a model played by Shelia Ducasse, who fall in love after a work session.
Cynthia and Laura spend a day together, but when Laura attempts to straighten Cynthia’s hair, the oppressive gesture detonates an argument over race.
Chatting with Elyssa about her documentary, here’s what she had to say:
“I wanted to celebrate American women, their authentic self, and show a day in the life of someone uptown, someone from uptown New York or L.A., from the Bronx. I wanted it to be an authentic representation of what a day would be like. Sometimes we have those really uncomfortable conversations, and I really wanted to highlight “cancel culture” because these two individuals were pretty much perfect together. After one little argument, they cancel each other out. “
“Maybe if they had had more tolerance and more communication, they could have actually taught each other stuff. Maybe Cynthia could have taught her a little bit more about the African diaspora. But they gave up on each other, and I feel that our community now and our culture, our generation, it’s so quick to cancel each other out when it comes to the topic of identity. But everybody, I think, deserves a little more patience because everybody is on their own journey in their identity. But they didn’t do it. It didn’t work out.”
And, maybe, by doing this kind of rushed argument where they just canceled each other out, you’re then turning the responsibility on the audience. Like saying, “OK, they didn’t go through it. Now you do it.”
I didn’t think about that. It is a lot of responsibility on the audience because then you are left with “Was it too quick?”, “How do you identify?”, “What would you do? Would you continue this relationship or walk away?”
What are your thoughts on the representation of Dominican women in the filming industry? Has it improved over the past few years?
It’s nice seeing more Dominican stories because, for a long time, I feel like Latin stories were specifically Mexican stories, and the Caribbean was often left out. And now there are Dominican stories, but they don’t look like me, my family, and my friends. I feel like oftentimes, they’re whitewashed. I think it is all like a journey.
When I saw “In the Heights,” I hoped it would be the biggest depiction of what it means to be Dominican. But I was pretty disappointed. Half of me was so excited to see that community on such a big screen. And the other half was feeling it wasn’t authentic; “This isn’t how we look over here.” And so that is my experience, and I think a big reason why I made “Secadora” is I was really tired of seeing people that didn’t really remind me of home. It’s Got Spanglish that we talk about. It is such a big community here that we’re Americans, but our parents are from D.R., we’re brown, we talk shit, and, you know, it’s not always about something. It’s just life. It’s hard to celebrate just being authentic.
Why is it called “Secadora”?
Well, there is not a secadora (dryer) in the film. But I thought it was this kind of overshadowing concept throughout the whole movie of the colonialism of our hair. So, it is not to shame women who straighten their hair — I straighten my hair too. It’s so ingrained in our culture to do it. I remember being a little girl, and every week I would be under this secadora, burning my scalp. And I was like, “Oh! This is so painful! Why do we do this to ourselves?” And so, I think it’s just an identity struggle that I really see as a symbol. It is that secadora that always sits in my abuela’s living room. It is in our community, and so, for the girls of the movie, I think it represents them pretty well. One of them isn’t aware that she’s not accepting her views. And the other girl is like, “You know? I’m going to rock my natural hair!” It was just symbolic in a way. I just wanted to feel like a symbolic theme, which is colonialism.
What did you learn through the filming process? What accommodations did you have to make because of the pandemic?
Making the movie was harder than I imagined, though the pandemic made the writing process easier because it was more time at home, and so that process was amazing. In terms of casting and crew, it was definitely during the vaccination skeptic era, and so we made sure that our crew was vaccinated, which made it a little difficult to find the right crew. And so it was location-wise: we couldn’t bring many crew members on site. But we made it possible, and I think as time goes on, it will be easier to make a movie.
I’m working on my next movie now, but I don’t have much time to write, so I’m kind of missing those days.
So, what is next for “Secadora”?
I think it’s done. I am going to send it over to fight back. And I know there’s this American film festival that I heard of. It’s being shown at the NY Film Festival. So that was kind of the first. But yeah, I haven’t submitted it yet. So the deadlines are coming up. I believe at the end of this month. So I’m excited, like, I don’t want to put too much pressure on it. I am like very I’m personally really, really happy with where it’s taking my career. And it’s opened a lot of doors for me, especially for the next film. I’m so happy. I feel very content with this one, and I’m ready to move on to the next one. I really, really am. But yeah, I hope that it gets into some great film festivals. I hope I can meet more people. I can maybe help me.
Is there anything else you would like to share that I haven’t asked you yet?
I’ve always been behind the scenes my whole career life. I’m usually a DP or editor, like television or film. But this is like my first real independent project. So for me, it was really important to hire women of color behind the camera. I just wanted to mention that because that was such a huge part. And it was sadly difficult because there’s not much access to those women. I had to do a lot of research, and it was very eye-opening.
Do you plan to keep the same kind of crew for the next movie?
Yes, definitely. Probably split up the crew, but for sure, I would. I mean, I want to continue working with women. That’s like a really big one for me.