Two-time Emmy nominated documentary filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz (Reportero, Kingdom of Shadows) is bound for DOC NYC with his most recent film Harvest Season, a timely and moving portrait of the Mexican-American influence an legacy on California’s multibillion-dollar wine industry. Ruiz’s film will have its New York premiere on Tuesday, November 13 and Thursday, November 15 at the IFC Center.
Far-reaching and compassionate in its scope, Harvest Season probes the lives of the temporary laborers, permanent residents, and multigenerational Latinos intimately connected to the production of premium wines in the Napa and Sonoma regions of Northern California—in the midst of one of the most dramatic grape harvests in recent memory.
The film follows the stories of three distinct subjects essential to the wine industry yet, as with many others, are rarely recognized for their contributions: veteran winemaker Gustavo Brambila, Mexican migrant worker René Reyes, and wine entrepreneur Vanessa Robledo. Harvest Season successfully stitches together vignettes of daily life for migrant workers and positions them next to stories of Mexican-American wine entrepreneurs whose roots run deep in Northern California.
Their stories unfold against the complex backdrop of reality in California’s Wine Country—a region of immense wealth that’s accountable for $1.53 billion in export revenue last year. From this notion, Ruiz exposes Napa and Sonoma counties as spaces that inherently symbolize the contradictions foundational to the American story: romanticized global destinations replete with luxury hotels and precious real estate on the one hand, and working-class agricultural communities with high rates of poverty and crises in affordable housing on the other.
Following the wildfires in the area in October of 2017, which caused widespread damage and claimed 44 lives, Ruiz stays on location to document the rebuilding process—making sure to recognize the efforts of these communities that have long been the backbone of one of California’s most important industries.
ITVS: Currently you are filming Harvest Season in Napa County, showcasing those unmentioned heroes of the wine industry. Tell us a little about the decision to root yourself in this particular community?
RUIZ: The original idea for the film was and remains to celebrate the behind-the-scenes players in the Napa and Sonoma wine industries, many of whom hail from Mexico. On the surface, the idea is quite simple: to tell as story about the people we rarely hear about in food and travel shows about wine, by foregrounding them and following them over the course of the 2017 grape harvest —come what may. I drew early inspiration from John Else’s wonderful Sing Faster: The Stagehand’s Ring Cycle (1999). That film follows the staging of an opera from the perspective of the stage-hands, who are a key part of the opera, but who normally remain hidden from view. To get at that “hidden from view” story for Harvest Season, I have been living and shooting in Napa and Sonoma Counties for the past three months, as pickers, other vineyard workers, vintners and owners have all faced unpredictable weather and a variety of other ups and downs. Of course, now they have faced a history-making disaster that has caused widespread damage and—to date—has claimed 42 lives.
How has your presence impacted them so far? How did you go about gaining access?
Since I actually began shooting Harvest Season back in December of 2015, I have been able to build strong relationships with the participants in the film. And since Napa, for instance, has a community that is very civically engaged, the vast majority of community members I have met and interviewed for the film - from electeds, to law enforcement, to community non-profits, to vintners and workers of all stripes - have been eager to talk. In fact, it has been my experience that most people in the wine industry take a tremendous amount of pride in what they do and are eager to share how their skills—be it grafting, pruning, picking, or working in the cellar, contribute to an industry that generates an annual economic impact of more than than $50 billion in the U.S.
During your project, tragedy strikes overnight with out of control wildfires decimating parts of Sonoma and Napa counties. Where were you in those first hours? What questions and decisions did you have to make in those moments?
When I first heard word of the fires early Monday morning of the 9th it came as a big shock. Within a few hours, I found myself on Route 29 with no cell service and a deepening sense of dread as a dark grey haze began to blanket the normally sunny skies. In Napa, the parking lot of one of the local Starbucks was filled to overflowing as residents (and reporters) congregated for free wifi, searching for updates from loved ones and news about the fires. The devastation was severe, swift and far-ranging. Over the course of the next week and a half I worked with four different DP’s to record not just the devastation itself, but the relief efforts, the work at temporary shelters, the mobilization of volunteers and most crucially the impact the fires had on the participants in my film. My job then became to chronicle this shift to the best of my abilities and with the resources at hand.
