Cine Mexicano, Morelia Film Fest, Rain and Shine

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Pueblo Magico, Valle de Bravo
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Pulque was had here

Two transcendent nights in two pueblos magicos, (Valle de Bravo and Tepotzlan), hallucinating pulque, and an overdose of Mexican cinema at the Morelia Film Festival later, I’ve got a roundup of what and who you need to know in new Mexican Cinema (fiction), the 13th edition of the Festival (and my 8th consecutive year!), and whats to come in 2016.

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no-show Toro

HEADLINERS

While one of the biggest Mexican movie rockstars (no pun intended), Guillermo del Toro did not show up to Morelia’s Opening Night screening of his latest, La cumbre escarlata aka Crimson Peak, there were plenty of internationally acclaimed Mexican cinéastes present.

First, outside the festival’s competition, making their home turf Mexican premieres was young auteur David Pablos’ remarkable, bittersweet and bleak Tijuana set portrait, The Chosen Ones which premiered earlier this year in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. A Canana production. Mundial handling sales.  Yet to premiere in the U.S.A.

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(L-R) Alejandro Ramirez, Festival President, Daniela Michel, Festival Director, presenting Jonas, Alfonso and Carlos Cuaron

It was a family affair for the querido Cuarón clan at the festival.  Oscar winning director Alfonso accompanied his son Jonas, along with his brother, Carlos. Jonás’ second feature, Desierto which premiered in Toronto and won the FIPRESCI award stars Gael García Bernal.  The Mexico/U.S. border crossing story intends to imbue a “Hunger Games” type/hyper sensory action thriller approach but falls a bit short of that cool aim.  STX, a new distributor led by producer Bob Simonds picked up North American rights. It is yet to screen in the U.S.

Raised in Mexico, Rodrigo García, who I had no idea until recently is the son of famed Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez which gives me another perspective and appreciation of the symbolic father/son relationship in his astral film, Last Days in the Desert, made his first long-awaited visit to the festival. The Ewan McGregor starrer, Emmanuel Lubezki shot film was picked up by Broad Green recently.

Tim Roth and his directors, Michel Franco and Gabriel Ripstein
The new three amigos? Tim Roth, Michel Franco and Gabriel Ripstein

I missed two Mexican co-productions but thanks to AFI Film Festival will catch this coming week in LA.  From Afar, a Venezuelan/Mexican co-production and first feature from Lorenzo Vigas which won Best Film at Venice Film Festival, and Chronic by Michel Franco which won Best Screenplay at Cannes is also making its U.S. premiere at AFI.  Franco has been busy directing and producing through his shingle Lucia Films which also includes 600 Miles by Gabriel Ripstein, Mexico’s entry in the best foreign language film category at the 88th Academy Awards.  Tim Roth stars in both Chronic and 600 Miles, and was in Morelia presenting them where he was given a tribute for his body of work which includes directing. Rumor has it he will be directing his next film in Mexico.

COMPETITION

The competition was a bit more uneven than in previous years, comprised of a few fantastic films among many more average. But that has always been the tightrope walk; using the platform as a discovery of Mexican world premieres, and the necessity of including films in competition that come with built in word of mouth from having played abroad at prestigious festivals. In fact, 7 out of 10 films in the official feature fiction competition were world premieres.  More so than in previous years and I applaud that direction as it’s a risky but one that should further consolidate its reputation of supporting Mexican filmmakers, as well as encourage more Mexican filmmakers to world premiere their features at home.  3 were first time feature filmmakers,  3 co-productions including 2 with Spain, 2 out of 10 directed by women, of which are the only films who have a female lead/role with the exception of Rodrigo Pla’s film, A Monster with a Thousand Heads.

Having seen all the films in competition –  and for that matter many of this year’s Mexican films,  I Promise you Anarchy by Julio Hernandez Cordon (Marimbas from Hell, Gasolina) stands out above the rest.  A skater boy lovestory that is genre and gender bending, it’s played in all the big fests including Locarno, Toronto, San Sebastian.  It’s his first film shot outside his country of Guatemala, in various exterior locations in Mexico City, and the first with a real budget.  It took home an Honorable Mention at Morelia.  I found each shot transfixing and saw depth and true emotion within the surreality of his narrative. Interior XII  is behind the film, a film production company known for its risk-taking bent. Latido Films is handling rights, and the film is yet to premiere in the U.S.  Hernandez Cordon is already at work developing his next film.

