Leo Estevez Discusses Zine-making vs. Filmmaking, Agnes Varda, and the Archeology of Recovering Lost VHS Tapes
Interview by Sage Ó Tuama
"Junk Mail Zines" (2020) by Leo Estevez. Image courtesy of the artist.
Your practice as an artist defies categorization and boundaries of mediums. I first became aware of your work through the zine world. In your zine work you combine writing, drawings, photography, graphic design and experimental bookbinding techniques to create visually stunning books that feel like more than books- they feel like art objects that are meant to be held and explored. I’m wondering about your inspirations and thought process as you are making your zines, and how they overlap with your process as a filmmaker?
I came across the idea of zines as a teenager right around the time I picked up skateboarding and discovered punk music. It sounds super cliche when I think about it but in hindsight it might have been a way of assimilating. I grew up between living in the Caribbean and New York.
I understood the DIY ethos in both skating and punk not strictly through an “American” lens but rather through immigrant communities and their survival tactics (you could argue that IS American culture). I’m fascinated by the concepts of vernacular design and also the there-i-fixed-it attitudes that lead to ingenious solutions with limited resources. There is a tinge of unlearning academic teachings of art and design. I also embrace serendipity and happenstance wholeheartedly. Everything informs the process and if duct tape can be used to fix holes in your skate shoes why can’t it also be used to bind pages together into a zine? Zines are a democratic medium. They are little machines that make use of the rudimentary understanding of how a book operates. Or a sandwich - I just thought of this but a sandwich is a zine. There are pages. We read the flavor of each page within the context of what came before it and what follows after*
*I feel like someone really smart might have said something like that before. I’m misquoting.
The sequentiality of frames/pages is where I see similarities between zines and filmmaking. And my approach is the same; to utilize what is at hand to most quickly and hopefully earnestly convey the ideas I'm trying to communicate. I just thought of that Agnes Varda film about gleaners. I like to think I'm gleaning.
Image from "Jus Soli" (2021) by Leo Estevez
In “Jus Soli” we see a you as a one year old baby, at your first birthday party. The footage feels impossibly tender and dream-like. Colorful streamers frame the scene and blow slowly in the wind. Slowed-down traditional music echoes in the background. Your mother lifts you into the sky. How did you discover this amazing home video footage, and what guided your sensibilities in deciding how to edit it into a film?
It’s funny, I’ve shown the film to a few people and the assumption is always that it’s my mom carrying me. I guess it’s one of those things our minds does of wanting to make connections. It takes a leap.
The footage comes from a friend of a friend who’s name we never knew who asked to film the birthday as a way of learning how to use their new camcorder. I think that’s why a lot of the footage looks like the camera was left recording unattended. This is also the only family film that exists. The tape had been stuck in a broken VCR for a long time in my family’s apartment in the Bronx before they decided to disassemble the thing and take out the tape. Sounds like a modern archaeological tale. The tape was excavated and my mom thought it would make for a nice gift for my 30th birthday last year. Under the condition I digitize it…
As the universe would have it I found a VCR and small tube tv in my friends hallway a few weeks later. It was FREE! I lugged it to my apartment and was able to watch the video again albeit with some distortion. The slurriness of the footage is analog. Unintentional magic.
I couldn’t digitize it but managed to film the tube tv screen as it played the tape. That’s what gives the footage it’s texture and the frame it’s rounded edges.
Image of original VHS tape courtesy of Leo Estevez
You’re a native New Yorker with Dominican immigrant parents. You described “Jus Soli” as showing “an immigrant life experience.” It is such a simple scene, but there seems to be so much there, in terms of the love, hope, and celebration we witness. How does this film speak to New York immigrant experiences in general, and more specifically, to your family’s experience?
Oof loaded questions. I hope a simple answer can cover it:
Uhmm… I remember I asked my dad once why he decided to settle in the Bronx of all places when he first emigrated to the US in the 70’s and he said because it was beautiful. This film helps me see that.
Are you currently working on any new projects?
I’m looking forward to having work up for sale at the Print Tent x Hester Street Fair coming up this weekend. Friend and collaborator Charles Caesar is curating a great collection of prints and zines.
Deskarga Groupo will soon be collaborating with Land to Sea – a new coffee shop and community space in Brooklyn on a small intervention; a night of art, film, music, maybe some romance, etc… be in the look out for that. And finally, I should get around to digitizing the whole VHS tape. Will probably hit up Basement Labs for that.
I think this is probably a good opportunity to thank my family and friends and tell them all how much I love them — Thank you and I love you all!
Para Mamá Titina ❤
Leo Estevez was born in The Bronx to Dominican parents. He attended The City College of New York where he received interdisciplinary training in electronic design and multimedia. Leo is a graphic designer, artist and founding member of Deskarga Groupo — a Brooklyn-based artist collective. His film "Jus Soli" will be screening Thursday, 11/11 at Film Noir Cinema.
Sage Ó Tuama is a filmmaker and co-founder of Film Diary NYC.