25th Roxbury Film Festival will feature Northeastern film that chronicles devastation and hope after hurricane in Puerto Rico

A person stands in front of the flag of Puerto Rico.
Image from Powering Puerto Rico/Northeastern Films

Hurricane Maria was one of the worst natural disasters in history, a Category 5 storm that packed 175 mph winds, left over 3,000 people dead and devastated the northeastern Caribbean in September 2017.

Puerto Rico was hardest hit. The island sustained an estimated $80 billion in damage and 95% of residents lost power. For some, it wasn’t restored for nearly a year.

Northeastern professor Eugene Smotkin, a resident of San Juan, was one of the lucky ones.

After days of powering a cell phone and a small fan with a car battery, he and his wife Linda, who had suffered a stroke days before the hurricane made landfall, were finally able to make it to Boston for the medical treatment she desperately needed.

Years later, Smotkin’s wife has recovered and he has made it his mission, through science and ingenuity, to provide an alternative power source to his home country.

Film poster of "Powering Puerto Rico".

Using just a few solar panels, Smotkin made a fully functional, affordable, renewable nanogrid system powered by reconditioned hybrid vehicle batteries.

“Powering Puerto Rico,” a 40-minute film written, directed and edited by Adam Fischer, director of Northeastern Films, chronicles the story of Puerto Rico’s resilience and Smotkin’s passion to provide reliable power to the island’s residents.

The film is one of 85 that will be screened during the 25th Roxbury International Film Festival, which will be held at Northeastern and two other Boston locations June 20 to July 2. The event is the largest film festival in New England dedicated to films by and about people of color.

Executive director Lisa Simmons says the Roxbury Film Festival is not only a way to showcase diversity in filmmaking, but a way for community members to connect with local films and filmmakers. 

“When we started the festival we knew filmmakers needed this outlet,” she says. “What we didn’t realize was how much our audiences really needed this as well, … being able to see films and see themselves in them. Those weren’t the films they were seeing in mainstream media.”

Simmons says the festival’s goals are to “support local filmmakers and help share their vision and voice.” Having a festival like Roxbury is important for BIPOC filmmakers so that their stories do not go unnoticed, but instead are highlighted and celebrated.  

The festival is also an opportunity for filmmakers to network and opens a lot of doors for emerging filmmakers to establish their beginnings in the industry, she says. 

“If you don’t have someone who’s creating a film or writing a story that’s focused on Black, Brown, Asian or Native American and they’re not a part of that story writing process, then that story is going to be told very differently,” Simmons says. 

Community is also an integral part of the Roxbury Film Festival. Northeastern was the first screening venue and will once again be hosting on the event’s 25th anniversary.

“The Roxbury Film Festival has become a Boston institution that honors and recognizes creators and artists in all types of film genres,” says John Tobin, vice president of city and community engagement at Northeastern. “Therefore, it is more than fitting that Northeastern hosts the festival so that those participating can tell their stories, but more importantly, so that we can see, hear and better understand them.” 

In addition to Northeastern’s Blackman Auditorium, the festival will also screen movies—feature length films, short documentaries and animated features—at the Museum of Fine Arts and Hibernian Hall.

The festival includes a wide variety of films. “Black. Narratives in Boston Black Queer and Trans History,” directed by Amir Dixon, will be screened on June 21 in Hibernian Hall. On June 23 at the Museum of Fine Arts, seven short films with various directors will be screened under the category “Complex, Varied and Deep Relationships.” 

Throughout the festival, there are also daily script reads at noon during which local screenwriters present their own work followed by a question-and-answer session.

Tickets can be purchased for individual screenings or access to all movies. 

The festival’s 25th anniversary will be celebrated on June 20 with a reception honoring five filmmakers who screened films at the festival before going on to become successful in Hollywood—Michael Beach, Topper Carew, Demane Davis, Kasi Lemmons and Robert Patton Spruill. 

Fischer’s film “Powering Puerto Rico” will be screened at Blackman Auditorium at 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 24. 

“The Roxbury International Film Festival is a wonderful and important festival that we’re fortunate to have in our backyard,” Fischer says. 

In recounting Hurricane Maria, the documentary shows how Smotkin, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern, helped a family in Puerto Rico by installing solar panels powered by reconditioned and repurposed Toyota Prius batteries at their home.

Smotkin, who first moved to Puerto Rico in the 1960s, was in San Juan when the Hurricane hit in September 2017. 

Fischer had read an article in Northeastern Global News about Smotkin and the loss of electricity in Puerto Rico, and wanted to tell the story in a short film. Smotkin had “proposed the idea of bringing power to Puerto Rico using reconditioned hybrid vehicle batteries.” 

The documentary, delayed by COVID-19, was completed in 2022. A key feature in this project, Smotkin says, is the “concept of extending life on batteries … this is an important concept here where we have limited space.” 

Smotkin and his team envisioned a new way for Puerto Ricans to be able to get energy, ensuring it will be reliable over time. 

This project created opportunites to have Northeastern students, as well as Puerto Ricans, learn about the importance of sustainable energy, Smotkin says. In Boston, students were able to learn about the installation of solar powered systems. 

“This educated Northeastern students on solar energy. They could design systems,” Smotkin says.