ELISA

Festival Vice President, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Batel presenting Elisa Miller
Festival Vice President, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Batel presenting Elisa Miller

Among the world premieres, the magnetic The Pleasure is Mine by Elisa Miller, is for sure the discovery of the Morelia Film Festival in my mind. It was awarded with Best First or Second feature film (It’s her second). Co-starring Flor Edwarda Gurrola who I first saw in Plan Sexennal and newcomer Fausto Alzati who makes a “big” full frontal impression.  Fernando Eimbcke (Duck Season, Lake Tahoe, Club Sandwich) and  Christian Valdelievre produces.  Playing with the male/female gaze through a female perspective, the arrested in sex lovestory is bound to have a bright future in the hippest festivals around the world

The Heirs is another world premiere worth mentioning. A second feature by Venezuelan Jorge Hernández Aldana, (Buffalo of the Night) featuring the kid actor in Güeros, Sebastián Aguirre. The performances and dynamic between characters are impressive, however the story itself, idle privileged youth who live reckless lives of impunity, feels like over-tread terrain. From Lucia Films and prolific film producer Alex Garcia.

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The Greatest House in the World

I’d give honorable mention to Lucia Carreras’ The Greatest House in the World which premiered in Berlin earlier this year.  Her first directorial debut screened a couple years ago at the festival, called Nos Vemos Papa, starring Cecilia Suarez. Her latest co-production is shot in Guatemala, A visually captivating film about a young girl who loses a sheep (read her innocence) it is a jewel of an art house film, and alongside Guatemalan feature Ixcancul by Jayro Bustamante and Hernandez Cordon’s previous films, propelling Guatemala on the film map as of late. Indeed, this year marks the first time Guatemala submits a film for the Academy’s foreign language entry.

Rodrigo Pla’s fourth feature, A Monster with a Thousand Heads, blasts on the bureaucracy and apathetically broken medical care system in Mexico. Taut, it gets right to the point, but it is not as compelling for me as his previous films.

The Best Film Award at Morelia Film Festival went to Matias Meyer’s world premiere (The Last Cristeros) for YO, about a mentally stunted overgrown teenager who lives with his mother, based on a short story by Jean-Marie Le Clezio.  Film is handled by Figa Films.  The film, like the lead, is touching but overly earnest and ambling.

CINE

new digital platform a la 'mubi'
new digital platform a la ‘mubi’

People outside of Mexico see far more independent and art house Mexican cinema than people in Mexico because of limited exhibition platforms. One shining beacon in Mexico City is La Cineteca Nacional, a cinema palace with 10 theaters that programs year round classic and contemporary Mexican films. The country’s two major film output entities are Cinepolis the largest theater chain in Mexico with over 2500 screens (nearly half the market), and IMCINE, The National Film Institute.  Per IMCINE’s film report, 130 Mexican films were produced in 2014 and 68 were released.  Cinepolis has established their Sala de Arte, their designated documentary and arthouse theater inside their multiplexes, as well as begun to distribute films. Meanwhile IMCINE, which has long funded development and production, recently created a fund for distribution, so that Mexican independent fiction and documentary films can be seen. Still, because they are the corporate/government film monopolies in Mexico, some feel it is their responsibility to do much more.  Yours truly moderated a panel with their new digital platforms CinepolisKlic, and FilminLatino. CinepolisKlic offers VOD of a variety of commercial national and international titles while FilminLatino (IMCINE) is a subscriber based platform with a very curated selection and cool editorial tone. Both are open for filmmakers to submit their films, regardless of whether its had a theatrical or festival premiere.

For far too long Mexican filmmakers have been overly influenced by european cinema- no doubt to appeal to international fests where sometimes its the only place their independent work has a chance to be seen. So I love it when I see filmmakers like Julio Hernandez Cordon, Nicolas Pereda, and Gerardo Naranjo creating original aesthetics and risk-taking narrative approaches. Thematically this year, there seems to be a thruline of simmering desperation, desire, and fighting for something aspirational, even if only for a brief respite…. before landing to reality and surrendering to the same old.