Risky is an understatement to describe staying on location to capture your characters, local residences, and others who struggled with the blaze. Why was it important for you to continue your work?
At this stage, I am incredibly invested in the people who I have been following and who have allowed me into their lives. Everyone was impacted in different ways, but as we have seen with other natural disasters this year in Puerto Rico, Texas and in other places, these events have a way of exacerbating existing inequalities. My primary goal has been to document how communities are being impacted, and how this will change their futures. I am committed to documenting the rebuilding process—one which will inevitably involve the immigrant labor force which has long been the backbone of these communities.
How do you feel your film will pivot or evolve to encompass this catastrophe?
Having produced for a nightly news show myself, I know first-hand that news organizations are setup to deploy crews and correspondents quickly. Their job is to cover disaster before their competitors. They are covering so many things at once, that their aim is to obtain dramatic footage, include an important fact or takeaway, and then move on to the next hotspot. They tend to not stick around. Longform documentary is different. I didn’t so much pivot as I doubled down – further committing to following the participants in the film, and the communities they belong to, as they rebuild lives and businesses.
KINGDOM OF SHADOWS directed by Bernardo Ruiz has been nominated for a 2017 News & Documentary Emmy. Nominations for the 38th Annual News and Documentary Emmy® Awards were announced on July 25th by The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS). The News & Documentary Emmy Awards will be presented on Thursday, October 5th, 2017, at a ceremony at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in the Time Warner Complex at Columbus Circle in New York City. We are honored to be in the company of some excellent documentary films.
Bernardo Ruiz joins the Advisory Committee for the IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund.
"Original, investigative documentaries have never been easy to produce," explains Advisory Committee member Bernardo Ruiz, whose films include Reportero and Kingdom of Shadows. "But now filmmakers face a host of new challenges and obstacles. IDA's critical support for work that necessarily takes risks could not come at a better or more welcome time."
Full release here.
The people we meet in Kingdom of Shadows are citizens of another country. Despite living in different regions and intersecting at different points within the narco history of the last three decades, all three live within the boundaries of loss and tragedy.
For this film, I wanted the viewer to inhabit their perspectives as a way to understand how the U.S.-Mexico drug business shifted from the more centralized trade of the mid 1980s to the chaotic and hyper-violent expression we know from sensationalized headlines and beheading videos of today. The film’s narrators, de-facto residents of a separate “kingdom,” are credible witnesses to that shift. Some would consider them smaller players in a bigger drama. But in this film, they are the primary narrators, occupying center stage.
Don Henry Ford, Jr. is an Anglo Texan rancher who participated in the drug business as a smuggler during the mid 1980s, at a time when a transaction—at least a marijuana one—could be conducted with a handshake. Oscar Hagelsieb, the son of undocumented parents from Mexico, rose quickly through the Border Patrol in order to become a Homeland Security Investigator. On his way, he witnessed firsthand how organized crime in Mexico and the borderlands went from the more centralized “old-school” model to the splintered and highly violent version of the last decade. Sister Consuelo Morales, dubbed “a combination of tenderness and fury” by journalist Diego Osorno (one of the consultants on the film), began picking up the pieces of this new hyper-violent and militaristic conflict in 2009. In work that continues to this day, she and her staff organize and support family members, mostly mothers, who are fighting for very basic rights long denied them: the right to truth and the right to justice.
Taken together, these three individual stories and their surrounding contexts tell a bigger story — of the terrible harm that has been unequally apportioned to all of those whose lives have been touched by the illegal drug business.
