Turtle Hill, Brooklyn, out this week on DVD, is an outstanding independent queer film that addresses issues of trust, communication and fidelity between two partners. Smart and savvy, it introduces two-dozen plus characters that viewers will come to know—and care about—as the film unfolds over the course of a single day.
Shot in eight days in the apartment where partners Ricardo Valdez and Brian W. Seibert have lived together for three years, the film chronicles Will’s (Seibert) 30th birthday party. His partner Mateo (Valdez) invites their friends over to celebrate, but surprise guests, including Will’s sister, arrive and cause tension.
Interviewed in their Brooklyn home, Seibert and Valdez talked about making Turtle Hill, Brooklyn. The couple, who have been together seven years, star in the film, which they also wrote and produced. Valdez said they made it “out of necessity. We’ve been so frustrated with the acting business and the rejection level. We had seen enough gay films that were stereotypical. This was a good opportunity to do something that is pertinent to us. It’s a slice of life of a couple that has a conflict.”
Seibert maintained that the film developed organically, but it is not autobiographical. “A lot of what happens in the film did happen, but more of the stuff is created for dramatic purposes. The issues Will and Mateo have are not issues that Ricardo and I have ever had.” Added Valdez, “A lot of the characters are a combination of our own imagination, but also other friends. One character represents three friends of ours.”
What makes Turtle Hill, Brooklyn so absorbing is that the characters are real. Even folks who get just a few lines of dialogue come across as fully fleshed out individuals, such as a woman who married a gay man so he can have a green card and remains faithful to him, even though her husband lives in San Francisco, or a gay Republican who defends his political beliefs, citing he is more than just his sexuality. Another character reveals having political asylum.
The range of issues is important to the writers. Seibert acknowledged, “This is our reality. We wrote this film because we wanted to reflect what our experience of being gay and living in New York, being political and activist-y, and being these ages. (Both are over 30). We wanted to write about that. The film is representative of our gay life, which includes other gay people, but not only gay people.” He continued, “I think it’s hard to talk about life, or to write a movie without including any and/or all of these topics. They affect everyone’s lives. I am obsessed with them, which is why they pop up in most, if not every, conversation my friends and I have; they are completely interrelated to our lives.”
Valdez concurred, “We are picky about our friends. They have to be smart, cultured, and challenge us. We’re always talking about books. ‘I just read this book. You need to read it…’ We wanted to give a little bit of what someone in the ideology of our socioeconomic level in New York/Brooklyn is like and what they talk about.” He continued, “One of the beautiful things about living in New York is the awareness of the racial and political cultures—it’s such a clash of cultures. When I came here from Mexico, I came to understand those differences and eventually to accept them and form my own opinion about them. We tried to put that in the movie.”
The film is an excellent showcase for the partners’ friends, many of which are actors and appear in Turtle Hill, Brooklyn. While it was tricky to shoehorn over two-dozen people into the couple’s four-room apartment—which is less than 1000 square feet—the space looks inviting on the big screen. The bedroom windows overlook the street, and lights were placed outside to shoot day for night and sun for rain. The patio and back garden, where much of the action occurs, still has Christmas lights strung on the walls, a gnome with a rainbow flag, and a street sign that were incorporated into the film’s set.
But did the couple—who fight in the film—fight during the making of Turtle Hill, Brooklyn? One might suspect, but Seibert insisted, “We worked really well together. We went to bed together every night. We got up together and made breakfast for the crew and the actors.”
Valdez interjected, “We were producers, and it was our home. There was no time to [fight]. We had to be in this together, because if we failed, the film would fail as well, and that would not serve our purpose.”
While they admit to having minor disputes about their cat Emilio (who appears as himself in the film) sitting on the kitchen table, or decorating the apartment when they moved in together, the partners’ fights last about as long at it takes for Valdez to clean up a floor sticky from Seibert’s recent impromptu cocktail party.
“I am not a maid!” he reminded his partner with equal parts mockery and sincerity at the mention of that spat.
But on screen, the situation is much different. The future of the couple’s relationship hinges on issues of trust, communication, and commitment.
“That was the idea,” Valdez explained, “Why do you do what you do to hurt the other person—accidentally or purposely? It’s out of need of something that you’re missing in your relationship. Mateo is frustrated and unsatisfied. He has this relationship he values, but he’s so conflicted with himself, he creates all these problems.”
Turtle Hill, Brooklyn, artfully shows how the characters grapple with their issues. It is a fantastic debut of two bright talents.
© 2013 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.