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Programmer and filmmaker Daniela Alatorre

El FESTIVAL INTERNACIONAL DE CINE DE MORELIA

Film Festival heads; President and Cinepolis CEO Alejandro Ramirez, Vice President, cultural ambassador and Architect, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Batel, and  the always eloquent and die-hard cinephile Festival Director Daniela Michel are super  involved and present every day/night hosting their guests and introducing films. They elevated the quality of intros and q&a’s at the festival along with Festival Programmer and filmmaker (and for many years the head of production for the festival) Daniela Alatorre, who framed context and created rich dialogue around the documentary screenings.  Although it was rumored that Hurricane Patricia scared away some attendees, the festival seemed to have more special guests and industry presence than ever. Sundance Institute’s Artist Services engineered a popular workshop which included a 101 with Dan Schoenbrun from Kickstarter, a conversation with doc master Ondi Timoner and a conversation with SXSW head, Janet Pierson. This year also marked an alliance between Locarno’s Industry Academy and Morelia Film Festival, focused on developing professionals working in international sales, marketing, distribution, exhibition, and programming.  The Festival broke its attendance record reaching 40,000 filmgoers per Alejandro Ramirez at the Closing Night Ceremony.

TRANSCENDENT NATURE OF CINEMATOGRAPHY

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Mexican cinematographer Diego Garcia in the middle and to his right Apichatpong who hopes to direct his next film in Mexico

I  had not seen any of Thai auteur darling Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films before until now (sigh).  Truth be told I only went to see Cemetery of Splendour because it was shot by a Mexican. Cinematographer Diego Garcia (Without, Fogo), who alongside the high profile company of Emmanuel Lubezki aka El Chivo, represent exceptional Latin American cinematographers doing incredible work in and outside of Mexico.  I also would include Maria Secco, Sebastian Hiriart and Lorenzo Hagerman among them. Garcia’s latest film is Neon Bull by brazilian filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro, also showing at this week’s AFI Film Festival.

Easter by Alejandra Marquez
Easter by Alejandra Marquez

Garcia is shooting Carlos Reygadas next film which starts filming next week and  throughout all of next year. We can also expect very soon the new film by Amat Escalante. The Untamed just finished shooting in his home state of Guanajuato. It is produced by Nicolas Celis, a young intrepid producer with impeccable taste in projects he takes on.  He is also the producer of first feature, female directed Easter by Alejandra Márquez which world premiered at Toronto.  It will be making its Mexican premiere in competition at the Los Cabos Film Festival which starts in a couple weeks, November 11-15.  There is some overlap of Mexican films between Morelia and the 4th edition of Los Cabos Film Festival.  Among Los Cabos’ world premieres, I’m excited to see Marcelino Islas Hernández new film, Charity.  He made a very small and touching film called Martha back in 2010. I’m also curious about You’ll Know What to do with Me by Katina Medina Mora.  It will be her directorial feature debut. She has worked as 1st AD on several awesome films like Gerardo Naranjo’s Voy a Explotar, the Gael Garcia Bernal directed Deficit and festival darling Cochochi.

WATCH OUT FOR – FILMS IN POST

image5Aside from Escalante and Reygadas, there are a few hotly anticipated First features which will be ready to premiere in 2016. I’m so glad to have gotten the chance to see a cut of Zeus by multi media artist Miguel Calderon in Morelia’s Work in Progress, Impulso section.  The film has an unnerving, escalating tension between a young man and his mother, and unique visual allegory. The film is produced by Christian Valdelievre, and was developed and supported by Sundance Institute’s international Feature Film Program. Also currently in post, first fiction feature Pan American Machinery by Joaquin del Paso, produced by Mantarraya. And one of my favorite filmmakers of the world (for reals), somebody who draws outside any prescribed doc and fiction lines, Nicolas Pereda, has a new project called The Heart of the Sky.

The best dance party was Ambulante! DJ Gil Cerezo from Kinky
The best dance party was Ambulante! DJ Gil Cerezo from Kinky

To see the full list of winners at the Morelia Film Festival click here. If you missed it, do not fret! You can see great interviews by film critic and friend, Anne Wakefield with Stephen Frears, Rodrigo Garcia, Tim Roth, Peter Greenaway and more on the festival’s YouTube channel. Also, right now until November 15 you can check out some of the short films in competition here! Many short film filmmakers who go on to screen their feature debuts at the festival as well as already well established, compete in the short film competition.  Speaking of which one of my favorites (not online yet) was Boy at the Bar Masturbates with Fury and Self Assurance by new wave queer film cineaste, Julian Hernandez. Check out the trailer:

FullSizeRender(2)Don’t think I forgot the Mexican documentary treasures! The award for Best Documentary at Morelia went to 25 year old Mazatlan female director, Betzabe Garcia for Kings of Nowhere.  The film was developed and supported with a post production grant from Ambulante and had its world premiere at SXSW earlier this year where it won the Audience Award.

