The super is a familiar character in New York life. For many, the person looking after the building stays on the periphery – like the guy at the newsstand or the bodega, or a co-worker whose face is often seen on the subway – a bit of a drama where you, the renter, are the star. In a new short documentary, “We Call Him Super,” about the building where he lives, filmmaker Michael Patten upends this dynamic. Gerandy Balvuena is the titular superintendent. We see with his eyes and hear his voice – Balvuena is the protagonist and the narrator.
Balvuena came to the United States more than two decades ago, we learn, after leaving a “good job” – sitting at a desk, working on a computer – in the Dominican Republic. He wanted to complete his university studies there, but life unfolded – he had a child on the way, as well as the material demands that come with parenthood. He still wants to finish his studies one day, so he pays his tuition every year, he says.
As a super building, Balvuena is involved in the lives of residents in ways they notice, and others they don’t. He cleans the hall, paints the walls, takes out the trash, winds the sewers, monitors the surveillance cameras. Once, he says, he cleaned a dirty elevator. “I’m not complaining, because this job is part of my life,” says Balvuena. And that’s just it; his profession describes him, but it does not define him.
Balvuena is a man of many facets and, in the documentary, one of them stands out: his passion for art. “Painting is my way of expressing my soul,” says his voiceover, as he is seen working on a large canvas – a nude female form takes center stage, surrounded by swirls and blocks of ecru and blue . Like many artists, Balvuena wants to find the truth. “You have to change the way you see the world,” he says, “to see the truth in things.”
In one scene, Balvuena sits at a desk, with one of his artwork hanging on the wall, and plays a YouTube video. It’s about QAnon, the political conspiracy theory movement that, among its many misrepresentations, links America’s failures to the machinations of a Democratic cabal of child-abusing cannibals. Balvuena first heard of QAnon when he researched the Kennedy assassination – his curiosity was piqued. He is happy to have found Q, he says, but he does not divulge the details of his conversion. “I see the world differently now,” he says.
Patten’s interest in Balvuena was sparked after the filmmaker once walked around the basement of the building, where he saw an art studio. What fascinated Patten was the story of Balvuena’s life, his paintings, his plans for returning to art school. But finding out, in the process, “how important Q was” to Balvuena was “shocking in the moment,” Patten told me. For Patten, this first revelation about Balvuena’s inner life—his art—was charming; discovering his belief in an inflammatory conspiracy theory complicated their joint project. Ultimately, Patten thought, QAnon was part of the Balvuena story. But can something so dangerous go unchallenged? It’s not for lack of rigor, Patten said, that the documentary, which never interrupts Balvuena’s narration, seems to leave him alone. “Why is he looking to this for answers? Patten said, “I think that’s what the movie is trying to answer.”