When Zoé Salicrup Junco was a 9-year-old living in Puerto Rico, her parents took her to see “Contact,” the 1997 movie starring Jodie Foster as a scientist researching alien life, part of which was filmed in Junco’s homeland.
The opening credits began, a whoosh of stars and planets and asteroids hurling across the screen, prompting an amused Junco to verbalize her wonder: “Oh, look at this! Look at that!” A teenager seated nearby started repeating her exclamations in a mocking tone. But Junco wasn’t embarrassed by the taunts.
“I felt bad for him,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘You’re selling yourself short of the experience. You’re not in the moment.’”
At the time, Junco didn’t know she’d one day become a filmmaker herself, not only creating images for others to marvel at but using her voice to amplify vital sociopolitical issues. Her latest short, “Marisol,” about an undocumented Mexican immigrant laboring to provide for her daughter in New York, has played festivals around the country, including last year’s Nitehawk Shorts Festival, where it won HuffPost’s annual Impact Award. “Marisol” even landed an enviable two-year distribution deal with HBO, further establishing Junco as a director whose career is rising.
When Junco was preparing for college, she knew she’d leave Puerto Rico for an education on the U.S. mainland, like her older brother. But she chose to major in film on a whim. She spotted it among a list of options and assumed the subject would share traits with her biggest passion, dance. Junco had been learning classical ballet since age 2 but saw it as a hobby rather than a vocation.
Filmmaking, she decided, was another mode of storytelling stitched together using choreography and emotions much like the ones she’d expressed while watching “Contact.”
Junco’s parents didn’t want her to move to California (too far) or New York City (too metropolitan), so she enrolled at Boston University. After two years at BU, Junco craved the “melting pot” of New York and informed her family that she was transferring to New York University, whose film program had birthed Spike Lee, M. Night Shyamalan, Amy Heckerling and many others.
At the time, Barack Obama was in office. Junco didn’t fret much about the government’s inner workings, able to enjoy her early 20s with relative insouciance. Nonetheless, she knew her calling was telling stories about Latina women. In “Gabi,” Junco’s 20-minute NYU thesis project, the title character returns home in the wake of her mother’s death. In “Fluff,” her first short post-college, the protagonist is grappling with the loss of her beloved cat. Junco brings a slice-of-life flair to both.
But the election of Donald Trump in 2016 convinced her she could no longer ignore politics. Junco grew up aware that Puerto Ricans are often treated as second-class citizens (they can’t vote in federal elections even though they’re Americans), but when Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, her parents lost power for months; they would never have the option to vote for or against the guy tossing paper towels into a crowd at a relief center. Junco watched it all from the comfort of New York, where she’d been working on Sony commercials and developing her creative ethos.
“I just remember this deafening sense of uncertainty,” she said. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t eat. It was just like you felt so helpless. And I’m always careful when talking about it because it’ll never be the same as when you’re in it. Being outside, I understand that I’m talking from a place of, I don’t want to say privilege, but I’m over here. I have power and resources. I can’t even imagine the sense of uncertainty that the people there are feeling. But for what we call the Puerto Rican diaspora, it was incredibly traumatizing.”
“Marisol” represents a shift in Junco’s work, even though it’s the first short she didn’t write herself. A producer was seeking a Latina woman to direct the script, written by New York actor Tim Eliot. In the opening moments, the title character, played by Emma Ramos, is seen running her self-made laundry business, bringing her young daughter to school and driving for a ride-sharing business to earn extra income. Everything goes as smoothly as it can until a white, male passenger starts probing whether she’s legal. Immediately, Marisol fears for her life, particularly when he invokes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Junco uses close-ups to distinguish Marisol’s internal calculations, establishing a pulse-quickening tone.
Junco believes the prejudice like the kind Marisol faces has an origin point. People biased against a specific culture are conditioned by circumstances, perhaps their upbringing or religion. It’s something she’s realized while living in New York. Even in one of the most progressive cities in the world, her Latinx identity sometimes catches others off-guard. “Marisol” let her explore the social forces that preclude mutual understanding.
“You don’t need to be an immigrant to understand immigrants,” she said. “We’ve all experienced a sense of displacement at some point in our lives, whether your family was separated for different reasons, whether your family was threatened, or someone you loved was taken away from you. You’ve felt that, and you’ve also felt what it’s like to be a stranger in an unknown setting. Those are very primal feelings that can really connect us and bring us together. You don’t need to be Latino to get the story.”
You don’t need to be an immigrant to understand immigrants. We’ve all experienced a sense of displacement at some point in our lives. Zoé Salicrup Junco
Junco is currently developing “Marisol” into a series, as well as writing feature-length scripts and TV pilots to pitch. She also made “María,” a short film about a woman caring for her father in the wake of the devastating hurricane. She recently spent two weeks in India shooting a branded Sony documentary about a female rapper who felt rejected in America. Most tellingly, she hasn’t taken a temp job to pay the bills in a while, which means her film work is sustainable — as much as any up-and-coming artist can hope for.
She wants to foster a career resembling that of Alfonso Cuarón, the Oscar-winning director from Mexico who can create personal political stories (“Roma,” “Y Tu Mamá También”) and blockbusters (“Gravity”) alike. And she already has all the industry validation she needs.
“Whether Hollywood accepts me or not, I don’t think I’m gonna use that as a deterring factor to make the films that I want to make,” she said.