Stay tuned for a Mexican documentary round up post, my experience at the first ever Mexican Film Residency, and my visit to the extraordinary Splendor Omnia studios, Carlos Reygadas’ hidden jewel of a post production studio compound in the magical village of Tepotzlan.

Here we go! Kickstarting the Ambulante USA movement

I nodded off at 3am with Orange is The New Black finale in the background while compiling my old yahoo contacts and email lists from the various film festivals I’ve worked in the past 12 years.  Why?  To prepare a Master email blast to ask people to back Ambulante California on Kickstarter.  If I didn’t love this social cinema platform and believe it to be a noble and radical vehicle that stimulates the ecosystem of audiences and filmmakers I would probably think twice about emailing folks I haven’t talked to in a while.  But that’s not the case.  Here’s me a few hours ago all showered after two strong instant black coffees making a video to commemorate the launch.

And here is the campaign video and page.  Please click HERE to go to page and get involved and support this project!

Don’t be shy, tell me what you think.  I will try to update my blog with this crazy rollercoaster journey of the Chicana from Chicago heading up a traveling documentary film festival.

#AllOrNothing

#DoubleDown

 

 

 

Meet Tin Dirdamal – Director of Death in Arizona

opening2014Last weekend I was in Mexico City for the official launch of the 2014 Ambulante documentary tour.  The roving film festival has an insanely impressive 35 venues through out most of the burroughs in El Districto Federal.   It wanders around in Mexico City one more week until the 13th when the tour hits the road to its next stop in Guerrero.   The tour will conclude May 4 in the magical land of Oaxaca and by then it will have traveled to 12 different states throughout Mexico presenting its diverse, international lineup of the latest documentary cinema.

Ambulante has 12 different programming sections including the popular music section, Sonidero, Dictator’s cut, devoted to human rights & freedom of speech,  and Injerto, the art & cinema experimental section.  Ambulante’s viscus however is Pulsos, where you’ll find the most recent, most original voices of the robust Mexican non fiction narrative.  It is here that the world premiere of Death in Arizona, a futuristic documentary, as described by the director, Tin Dirdamal is being presented.

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Still6 copyI first met Tin at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival with his opera prima, DeNadie which won the Audience Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.  He is by far one of the most curious, unpretentious, inspired minds I’ve ever met.  We took a jaunt up to Coyoacan plaza, an ancient mecca of artisan vendors and merchants, for coffee at my favorite El Jarocho, tamales, and found a relatively quiet garden to have a conversation.

DeathArizona1The story is quite personal, about a love lost and a self found, to say it broadly.  Without giving away too much, the love in the film is also the producer and co-director Christina Haglund.  I asked Tin about his creative process, his favorite Jodorowsky film, his experience at Sundance, and his philosophy on filmmaking and well, life.  Check out our conversation and then the trailer to his film.   He is truly a one-of-a-kind, thought-provoking, and perhaps the most brilliantly unassuming human being I’m happy to know.  Now you meet him.

Here is a trailer of the film – that for me resonates as a journey culminating towards a flickering light and illumination at the end of a tunnel of heartbreaking solitude.  The intimate, moody, futuristic and transcendent film, Death in Arizona.

Ambulante California – unveiled at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, co-founders of the traveling documentary film festival, talk about the inception of Ambulante, the power of cinema, and the upcoming launch of Ambulante California. Coming soon September 21 – October 4

@AmbulanteCA

Cesar Chavez – Todavia Se Puede!

E-card art by UFW supporters - click to see link

In honor of the social rights activist who would have been 85 today let’s take a look at not just one but both of the feature films about his life’s work in the pipeline.

One is a narrative being directed by Diego Luna and written by Keir Pearson (Hotel Rwanda), the other, a documentary by Richard Ray Perez, an established film and video documentarian which has been supported by Sundance Institute.  Both stand to give honor to the dogged labor rights organizer and activist in two distinct cinematic approaches.  The documentary which is called Cesar’s Last Fast is entering the last stages of editing and a rough cut is expected by mid-summer. While the narrative, only referred to as Chavez for now, has just begun shooting.

