Jan. 31, 2004 — Johanna Bermudez-Ruiz is a second-generation Crucian whose passion is producing documentaries on life and the human experience. At 28, this young filmmaker has already made her mark on the film industry, collecting her first award shortly after graduating from Antioch University in Ohio. Her documentary on the spiritual practices of Guyanese priestesses, entitled "Spirit of Expression," won Best Documentary at the New York MAAFA Film Festival in 2000.
Later that year, at the San Juan Film Festival, Bermudez-Ruiz was presented with the Humming Bird Award by actor/singer Harry Belafonte for her 17-minute documentary about the Vieques people's protest against the U.S. Navy's occupation and its bombing practices on Puerto Rico's sister island. Entitled "Vieques: An Island Forging Futures," the film also won the prestigious Image Award in 2001.
The Virgin Islands Historical Society recently presented the first showing of her Vieques documentary at UVI's Little Theater, on the St. Croix campus.
Fascinated with cameras and film as early as age 6, Bermudez-Ruiz seemed to have been born to produce films. "My dad had an 8 mm camera and a projector. I used to ask my mom if I could see the film. She'd let me take the projector out, load the film, and I would watch movies of our vacations on the wall."
While attending Charles H. Emanuel School, Bermudez-Ruiz was introduced to art and self-expression. In the sixth grade at Manor School, she saw her first documentary.
Like other teenagers, Bermudez-Ruiz loved going to the movies. "I would go to the movies all the time. I loved the theater, it was dark and cozy."
Bermudez-Ruiz revealed that sometimes when she dreams she sees the dream as film. "I could not believe it when it happened, it was incredible. I felt honored and lucky that my mind is going there, to another level."
After graduating from Antioch, where she majored in political science and film, Bermudez-Ruiz relocated to the Soho district of New York City. There she learned about the huge public outcry that was building against the bombings in Vieques.
"I began to ask myself, 'what could I do to make an impact on this situation?' I decided to do the film to bring out the reality of what is happening in Vieques for the world to see."
In her research, Bermudez-Ruiz discovered the answer to a question she asked herself many times as a child growing up on St. Croix: namely, why had her family relocated to the island? Only after beginning to investigate the history of the Vieques bombing and the effect it had on the people did Bermudez-Ruiz begin to understand her childhood situation.
"We were discriminated against in St. Croix, they called us 'pappas', we separated ourselves from the Crucians."
Through her research she discovered that since 1941 the U.S. Navy had been forcing people in Vieques off their land and that her own grandfather had been forced to leave his home there.
As the project progressed, a fund-raiser was eventually held in New York to help Bermudez-Ruiz travel to Vieques. "We only raised about $250, and I got a one-way ticket to Puerto Rico to begin filming."
Bermudez-Ruiz stayed with friends in San Juan and was smuggled into the bombing area by local fishermen. "I didn't have any money; it cost $20 to go from Isabel Segundo, Puerto Rico, to the bombing range. I lay at the bottom of the fisherman's boat with my camera. They smuggled me in."
Bermudez-Ruiz described the "war zone" she met as she arrived at the bombing: "The land was full of active mines, if you stepped on them you would just fall apart. Helicopters flew overhead three times a day taking pictures of the protesters. It was a virtual psychological war."
Bermudez-Ruiz explained that the movement in Vieques, organized by the Pro-Rescue Development Commission of Vieques, was one of passive resistance.
According to Bermudez-Ruiz, the commission conducted orientations to explain the limits of acceptable behavior to the protestors: "It was civil disobedience. You had to act in a certain way. You could not even give the helicopters 'the finger;' you had to give them the peace sign."
The commission was so impressed with the finished documentary that they purchased several copies. With that introduction, the film made its way around the world and became a catalyst in focusing media attention on the Vieques situation and helping to stop the Navy's occupation.
Today Bermudez-Ruiz has her eyes set on another project. She will be in the Virgin Islands, traveling between St. Croix, Puerto Rico and Vieques to research and film her new project, "Three Mothers, Three Colonies." This documentary addresses the migratory patterns of Puerto Ricans to the U.S.V.I.
In her synopsis of the film, Bermudez-Ruiz writes, "Three Mothers, Three Colonies" is the untold stories of thousands of people from Vieques and Puerto Rico, including my family, who migrated and settled for over half a century in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This film will illustrate their humor, passion, love, culture, and the dynamic relationship between them and local U.S. Virgin Islanders on St. Croix. The film will also portray the multicultural and multilingual society that makes up the U.S.V.I."
Some of the financing of Bermudez-Ruiz films comes from federal grants, however, she continues to look for local assistance for additional financing. Bermudez-Ruiz is also looking for families who may have oral or written histories of the migration.
"Old pictures, 8 mm film, oral stories, whatever can help me with my project, just contact me."
Bermudez-Ruiz can be contacted by calling (340) 778-9033 or by e-mail .
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name, and the city and state/country or island where you reside.
Publisher's note : Like the St. John Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice.. click here.