Local filmmaker, writer and educator Wilson Santos should not be here. He wriggled through the net that ensnares many children living in environments plagued by poverty.
His parents, immigrants from the Dominican Republic, moved to a rough area in the Bronx. "We grew up on welfare," Santos says. "My mother raised eight children in a small three-bedroom, roach-infested apartment." His family later moved to Paterson, New Jersey, where he attended Eastside High School, famed for its hard-nosed principal Joe Clark, the inspiration for the movie Lean on Me. Despite Mr. Clark's interventions, Santos' schooling was violent and educationally unproductive. He and his friends suffered constant beatings by school gangs. In response, Santos organized his own gang, which served to protect them but also drag them further into the net.
"The majority of the guys from that gang were either deported, put in jail or dead," says Santos. "A few of us were able to get out, and I'm one of the few lucky ones."
After high school, Santos wandered from Paterson and discovered a different world in New York City – one of writing, art and film. He sought education, earned a master's degree in English, and became an English instructor, even teaching back in Paterson to children in the same gang he started years before.
"I know poverty," he says. "And I know the importance of education as a catalyst to get oneself out of poverty."
This philosophy has been his driving force in his film work. His short film My Verse, an official selection in the 2015 Florida Film Festival's Florida Shorts program (screening 2:15 p.m., Sunday, April 19 at Enzian Theater), exposes the brutal reality of children dealing with neglect, violence and poverty worldwide.
"I have long been concerned with the suffering of the disenfranchised of the world," says Santos. "Especially the most innocent of those who suffer – the children. I felt it was my job to give a voice to the voiceless."
Melding black-and-white shots of Santos performing his titular poem with found footage of horrific global living conditions, the film explores the plight of impoverished children, the greed that spawns it and the uphill battle to eliminate it.
Santos names the children in the film, humanizes them and then juxtaposes them against symbols of excess or indifference. Homeless 12-year-old Eduardiño sells drugs in the Brazilian favelas while "the Swedish tourist shivers." Malai, a 10-year-old Bangkok prostitute, is rented to "fat-bellied, gray-haired Americans." Dharani, a 9-year-old scavenger in Calcutta, wades "knee deep in middle class trash."
But the film's message is not just preaching from the pulpit. My Verse reflects Santos' inner struggle with his own complacency in the face of suffering. "I write it down/right here/not for myself/but to myself/because all I do is write/and all you do is listen." Santos challenges the viewer and himself to act beyond writing and listening.
And act he does. Santos' latest goal "is to focus on literacy for the poorest of the poor and collect enough funds to buy these children the school supplies they desperately need." Inspired by his aunt's 35 years of charitable work in the Dominican Republic, his newest film project shows that nation's poverty and desperation for educational supplies. Viewable on his website, wsantosblog.com, the film links to a fundraising site, which raised enough money this March to send 12 boxes of donated clothes and books.
"Today I write my verse/not because I want to/but because I have to," intones Santos in the opening lines of My Verse. His film invokes the passion and candor of a victim turned champion and of an artist compelled to act.