THE REAL (FOOTAGE) CESAR

Most  doc critics and enthusiasts would agree that a question worth asking when considering documentary cinema, is finding out the filmmaker’s connection to the subject/story.  That is, why is THIS given filmmaker the best person to tell THIS story. In Cesar’s Last Fast, its fascinating to hear.  Apparently it’s by inheritance that brought Rick Perez to the project.  A woman very close to Chavez collected years and years of documentation and upon her death willed that only one person could take on and carry the project to fruition and that was Rick Perez.  His venerable team includes Molly O’Brien, emmy award winning producer.  What’s the focus of the documentary?  As evident by the title, Cesar’s Last Fast, the documentary looks and is anchored by the specific 1988 act, the grueling 36 day fast Chavez undertook to protest pesticides, which exemplifies the man’s sheer strength and will.  The documentary looks to have a very spiritual and humanizing bent.  It includes very intimate, never before seen material from the family’s personal archive.  More importantly it ties a lot of the history of Union Farm Workers Union he founded in 1962, with what is going on today; asking what is the face of organizing today – critically placing a contemporary context to it.  No doubt the combination of these elements is what made this specific portrayal of Cesar Chavez so appealing to the Sundance Documentary Film Program which got involved early on with funding support.  Sundance typically supports contemporary social issues but perhaps recognizing the same issues loom just as pressing today, were drawn in by the relevance Rick Perez posits.  In addition to the money support, Sundance invited Rick to participate in the Sundance Producer’s Summit and a Works in Progress screening at the Hammer last year , a popular and overcrowded event which was accompanied by a panel with Edward James Olmos, Paul Chavez, Cesar’s son, along with current heads of the union.  And recently, the DFP had a lab down in Imperial Valley free to all, where they had another work in progress screening of Cesar’s Last Fast followed by a master class given by Rick about story structure.

CHAVEZ – BASED ON A TRUE STORY

Michael Pena as Chavez, Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta, America Ferrera as Chavez's wife, Helen and Diego Luna directing

Back in 2010, screenwriter Keir Pearson and producer Larry Meli optioned life rights to a Chavez biopic after working with the family for over a two year period in which they visited them, including Paul Chavez, and gained their trust.  Canana got involved by way of attaching Diego Luna to direct and adding Gael Garcia Bernal and Pablo Cruz as producing partners along with Larry Meli.  Also attached as producer is John Malkovich’s Mr. Mudd, and additional cast include popular Culture Clash founder, Richard Montoya. Diego Luna previously showed off his directing skills in Abel which premiered at Sundance 2010, a psychologically harrowing story about a kid who takes on the role of man in the house when his father isn’t around. His traveling documentary festival, Ambulante was recently awarded with WOLA’s Human Rights Award back in November.  Speaking for the Chavez film, over email Larry Meli was kind enough to email me back saying, “This is a terribly important story for all time and particularly in this moment in our history more so as we see manual workers being squeezed along with an entire middle class.  There were some successes and some failures but most important it shows that one person CAN make a difference.  For Mexican-American’s, it will be a great source of pride as Cesar stood up for the rights of others against the corporations and the system and won!!!”

I wasn’t able to find out what the screenplay’s take and focus is, whether it will be an epic period set retelling of Chavez’s personal lifestory, or if it will have a specific focus like the documentary, portraying his deeply personal struggles, and or pivotal marches and strikes as it relates to today. Considering Michael Peña has been cast as Chavez, and Rosario Dawson as his co-organizer, Dolores Huerta, I hope it means a considerable chunk will be about the early days, the beginning stages and HOW the literal first ever grassroots mobilization was accomplished, what later would go on to become the United Farm Worker’s Union.

SI SE PUDO?

Of the four library books I checked out on Chavez this week, Conquering Goliath by Fred Ross, which is all in Chavez’s words where he catches up with his buddy and mentor Fred Ross about the 6 year span in which he organized the Oxnard Community Service Organization, right before he moved to East LA to start the national movement,  was the most fascinating. For  one, the reader hears his inner doubts and insecurities (making him human and not on held up on a pedestal) and second how he learned to play ball with the growers, state and federal outfits, and interestingly how much it cost him to gain the trust of the workers.  All the strategizing he learned in these early days sets the stage for when he took on the bigger challenge of mobilizing a national union.  One is tempted to say, “The Rest is History”, but in this case, that history deserves to be analyzed and told and retold.

