On July 18, 2018, on the Nelson Mandela International Day, internationally acclaimed filmmaker Alex Lora received the Congressional Extraordinary Artist Award for his great achievements in film, devoting his life to service and inspiring positive change. The US Flag was flown over the Capitol Building in Washington DC to commemorate this honor, by the request of the honorable New York Senator Charles Schumer.
The award certificate reads, “In honor of Alex Lora, for Distinguished Service, in remembrance of Nelson Mandela International Day. You have demonstrated extraordinary dedication, leadership and service to our nation and beyond, taking on humanitarian causes and improving our communities. Your life devotion to service and compassion, inspires change and renews humanity. Your extraordinary achievement in the motion picture is truly honorable.“
Congratulations on receiving the Congressional honor “Extraordinary Artist Award” for your distinguished service and extraordinary achievement in motion picture. Being recognized on Nelson Mandela Day, who devoted his life to service and humanity, what comes to mind when you think about this important day and the recognition that you received?
Alex Lora: I feel so honored and humbled to receive this recognition on Nelson Mandela Day, especially because this year we also commemorate the centenary of his birth. He was not only an inspiration but an aspiration of what people should try to be, the most honest example of what it means to be human. It’s very difficult to describe what this honor means to me, but it does come with a sense of responsibility, to keep working hard to try to make little changes in our communities to make this world a better place.
What projects have you focused on primarily?
Alex Lora: I’m a filmmaker so I make audiovisual work, but I always try to be committed with social issues and minorities when I’m filming. I guess I just try to be consistent with who I am when it comes to do my job. In my case, I have a disability and I’m a Hispanic immigrant. Therefore, at my job at the TV Station of the City University of New York I deal with issues related with the Latin community in New York, and in my independent documentaries I deal with issues related with disabilities, immigration, displacement, identity and environment.
What three social issues are most important to you and why?
Alex Lora: The ones that I mentioned earlier: issues related with disabilities, immigration and identity. Even though they might not be the most important, they are significant to me. There are other social issues that should be addressed with more urgency, but in some of them I can do very little to solve them with my means. So If you ask me why they are important to me, it’s because I do believe that through my work I can try to make a little change that might improve my communities. They are also significant to me because they connect with who I am. In regards of the issue of the disabilities, firstly I connect with it because I have just one arm and I’ve felt rejection and discrimination because of it, even silent discrimination in daily matters. The truth is no one likes to hear that you cannot do something because you have a physical, a mental or an emotional difference, because you are this way or that way… Some times we are looked at with assumptions and prejudices and know people that have been hidden because their own peers were ashamed of them. Overprotection is another way of discrimination and at the end we are who we are so that should be enough to be accepted. Some times I also felt discriminated within my communities, for instance some people with disabilities have told me that I’m not disabled enough. That leads me to talk about the work I do related with identities. People try to simplify reality by using labels on other human beings. Of course we shouldn’t be discriminated by who we are, our origin or our skin color, but we shouldn’t be discriminated within our communities either. The negative bonding within the minorities it’s something that I try to work around in my job.
The concept of the other or the different one as something “bad” it’s also present in my communities. For example, I’ve found myself in situations where I’ve been told that I can’t produce work related with the LGTBQ+ community because I might not belong to it. I think there is a point on this statement, but there is also an assumption or a prejudice that leads to a discrimination as well. The assumption in my case is that because I have two kids and I’m happily involved in a heterosexual relationship, that might mean that I don’t belong to that community, and therefore, I shouldn’t express my thoughts about it in my documentaries because I’m going to alter the narrative as a non-belonging being. Fair enough, but my sexuality as any other aspect of my identity is something private, unless I decide to share it, and that shouldn’t be an issue to be discriminated within or outside the communities. Something similar happens sometimes in my docs when I deal with issues related to immigration, where the “other” can be “us”, but at the same time “them.” What I’m trying to say is that it might be very difficult to end prejudices and make a change in the rest of society to accept people with disabilities, immigrants or with an identity that represents a minority. But if we can’t get rid of the discrimination within our own communities and minorities, it will be very difficult to make the necessary change outside of them.
What was the most significant change you brought about with a project / organization? Can you tell us about some of your humanitarian work?
Alex Lora: The most significant change I’ve made with a project is the work I did with my friend Alex Kruz. He runs an NGO and he had this idea to go to Nepal to make a workshop with blind orphan children from his foundation. We ended up making a short documentary with the kids titled “Parivara”, which means “A Family.” After that, through Alex Kruz’s organization Samarpan, funds were raised to pay the rent of the orphanage for various years, build a new building for the children, and when the documentary played at the Nepal Human Rights International Film Festival their Department of Education gave them a Grant. I’ve always been thankful to Alex Kruz because in this sense he taught me that sometimes you need very little to make a change. That’s how I went to Nepal, just with the idea of trying to help a little, bringing some happiness to the kids through this workshop with a camera, but the outcome happened to be something way more fulfilling.
