Julia Solomonoff, a distinguished lecturer and head of the Directing Program at Brooklyn College’s Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, recently had her 2005 film Hermanas (Sisters) nominated for inclusion in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (Texas). It is the highest honor the United States government can give any work of cinema, and each year the National Film Registry adds 25 films to this distinct collection.

This is not Solomonoff’s first accolade. In late 2020, her documentary The Illusion of an Everlasting Summer won a Sundance Institute Documentary Fund Grant. Co-produced by Solomonoff and Lúcia Reis, the documentary chronicles the 20-year-long photographic project of Alessandra Sanguinetti, an intimate portrait of two girls, their everyday lives, fantasies and dreams, and the inequalities they face growing up as women in rural Argentina. Sanguinetti’s work has been shown at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Getty Museum in Los Angles, and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires.

The documentaries are two of the many projects the acclaimed Argentine filmmaker has created that have helped increase diversity in the film industry. April is Celebrate Diversity Month, and Solomonoff talked about her nomination, her contributions to the film industry, and the direction she sees the industry moving in relation to women and people of color.

BC: Where are you from originally, and what brought you to Brooklyn College?

JS: I grew up in Argentina and have been very active both as a director and producer in Latin American cinema in the last two decades. I went to public school and university in Argentina, and came to study in the U.S. with a Fulbright scholarship. I am passionate about the importance of diversity and access to public higher education. At Brooklyn College, I found amazing students who are motivated, committed, and inspiring.

BC: What got you interested in filmmaking?

JS: In my teenage years, with the return of democracy in Argentina, there was this incredible surge of art: movies, books, and music that had been forbidden for a decade. I joined a “cineclub” when I was 15 in my hometown, Rosario, and became a curious cinephile. These old-fashioned curated series housed at local movie houses sometimes focused on one director, one country, or one genre. There were often debates afterward, and it was an amazing film education. The club opened my eyes to filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Jean-Luc Godard. I would watch anything, from any period or country. My mother is 85, and she was still going to the cineclub every Tuesday until the lockdown. She would call me and tell me about the latest Turkish or Iranian film that she saw, films that are sometimes hard to find in New York City.

BC: How does your cultural identity influence your work?

JS: I feel at home speaking Spanish, and even though I am fluent in English, I still think and dream in Spanish. I am constantly navigating between cultures and identities, and I believe fluidity to be an asset, although many times I had to confront the frustration of others not knowing where to place me. My third feature, Nobody’s Watching, addresses not fitting in the boxes and challenging stereotypes. I grew tired of producers and marketing people asking me to define the film as either a comedy or a drama, gay or straight, a Latino or U.S. independent film, as if a film couldn’t be all those things at the same time and speak more than one language.

BC: What is Hermanas about and what inspired you to make it?

JS: Hermanas was my way to explore the scars the military dictatorship left in the civil society of my country but on an intimate, family level. My work is deeply personal and subtly political, hopefully questioning more than stating or preaching.

I come from a family marked by exile and political activism. I grew up in a fascist dictatorship that killed and “disappeared” over 30,000 people, one of the CIA-sponsored regimes that oppressed most of Latin America in the 1970s. I grew up in a culture of fear and suspicion, learning to talk in codes. I wanted to explore how state terrorism affected a “horizontal bond,” a bond between sisters. Many of the films about the dictatorship focus on military oppression, but I feel that the grey areas of how the civil society was fractured are more interesting and elusive.

BC: U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro said of Hermanas, “I hope future generations of Americans will now be more likely to watch your film, and that new generations of Latino filmmakers will be inspired to produce stirring pieces of cinema that tell Americans Latino stories.” How did that make you feel?

JS: I feel humbled and grateful. It was totally unexpected. It is such an honor that 15 years after this movie was made, Congressman Castro identified Hermanas among the 25 films that deserve that recognition. The U.S. is now slowly coming out of a very dark period where immigrants were demonized. Latinos are still vilified or ridiculed in mass media, although we could not have survived the pandemic without the essential workers, who are mostly people of color. I am hopeful that there will be serious efforts to level the field and create possibilities, equity, and access for people of underrepresented communities.

BC: How would you describe the state of the film industry now versus 20 years ago regarding the inclusion of members of racial and cultural minorities and women in leading creative roles?

JS: Ever since I graduated from film school (20 years ago), I hear that there will be a change in representation. But this is the first time that I am seeing it starting to happen. Women, LGBTQ, and people of color have fought very hard to push these boundaries. Change was not given; it was earned by protests, lawsuits, painful testimonies, and community organization.

Now, it is important to go beyond the “poster” of diversity. Many corporations are doing that, “coloring the picture” but keeping the same structures and formulas. I believe the audience and the filmmakers are aware of that and demand more. It is about having a voice and articulating a vision, owning the narratives, not being an extra in somebody else’s story, not just an accent and a still photo, but also actual authorship.

BC: What do you teach at the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, and what is the most important lesson you try to impart to students?

JS: I teach directing. I love my students. I love their stories and the most important lesson is one I cannot teach, but I can share. Be curious, honest, and bold. Observe, study, investigate, experiment: Take risks. Go deeper into what you love, explore what you did not know, and do not follow easy formulas. Don’t try to please or follow trends; by the time you get there, they have already changed. The most important thing in film school is collaboration, finding creative peers for a lifetime.

BC: How does your background influence how you teach, and do you see yourself as a role model for other up-and-coming underrepresented artists?

My background is inseparable from my current practice, as our past is always present. I constantly learn from my students, I’m inspired by them. I don’t want to be a role model; I bring to class my experiences, doubts, mistakes, questions, and passions. And in the classroom, with our frustrations and discoveries, we build a strength that is bigger than the sum of the parts. Even though we could not share a physical classroom this year, we kept on building community and a space to explore, learn, be vulnerable, and empathetic.

More about Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema

Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema educates a diverse student body in the art and craft of filmmaking, music making, and storytelling in a hands-on, collaborative environment that mirrors the professional world. The extraordinary faculty and staff, made up largely of working members of the film, media and music industries, encourage students to discover their authentic voices and facilitates their access to a wide variety of careers.

The only film school located on a working film lot (within Steiner Studios), Feirstein School opened in 2015, the result of a $30 million public-private partnership. With tuition costing one-third of other major film schools, we offer M.F.A. degrees in Cinema Arts – with specializations in Cinematography, Digital Animation & Visual Effects (DAVE), Directing, Post-production, Producing, and Screenwriting – as well as in Sonic Arts, Media Scoring, and an M.A. in Screen Studies. Feirstein School is based in the heart of Downtown Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It is part of Brooklyn College and The City University of New York (CUNY).