Each and every year at DOC NYC Film Festival, the films are extraordinary, providing insight and knowledge about topics, many of which were previously unknown. This year, we have a classic David versus Goliath tale in Baja Sur Mexico thanks to the dedicated talent and determination of filmmakers Sarah Teale and Lisa F. Jackson with their film “Patrimonio.” The film takes us on a journey located in a quaint Mexican seaside village, Todos Santos, where American investors attempted to not only create a vacation paradise, but also destroy a way of life for local residents. This David versus Goliath story is filled with surprise twists and turns as we peel away the layers of political corruption spurned by greed. With devastating environmental consequences, the town, initially set into division, bands together, reminding us all of the power of persistence, knowledge, and belief in doing what’s right for the right reasons. It’s one of the most inspiring and gripping tales of how sometimes money can’t buy everything.
I had the pleasure of talking with the filmmakers to learn more about the making of this uplifting documentary. Their candid responses gives viewers even more appreciation for their relentlessness in depicting the situation, their own personalities, as well as this how this beautiful film and story came to be.
***** Warning: Spoiler Alerts Ahead, but all very happy ones! *****
Pamela Powell (PP): How did the two of you first become connected?
Sarah Teale (ST): Lisa and I both make documentaries for HBO and knew about each other for years but in 2011 I invited Lisa to visit us at our farm in upstate New York. I was starting a cooperative for grass fed beef farmers and Lisa started filming the farmers and edited them into short films for the new co-op’s web site. We then realized that this was a much larger undertaking and their stories said a lot about the state of our food systems today. So Lisa kept filming. The result was the documentary Grazers: A Cooperative Story, which also screened at DOC NYC.
Lisa F. Jackson (LFJ): Also, I had just finished three docs in a row about rape and sexual violence and I jumped at the chance to spend time in the Adirondacks with Sarah and her cows.
PP: How did you first hear about Tres Santos and then decide to document the citizens fight to regain control?
ST: My husband has owned a house in Todos Santos for 35 years and I have been going there for years. In 2015 he noticed a huge foundation wall being erected on the fishermen’s beach and we heard about plans for a massive mega development starting on the fishermen’s beach. We also heard that the fishermen were fine with this but we decided to go and ask them and that started a three year odyssey in which the fishermen led an ultimately successful fight to stop the development.
LFJ: Sarah and I were looking for another project to work on together and she invited me to visit Todos Santos in the winter of 2015 with an eye towards researching a film about the Sea of Cortez, but the real film was closer to home. That day on the beach we met fisherman Rosario Salvatierra and his rage and passion was contagious: we knew we had our main character and the beginning of a story.
PP: Your film is refreshingly unusual in that we truly have a happy ending in a documentary about human rights. This “David vs. Goliath” scenario could have gone either way. As you watched the events unfold, as I’m sure this is true with many documentaries, is your story line constantly changing as you’re editing it in your mind?
ST: We had no idea where this story was going and mostly dreaded that the outcome would be as it had been in Cabo San Lucas. Cabo is just an hour south of Todos Santos and the developers have totally taken over the community. As with any cinema verité film you take off after a story and hope that it will pan out. Lisa and I grew up in the HBO stable of filmmakers where Sheila Nevins allowed you the time and the space to follow a story until there is a logical end so that is what we did. We are both rather stubborn.
LFJ: There were many times over those years when it indeed looked like the fishermen – and their supporters – would be crushed by the devious and unscrupulous developers – but I just stuck with the fishermen, knowing that they were not going down without an epic fight.
PP: Tell me more about gaining access to the citizens in this community.
ST: I think at first the fishermen were just grateful that someone had come to ask them their opinion. After that they were grateful that we just stuck around. Lisa speaks perfect Spanish and soon picked up their particular accent and prodigious swear words and after a while they more or less forgot that she was there. Todos Santanians are on the whole very open and trusting and I think they just trusted us to tell their story.
LFJ: We told the fishermen straight up that we wanted to follow their fight and I just kept showing up, both at the beach and at their homes. Total immersion was the only way to get the intimate footage that Patrimonio required: long days on the boat with Rosario, long nights shooting the blockade, endless meetings and rallies and vigils and never knowing if the next day would bring an intimidating lawsuit or a devastating high tide, a new baby or the death of a patriarch. I felt in a way that the fishermen were cheered by the camera, that it was validating their resistance and that we were all in it together.
PP: What was one of the most surprising hurdles you encountered and how did you tackle it?
ST: Lisa was sued along with five other people. It is mentioned in the film but we left out her name. On several occasions the police arrived at our house to serve her papers. This could have meant serious jail time and a massive fine and was not something to take lightly even though it was based on nothing. John Moreno kept on top of the paperwork and filing the right counter arguments and Lisa registered with the US Consulate but the only way to tackle such hurdles from a personal point of view is to carry on and try not to be intimated. Not easy.
