Even with the COVID-19 vaccine arriving in the United States this December, millions have been infected and approximately 356,000 people have died this year according to The New York Times coronavirus tracker. Approximately 40% of the deaths have taken place in long-term care congregant settings such as nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and intermediate care facilities. Here is my interview with Andres “Jay” Molina and Alexis Neophytides, Co-Directors of an upcoming documentary, Fire Through Dry Grass, that is centered on a group of people living at Coler Specialty Hospital, a rehabilitation and nursing center in New York City.
Please share a little about yourself and your background!
Jay: I am a Dominican immigrant, wheelchair-user and filmmaker.
I left the Dominican Republic in my late teens for New York’s Lower East Side. In 2014, I developed a rare lung condition that attacked my vital organs and left me paralyzed. I’m a former baseball player and truck driver, and today a filmmaker, animator, and advocate for people living with disabilities.
Alexis: I’m a documentary filmmaker and native New Yorker. I grew up on Roosevelt Island, where Jay lives now, which is how we met. In addition to my film/tv work, I’ve also taught documentary filmmaking to people of all ages around NYC for over a decade.
Jay, you are a poet and a resident of Coler Specialty Hospital, a rehabilitation and nursing center, with the Reality Poets. Can you tell me more about how this artistic collective formed and the community you are a part of in this hospital?
Jay: I live in Coler Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center on Roosevelt Island in NYC, where I met my brothers, the Reality Poets. We are all members of OPEN DOORS, a network of artists, activists and advocates motivated by community building, gun violence prevention and disability rights. Through OPEN DOORS, we formed the Reality Poets, a collective of truth-telling artists bonded through a shared mission to spread a message of realness, resilience and healing.
Jay, could you also tell people a little more about how you and your friends ended up at Coler Specialty Hospital, what your experiences are like living there and little bit about where it’s situated in NYC?
Jay: Coler is on Roosevelt Island, a small sliver of land in the East River, sandwiched between Manhattan and Queens. After I developed my lung disease, I needed rehab, and they ended up sending me here. At the beginning I mostly stayed in my room, I wasn’t exploring, so it was just like a hospital. But after I started going outside, I met the guys and we started hanging out. Then we began working together with OPEN DOORS and really became family, and now it feels like home. The other guys feel that way too. Living on Roosevelt Island we have a lot of freedom and access to the community that as wheelchair users we probably wouldn’t have in other places. Or, I should say we had more access, pre-pandemic.
Alexis, how did you get involved in this film and connected with Jay and the other residents at Coler?
Alexis: As I mentioned, I grew up on Roosevelt Island. An old film school professor of mine had moved to the island and was volunteering with Jay and the others in OPEN DOORS. Jay had received a grant to work with a professional filmmaker on a documentary project about the Reality Poets, and was looking around for someone. My teacher knew of my island connection, and that I had been teaching filmmaking for many years, so she introduced us. Jay and I hit it off right away and began working together on that project. When COVID hit, that project was put on hold and we began working on Fire Through Dry Grass.
New York City was one city that was hardest hit at the beginning of the pandemic. How are you two doing so far now after all these months knowing that things are not ending anytime soon?
Jay: I’m doing ok right now. Trying to stay COVID free, following all the guidelines. Mentally it’s been difficult to be locked inside for so long – it’s been about 260 days since I have been in Coler without leaving. (Except for a couple of doctor’s appointments.) I haven’t seen my family or had a hug in all this time. I think working on this film, telling our story and making sure our voices are being heard has really helped though.
Alexis: I’m trying to make small goals for myself and think not too far in the future. But I’m doing ok, thank you for asking!
I was really angry and disturbed after watching the trailer for Fire Through Dry Grass. What do you want to expose and share with the world with this documentary?
Jay: This coronavirus is another tragedy in our lives, and with this film, we want to tell our story so that this hell never happens to people in nursing homes again. We want people to know what really went on here at Coler and how the administration is lying about it, covering up how many people died and passing blame to everyone else.
We want people to know that we are not less than because we use wheelchairs, that we have the same rights as everyone else. With this film we want to show the world our talents and skills, be acknowledged as contributing members of society and no longer treated as second-class citizens.
Alexis: Fire Through Dry Grass paints a human-scale portrait of the devastation inflicted upon American nursing home residents during the coronavirus pandemic, in particular people of color, immigrants, and formerly incarcerated people. The circumstances we are documenting show how toxic ideas that certain lives matter less, and are a threat, have penetrated long-term care.
It’s so important for Jay and the rest of the Poets to have a voice in telling their own story. Through their work in OPEN DOORS, the Reality Poets had already forged collective and individual practices and identities as artists and activists. As a colleague of ours said, “You guys already had the mic in your hands, now you find yourselves in the center of the storm perfectly positioned to tell the world what is going on.”
As Co-Directors of the film, how did you all manage to film inside the facility and edit the film in the middle of a pandemic? Was it difficult to get the trust of residents and staff to talk in front of the camera?
