You don’t have to be a cinephile to observe that Sydney is awash with film festivals – from the landmark Sydney Film Festival, through Tropfest and Flickerfest to the Sydney Underground and numerous ethnically based events – to mention just a few. It almost seems there’s a new festival every week and if that’s the case, it’s a real positive. Gets those Netflix bums off couches and into the social setting of a real cinema!
One of the most anticipated events amongst many cinema buffs is the annual Antenna Documentary Film Festival which brings together some amazing documentaries from all over the world. The festival always manages to include some great music docos and this year is no exception with a stand out repertory screening of Shirley Clarke’s brilliant 1986 portrait of jazz immortal Ornette Coleman.
Whilst documentaries that focus on well-known figures are always well received, those that profile a total unknown can also be just as rewarding. That’s certainly the case with Sydney filmmaker Sam Zubrycki’s vibrant, enthralling and at times perplexing feature Miguelito – the search for a long lost Puerto Rican salsa singer who achieved overnight stardom at the age of only 11.
Like the start of many great stories, this one began very much by chance when Sam was travelling through Columbia in 2013 and came across the album Canto a Borinquen Acordes. He recalls:
“It was there where I first saw and heard Miguelito’s album and as I mention in the film it just struck me as being so different to any other salsa record I had seen or heard. The Cali collectors told me the story of Miguelito, that he was an 11-year-old Puerto Rican kid who was discovered by the legendary New York record producer Harvey Averne, recorded the album Canto a Borinquen, played Madison Square Garden with Eddie Palmieri and then not long after was tragically run over.”
In filming the documentary Sam quickly forges a friendship with the legendary and at times cantankerous New York record producer Harvey Averne (in Averne’s own words “born Jewish but with a Latino soul”).
“He was definitely on board straight away. Once we made contact Harvey was delighted and surprised that I had taken an interest in the Miguelito LP. I remember it was quite a brief conversation where he told me his recollections of the album and then told me to come to New York and start shooting. So I did.”
Right from the very beginning, you realise the filmmaker’s quest to track down Miguelito, if he is indeed still alive, is a puzzle to which there is a multitude of scattered pieces. It’s a detective story that requires loads of perseverance and numerous interviews with musicians, family members and childhood friends of Miguelito.
The documentary, which moves at a dynamic pace, propelled by an almost constant soundtrack of salsa, is Sam’s first feature-length documentary. He has done an extraordinary job, sourcing a whole school of Salsa musicians from Miguelito’s past, unearthing archival footage and capturing live club performances. He notes that:
“It has been an extremely challenging process. Being an international co-production with characters and locations based on the other side of the world, in a foreign language and exploring an event that occurred more than 50 years ago made it tough to imagine it would possible. However, I was determined and driven by my love of salsa and the beautiful culture that surrounds it.”
Miguelito premiered earlier in the year at the Cartagena Film Festival in Colombia, with a sold-out screening in London following. British DJ and record label guru Gilles Peterson came to the screening and loved it. Sam is obviously chuffed about the Sydney premiere and adds:
“I’ve been working on the film for roughly five years and now it’s being shown in my local city. It’s really wonderful. It’s impossible to see independent documentary cinema on the big screen anymore in Sydney and so what Antenna is doing is really special.”
Whatever happened to Miguelito? No spoiler here, but all will be revealed when this exceptional documentary screens on Friday, October 18 from 7 pm at the Chauvel Cinema in Paddington followed by a Q&A with Sam Zubrycki.