Arturo S. Rodriguez, current president of United Farm Workers and Chavez's son-in-law

I’m personally thrilled that we have two films in two totally different genres that will embody deal the life history of Chavez and his efforts to make Labor Law change. In addition to reflecting on the impact he has today, I hope clear historic nuts and bolts will be told that which we could refer to in order to comprehend government policies that stand in the way of tackling the issues Chavez took on including the dangers of exposing workers to pesticides, and crucially, immigration rights.  Chavez’s Si Se Puede (“Yes We Can”, hence, my post title, “We Still Can) is an inspirational chant used today.  But its in studying the sweaty losses  as much as his triumphs that we might fully understand the weight and responsibility that comes with that statement.  Many issues we face today about immigration reform harken back to the Bracero Program, the guest worker program in which Mexicans were imported to the US to work the lands, a people caught in between Chavez’s struggle to gain rights for ‘domestic workers’.  The more I read and begin to understand the political aspect, the program set the pattern and tone for the immigration rights battle we face today.  Although in 1964 Congress voted to end it, like an ugly ‘call it by another name’ phenomenon, it exists today. A factsheet from the Immigration Policy Center (pulled from this article) reports between 53% and 75% of the 2.5 million farm workers who work in the U.S. each year are undocumented. Collective bargaining does NOT help this population; the provisions of a union contract are only enforceable for documented workers.

It’s nice to render tribute through films and books the symbolic meaning of Chavez, but its our responsibility and the filmmakers tackling this story, to responsibly learn and apply the lessons learned from his life to truly honor his legacy.  And I trust both filmmaker teams will do just that.

Check out the Kickstarter trailer of Cesar’s Last Fast and the website here

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About Cesar Chavez Foundation

Meet Bernardo Ruiz – intrepid director of hot-off-the-presses documentary, REPORTERO

Bernardo Ruiz

During the height of media repression in 1980, Jesus Blancornelas, a defiant journalist who was fired from a number of media outlets for refusing to be stifled, independently founded the Tijuana based newsweekly, Zeta – which to this day boldly stands by its mission of exposing Mexico’s wrongdoings and reporting what they see no matter the cost.  Sadly, such fastening to ideals has meant the loss of members in their tight-knit family of reporters who have been killed in retaliation by criminal gangs.   The paper, whose tagline is “Libre Como El Viento (free like the wind), is at the center of a brand new documentary, Reportero, which begs serious attention to the persecution of journalists in conflict ridden zones, like Mexico, where investigative reporting is critical.  As director Bernardo Ruiz, who previously made the PBS Roberto Clemente story, follows true blue, ace journalist, Sergio Haro tackling and breaking risky news stories, we witness the personal drive and psychological toll that such a high stakes pursuit begets.  The film sheds light on the fascinating history of the paper and elicits a powerful respect for the courageous reporters committed to carrying on Blancornelas’s hard investigative legacy.

Last week Reportero had its world bow at Ambulante in Mexico City where it was followed by lively discussions about the safety of journalists.  Five years in the making, Bernardo Ruiz deserves big props for undertaking this urgent, issue -oriented documentary, and for connecting us with the real heroes and their day to day quest for journalistic integrity.  All of which underlines the sore need of protecting the freedom of the press in Mexico for papers like Zeta who actually and fiercely practice their right, at their own risk.

Below Bernardo talks to me about how he found the story and more:

CD:  Briefly what motivated you to make this project, and what made you decide to focus on Zeta magazine ( as opposed to other print media in the country like say, El Diario de Juarez which in 2010 after suffering the loss of two journalists made an audacious move by publishing a public appeal to the ‘de facto’ authorities (read: narcos) regarding what they should and not cover in order to prevent any more colleagues’ deaths).

BR: I actually didn’t set out to make a film about Mexican journalists. I was researching stories in the Mexicali-Calexico border region. Starting in 2007, I began thinking about creating a multi-character portrait of the region — to look at how interconnected lives are across this slice of the border which generally doesn’t get a lot of attention. During one of my research trips, I met the director of a youth shelter who suggested I talk to a local journalist from Mexicali. About 6 months later I met Sergio Haro at a Starbucks on the Mexican side of the border. What was supposed to be a short meeting turned into a 3-hour discussion. I left the meeting thinking that Sergio’s story was much more urgent than the regional portrait I had originally envisioned. In that meeting, Sergio told me that he worked for Semanario Zeta, the Tijuana-based muckraking weekly, and I dove right in. At a certain point, telling Sergio’s story, telling Zeta’s story felt almost inevitable.

