Puerto Rican filmmaker Glorimar Marrero Sánchez contemplates the plight of her country through a woman facing cancer in The Fishbowl. As the disease ravages her body, Noelia (Isel Rodriguez) travels back home to Vieques. For decades, the US Army used the small island on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico as a warfare laboratory, causing pollution that still compromises the health of thousands. But this is not your usual disease-of-the-week drama nor a political screed. The Fishbowl is an intensely personal character study, strikingly photographed by PJ López. We spoke with Marrero Sánchez as she prepared to premiere the film at Sundance, as part of the World Dramatic Competition.
Popflick: You are a multidisciplinary artist working on installations and photography. What drove you to make movies?
Glorimar Marrero Sánchez: My career focuses on expression across disciplines. I started writing and then moved on to audiovisual, photography, and also acting. All through college, I performed in theater. I even worked as a journalist! Installations allowed me to explore projected images. Film attracted me as a way to tell stories structured over time, aspiring to connect with an audience over this lapse of time, whether through documentary or fiction.
Popflick: ¿Why did you decide to do The Fishbowl?
Glorimar Marrero Sánchez: I had been doing some short film screenwriting but wanted to explore a feature-length story. In May 2013, my mother died of colorectal cancer. It was devastating, and I needed to focus on something. I needed to work! So I said, "I’m going to turn this into a movie". But I did not want to do a straight biographical project. I wanted to explore the disease in a different context. For me, it was relevant to consider how a sick person exerts self-sufficiency, claiming back her space. I also wanted to talk about the political context of the island of Vieques and colonization. Because cancer also colonizes your body! Turning the physical body into a metaphor for the Puerto Rican people was very interesting. Warfare contamination remains there, which sickens the main character. The pollution is inside her, but she claims her self-sufficiency in a way the Puerto Rican people have not been able to do.
Popflick: You never flinch at showing the effects of the disease on her body. Why?
Glorimar Marrero Sánchez: We are always hiding disease, the changes it brings, and the scars it leaves. We do not show them because we like pretending life is always perfect. For me, it was super important to show what it does. Many people live with it all over the world. It was important showing how a patient with a colostomy looks. My mother had this, and my grandfather did too. We managed to do it with a body double.
Popflick: ¿What we see in the movie is not prostheses and make-up?
Glorimar Marrero Sánchez: Yes. Amarilis Ortiz from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, a Crohn Disease patient, was Isel Rodriguez’s body double. Their bodies looked quite similar, making the visuals natural and realistic. I did not want to manufacture anything.
Popflick: By claiming self-determination, Noelia alienates her spouse and lies to her mother. Is this a price worth paying?
Glorimar Marrero Sánchez: When you write these characters, you leave a little bit of you in every one of them. Jorge (Maximiliano Rivas) is a stifling caretaker. At times I became that for my mother. That is why Noelia walks out on him. He stopped being her romantic partner, stopped caring for her desires, and imposed his view on her. She hides the truth from her mother to protect her.
Popflick: Is it possible to separate politics from the personal?
Glorimar Marrero Sánchez: No.Whatever is personal is also political. That is how I see the 125 years of colonization of Puerto Rico by the United States. It defines every aspect of our lives.
Popflick: ¿How would you like to see the relationship between the two countries evolve?
Glorimar Marrero Sánchez: I think Puerto Rico can be a sovereign state. We are a Caribbean nation. The US is too distant from our national identity. Of course, this is not something that will happen overnight. There must be an orderly transition process that might take decades. There has to be consensus and full citizenship participation in the process.
Popflick: The movie has an apocalyptic quality. Noelia has a terminal disease. Pollution poison the environment, and on top of it, a hurricane is coming! Is this how it feels to be Puerto Rican?
Glorimar Marrero Sánchez: Yes!
Popflick: Is it too much all the time?
Glorimar Marrero Sánchez: It is!I struggled a lot on this point while writing the script. I had my doubts until we started shooting. Then, it made sense. You see the polluting debris underwater, and a hurricane would spread it even further. The number of people with terminal diseases in Vieques and all of Puerto Rico is very high. So, all the things happening in the movie are believable.
Popflick: It took you ten years to finish the movie. How do you keep your focus over time?
Glorimar Marrero Sánchez: We spent eight years just in development. I wrote the first draft in 2013. I saw myself as a screenwriter, not a director. So another director was attached. But everywhere I presented the script, people would tell me I should direct it because it felt too personal. So I started working on short films as a self-taught filmmaker and then applied to Film School. By 2017 we were ready to shoot, but Hurricane Maria destroyed the country and the possibility of shooting. But my producer kept supporting the project, and we kept presenting it in development forums. We got funds through a co production with Spain, and the pandemic rolled in. And then, an earthquake hits Puerto Rico. While things settled, I worked on other interdisciplinary projects to keep myself busy. It was like having two jobs at the same time. I did consulting jobs to pay my bills up to the moment when we rolled cameras. It was possible thanks to the work of many Puerto Rican artists and our allies in Spain and Argentina. The list of people involved is very lengthy. Without them, it would have been impossible to finish it. Here is hoping we can give them their due. I am happy with the final cut and grateful to the team.
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