An Interview with William Caballero (MA ’08), Steinhardt Alumnus Filmmaker

Alumnus William Caballero’s feature-length documentary, American Dreams Deferred, recently premiered at the 2010 New York Latino Film Festival. Caballero, a 27-year old Puerto Rican-American, is an MTV Movie Award nominated filmmaker, violinist, composer, artist, and editor. He graduated with a master’s degree from Steinhardt’s Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in 2008.

Your movie charts your journey from student to filmmaker. Can you tell us a little bit about this journey?

American Dreams Deferred is a film about my Puerto Rican-American family — who currently live in North Carolina — and the various health, social, and financial situations plaguing them. At first, I wanted the film to read as an objective documentary; one in which the characters speak for themselves without my input. As it progressed, I realized my important role was that of a catalyst and protagonist, and the film ultimately became a story about how I deal with the challenges of my family back home in North Carolina, as I pursue my desire to get an education in New York City. It’s less of my journey from student to filmmaker, and more about the growing connection I make with my family.

Though I grew up in a loving Latino family, I realized at a young age that education would be the only way to break the cycle that has crippled so many minority youths, including the youth of my immediate family. Surrounded by a multitude of financial obstacles, I quickly grasped on to the humanistic power of the arts as a way to express my hopes and frustrations. After two years of public college in North Carolina, I received the Bill Gates Millenium Scholarship, and many doors were opened for me. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized the potential of film and documentary to express both objective and subjective truths. Pratt Institute and NYU provided me with the knowledge and courage to bring about this truth, and its been a wild ride ever since.

American Dreams Deferred makes a statement about the power that education has in shaping our destiny. How has your your family’s immigrant status shaped you as an artist?

As an American of Puerto Rican descent, I have always felt a bit left out of the American cultural schema. When I set out to make this film, I wanted to portray my characters with utmost integrity. What you see on the screen is exactly how my family is in real life. They open up very quickly in the film, in a way that would surprise most non-Latino audiences, though their on-screen truthfulness is both familiar and natural to me. For example, my father is a diabetic with kidney failure who never graduated from high school, but he possesses such an amazing spirit, that all I want to do is accomplish more and more by pushing myself, because I know this will never disappoint him. His sickness has also shown me that a person’s health is always waning and waxing, and that we must spend this lifetime pursuing our dreams as much as possible, no matter how ambitious they are. This is why my family never discouraged my desire to become a filmmaker/composer, over becoming a lawyer, doctor, etc. They realize that a life of passion is to be desired over one of banality.

What has been the most exciting moment so far in your film career?

I cannot quote a single moment of excitement, but feel most complete and accomplished as an artist when the viewer experiences the film in a way that causes them to open up, search deep inside themselves, and express their new-found feelings. After screenings of this film, people are in such a state of empathy, that they open up to me, as if they can trust me and relate. By seeing the similarities my family shares with theirs, they in turn look at their own ties (or lack of ties) within their own families. It’s truly a film that can motivate the viewer to re-examine their familial role, experience a catharsis, and act upon it if so desired. If my film can do this on a small scale, I await those days when it’s impact is felt nationally or globally.

What advice do you have for NYU students who want to be filmmakers?

Search for the truth inside of you regarding a career in film or even a single idea for a film project. Don’t ask “is this worth it?”, but ask “do I want to do this?” If you answer yes, then find out what technically needs to be done, put your heart into it and begin. But realize that the journey is far more rewarding then end, especially when it comes to documentary.

Ally yourself with organizations that will help you and your vision blossom. NALIP (the National Association of Latino Independent Producers) is an organization that helped me immensely and provided a large grant in collaboration with HBO.

Learn how to direct, produce, shoot, edit, animate, and compose music. Being a Jack of all trades means more freedom of expression, truth, and money in your wallet!

(Photo of William Caballero by Martine Bisagni.)