Walking through the West End section of Long Beach with their teacher two weeks after superstorm Sandy battered the community, 17-year-old aspiring filmmakers Brenda Cespedes and Erick Urquilla didn’t know what to expect.
Weeks earlier, Cespedes, an 11-year Long Beach resident, watched Sandy pummel her city from her neighbors’ second-floor apartment, and the she knew there was a meaningful story to be told amid the wreckage. But Cespedes and Urquilla, who were both studying film at Nassau BOCES’ Long Island High School for the Arts in Syosset at the time, could not predict how they and their cameras would be received by the storm victims.
“They all seemed hopeless, devastated,” said Urquilla, who split his time between the BOCES school Uniondale High School, where he graduated from earlier this month.
But as they tried to salvage what remained of their homes, many residents were willing to open up to the amateur documentarians.
“The way they looked at us — you could tell they had a story to tell that they had to get off their chests,” Urquilla said.
The stories they captured evoked tears, laughter and applause Thursday night from the roughly 100 people gathered inside the Long Beach Public Library for the hometown debut of “The Spirit of Long Beach.” The 30-minute documentary features footage of the storm that Cespedes and Urquilla compiled from various sources, along with interviews they conducted with more than a dozen West End residents.
“It was the people in the film that really made it what it was,” said Cespedes, a 2013 Long Beach High School graduate who is bound for the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
Cespedes and Urquilla originally planned to focus their film on the Long Beach boardwalk, but it soon became clear that the real story was the community’s resilience. The residents shared their favorite Long Beach memories, conveyed their commitment to their beloved city and recalled the various ways they helped one another in spite of the obstacles they faced.
Some of the film’s subjects were seated in the audience Thursday, including Winona MacPhee, 11, who enthralled the audience with her candor in the film as she took them on a tour of her gutted West End bungalow. The scene was filmed in late March, but her family’s home looks the same. They’re renting an apartment across town.
Winona had many in the audience chuckling as she confessed that the storm made her appreciate her older brother, Logan, 17, more. Those in attendance nodded in agreement as the sixth grader spoke of adjusting to the “new normal” even though she doesn’t like it, and some brushed away tears as she proclaimed herself a “Sandy survivor.”
Since Sandy, Winona said she has grown leery of the ocean she once loved to play in, but enduring the storm also taught her “to be braver.”
Anthony Petrucci, 37, who has run the film program at the Long Island School for the Arts since the its inception in 2005, has submitted his former students’ documentary to 10 different film festivals. As they wait for the responses, Cespedes and Urquilla are enjoying the positive feedback they have received from local audiences, including one man who asked for a copy to send to his insurance company.
“People have told us that they loved it,” said Urquilla. “This is their lives on the screen.”
Watch the "Spirit of Long Beach" trailer below: