A few months ago, my friend Loira Limbal told me that her first feature documentary was premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. In the middle of 42nd Street, clutching my phone in the frigid New York air, I screamed, “You did it!”. A labor of love—produced over four years, before work and after her kids went to bed—the radiant Through the Night tells the story of a twenty-four-hour daycare in New Rochelle. Through the everyday struggles and tenderness depicted, Limbal offers a window into the human costs of winners-take-all capitalism, revealing the structural through the deeply personal. Completing this film was a feat, and we were ready to celebrate in style. We talked about our outfits for the screening and where the after-party might happen. Because Limbal is a DJ herself, DJ Laylo, I knew it was going to be good.
Two months later, on the date of her film’s scheduled debut, we were in the thick of a pandemic. The film festival was canceled, but the daycare center was still open. “The protagonists of my film are also the protagonists of this pandemic,” Limbal says. That week, instead of prepping for red-carpet glamour, she was quarantined in her Bronx home. She did two public events that captured her life in that moment. First, an incandescent interview with Thom Powers, artistic director of the documentary film festival DOC NYC. The other event had her DJing for the fourth anniversary of a monthly event she co-founded, A Party Called Rosie Perez, hosted at El Museo del Barrio. She rocked her set from her living room, chic in a gray sweatsuit, her two kids boogying in the background. Like her production company name, Third Shift, hints, she works overtime to make her art, support other artists, and take care of her kids and her community.
In her DOC NYC interview, Powers asked how she was feeling about missing out on the festival circuit with her new film. “I haven’t really felt that grief. I almost haven’t had the luxury to,” Limbal said. A native New Yorker living in the Bronx, at the time of the interview Limbal was in the thick of dealing with the devastation of the pandemic. “[I’m] from the Black and Brown communities that are being talked about as this faceless mass that is disproportionately dying and being impacted by COVID-19,” she told Powers in the interview. “I’m part of that community. All of my elders are in New York City. I have so many family members that have been sick.” Reflecting on the interview, she says: “When you’re from the Bronx, [you feel] anger around people being like their primary problem right now is that they’re ‘bored.’ For us, death is knocking on our doorstep.” Her proximity to the issues she illuminates with her work is powerfully clear.
Her commitment to her work is a direct extension of her commitment to her community. She is the senior vice president of Firelight Media, a production company founded by filmmakers Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith to ensure Black and Indigenous communities and other communities of color are depicted with respect and resonance by filmmakers of color. “Loira has been in many ways the heart and soul of Firelight,” Nelson says. “She broadened the horizons for what we imagined for Firelight.” Smith adds, “Someone said that what the Doc Lab brings is ‘rigor without colonialism,’ and that’s Loira!” Under Limbal’s leadership, Firelight’s Documentary Lab program expanded to a national scope. She has led intensive training for filmmakers from Santa Fe to Chicago to New Orleans and beyond. “I think the fact that she is Black and Dominican, and identifies as both, has pushed us to recognize the complexities of identity both within our organization and in our program work,” Smith says. “Her politics are critical to how the organization shows up in the field as a disrupter, in a good way.”