Five Minutes With Maria Sotolongo, Documentary Filmmaker

by Gabi De la Rosa on August 20, 2018 in Living Texas, Houston, Film,
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Maria Sotolongo, award-winning documentary filmmaker is debuting her second documentary, Changed: When the Dams Opened about the devastation Hurricane Harvey caused along the Texas Gulf Coast one year ago.

Tickets for the first screening of Changed sold out in four days, but a second screening has been added for September 23 at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center in Houston. (Click here for tickets.) The film follows Breathe: The Home Birth Documentary, which debuted in May 2017 and won a REMI AWARD. Sotolongo got her start in TV as an entertainment reporter and meteorologist for FOX news, but has since moved behind the camera as a filmmaker to share not only her story but also the story of others.

A common sight in Houston a year ago as neighbors helped with water rescues after the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. Photo Tim Shanahan

After the success of your first documentary, why did you decide to follow up with a film about Hurricane Harvey?

The documentary really took shape on its own. I started taping everything that was happening to us, as our house flooded, and we realized that our lives would change forever. As I continued to talk to neighbors and family who also flooded, I realized we all had important stories to share. I reached out to see who would be willing to share their story and the response was overwhelming. People sent me hundreds of photos and videos and I knew then that I had to make this documentary.

Large rescue vehicles were in Houston neighborhoods after Hurricane Harvey, as they ferried people out of flooded areas. Photo Tim Shanahan

Tell us about your first interview for the documentary. Was it emotional? Cathartic? 

It was with a family of five who had just moved back into their home after eight months of being displaced. Their house was far from being finished, but the strength of the family, their positive outlook, and resilience filled me with hope. From a pregnant mom who had her baby three weeks early, due to the stress brought on by Harvey, to the young man who lost his partner in the flood, the stories have been heart-wrenching yet empowering.

What has been your biggest obstacle while making “Changed: When the Dams Opened?” 

It’s tough to go through the emotional journey with each person I interview; but it’s something that’s helping me in my own healing process. The biggest challenge has been scheduling interviews with everything that I’m juggling. I am currently wearing many hats; contractor, architect, financial planner, wife and mother to three kids. The families I want to talk to are up against the same hurdles of rebuilding, so the timing, interviewing and editing has been challenging.

This was the scene all over Houston after Hurricane Harvey as friends, neighbors and strangers helped clean up after the flood. Photo Maria Sotolongo

Hurricane Harvey affected you and your family; do you think it gave you a different insight during your documentary interviews?

It’s very difficult to know exactly what flooding and losing everything feels like, unless you’ve gone through it yourself. The fact that I know what all of the emotions are really like is an instant connection with the people I interview. I think it allows them to be as vulnerable and real as they need to be when they talk to me. The raw conversations I was able to have with these families was a gift and I’m eternally grateful for the talks and lessons these families have sparked in me.

What would you like people to take away from this film? 

Hearing what others have gone through after Harvey brings connection and healing. However, we also need change and action. What are all sectors of government doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again? How could the financial impact of Harvey have been reduced? How are officials preparing for future flooding? I hope we learn from this tragic event. In our own families, and in the fourth largest city of the United States—this can’t happen again.

Do you see yourself making another film?

Definitely. I might take a little break and drink a few margaritas, though… I love documentaries, because they are about real life. Maybe my next documentary can be about Hawaii, and that would mean I can travel there for a few months with my family, all expenses paid, of course! A girl can dream.

Cover photo: Sotolongo with her husband, brother and sister-in-law as they prepare to enter their home after 14 days of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. Photo courtesy Maria Sotolongo

Gabi De la Rosa lives in Houston with her husband and three children. You can usually find her at a great local restaurant or out exploring HTX with her family.