In my last feature documentary, co-directed with my friend Adan Aliaga, titled “The Fourth Kingdom,” we’ve been collaborating with the NGO “Sure We can,” a redemption center based in Brooklyn that besides helping immigrants and people in situations of social exclusion, they also do a great job in regards to sustainability and environmental policies in the community. We hope that people can see it and other communities get inspired to keep making a change.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?
Alex Lora: I don’t know if it’s the biggest lesson, but it has been one of the toughest ones related with career. It’s been disappointing but at the same time enriching because it gives me the opportunity to rely less on my career and more on my family. Nowadays we focus too much on our work to the point that we forget who we are.
We introduce ourselves saying our role in our professions as if that would define our true-self and would describe our identities. Sometimes we even forget to say our own names. The professional world is very competitive and I guess sometimes people prioritize projects over individuals. The lesson is that the word “friend” is not the same as the word “colleague.” There’s nothing wrong with it if boundaries are understood. Then you have to rely on your friends when you are looking for life support, and deal with your colleagues when you are looking for a professional perspective. Although I have very good friends I work with, I have to say that mixing concepts doesn’t always work.
What are the most important values and ethics of a leader?
Alex Lora: There are many traits that a good leader should have, but there’s no perfect leadership, the same way that there’s no perfect parenting. I guess everybody will do whatever they can, and each person tries to come up with their own formula. I do think though that integrity, loyalty, empathy, honesty, compassion, humility, perseverance and flexibility are qualities that I appreciate in a leader.
What is your advice for those who would like to reach higher in their career?
Alex Lora: Success is something very relative and perfection is just a delusion for self-satisfaction, a path that can led you to total stasis. I’ve seen very talented people with really good intentions that don’t push any of their initiatives because they are afraid to fail. Realization is not what we see in social media, it’s what we find in our journey. So I always remember this motto: “fail, fail more, fail best” because it keeps you trying and away from quitting.
What are you an advocate of? What are your life passions?
Alex Lora: I’m an advocate for giving a voice to minorities. I want to think that media is still a tool that could help those with no means to raise their voices. Filmmaking and storytelling is one of my life passions because it helps me to make that wish of giving voice to some people that are usually silent, possible. But beyond that, spending time with my family and friends, writing, playing chess, study languages, escape from the city to spend some time in the wilderness and learning new things, are also life passions.
What/who inspires you?
Alex Lora: My folks: my two children, my family, and a couple of friends. I feel very lucky and they all have traits that I admire and inspire me. My kids are very different but I admire both of them so much. My oldest is 5 years old and even if she is far away she teaches me every day how important love is, and how anger, and bitterness are useless. My youngest is just one year old and he is already very determined. I see him struggling with almost everything that surrounds him but he barely complains, he keeps trying and comes up with new solutions everyday to get what he wants, never gives up. My partner is the most loyal person I’ve ever met and that’s a safety net for my emotions and my life. My brother is the most honest and loving man I know and I have this unique certainty that he would do anything for me. My mother is the most generous and giving woman available 24/7. My father is an example of commitment and hard work. And my grandmother was just the strongest, she didn’t even know how to read or write but she survived a war and raised us while my parents were working to give us the education they could not have.
What are your future plans/goals/projects?
Alex Lora: I’d like to create a window to give a voice to Latinos with disabilities in New York. We already have the platform through the TV Show “Nueva York” at CUNY TV, and I’d like to push that to make it possible. Other than that, professionally, there are some scripts that I’d like to transform into feature films, some documentaries that I have in mind, and some great collaborations I’d love to keep doing.
Are there any film projects you would like to highlight?
Alex Lora: I’d like to highlight the one I’m working on now “El Cuarto Reino” (The Fourth Kongdon). A documentary about a redemption center in Brooklyn where people in need bring cans and bottles. We are very involved with this NGO called “Sure We Can”, and the movie is just an attempt to give more visibility to the excellent work they do and an example on how to make a change within the community without a hundred million dollar budget, just relying on the people, their commitment and their love. As I also said, I thought our documentary “Parivara,” was very fulfilling for us, as was “Godka Cirka” about female genital mutilation, and “Odysseus’ Gambit”, a chess documentary that somehow talks about displacement and war. I also feel very happy when I think about a short film I made years ago titled “(En)terrados” about the housing problem in big cities and how some take advantage over others through a basic need that should be a universal right: having a place to crash at night.