POV @ 25: Pamela Yates & Bernardo Ruiz on Beginnings and Engagement Campaigns
In celebration of the 25th season of PBS’ groundbreaking documentary series POV, Filmmaker is running a four-part conversation series between two non-fiction directors with close ties to the show. A few weeks ago, award-winning director of When the Mountains Tremble, Pamela Yates — whose memoir of Guatemala’s struggles, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, revisits the footage and topics of her debut — and Bernardo Ruiz, whose film Reportero airs on POV on January 7 at 10:00PM, sat down to talk about a variety of issues that arise from their work. Through the course of the discussion, Yates and Ruiz share where they’ve been, where they are now, and where they’re heading while dissecting different viewpoints of their craft.
In this first of four parts, the two directors talk about how and why they gravitated towards the realm of non-fiction filmmaking and the evolution and importance of engagement campaigning.
Pamela Yates: We were just talking about how we’re both very interested in people, we’re curious about people, love people, really want to get to know people. And from when I was five years old on, my parents used to send me down the street when the new neighbors moved in to find out who they were… and I loved that role. I’m from the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania, and I’m from an Irish-American enclave which really had storytelling at the heart of its social activity, and my father was a really great storyteller, Irish-American. And it was really the currency in trade that people had in that town, and so I had to think, in the filmmaking world, we carry it through to the next generation. Hopefully, we can be as good as they were.
And you’re from Los Angeles?
Bernardo Ruiz: No, actually, I was born in Mexico. I was born in Guanajuato, which is about four hours north of Mexico City, and I lived there until I was about seven. And then we moved to Brooklyn, strangely enough. So, it was an unusual migration. My mother is Irish-American New Yorker, so we moved to New York kind of late 70s, early 80s, and I ended up growing up here. So it was a very different experience than if I had grown up in the West Coast or Texas or another place where there was a big Mexican population.
Culturally, I’m probably more of a New Yorker than anything. I’ve always been curious, in watching your films, what drew you to Central America in the first place, because one of the things I always see in your work is that just how the people connection is obviously so strong, but you also have a kind of understanding and a real sense of texture. It feels like there is a deep connection to the material there, and I’ve always wondered what first brought you into working with Central America.
Yates: Don’t you think there’s a natural affinity between the Irish and the Latin Americans? And you’re the embodiment of it — or your parents are the embodiment of it.
Ruiz: Yes, that’s true. Good drinkers and good shit-talkers.
Yates: Actually, I was working as a photographer for a newspaper, a photojournalist in western Massachusetts when the Puerto Rican migration moved up the Connecticut River Valley and nobody in the Holyoke newspaper spoke Spanish, and I thought, in my youthful naïveté, “I’ll go to Mexico for a couple months and learn Spanish.” And I went to Mexico, took a leave and I stayed for two years. And during those two years, I met up with other Mexican journalists and we traveled to South America, to Chile, Argentina, Peru — which was really the watershed of social change in Latin America in the early 1970s.
So that was really how I started. But then I went to college. I had been a high school dropout; I went to college when I was 21. After I finished college, the wars were starting in Central America and I wanted to become a filmmaker, but of course I didn’t know how to go about doing that. I couldn’t get a job as a director. When I paid off my student loans, I had credit and I used that credit to buy sound equipment, so I started working on other people’s crews and watched other directors work and use that as an apprenticeship. But I do think there is some kind of deep affinity between Irish and Irish-Americans and Latin Americans, because I’ve always felt quite at home there and once learning the language, even more so.
Ruiz: So I take it that film school wasn’t an option? It seems like nowadays everywhere you turn there is a new program or a new film school. They seem to have multiplied in the last few years in ways that used to not exist. I’m wondering if back then that was an option, if that was financially an option, or that was even something people were thinking about, talking about?
Yates: There were very few film schools, and I studied film and I did a major in political science, too. But I always felt that I wanted to get a great education and then I’d have some kind of substance on which to base on making films. Did you?
Ruiz: No, for me, it’s always been like joining the circus. I teach now as an adjunct in the School of Visual Arts, where they created this social documentary program. I’ve been teaching there for three years. I watch the more coherent progression of the students that go through the program and sometimes I’m envious and other times I’m grateful for my own experiences. I think there are definitely different benefits to doing either, but the way I learned the trade, the way I learned to do what we do, was very much like joining a minor league baseball team or going with pickup musicians and taking off for a couple of years, and I learned the hard way.
