Antioch College alumna and filmmaker Johanna Bermúdez-Ruiz ’98 heads Cane Bay Films LLC, an independent production company based in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Bermúdez-Ruiz is dedicated to producing high-quality, impacting documentaries, films and public service announcements on economic strategies, investigative reports, educational and preventative topics, environmental issues, and contemporary social issues. She is the director and producer of the award-winning documentary, Vieques: An Island Forging Futures, and she recently completed the compelling documentary feature-length film, Sugar Pathways.
Since her graduation from Antioch in 1998, she has lived in London, Florida, California, New York City, Ohio, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Bermúdez-Ruiz is one of the founding members of the New York City Chapter National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP). She sat down with The Independent this month to talk about her passion for film, her bright future and her love for Antioch.
Where did your passion for film come from? When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
My passion for film was awakened by two friends of mine, Tim Stickle ’97 and Ricky Lee, both of whom were studying filmmaking at Antioch College. At different times they invited me to watch them work. I watched Ricky Lee work on editing her video film—changing the colors [for] numerous hours [and] replaying the changes. Watching her work had gotten me inspired.
Also, I sat in with Tim watching him test screen his film at the College’s film department screening room. It moved me in a way where I became excited to learn. The burning interest in making films was building inside me.
I was political science major, planning to become an attorney to help and defend people’s rights. As soon I became exposed to the Antioch film department, I traveled to Kenya for Antioch’s Cross-Cultural Exchange. Once I completed [it], I traveled to London for study aboard. While in London, I studied video and literature.
I came back to Antioch with a clear mind. I had decided to change my major and study filmmaking. This was the beginning of good news for me, because at the time Marty Rosenbluth ’99 was teaching at Antioch. When Marty started teaching editing—I was first in line to edit my first doc.
Tell us about Cane Bay Films. How did your company get started?
Cane Bay Films, started from the making of the documentary film Sugar Pathways. This film takes a look at 100 years of contributions by Puerto Ricans through their migration to the U.S. Virgin Islands to the economy, politics, and culture. Creating and establishing Cane Bay Films was sort of the next step for me. I needed to venture into becoming a small business, especially with the direction I was going with Sugar Pathways. With that said, outside of making my own personal films, I produce documentaries for corporate clients and nonprofit organizations. My past clients include Diageo USVI, Disability Rights Center, MSNBC, and SpiritClips.com. I also have a collection of thousands and thousands of hours on footage of the Vieques protest in 2000—I made a short award-winning documentary called Vieques: An Island Forging Futures. It was part of the movement to help stop the bombing practices on the island. Since, I filmed everything that moved, breathed, and spoke—I have footage unlike any other on Vieques. Once in while, I get a phone call from film companies wanting to purchase footage.
You are so passionate about film. Why does it mean so much to you?
Filmmaking is, if I can say so, my first love. To know that I can make social change through my film work, that people can learn and become exposed to issues or subjects they may not know directly … That’s what drives me to wake up everyday and take the risk of making films that can add a little bit of hope and compassion—ultimately get some justice for “humanity.” For me, I saw that very clearly with my film Vieques: An island Forging Futures. Today when I visit Vieques, and just at the time when the plane takes off from the ground, I look below to the island from the airplane window. I say to myself, “Wow, not one bomb is falling on the island—not one bomb rattled the homes where people now sleep safely and peacefully.” That makes me feel proud. That gives me energy to continue to live and do my work.
How did your time at Antioch influence your work?
Oh, Antioch had huge impact on my work! All my friends after college graduation went to grad school. Instead, I went to New York City, like Steve Wonder’s song “Living for the City.” It was tough experience, but I always think I have two graduate degrees—one from living and working in New York. The other is from making Sugar Pathways, which took me ten years to produce. Tenacity!
New York back then it was very good city for me to continue my studies—where independent films are made everyday, and arts and culture are at its forefront. I would have never made it to New York had it not been for my senior year co-op at Dyke-TV. Thanks to Anne Bohlen who thought I should try co-oping there, and so I did. In truth Antioch was something I really needed. I grew up for the most part of my life in the Caribbean.
I learned about Antioch through an Antiochian, Bethany Sansing-Helton ‘93. She was on co-op in St. Croix as an engineer for the oil refinery. We met and had a great summer with a group of friends! I was senior in high school, and not sure what was next. … my curiosity drove me to check out Antioch.
The College opened my mind and heart to so many things. It challenged me, and allowed me to find myself. I am thankful for the experience.
Were there any professors that were influential to either your work or your life?
Every other time when I am shooting something, I think about Anne Bohlen and her advice on guerrilla filmmaking. When I am running and have to grab a shot without my team for whatever reason, I remember her tips. It saves me every time. The film department was my home. It was a very cool place to work and learn. I had a lot of fun; we (students) had a lot fun sometimes being a challenge towards the professors. Anne Bohlen and Marty Rosenbluth where very crucial in my training as a filmmaker. I think if it weren’t for Marty’s on-going encouragement, I would have never become a filmmaker. That relationship, Marty and I, and later meeting his wife, Liz, was the push I needed. They, as well as Anne, awakened a love for film that still drives me everyday to wake up and start again.
What would you say to current Antioch students who are interested in film or the arts?
Do it! And remember to include the old and the new. They go hand in hand. Explore yourself and have fun—contribute to social change and the betterment of humanity through the art of filmmaking.
What does the future hold for you?
There a couple of films I am working on. One is a documentary about mental health in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The other is a personal feature film; my first to produce, direct, and write. It is in developmental stages. I can’t say too much about it, but I can say it’s based on true life events concerning a young woman who was subjugated to exploitive encounters. Sounds heavy? It’s a drama. Let’s see what happens. Keep your fingers crossed.