CD: How did Sundance Institute help your project?
The Sundance Documentary  Feature Program supported me with a research and development grant very early in the process, when the film was still a portrait of the Mexicali-Calexico border region. R&D support is always the hardest support to get (at least in my experience) and the support allowed me to push forward with the research at a time when the story was evolving. Much later, when I had an assembly of the film, I participated in the Composer’s and Story Lab. My editor, the ultra-talented Carla Gutierrez, and I had reached a plateau with the story. The lab was a chance for me to step back from the film and evaluate it with fresh eyes. The timing worked out perfectly — we took a break from editing and I had a week of thinking about score and story with the Sundance advisors. 

CD: Sergio Haro is such a great character, intelligent, tenacious and all around straight shooter.  But I’m also really happy your documentary features the woman behind the operation,  Adela Navarro, who was recently awarded with International Women’s Media Foundation’s, Journalism in Courage Award.  What was it like working with her on the documentary?  

BR: The film is as much Adela Navarro’s as it is Sergio’s.  She came to the paper straight out of college. She and two other female editors came up under Jesus Blancornelas, the paper’s founder, in a very tough, sink-or-swim atmosphere. After the murder of a Zeta editor, Francisco Ortiz in June of 2004, who was gunned down on a Tijuana street in front of his children, two male editors left Zeta. “They left a day after the assassination,” Adela explained to me recently. The women are the ones who stayed to run the paper. As Sergio’s boss (one of a small number of female editors in Mexico) Adela has strengthened the newspaper’s brand of aggressive investigative journalism since 2006, when Blancornelas died. For me, she is an undeniably compelling and dynamic presence in the film. She was understandably protective of her staff and her paper at first. Over time, she opened up. I think her strength, intelligence and absolute commitment to her work come through in the film. 

Adela Navarro - recipient of Medal of Courage Journalism

CD: The magazine’s complicated relationship with the local government of Tijuana is heavy.  The film talks about the controversial, high profile politician and sports betting magnate, Jorge Hank Rhon, the town’s mayor from 2004-2007, whose influence runs deep, and more and more wide. Did you try getting an interview with him for this film? Did you ever feel you had to also take certain safety precautions in the making of the film, simply by aligning yourself with the magazine’s open policy?

BR: Every week, since 1988, Zeta has been publishing a “black page” with Hector Felix Miranda “El Gato’s” image pointing at the reader. The memorial page asks Jorge Hank Rhon, in bold type, “Why did your bodyguard Antonio Vera Palestina kill me?” It accuses the sitting governor of Baja California, and his predecessors, of doing nothing to pursue those who ordered Félix Miranda’s murder. U.S. papers would probably balk at doing something like this – then again, most U.S. papers haven’t buried as many of their reporters as Zeta has. I didn’t pursue an interview with Hank, because I don’t see REPORTERO as a work of traditional journalism where the default approach is to get “both sides”. Instead, I felt like the facts of what happened in “El Gato’s” murder as well as the archival interviews with Hank tell enough of a story. The information is there, and the viewer can decide what to believe.

CD: The documentary serves as a great forum for critical discussion regarding freedom of the press and safety concerns for journalists worldwide – what in your opinion and insight gleaned from your research, is needed from a social activist POV by the public who see  it and want to support and protect journalists in Mexico?  

BR: According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), more than 40 journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico  since President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa launched a massive military offensive against drug cartels in 2006. News outlets have been attacked with grenades and their websites hacked. Drug violence and corruption have devastated the news media and stripped citizens of their right to vital information. The culprits of crimes against journalists are rarely if ever, found or brought to justice. This is an election year in Mexico. President Calderón, who promised to protect journalists and bring justice in their killings, is leaving office in 2012. We are working with CPJ to promote their work, specifically a petition that is circulating.  People who are interested in the film and the campaign can join us on our FB page: http://www.facebook.com/reporteromovie

CC: Where can we see the film?  

BR: The film premiered in Mexico City last week through Ambulante, which is an amazing itinerant festival. We packed our two Mexico City screenings to overflow. Reportero tours with the festival, screening in 12 Mexican cities. Later this year, we air on POV (PBS) in September 2012. We are right in the middle of determining where our US premiere will be.

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