The summer before I went to college I started working in production. While I was in school, one of the my first big jobs was working as a production assistant on a Spike Lee feature and my job was literally to stand for 12 to 14 hours watching the craft-service truck. I worked commercially for a little bit, then I worked on really bad hip hop videos and R&B videos, which were early-mid 90s. I quickly realized that production was interesting, filmmaking was interesting, but I wanted to do something closer to journalism and something that had to do with Latin America. And at the time I didn’t quite know how to bring those two things together. I didn’t know there was a deep documentary community. All I knew was there’s broadcast and print journalism, and cinema over here. I didn’t understand there was this place where those two things came together.
Yates: And you’re at such a good moment, because we’re really experiencing the explosion of the documentary film genre and the audiences are more open-minded; they’re really tolerant. It used to be that audiences wouldn’t consider certain things like Roger & Me or The Thin Blue Line as documentaries, and of course they are documentary. So I think we’re really experiencing a golden age of American documentary cinema.
Ruiz: I think you’re right. Have you felt that in your career? That there’s a great openness to documentary films?
Yates: Oh yes. And we’ve gotten so much smarter about what we do with the films after we make them, and how it’s critical for us to control the multi-year outreach and engagement campaigns that we do. That’s actually part of the filmmaking process. When you’re thinking about it and conceiving the film, what you’re going to do and how you’re going to tell the story in a way that could possibly have impact is crucial. Now, some films have impact that you can’t possibly measure, you can’t measure them at the time they come out, you can’t measure them 10 years later, but sometimes you can and sometimes they have such a subtle impact on people, the way people think, they way they act. You can’t always trace it back to the film. And yet you know that if you tell a really good story, that it’s going to have that kind of effect on people. I think we’ve gotten much smarter about that. I think it’s raised the level of the documentary film field.
Ruiz: I think you’re right. With Granito, when you started, were you thinking about engagement? Conversations about engagement have really grown in the last few years, and I think you and I breathe and work in very similar spaces so even in my short career I’ve seen a conversation really change. And I absolutely agree that the thinking around engagement and outreach has become so much smarter and so much more sophisticated, and the tools that we have are so much more sophisticated, but sometimes I wonder if we put the cart before the horse, where as filmmakers, we’re asked to manage these campaigns. Filmmaking in and of itself is one of the most challenging things you can do. You’re dealing with people, you’re dealing with technology, you’re dealing with financing—there are all these elements you have to manage and on top of that, we’re now being asked to do things that skilled political organizations and NGOs have been struggling with for decades. How you began shaping that and thinking about that?
Yates: I agree with you that we’re filmmakers, first and foremost, and the basis of what we do is to tell these very good stories. Because if we don’t tell a very good story, we’re not going to have an outreach campaign. So we think about engagement as we’re shooting the film and as we’re going along — who are going to be our partners? — and we involve them while we’re making the film, so we have two or three outreach summits as we’re making the film.
Ruiz: During production?
Yates: During production. We show part of the film, maybe a 10-minute sample. We talk about it. So it’s on their radar screen, so they feel they have a stake in it. We always keep editorial control, and yet they’re very excited to be a part of the process. And this is exactly what you’re talking about, the NGOs, the political organizations, because if you can partner with them, they’re going to do so much of the heavy lifting and that’s what they do best.
Ruiz: And they’re invested early on in the process while you bring them in, and they get to see things that might not even get into the final cut, so they’re participating in the conversations.
Yates: Exactly, and oftentimes they know a lot more about the subject than we know, so they help us shape a more nuanced version of the story than we thought we were going to tell. Also the feature-length documentary is now the flagship for a number of other media offerings and so they are partners in helping to shaping those offerings. Such as four-minute micro-docs that will help bring the voices of the victims into places that they might not be able to go, like academic conferences, something that would ground the conference or the companion digital pieces. But to speak to your original point: it is really important for us to concentrate on filmmaking. What about you? How did you shape the outreach for Reportero?
Ruiz: Reportero was a very circuitous route, ultimately a very satisfying one and one in which we ended up building these very strong partnerships. But it certainly didn’t start with a strategy. And now coming out on the other end of it, I realize how fundamental that is, but you know I wish I had woken up one morning and said, “I want to make a film about journalists under fire in Mexico, I’m going to partner up with Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ], the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and these people over here.” The whole process was an education for me, and I initially began the project thinking it would be a short film. I just wanted to produce a quiet, understated film about a shelter for deported children in the border city of Mexicali right next to California.
