Filmmaker Kevin Rios on Coming to Terms with Being Queer and Cuban

A last-minute competition submission landed Kevin Rios at Sundance presenting Made of Sugar, a documentary short about his experience growing up in a Cuban family, wrestling with his sexual identity, and moving to New York City. Shot in moody-romantic black and white and boasting old footage from his family’s personal archives, Rios has become a filmmaker to watch, one whose story is relatable to many LGBTs hungering for inner-understanding, but also fiercely original and illuminating.

Out: Tell us about Made of Sugar. How did you get it to Sundance?

Kevin Rios: Made of Sugar is a personal film that I made in my last semester at New York University. The film reflects on my family, my first years living away from home, and how our Cuban culture is evolving. I finished the film mid-2015 after graduating college and a close friend from Miami had heard about the Sundance Ignite and Adobe Project 1324 short film challenge. I casually uploaded the film without thinking twice about it. I thought the film was deemed inappropriate, but a few weeks later I received notice I was a finalist and finally one of the winners. The winners of this challenge were flown out to Park City to attend the Sundance Film Festival as part of the Sundance Ignite program.

What was that experience like? Did you meet anyone memorable?

It was overwhelming in the best way possible. Sundance is on every aspiring filmmaker’s radar, and through this program I got to experience it in such a unique way. I never would’ve imagined the great events, panels, films, staff, and fellow winners I got to network with. A highlight of the week was meeting Nate Parker, who wrote, produced, directed and starred in The Birth of a Nation, and will undoubtedly become a huge star over the next year with his powerful film about Nat Turner.

How was Made of Sugar influenced by your upbringing?

Growing up in Miami it was impossible not to hear stories of Cuba. The tales of what our families went through to get to the States were on a loop throughout my childhood. There’s a palpable fondness of the island and its pre-revolutionary ideals that you can feel through the older generations. Unfortunately, Cubans are mostly conservative and old fashioned in their beliefs, which put me in a difficult position growing up queer. I hid a lot of my feelings and created a forced masculine exterior in order to fit in. These moments in life and fears were a direct inspiration while filming Made of Sugar. Not only was the film tackling my own upbringing, it shed light on how my mother felt leaving her home for a new country and the idealistic memories of what Cuba use to be.

Did your cultural background and sexual orientation clash?

My cultural Background and sexual orientation butted heads for a while. As soon as I came out, I began to reject my Cuban culture that caused me to suppress my sexuality for so long and truly believed I was just an American. I didn’t want to be associated with a culture that cared more about the stories in some book than the lives of the men and women right in front of them. Moving to New York for college was the first time I felt like an outsider in terms of ethnicity. I began film school with an open mind and realized that looking into the history of my culture was the only way to discover my own voice in film. I couldn’t whitewash myself. Mine and my family’s stories were the ones I was born to tell through film.

Still from Made of Sugar

How did your family respond to Made of Sugar?

My family was extremely supportive and willing to assist during production on various phases of production by providing family footage and photographs, as well as acting and recording voiceovers during principal photography. The film first premiered in Miami at the Revolt Film Festival and I was terrified. I thought for a quick second that I used their image and our culture to tell a selfish story. To my relief, I was received with open arms after the screening, which just solidified the true core of Cuban culture: Family. Overall they were extremely proud of me and it opened a dialogue with my family about my sexuality, career path and my resilience throughout my teen years in hiding.

Who are some of your creative influencers?

Xavier Dolan, Sofia Coppola, Lance Acord, Spike Jonze, Wes Craven, Pedro Almodovar, Jean-Luc Godard, Bob Fosse, Martin Scorcese…just to name a few.

Why are you drawn to film? What makes it an important art form?

I’ve always wanted to entertain. Film has had a profound effect on me since I was a child. The blending of several crafts—acting, costumes, music, photography—are all elements I have interest in. Film combines my interests into a focused medium that can inspire change in people. Film has the power to educate and illuminate and I’ve always wanted to be a part of that process.

What’s next? Working on anything new and exciting?

I’m working on an untitled short film to entice people to help fund a feature version that will take place in Havana, Cuba. After this experience with Made of Sugar, I’ve decided to dive into my family’s past and tell stories of Cuban families affected by the Revolution. I hope to join forces with my cousin in Havana who is also a filmmaker, to tell the story of my mother’s return to Cuba after many decades, with her mother’s ashes in hand.