POV @ 25: Pamela Yates & Bernardo Ruiz on Being in the Line of Fire and Collaborations
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 the second of four parts, the two directors talk about the possible dangers of documentary filmmaking and the benefits of long-term artistic collaboration.
Yates: I’ve always been attracted to stories that are happening in the moment, and originally when I went to film in Guatemala during the 1980s when there was a civil war going on; it was a hidden war. The Guatemalan journalists, like the Mexican journalists today, were being killed for trying to tell the story. And foreign journalists who came to Guatemala were being stopped at the airport and being deported. When they had presidential elections in Guatemala in 1982, they felt like they had to let in the international press corps and I slipped into Guatemala unnoticed. Along with my original two partners at Skylight Pictures, Peter Kinoy, who’s still my partner, and Tom Sigel. Tom was a cameraman, and now a cinematographer. He filmed Drive, he shot Drive; he shot The Usual Suspects, X-Men, Valkyrie. We went in together and we stayed for 6 months. We just never left.
But you know, I felt a kind of urgency to tell the story. I felt like if I could just bring these stories about what was happening in Guatemala to the rest of the world, that it would help attenuate the violence there; and the international community would help make it stop. American citizens were not getting the news of what happened in Guatemala and yet the United States was very caught up in aiding and abetting those wars in Central America. So I felt this responsibility as a citizen, even though when I look at myself now in footage from Granito tapping the microphone to do slates, I look terrified. And I remember at the time I was afraid. But I was also driven to tell the story. And those two things are not incompatible. And you learn to not be afraid of fear. You try to be careful, but you have to kind of embrace fear and take your cues from people around you who know more than you do.
Hey, if this stuff were easy, everybody would be doing it. I also think in my case, I went to Guatemala and came back from Guatemala. The Guatemalans stayed in Guatemala. They were much more at risk than I was. And for that reason, because they tried and couldn’t really document what was happening, at least in filmic terms, any Guatemalan that wants to license material from When the Mountains Tremble for their films, the stories they’re telling now, can have it. Because I feel like it’s part of their collective memory as a country.
Ruiz: I have a slightly different experience there because you were in active combat situations in When the Mountains Tremble. For Reportero, really at the end of the day, the people who were facing the greatest dangers are the journalists themselves, and specifically the journalists at Semanario Zeta. While we were filming Adela Navarro, the editor of the paper, she received death threats. We were never threatened directly and we always had the ability to pick up and leave anytime if something got hot or we were made aware of a situation being intense. And I think the tension with a film like Reportero is not so much the kind of immediate danger of being in a combat situation or being in a firefight, but the kind of the effects of provoking power; the effects of maybe making public officials unhappy with their portrayal in the film, or the people you’re implicating through the journalists’ work.
The film is now screened in a huge swath of Mexico, and we have had responses—thankfully there haven’t been any direct threats and provocations. If anything, some of the Mexican folks I worked with have said to me that the film is pretty gentle on some of the corrupt figures in Mexico. So I would just say, Pam, you were in direct combat situations. We were really looking at corruption, interviewing people and the danger is more in the effects of representing that and making it known to the world.
Yates: But did you ever feel that you might be targeted while you were shooting the film?
Ruiz: I know the journalists at Zeta in the beginning, before they knew me, were vetting me. I found out about that afterwards. Like any good journalist, they’re checking up on you. I think there was the benefit in the beginning of not being part of a major news organization. There are benefits and costs to being an independent. When we would arrive in Tijuana and check into a hotel, the manager of the hotel thought we were an indie rock band, so he would say, “Where are you guys going to play tonight?” So that was useful in the beginning. In a mini-van or a rental car, looking like something that is not a threat, not a legitimate news organization. The downside is that on the other end of things, if you’re an independent, you don’t have the protection of…you don’t seem like you’re with CNN or some larger news organization.
The only other thing I would say, too, is that I am conscious of the fact that I’m a dual citizen. I maintain a Mexican citizenship for whatever that’s worth, and I have family and friends and contacts in Mexico. I have deep, longstanding relationships there. So that’s also something I’m conscious of, the impact of the work there. At the end of the day for me the bigger fear was what happens to the journalists, what happens to the people in the film. I feel I had built enough political relationships where we’re more protected. It’s not that something couldn’t happen to me or my crew, but it would be a lot of bad press to kill American filmmakers.
Yates: There would be a political cost.
Ruiz: There would be a political cost to it. But it could happen. But really the journalists in the smaller regions that don’t get a lot of attention, those are the ones risking…Sergio and his colleagues were the ones who were at risk.
