In 2020, director Aaron M Abelto released his first Oscar-contending documentary called The Power of Movement.
The film, which competed for a Best Feature Documentary nomination at the 2020 Oscars, documented radiation oncologist Dr Niraj Mehta as he offered cancer patients comfort and healing through dance therapy.
For Abelto, 37, the film embodies the kind of thought-provoking cinematic experiences he wants to create for audiences.
He told Newsday, “When making films I want people to feel inspired to go forward and embrace their experiences while achieving what they want to in life.
“Both the Power of Movement and Iron Temple are stories of great individuals that took what they wanted to do to inspire others. If I can inspire a whole bunch of individuals, through my films, to make it through anything that they’re going through or doing, then I’ve done my job.”
Released in 2021, Iron Temple followed bodybuilder Tony Torres as he worked towards rebuilding his life after being imprisoned for five years. Torres was convicted for covering for a friend who committed murder.
Like the Power of Movement, the film also competed for a Best Feature Documentary at the 2021 Oscars.
In October 2021, the film had a short theatrical run at Laemmle Monica Film Center in Santa Monica, California, and Silverspot Cinema in Downtown Miami.
Though both documentaries contended for Oscar nominations but were unsuccessful in the end, Abelto is still proud they were recognised.
“There’s a different between a (Oscars) nomination and contender. Out of the thousands of films which are submitted for Oscars consideration, there are only a certain amount of films which qualify to be an Oscars contender.
“During last year’s (2021) Oscars, my film was luckily able to qualify. Once you qualify, you’re considered an Oscar contender.”
A US citizen and currently living in Pembroke Pines, Florida, Abelto’s Trini roots run deep.
His mother Allison Abelto lived in San Juan while his father Michael Abelto lived in St James. The two moved to the US in late 1970s where Abelto was born in 1984 and raised.
To date, he’s only visited TT twice. First, at a very young age and then in 2017.
“Obviously I practise the culture all the time…Carnival, the food and all that stuff. I follow the culture to the T, that is home.”
“My best experience when I visited in 2017 was going by a doubles man and having a doubles…that was the coolest experience and I think I even did a video of me eating. But I didn’t get a chance to eat a roti although I really wanted to because my trip was so quick.”
While Abelto intended to have a business career, and graduated with an MBA from Nova Southeastern University, he’s always had an interest in acting. So in 2014, he took a leap of faith and ventured into entertainment.
“Around that time I was working and I just wasn’t having fun. No disrespect to people doing the 9-5 hustle but I just couldn’t do it.
“I always had a secret passion, from since I was a child, to be an actor. I loved entertaining people.”
One of Abelto’s earliest gigs was a minor role in the 2014 dance film Step Up: All In. In its opening weekend, the film debuted in the sixth position at the Box Office and grossed over US$6 million.
“At that time, I had started taking acting classes and I took a couple trips to Los Angeles to take some more classes. I just went out there and I did it. I learnt something in this industry…when you really want to make something happen, you really have to go out there and do it.
“When I got into Step up Revolution, it kind of jumpstarted my acting career because then I started to get on TV shows. They were just small roles but I was starting to do those things.”
But while he enjoyed appearing on the silver screen, he’s always had ideas of films he could make and star in himself.
Starting in 2015, with very little hands-on experience in directing a film, Abelto tried his hand at directing with the creation of several short films.
“I’ve work as an extra on a lot of films and when you’re an extra, you get to see a lot of things going on behind-the-scenes.
“I would pay attention to what the directors, directors of photography and producers were doing. I even became friends with some of them and they would bring me on (to sets). So basically that’s how I learned (about directing). I learned from asking questions and just being around these people.
“I started off doing a couple of short films and then as I progressed, I started doing more feature films.”
His major directorial debut was the 2018 feature film, I Before Thee, which chronicled the experience of a widower as he deals with the loss of his wife who died during childbirth. In a twist of fate, the widower also has to grapple with the news that the child was diagnosed with leukaemia.
Following the feature-length film were The Power of Movement and Iron Temple.
When he first started, Abelto self-funded most of his movies. Now, he has investors for most of his movies.
For Abelto, the progression of his short and storied directing career has been fulfilling.
“The first time when I got selected as an Oscar contender, I was happy and I felt accomplished because it’s one of the hardest things to accomplish in American cinema. For me to compete in the Best Feature Documentary twice, I am just happy that I was able to compete.
“I didn’t win or place but just the fact I competed with all those major films that were nominated meant the world. Hopefully I’ll be able to compete with more films.”
Abelto is now working on a feature film and a documentary on an Olympic sprinter. He hopes to one day make a film in TT.
“I would love to film a movie in Trinidad, I would love to pay homage to my culture. Hopefully Machel Montano sees this (story) and he asks me to a do a movie about him.”
While the entertainment industry has its challenges, and Abelto has had his fair share of ups and downs, he’s in it for the long haul.
“I would tell people who want to get in the entertainment industry to just go out there and do it.
“If you have that feeling that you want to actually do something, go and do it.”
Anyone interested in watching Abelto’s films can find them on streaming platforms like Amazon Prime, Hulu and Apple TV.