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IFF Panama: Ari Maniel Cruz Preparing First English-Language Feature, ‘The Living Room’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Puerto Rican director Ari Maniel Cruz returns to IFF Panama for the second consecutive year, this time round with “Who Are You?” playing in the fest’s Primera Mirada pix-in-post sidebar.

Last year his “Before the Rooster Crows” screened in Panama’s Stories of Central America and the Caribbean section, as part of its successfully tour of the festival circuit and went on to rack up strong admissions on its theatrical release in Puerto Rico.

“‘Rooster’ changed my life and my career,” says Cruz. “In Puerto Rico, people went crazy. In the first two weeks, it was No. 1 at the box office, even ahead of Hollywood blockbusters and spent 11 weeks in theaters. It became a cultural phenomenon. It gave Puerto Ricans hope.”

Cruz says that the pic’s success has opened doors to him, making it much easier to finance and produce his latest feature and has made possible a series of new projects.

“Who Are You?” is set in the 1990s and is based on the true story of a former Director of the Department of Health, whose wife was dying from Alzheimer’s. The pic uses the same crew from “Rooster” whose lead actress, Cordelia Gonzalez, played the grandmother in “Rooster.”

Cruz aims to combine a highly personal story – that mixes elements of tragic loss with hopes for renewal – with criticism of the social and political situation in Puerto Rico.

“The story is about a family in crisis, in the context of a country in crisis. The problems that existed in the 1990s are still with us today,” Cruz told Variety at in Panama.

He added: “The country’s current governor, Ricardo Rossello,  is the son of the governor back then. The backdrop to the story is the long line of politicians, from all sides of the political spectrum, who have led our country into a crippling debt crisis.”

Cruz nonetheless aims to focus on the personal family drama. He suggested that the story takes off from the final moment of Alzheimer’s drama “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore, and focuses on the plight of the husband and how he proceeds with life as his wife’s health deteriorates.

“I loved the challenge of making something outside my comfort zone,” says Cruz. “I put myself into a story that wouldn’t necessarily relate to me or what I have been doing before. In that sense it’s a more mature film than my previous two features.”

Cruz says that he read the book chronicling this true-life story and sat down with the family and talked with people suffering from Alzheimer’s and their close family.

“This film is about crippling sickness. It’s also a metaphor for the sickness that is devastating Puerto Rico. Corruption in the government and in the health department,” Cruz said.

“We haven’t explored our own history in a critical way. We have amnesia. But we have to point to our mistakes and talk about them to fix them, especially now that we’re in such a severe economic and social crisis.”

In relation to other current projects, Cruz recently wrote the screenplay for a video album directed by Grammy Latino-winner Kacho Lopez, to accompany the release of the latest album by Colombian pop star, Juanes. Puerto Rican producer Tristana Robles, produced the video album and also co-produced “Rooster” and “Who Are You?”

Cruz is also currently one of the lead writers on Telemundo’s bioseries, “El Ganador,” about award-wining Nicky Jam, a singer-songwriter who has become a worldwide music phenomenon. The series is directed by Jesse Terrero and produced by Endemol Shine Latino and Boomdog.

As a director, he is preparing a trilogy called “Ceño fruncido” (Frown), which will kick off with his first English-language film, set in New York, based on the one-act stage play “The Living Room,” by late Puerto Rican playwright, Pedro Pietri.

“The film is about a Puerto Rican family living in New York,” Cruz explained. “It has a lot to do with the mental sickness of my country and colonialism seen from the perspective of New York. Until fairly recently New York had the most important community of Puerto Ricans outside the island, with several generations in place. Now Florida is the new promised land.”

The second film in the trilogy will be set in Kissimmee, near Orlando, about a Puerto Rican family living in central Florida. The final tiytle in the trilogy will be set in Puerto Rico itself.

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