Yates: Do you shoot yourself?
Ruiz: I’m a competent shooter. What I tell people is that anything that doesn’t look good in Reportero was mine. I love to shoot, I kind of feel like I’m a jack of all trades, but I definitely am not a master…I shoot and I’ll cut assemblies and I love sound, and I can do all of those things, but at the end of the day if I have the resources, I prefer to work with collaborators. I know there’s a whole school of filmmaking where it’s an auteur and this person is doing everything. That’s something I really respect, but I also think there are times where so much of filmmaking is connecting with people and drawing them in. Juggling authorities and doing all these things, I like to have someone shooting or doing something. I also like to have a set of eyes on the world, just making sure that everything is protected to do this one thing.
Yates: I especially like to work with great cinematographers just because I think if we’re going to tell these very difficult stories, we have to utilize all the power of cinema to be able to shape them. Maybe that’s because I started out as in sound and I got to work with a lot of cinematographers. I got to see how they work; I got to shape my own tastes—that for me was a must. I’ll do some myself, if I have to, but I also prefer not to if I, like you said, have the resources to be able to do it, although I’m kind of a freak about sound.
Ruiz: It’s great in Granito watching all those outtakes of you, doing the sound.
Yates: It’s funny because you always remember what you put into a film, but you never remember what you took out of a film, and if you haven’t looked at any of the outtakes for 25 years and all of a sudden you start looking at them…I forgot actually that I was in every single shot, that the camera would turn to me and that I would be in the shot, so I was looking at myself 25 years younger, and that’s where we really got the idea to put me in the film as a witness. Originally I wasn’t going to be in the film, I was telling the story of the Guatemalans. Then I thought we could have this level of filmmaking where we could make the film a love letter to the next generation; to try to share the experiences and the opportunities that we can, and the ideas we had about making film.
Ruiz: I also think that through a process like yours, you realize the benefit of these longstanding partnerships with collaborators. I say it a lot with the students I teach. In the beginning they want to do everything: I’m going to shoot, I’m going to record sound, and it’s admirable, and a few do go on to own all those. But you quickly realize that people excel in one or the other. I feel like unless you’re a very particular type of filmmaker, you miss this process…I love being able to travel with a trusted d.p. My cinematographer on Reportero is a veteran Mexican d.p., Claudio Rocha, who has shot a ton of features and docs, and for me half the joy of making a film like this is working with him, just spending weeks on the road with somebody like that and having their perspective inform the work as well.
Yates: And your film has such a strong sense of place. It really takes you on a journey into that part of the world, and the cinematography is such a big part of that.
Ruiz: I think that those relationships that you have with the people you’ve worked with over and over again, the people you collaborate on this longstanding level, enable you to work in a very different way. It’s not like you’re hiring somebody for the day, as often happens in television. There are these kind of long creative relationships that you have with people, who you share and kind of debate the ideas of the film. I think that’s a really rich process, a special process.
Yates: Peter Kinoy, who’s my partner at Skylight Pictures, he is the producer and the editor of When the Mountains Tremble, so we’ve traveled this 30 years journey together. And he and Paco de Onis, who’s our other partner at Skylight and my husband, wrote Granito with me. Even though it’s my voice and my story, we all wrote it together. So I don’t think the film would be the film it is without the collaboration of the three of us. I tell the story in the first person, but truly it is a combination of our thinking about documentary film that we tried to put into this love letter. So I agree, it is really important to try to develop an ensemble. Will you work with Claudio again?
Ruiz: I will work with Claudio again. I would say I have maybe two other principal collaborators, it’s Claudio Rocha on the cinematography front and Carla Gutierrez, who’s just a really outstanding editor. She’s actually currently working on a series that will be on Independent Lens in 2013, called The Graduates, it’s two one-hour films, it’s also a bilingual project.
What I love about that collaborative relationship is that very early on in our career, when I was so broke, I would sleep on her floor; and when we were really unsure if we would ever be able to make films, her and her husband are kind of close friends in production. To be able to travel that journey with people ten years later, to be working with them on serious films that are getting out into the world—there’s a great pleasure in that, because you also know that people see where you come from and know you from a particular place. You know their heart is in the right place, they’re doing the work because it matters in some real way. So that’s part of the process I really appreciate, both personally and creatively. I feel like I need to be able to have honest, direct conversations with people, and I tend to like to work with people who I’ve known, or who at least I feel like I can have an unfiltered conversation with. Especially if you’re trading in situations where there are life and death choices, or there are situations where you’re putting people at risk, you need to work with really people you trust.