LFJ: John’s jail time was hairy for everybody but the four of us who – along with John – had been sued by the company and threatened with arrest couldn’t help but wonder if we were next. Mexico is not a safe place for journalists and keeping my focus in the face of that was tough at times. One hurdle we couldn’t overcome was the developers’ adamant refusals to be interviewed, but their despicable acts began to pile up and in the end that told us all we needed to know about them. Another hurdle was the heavy logistical load of living in New York City while shooting a film 3,000 miles away, a problem I solved two years ago by selling the apartment where I’d lived for 30 years and moving to Todos Santos!
PP: When John was arrested and detained for months, can you share with me what was your thought process about the film and your ability to continue?
ST: At the beginning we did not think that John’s jail time would last too long but it was shock to everyone when he was denied bail. But it was in fact a gift for the film and a gift for the fight. Everyone in town was horrified and the developers revealed who they really were and how the were connected both politically and to the judiciary. John’s arrest united the community in the fight and gave our film a focus and ultimately a rather joyous ending.
LFJ: John and his family are friends of mine, and his arrest sickened all of us: in Mexico activists are routinely “disappeared” and things could have gone very badly. But after a moment of stunned paralysis the fishermen – and the town – just ramped up the fight and those responsible for having him arrested knew that we were all watching. Not continuing was not an option.
PP: I’m sure that as a documentary filmmaker, it’s hard to stay removed from the situation at hand, especially when you’re witnessing injustices. As documentarians, can you share with me some of the more difficult moments in this particular film, to stay removed?
ST: We asked ourselves that question a lot throughout this film but sometime there is simply right and wrong and we knew which side right was. The developers could have done the right thing at any time but with every step they made things worse and hoped that their aggression, their money and their political connections would win, as it usually does in Mexico and the United States. But the people of Todos Santos are very independent minded and fierce that they wouldn’t give up so we didn’t either.
PP: What is the message you hope viewers and even other “Davids” (vs. “Goliaths”) to take away from your film?
ST: We feel that the fishermen’s fight and the tactics used by John Moreno offer a blueprint for other communities and other fights. The fishermen stood up for their legal and human rights and kept that mission front and center at all times. They appealed to universal values and backed it up with law and they used every available outlet to get their information and their truth out there – marches, brochures, meetings, social media and ultimately lawsuits.
LFJ: The fight against Tres Santos was a rolling snowball and I think the film shows how the fishermen’s concern about their beach became a cumulative and collective outrage against this threat to the town’s very existence. It only becomes a David v Goliath story when the underdog decides to pick up a rock and put it in their slingshot and the audacity that the fishermen showed in speaking truth to power was that rock. It’s a simple story, but a universal one.
PP: What is it about making documentaries that appeals most to you as a creative filmmaker?
ST: Nothing beats real life for good stories. Nothing. It is scary but I also love that you never know what is going to happen and when. As with life, you just have to roll with it and hope. I have always loved documentaries and always will and was inspired by the generation before us who essentially invented the form.
LFJ: I have been involved in documentary filmmaking ever since I left MIT film school in 1971 and my career has been one where every project has been an immersion in a different reality, and the challenge and thrill of that hooked me immediately. My mentor, Ricky Leacock, was one of the fathers of cinema verite and his great advice to me was “get closer”. It’s been my great privilege to have spent over 40 years with that as my job description.
PP: And finally, as female filmmakers, how do you see, if at all, the environment changing for women in this industry?
ST: Lisa and I were lucky enough to work for a very powerful and dedicated woman at HBO. Sheila Nevins has done more to promote documentaries than anyone ever and she always supported women but more than that she supported good filmmakers wherever she found them and good stories. That was all that mattered to her ultimately and that was both very freeing and very challenging – she wouldn’t commission you just because it was you but only if you could deliver a good film. There are more opportunities these days for women and that is a very good thing but they still have to deliver and that will always be the ultimate challenge.
LFJ: Women are more technically hands-on than ever before and fearless about picking up a camera and just doing it. Documentary filmmaking has always seemed more egalitarian than the world of Hollywood fiction and it’s thrilling to see so many women taking up the challenge of telling the female-focused stories that we’ve been missing, and they’re seeing the effect that those stories can have. In the 70’s when I was starting out I didn’t have any female role models but I now see many women mentoring other women and that makes me sanguine about how far we’ve come and where we’re headed.
It is with absolute gratitude that I give to both Teale and Jackson for not being intimidated and to deliver such a cinematically courageous and inspiring film. If you missed “Patrimonio” in NYC, you’ll be able to see it on DVD and VOD in March, 2019 via First Run Features.