I started researching that story 2007. While I was there, between 2007 and 2009, Calderon’s drug war began to heat up, and the story of the drug war dead was just unavoidable. Everybody I would talk to had an uncle who had been either kidnapped or a relative who had been murdered or someone who had been affected in some profound way by the violence in Mexico, and I began to feel like there as a more urgent story to be told here.
While the shelter was a piece of something, there was this bigger story to be told, and I felt like I needed some more orientation. I started asking some people to connect me to local journalists and in that process the director of the shelter for children said, “You need to meet this journalist, Sergio Haro.” So I set up an appointment and then in 2009 we began talking. I met him actually at a Starbucks on the Mexican side of the border and I was late because I had trouble getting there, and we were supposed to have a 30-minute meeting and it turned into a three-hour conversation. I always say it felt like a good first date where you want the conversation to keep going. I walked away from the meeting realizing that that story was much more urgent than I had previously thought of, and from that moment forward, I thought, “Okay whatever I do storytelling-wise, it needs to be centered around this person, this person’s voice and his colleagues; and I can get some of the things I’m really interested in through this story.” From that moment forward, it was just focusing on that.
So what happened was that the relationships with the NGOs and the nonprofits emerged organically from that process. When I came back to New York, I thought I needed to learn more about this newspaper, Semanario Zeta, that Sergio writes for. I saw that CPJ had done some work with them, and I had actually presented their annual report attacks on the press at the Tijuana offices of the newspaper. I thought that was really interesting, so I went and set up a meeting with CPJ to start that process.
In every aspect to the film, I stumbled into those relationships. Afterward, I realized how unbelievably important they were and how organizations like the Community to Project Journalists and Pulitzer could really do some of the heavy lifting and build dialogue around the film. But for me it really started working on the story, stumbling on the story, and those relationships emerged out of that story. Having gone through that once, I realize there are more strategic ways to do that. But I do know this first round was a fumbling in the dark.
Yates: It’s so interesting because Sergio Haro is a really unforgettable protagonist in the film. It’s such a good choice. I feel like I have been very privileged to have come of age as a filmmaker in parallel with the growth of the human rights movement worldwide. We’ve been really doing outreach since the very beginning. We didn’t call it that back then. We just knew that when we made films, we were going to somehow try to hook it to a movement that was already in motion. And I feel like that the human rights movement has really fed me, inspired me, given me ideas for films. A lot of people in that movement are in our films, and I’d like to think that our films have helped grow that movement. So if you can build on what you’ve already started, which is an incredibly strong film and a great outreach campaign, in your next film, or even just the way of working, it would be really beneficial to you.
Ruiz: I think it is a really huge lesson and I think like everything I’ve done in my filmmaking career, done it the hard way, or done it the wrong way, gone through the wrong doors before I get there and at the end of the process we were lucky enough to have support from the Ford Foundation, from The Fledgling Fund and others. But those supporters came in once we had a kind of defined campaign and once those things really started to take shape, and you do realize that the types of dialogues you can provoke and the types of things you can push when a film is used strategically like that.
What comes to mind is in Mexico we partnered with Ambulante Itinerante Documentary Festival, which is really one of the best exhibition experiences that I’ve had. They ended up screening Reportero in 13 cities through Mexico, including in Tijuana, where much of the film is set. They screened it in Salvador to journalists and other organizations. So the amount of press and discussion that emerged from those screenings was really kind of profound. Those types of partnerships, in part through Ford Mexico and Ambulante, and being able to do that in the place where the story was set, was maybe most urgent was one of the most satisfying elements of that process.
Yates: I also think it’s really important to have control over your film so that you can do the kind of impact campaign that you want to do. There are going to be some places where you’re going to make decisions about the film that don’t have anything to do with the profit motive of the film. For example, in Guatemala, we give Granito away for free, you just have to fill out a Google Doc and our co-producer will send you a DVD. And we make multiple language versions of the film, so not only is it available in Spanish, but in K’iche and Ixil, two of the major Maya language groups.
We found that even when people speak Spanish and it’s not their first language, Spanish is fine, and they generally understand Spanish, but that the film in their own language touches their heart in a different way. So we’ve consistently tried to raise money to make multiple language versions of the film. And in some cases we raise more money for outreach than we raise for the film, but sometimes you have to do it yourself to show foundations and other organizations that you have the confidence that it’s going to stick.