Yet this isn’t exclusively a film about the poorly named “drug war.” It is as much a story about the U.S.-Mexico relationship as it is a film about the narco. Despite the very deep demographic, cultural and economic ties between the two countries, stories about this relationship — whether in journalism or fiction — tend toward the reductive or frequently slip into lazy tropes. It is an especially astonishing fact when you consider that over 10% of the U.S. population, roughly 34 million people, can trace their heritage to Mexico. With so many ties, one has to wonder why many prominent outlets have a blindspot when it comes to Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
In Kingdom of Shadows, as in most of my work, I have sought to fill in the gaps in reporting on these issues by larger outlets, often attempting to make space for the nuance and complexity that I believe independent documentary film is uniquely able to capture. Increasingly, I have sought collaborations with journalists and on this film, I worked with three reporters who not only have deep experience reporting on the U.S., Mexico and organized crime, but who also have deep personal ties to the regions they are covering: Mr. Osorno, Angela Kocherga and Alfredo Corchado.
Kingdom of Shadows is the fruit of this collaboration. It is also part of an ongoing journalistic and artistic examination of the ties that bind two countries often locked into a love/hate relationship. Ultimately, this story is about people coping with the harm that an illicit trade, and the policies constructed to stop it, created. It is about how people are connected by the experience of that harm, granting them a kind of status in another country or “kingdom” — one habitually covered by shadow.
I had no intention of making a film about journalists in Mexico. I began this project as an examination of how an overlooked part of the U.S.-Mexico border — the region encompassing the twin cities of Calexico and Mexicali — was changing, in some quiet and not-so-quiet ways. The area is both physically beautiful and contradictory. It is both a desert and one of the most productive farming regions in North America. It is also considered by some to be a major staging ground for drug trafficking into the United States.
Though I was born in Mexico, I had no personal connection to this stretch of the border. Instead, I became interested in the area in 2007, when I heard about a shelter for deported children in the city of Mexicali, state capital of Baja. During a research trip there, I was encouraged to contact a local reporter. On the appointed day, 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 three-hour conversation.
From that first meeting forward, I understood that all of the narrative threads I had been chasing — immigration, corruption and the rise of narco power in Mexico — converged in Sergio’s story. Through hundreds of dispatches and photographs, Sergio has borne witness to his native Mexicali and the surrounding border region for nearly three decades. His work is a kaleidoscopic record of place. It is also a testament to his dogged commitment to “the job.”
Most reporters don’t like to be the story, and Sergio was understandably reticent about being on camera at first. So, we began a series of conversations that initially didn’t have a clear objective. Instead, they were exploratory. Over the course of two years, I interviewed him dozens and dozens of times. Off-camera in the beginning. Sometimes just recording audio. Sometimes in the dark of his living room in Mexicali, waiting for the intense heat of the city to dissipate. Those conversations are the basis for Reportero.
The film is Sergio’s story, but it is also the story of his colleagues and the weekly newspaper Zeta (no relation to the cartel of the same name), where he has spent most of his career. Sergio is not the only reportero in the film. Jesus Blancornelas, founder of Zeta, who survived an attack by 10 hired killers is also the reportero. The murdered columnist and co-founder of the paper, Héctor Félix Miranda, is also the reportero. Sergio’s friend and collaborator, Benjamín Flores, gunned down just days after his 29th birthday, is the reportero. Adela Navarro, Sergio’s boss and the outspoken and driven co-director of the paper, is the reportera.
I see this film as part “character” story and part meditation on the nature of the job — a job that is difficult and often deadly. The Committee to Protect Journalists tells us that more than 50 journalists have been slain or have vanished in Mexico since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderón came to power and launched a government offensive against the country’s powerful drug cartels and organized crime groups.
What does it mean to report on the activities of organized crime or corrupt politicians in this context? What goes through a reporter’s mind when he or she is about to break a story that is, as Sergio says in the film, “like a grenade before you remove the pin”? Why persist when the risks are many, the benefits few? Reportero poses the same question that serves as the title of the collection of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s final dispatches before she was murdered in 2006: Is journalism worth dying for?
For me, Reportero is an act of remembrance. It is a wake for Sergio’s colleagues who have paid for their work with their blood. It is also an act of translation — but translation where fragments and testimonies from one place are granted a new life, in an entirely new and different place. The film is an act of celebration, for Sergio Haro and his many colleagues, who stubbornly persist.