Throughout the 28th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.
Director Lillian LaSalle’s vibrant and authentically uplifting documentary feature My Name Is Pedro begins with a bit of a storytelling misstep. In the film’s verité cold-open, forty-something reformist educator Pedro Santana arrives – radiating a kind of bittersweet excitement – at a community event where he is to be fêted. It’s a little unclear what this prelude’s purpose might be other than hazy foreshadowing, and although the film later provides the obligatory context, it feels like a scene that would have been more affecting had it been held back until the end. However, it’s a testament to My Name Is Pedro’s overall robustness that this miscalculation barely matters in the final analysis. LaSalle has crafted a stirring portrait of a remarkable man, a film that confidently answers the fundamental question raised in any biodoc about a public-but-not-nationally-known figure: Why is this story worth telling?
Fortunately, the titular subject is the sort of high-wattage, one-in-a-million personality who partly justifies the film’s existence the moment he first appears on screen. Energetic, outgoing, empathetic, and relentlessly positive, Pedro Santana walks and talks like the gold standard for the zealous but humanistic public servant. It’s a credit to LaSalle’s deft and sensitive approach that she quickly ushers the viewer past the progressive luster and into Santana’s headspace, linking his white-hot idealism to his background and upbringing. Frustrated as a child by a school system that misdiagnosed and misunderstood his learning challenges, but also supported by a handful of sharp, devoted teachers, Santana eventually became an educator himself. He started making headlines as a principal at a South Bronx middle school with his hyper-optimism, tirelessness, and aggressive reforms. Eventually taking a position as an assistant superintendent at a school district in suburban Rockland Co., Santana unfortunately begins to run into opposition from the district’s Orthodox Jewish community – which takes a dim view of public education generally – and other forces that prefer the status quo.
LaSalle maintains a brisk and dynamic tempo by switching up her storytelling methods throughout the feature. Documentary staples like fly-on-the-wall observation, talking-head interviews, news program clips, and footage from local government meetings comprise the bulk of the film. However, it’s the flourishes that linger, like the warm-and-fuzzy animated interstitials that illustrate Santana’s anecdotes and draw visual inspiration from his childhood drawings. The film thereby achieves a nimble balance, shaping itself around Santana’s personality and wholeheartedly celebrating his philosophy without every completely ceding the proceedings wholly to its subject. Given Santana’s charm, passion and bumblebee-like personality, it’s a minor miracle that LaSalle manages to hold on to her film as firmly as she does.
To be sure, My Name Is Pedro is an unreserved work of hagiography, but it’s also a faintly disillusioning depiction of the limits of idealism. While the film refrains from challenging Santana’s principles and methods – or asking uncomfortable questions about some of his personal travails – its broader view of the public education landscape has a pessimistic streak. Although Santana is beloved by students and parents alike, such populist appeal doesn’t necessarily translate into armor that can effectively protect the superintendent from his partisan adversaries. Entrenched district bureaucrats and skeptical elected officials – including school-board members who send their own children to private religious schools – seem to be more adept than Santana at old-school political maneuvering. The brick walls that Santana’s opponents throw up in front of him test both his unremitting positivity and the larger myth that pure intentions plus can-do spirit will naturally overcome ossified systems and the reactionary impulses that protect them.
It’s only when Santana expands his sphere of consciousness beyond petty school-board skullduggery to global concerns that My Name Is Pedro recovers some of its earlier hopefulness. This mitigates the sting of Santana’s rejection in Rockland Co. to some extent, even when his victories in far-flung locales are eventually overshadowed by an unexpected sorrow. Ultimately, LaSalle’s film is as much a tribute to the ideals that Pedro Santana advocates as it is a glowing profile of the man himself. The director wisely prioritizes the ends – the children that Santana seeks to support, motivate, and champion – over her subject’s cult of personality, all without dismissing the potency of the latter. My Name Is Pedro thus manages to capture the inimitable spark of Santana’s leadership while also being an earnest statement of educational values.
My Name Is Pedro screens Saturday, Nov. 9 at 1:50 p.m. at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.