Filmmaker Bestor Cram didn’t begin his career in a film school classroom.
“When I graduated from college in 1967, nobody had a film department,” Cram said. “There wasn’t a communications department and broadcast news was 15 minutes — it was a different era.”
Instead, he found a passion for documentary filmmaking from the events unfolding on the world stage. After graduating from college, Cram headed for the U.S. Marine Corps and served in the Vietnam War.
“When I came back, not only had I changed, but I saw the country had changed,” Cram said. “So as my career as a filmmaker evolved, I realized what interested me more than anything — to learn what I don’t know about.”
Cram’s perspective as a veteran, coupled with his passion for documenting issues to affect change, helped him further his film career.
“It became apparent to me that this was a powerful medium,” Cram said. “I became attuned to the fact that documentary is an extremely effective form of creating conversation.”
At 5:30 p.m. today at the Chautauqua Cinema, Cram will premiere his latest film, “The Last American Colony.” A Q-and-A will follow the screening. He produced and co-directed the film with filmmaker Mike Majoros.
The film pulls audiences into Puerto Rico’s story, centering on the territory’s fight for independence through the lens of Puerto Rican native and Harvard University graduate Juan Segarra.
It begins in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and reveals the difficulties that Puerto Ricans have dealt with for years, from Segarra’s point of view.
A case involving Puerto Rican activists that was not heavily covered in the United States sparked Cram’s interest in the story.
There was a man who worked in Cram’s production company who was related to Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, the leader of the underground movement for Puerto Rican independence from the United States. In 2005, Ríos’ home in Puerto Rico was surrounded by FBI agents, and the independence leader was killed.
That year, Cram brought a team to Puerto Rico and was originally going to do the documentary on Ríos.
“We went to document the Puerto Rican reaction to that,” he said, “knowing that from our view in the mainland United States, we weren’t getting a good view of what the territory of Puerto Rico was about.”
Cram said Segarra was a smart Harvard man, but he went to jail for 19 years because of his fight for Puerto Rican independence.
“As I began to learn (Rios’) story, I met (Segarra),” Cram said. “And over the years we have nurtured a relationship with one another, and as a filmmaker, it became apparent to me that (Segarra) was a more compelling story.”
In the film, Segarra’s story serves as an introduction to the political upheaval and conflict in Puerto Rico — between those who want independence, those who want to become an American state and those who want Puerto Rico to remain a territory, Cram said.
Cram began working on the story in 2005, and developed the documentary’s angle. In 2008, he put the project on pause, but picked it back up in 2018.
In documentary filmmaking, there’s more than just a camera and a story idea, Cram said. For him, it involves building trust between himself and the interviewee, which helps him explore the topic in greater detail.
“I evolve the working and trusting relationship with the characters that we are shooting,” Cram said, “so that they feel comfortable with me and the camera. … Eventually the camera becomes invisible.”
Cram said that originally, Segarra didn’t want to tell his story because he felt that “it wasn’t just his story” to tell.
Cram said he doesn’t look for people to say certain things to fit his story’s mold; instead, he endeavors to listen as their story unfolds.
“The most important part of the process is building the trust,” Cram said. “The interviews that I do are not with the expectation that they’re answering the questions that I’ve already scripted for the movie — I’m not looking for somebody to say something, I’m looking for what they say.”
Cram is no stranger to the activism scene. After he came back to the United States from Vietnam, Cram became involved with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, for which he brought filmmakers together to document the protests he organized.
He began to get involved in filmmaking as a cinematographer and eventually took on the role of producer and director. In 1982, Cram started a production company called Northern Light, and has produced over 30 documentaries in his career. “The Last American Colony” will have its theater premiere at the Chautauqua Cinema.
Cram spent many summers in Chautauqua, as he is the grandson of former Institution President Arthur E. Bestor. He said Chautauqua influenced his creativity and passion for learning.
“It influenced the introspective aspect of one’s life,” Cram said. “Every day, Chautauqua asks you questions of morality and conscience. You can’t help but be influenced by this place.”
He said he hopes the film will bring viewers insight into life in Puerto Rico, particularly as the territory continues to struggle with debt, poverty and the ramifications of Hurricane Maria.
“I think Chautauquans are extremely attuned to headlines,” Cram said. “This film is arriving on time to give context to those headlines in that it helps people understand over 100 years of a relationship between the United States and its territory.”