Since the beginning of her career, Èlia Gasull Balada has always been interested in social issues. After obtaining her bachelor in film and audiovisual communication in Barcelona, Spain, she studied photojournalism and spent a year photographing a group of recovering drug addicts in southern Catalonia. Since then, she has been involved in many political and social films, like the documentary TV series This is Life with Lisa Ling and Interferences, among others. She believes that documentaries and photojournalism are the best instruments to call attention to social problems. They have the potential to bring attention to overlooked topics and to shape public opinion.
Gasull Balada has worked with a variety of filmmakers and artists from various backgrounds and with diverse interests. One of the highlights of her career was working with co-directors Leonor Caraballo and Matteo Norzi on the critically acclaimed 2016 feature narrative Icaros: A Vision, a film that seeks to bring attention to the work, life and knowledge of the Shipibo Conibo people in the Peruvian Amazon, and described by Nick Schager from Variety as “...a work of beguiling grace… dramatized with almost trancelike beauty… and never less than transfixing.” Gasull Balada has also worked closely with the artist and filmmaker Carmen Vidal, with whom she shares the same passion for art as a powerful mean for social change.
Èlia and Carmen’s first collaboration was on the video pieces of Sonic Trace, a transmedia documentary project led by Anayansi Diaz-Cortez that compiled stories from Mexicans and Central Americans across Los Angeles. Sonic Trace was featured at TFI Interactive as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Their second collaboration, the film Still Dreaming, will be premiered later this year.
“Working with Èlia is a pleasure and a privilege. She is hardworking, imaginative, and really knowledgeable on all aspects of the field of editing. From the very beginning Èlia has become a key member of the team for Sonic Trace and Still Dreaming and both projects have benefited tremendously thanks to her work,” said Vidal. “Èlia’s strongest skill is her sensibility for filmmaking and her sense for rhythm and pace. Her knowledge of film and art history and her awareness of current trends in film and video production enable her to provide creative solutions to enhance each project. She even goes beyond her role as an editor to suggest ideas about different stages of the film production.”
Still Dreaming is a documentary that follows a year in the life of a small high school in the heart of the troubled neighborhood of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. In the midst of one of the country’s most failed school districts, or so-called “drop-out factories,” Youth Build Boyle Heights (YBBH) is a beacon of hope. This program gives young people that have aged out of the traditional school system the opportunity to graduate high school. Most of the student body has either dropped out or been expelled from their previous schools, many have criminal records, 80 percent of the girls are teenage mothers, and 25 percent of the students face the challenges of being undocumented immigrants.
The film follows 21-year-old student Raul as he struggles to overcome the death of his brother, shot dead by a rival gang member on the street corner by his house. Another student, Yadira, a young mother with two daughters, struggles to get her life on track after having been a gang member. Canek Peña Vargas, their history teacher, chooses to teach at YBBH with the dream of changing the system one high school student at a time.
“I decided to work on this project because, in some way, I can relate myself to the characters’ own stories and struggles as immigrants. I’ve experienced the difficulties of moving to another country and being constantly challenged. Behind every immigrant, there’s a different voice about personal triumph and overcoming obstacles, and I will be always fascinated by that. Bringing to light stories that can have an impact on other people’s lives is why I got into filmmaking. I’ve been encouraged many times by movies that I’ve seen, and I like to think that what I’m doing will also inspire others,” said Gasull Balada.
Director Carmen Vidal and Producer Anayansi Diaz-Cortez have been working for several years on projects related to the timely issue of immigration in the United States, focusing especially on Latino communities. Still Dreaming was their first documentary, and they received ITVS support from the beginning. The editing process of the documentary took over four months and it overlapped with most of the shooting. For Gasull Balada, this was essential, as she was able to go through footage after the first shoots and discuss with Vidal and Diaz-Cortez which characters would be more relevant and what kind of coverage they were missing. Such an approach creates a very close collaboration between editor, director, and producer and it benefits the project greatly. Documentaries are mainly written in the editing room and having the possibility to listen to the editor’s take early on can be crucial.
“Èlia is a person who will always have job offers in film, documentary and media fields. She has an impeccable work ethic and an innate talent for her job, but she also demonstrates true compassion and empathy for both the subjects of the films that she is working on, as well as her co-workers and colleagues. She is someone who does not get bogged down by challenges and her ambition lies in remaining true to the director’s vision and the story the director is trying to tell,” said Diaz-Cortes.
The story has very strong characters, both teachers and students, and the main challenge for Gasull Balada was to find an arc for each one in a half an hour film. She is hopeful that once the film is released, it will continue to encourage those at Youth Build Boyle Heights to keep making a difference. The dimension of having their stories on the big-screen will help them to keep pushing to change the system and to find new ways to thrive.
“I feel very privileged for the work that I do because I get the chance to spend a lot of time with people that are generous enough to share their stories on camera. Their testimonies have changed my perspective in ways that I could never have imagined.” concluded Gasull Balada.
Be sure to check out Still Dreaming to see what these inspiring high schoolers are going through. It is slated to air early this year on PBS So-Cal and across digital platforms of KCRW, PBS and ITVS.
Photo by Rebecca Dawson Cinclair