Alexis: No visitors have been allowed inside Coler since March, and the residents are not allowed out. Fortunately Jay has a camera and has been able to film himself from the inside. Some of the other Reality Poets have filmed from their phones. Everything else is being done remotely – Zoom interviews, the edit, etc…
It has been difficult to get people to speak on record, a lot of the residents and staff are scared to speak out for fear of retaliation.
Jay: A lot of the patients here are undocumented and have no papers, so they are scared to speak out. They feel that they will have no place to go if they get kicked out. The residents fear retaliation from the staff, and the staff is scared to lose their jobs.
Jay, what’s the situation like right now for you and everyone at Coler? What changes do you want from the Mayor and the state of New York in their handling of COVID-19?
Jay: As I mentioned, we’ve been inside Coler with no visitors for over 260 days. Some people haven’t seen their kids since March. As the second wave is hitting now, Coler is preparing to once again take in COVID patients in a separate wing of the facility. When they did this in the spring, they were not taking the necessary precautions to keep us all safe. We shared elevators, the staff from the COVID area shared a lounge with the staff from the other units, etc… We want assurances that this will not happen again. And we want some basic freedoms back, like the ability to go outside and smoke a cigarette when we want to. We also want something being done for our elderly who cannot move around on their own and used to be able to sit in the dayrooms with each other and now they are being taken out of their beds in the morning, placed in their wheelchairs and left there all day, alone, without any social interactions.
Where are you now in the making of your film? What’s next and how can people support your efforts?
Alexis: We are about halfway through editing and are taking a break now to raise more money to finish the film. We’d love to be able to finish soon and get this story out into the world so we can make the most impact. If people are able, donations are welcome and they are tax deductible via our fiscal sponsor. Of course, we understand that not everyone is able, and spreading the word is a great help as well. People can find the donation link to give easily online, sign up for news, and follow us on social media all on our website:
I would like to see all older and disabled people be able to live in the community because it’s so easy to forget about us when we are trapped in congregant settings which are inherently dangerous. Is there a particular message in Fire Through Dry Grass about the abolition of institutions such as Coler?
Alexis: This is complicated… A lot of the residents really like living at Coler and on Roosevelt Island, and they don’t want it to close. They feel they have a community there that they wouldn’t have somewhere else. A fear in all of this is that Coler will get shut down and residents will just be moved to another care facility with the same problems, instead of fixing the ones that exist in Coler.
Part of the idea behind the creation of Roosevelt Island as a residential community in the 70s was to help older and disabled people live more easily in the community, so the island was actually designed with this in mind. There are ramps everywhere and it’s relatively easy for the wheelchair users at Coler to ride around the island and get to the store, to have some autonomy in their lives.
Jay: I guess the answer is, we aren’t advocating for institutions like Coler to be abolished. We just want them to be changed, to be more humane.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with me about your film?
Jay: We want this film to be seen by the higher powers across this country so change can be made and this hell never happens again to people living in nursing homes.
Andres “Jay” Molina | Co-Director
Andres “Jay” Molina left the Dominican Republic in his late teens for New York’s Lower East Side. In 2014, Jay developed a rare lung condition that attacked his vital organs and left him paralyzed. A former baseball player and truck driver, today Jay is nourishing a passion for filmmaking and animation, and being of service and advocate for people living with disabilities. His poetry and writings have been published in NYU’s Literacy Review, The Wire, and Wheeling & Healing: A Poetry Anthology Edited by OPEN DOORS Reality Poets, and he’s a recipient of the NYC Mayor’s Office Safe In The City Grant.
In 2019 Jay began working with Alexis as a mentor for a new short documentary project about OPEN DOORS and the Reality Poets. Their collaboration gave rise to Fire Through Dry Grass.
Alexis Neophytides | Co- Director, Producer
Alexis Neophytides is a documentary filmmaker based in New York City. She is the co-creator, director and producer of Neighborhood Slice, a documentary series that tells the stories of longtime New Yorkers who’ve held onto their little corner of the city despite fast-growing gentrification, broadcast weekly on public television and nominated for multiple NY Emmy Awards. Alexis also produced and directed the series $9.99 with Dave Evans, for which she won a NY Emmy. Her short documentaries Doctor Kong and Coney Island’s for the Birds screened at festivals worldwide and were broadcast on the Documentary Channel. Her latest short, Ethan 2018, was a Vimeo Staff Pick and praised by President Obama as “inspiring.” She is currently in post-production on a feature length documentary, State of Thirteen, a poetic exploration of thirteen-year-olds across the globe, each facing distinct challenges while balancing the universal uncertainty inherent in growing up.
Alexis also teaches documentary filmmaking. Over the past decade she has developed filmmaking programs, implemented curricula and taught students all around NYC. In 2019 Alexis was a visiting artist for OPEN DOORS, where she met the Reality Poets and began working with Jay. Alexis holds a BA from Brown University and an MA in Media Studies from The New School.
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