Esai Morales is urging his fellow Academy members to watch One on One, a short documentary about a school in rural Puerto Rico that turned around its dropout rate thanks to the tireless work of local activist Nilda Prieto. “This is a school in crisis,” he said in a trailer for the film, which he hopes will get some Oscar consideration.
Filmed before Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, the Antonio Badillo Hernandez middle school may now be months away from reopening its doors to its 250 students in the hurricane-ravaged town of San Antonio on the west coast of the island.
“FEMA has evaluated the structure and they’re not sure if the school can reopen due to the damage,” Prieto told Deadline in a phone interview from Puerto Rico. “It’s very sad. The people need this school.”
The school’s cement walls are still standing, but the ceilings in many classrooms have collapsed, she said, and there is no electricity or running water, and the surrounding roads are impassable.
“There are fallen trees all over the place and you can’t go in the school,” she said, her voice cutting in and out because cell phone reception is still abysmal on the island. “There’s no one in the school; no teachers, and the director told me that he doesn’t know when the school will reopen. There are no schools open in San Antonio. Many electrical poles are broken and all of the cables have fallen. I live three minutes away, and many homes were flooded and their roofs just blew away.”
She said she is trying to bring in volunteers to clean up and repair the damage to the school, but it’s a daunting task, with so much of the town’s infrastructure totally destroyed. “Nothing has been done here in San Antonio to clean up the mess,” she said.
Noel Quiñones, the film’s director, recently returned from the island, although he was unable to get back to the school. “The general situation is very hard to find words to describe,” he said. “There are long lines of hundreds of people to get gas for generators and cars. There’s no power no running water. Very few communities are built to stand after this type of hurricane. A lot of houses are just sticks of wood. There is lots of misery. People are living under all kinds of rubble. Old people are desperately trying to make it to shelters and hospitals. People are dying.”
And mosquito-borne disease threatens to make a bad situation even worse. “There are lots of mosquitos,” said Quiñones, who has been confined to a wheel chair since he was a teenager. “I slept five days in my car because the heat and the mosquitos made it impossible to sleep anywhere else. I’d turn on the car’s air conditioning and sleep for three or four hours. It is a sad picture, very sad and very ugly.”
He hopes that his film can provide the inspiration needed to reopen the school. “It’s the story of one woman who saw that the school in her neighborhood was producing dropouts and dependency and criminals, and how she led the effort to eradicate the dropout rate, and started repeating the success of the program at other schools.”
“Watch it and see how miracles can and do happen,” Morales tells Academy voters in the film’s trailer, not knowing that it may take another miracle just to reopen the school’s doors.