Mariem Pérez Riera was able to bring her subject to Tribeca this past weekend for in-person screenings of the documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.” It had been a challenging year for Pérez Riera, who had to finish editing the film during covid-imposed lockdowns.
“I remember on Friday the 13th of March  I finished locking the film,” Pérez Riera said with a laugh. “I didn’t finish ending until [months] later, which was great because…that’s when the Black Lives Matter movement” saw a resurgence in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd last May.
Activism and the necessity of paying more attention to social movements are at the heart of Pérez Riera’s film, which traces Moreno’s journey as an immigrant from Puerto Rico all the way to the tops of Hollywood. Moreno, perhaps best known for “West Side Story,” is one of a select few artists known as an “EGOT” for winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
Pérez Riera believed it was important to show how Moreno’s seventy-year Hollywood career was not only a success story, but also one of struggle.
“I really wanted the documentary to show the woman that nobody knew, which was the woman behind the camera,” Pérez Riera said of Moreno. “To me it was important to…show her without makeup, without a wig, without all that makes her ‘Rita Moreno,’ the glorious woman in front of the camera.”
Pérez Riera had already read Moreno’s autobiography, in which she discussed growing up in Puerto Rico, moving to New York, and then facing discrimination in Hollywood as a Latina and as a woman. She was also extraordinarily candid about being sexually assaulted by her agent.
Moreno, now 89, faces Pérez Riera’s camera and recounts that awful ordeal, discussing frankly not only the physical and psychological pain of the attack itself, but the humiliation she felt by keeping him on the payroll for three more years.
“She had already opened up in her book, but to do [so] in front of a camera for someone else, for a whole crew, it wasn’t that easy,” Pérez Riera, who was also born in Puerto Rico, said of Moreno. “Although she wanted to do it, there were moments when she hesitated.
“It was important [to] talk about…what it means to be sexually harassed and to continue working, what it means to be a woman in Hollywood, what it means to be an immigrant in the United States.”
Pérez Riera had three sitdown interviews with Moreno in 2019, each of which entailed some twelve to fifteen hours of filming. Pérez Riera followed her subject for nearly a year, and was busy editing the documentary when covid changed everything. Color correction, music, sound editing and other elements of post-production all happened as Pérez Riera worked with her collaborators remotely.
“It was very weird to be color-correcting a movie through an iPad. It was so hard, but we managed to do it,” said Pérez Riera.
“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” premiered at Sundance in January, which was a virtual affair. It was naturally more muted than the traditional red-carpet opening, but Pérez Riera said she nonetheless felt supported by the institute.
Moreno even saw the documentary for the first time on the day word came in that the film had been accepted into Sundance.
“It was a great experience for me to show it to her—and for her to have such a positive reaction to it,” Pérez Riera said.
An in-person premiere in Puerto Rico, from where Moreno emigrated for the mainland United States, was also a smash. A covid-safe party for one hundred-fifty vaccinated attendees followed.
And with the country gradually coming out of hiding from covid, Pérez Riera and Moreno were able to attend in-person screenings at Tribeca this past weekend. Moreno came back to her old New York haunts for the Puerto Rican Day parade, and for the in-person screening of the film at Soundview in the Bronx.
“Rita became the [person through which to explore] so much of the history of the United States, from the lens of a woman and an immigrant and a Puerto Rican,” Pérez Riera said. Pérez Riera is also proud that much of her crew was Puerto Rican, reflecting the richness of the island territory from where both she and Moreno hail (she is next hoping to work on a documentary detailing Puerto Rico’s 500-year history and its various colonizers).
In addition to the Tribeca screening, the documentary will be coming to select theaters this weekend.
COMING UP ON FRIDAY: Anthony Francis’s review of “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It”
It’s been quite a ride for the filmmaker and her doc, which in 2021 has premiered virtually, in-person at festivals and will soon open to the general public in theaters this weekend.
“I’ve been able to experience the whole thing from one extreme to the other,” Pérez Riera said.
“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” opens in select theaters Friday.