William Caballero and his parents, image from “American Dreams Deferred” (Courtesy William Caballero)

Filmmaker debuts documentary about his family struggles on PBS

Growing up in Coney Island, NY, William Caballero describes himself as being an artsy, quirky and nerdy kid who got on everyone’s nerves. Although he always loved his Puerto Rican-American family dearly, he says he always felt like an outsider looking in.

He had to look no further than to his not-so-perfect family for inspiration for his first feature-length documentary.  On December 30, “American Dreams Deferred” will be premiering in 26 states on PBS World Channel.

“From a young age, I always felt a need to express myself through my various artistic gifts — drawing, playing the violin, making my own entertainment,” says the 29-year-old filmmaker, composer, animator, writer and educator.

Caballero received the prestigious Bill Gates Millenium Scholarship — which allowed him to get his bachelor and masters degrees at no cost, making his dreams of becoming a documentary maker a reality.  His documentary details his family financial and emotional struggles, and how for many in his family, their dreams never materialized.

Caballero’s dad suffered from diabetes since as young as he can remember, and when Caballero was 15, his dad’s health worsened, and he and his parents, had to move to a trailer behind his grandmother’s backyard in Fayetteville, NC.

“I went through some cultural confusion when I left Coney Island,” says Caballero, who continued to feel like he didn’t belong.

He says everything started making more sense once he started college — first the Pratt Institute, where he majored in digital arts, and then New York University, where he took the documentary class which led him to pitch the idea of making a film about his family.

“I’m the voice of my parents mostly,” says Caballero, who had to convince his teacher that they would make good subjects for his film. “When you realize you surpassed how far your parents will go, a certain responsibility comes with it. The gifts you are given, the skills you get from your craft, you should use them to help your parents in particular.”

He says he grew tired of seeing his parents pushed around by the healthcare system.

“Even now, I feel like I could be doing more,” says the young filmmaker. “I want this film to be an exposé on the financial struggles they go through… I wanted to show what they go through in a year, and maybe one day one person will watch it and help out, and for my cousin like Jay (who was formerly incarcerated and a drug addict), to show you can achieve success, but it does take hard work to get there.”

He says for him to see his family members so open and honest was a learning experience for him as well. Over the five years it took for him to make the film, Caballero says he realized that although his heroes were Mozart and Picasso, it was having strong parents who disciplined him and nurtured his creative side that allowed him to achieve his American Dream. He says he also realized that a lot of people in his family didn’t have the same support or curiosity to see what was beyond their norm.

“They sort of live in a bubble from what they hear on the media and mainstream culture,” says Caballero who tries to educate them about the dangers of fast food in particular. “My family doesn’t question anything…They are sort of set in their ways.”

But what he says he wants people to take away from the film is to see the connections in their families.

William Caballero with his parents on his graduation from New York University in 2008. (Courtesy William Caballero)

William Caballero with his parents on his graduation from New York University in 2008. (Courtesy William Caballero)

“We all have family members who are gay, have abused drugs, my cousin has two books available on Amazon…” says Caballero about his documentary. “One thing I hope people get out of this is that it is universal.”

Caballero’s short film “Seed Story” was also chosen for the prestigious 2013 Slamdance Film Festival. It’s shot in macro perspective without using real people.

“I try new things…These figures relive the history of the world — religion, capitalism…historical illusions,” says the quirky artist. “I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do in my future, but I want to be known for someone who does work that is artistic but rings true to what is happening in the world.”

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