Now for the interview:
1. Bill, how did you become involved with social justice issues in Latin America?
During the 80s when the U.S. government was supporting regimes in Central America which were committing horrible human rights violations I became interested in the plight of political asylum seekers from that region. I made a documentary called "Where is Refuge" that was shot in the U.S., Canada and Costa Rica. The Costa Rican part was to show that refugee camps in that country were incapable of fulfilling the need. At the time, Canada was admitting about 75% of these asylum seekers; while the U.S. was admitting about 3%, so I tried to show how politicized our policy was.
Afterward, I couldn't just walk away from what I had seen and I became a volunteer at Vive, a refuge house for people to stay at here in the U.S. while they completed their applications for asylum admission to Canada; and that is how my activism around Latin American issues got started. That ultimately hooked me up with the Latin American Solidarity Committee of the WNY Peace Center, which has been the focus of my activism since then.
2. What made you choose film as a format for exploring these issues and stories?
I had already made art videos and documentaries about art and dance therapy (my wife is an art therapist) and so it was natural for me to want to turn the techniques I had learned to my new interests. Everyone going into documentary has the illusion that they can change things—I did and, frankly, still do. But now I think it has less to do with shifting the gears of the mass culture and more to do with solidifying communities of resistance and winning a few converts along the way. After all, I was deeply changed by documentaries, albeit by making them rather than by seeing them.
3. Tell us about your latest film, Broken Branches, Fallen Fruit.
Broken Branches is the first documentary that I ever made that I wound up loving, warts and all. Through it I became linked in relationships of trust and mutual curiosity with individuals and families of Tzotzil-speaking Mayan Highland Chiapanecos. Chiapas is the Southernmost Mexican State, and the poorest. These people are among the poorest of the poor.
So on the foreground level—and especially in the title piece—it is about them; a particular family, the lack of work and land, and the resulting drive among the young to immigrate to the U.S. On one level it becomes a conversation between generations about immigration. On another level it becomes a gender dialogue about what it means to be in that situation. It implicitly becomes a meditation about what is worthy of preservation in the culture and the likelihood of that happening.
I decided to surround this central family story with with other material such as looking at surrounding conditions and causes—almost like layers of an onion covering the living core. I put together mini documentaries on topics like how trade agreements like NAFTA, and neo-liberalism in general, are contributing to the conditions that drive immigration; about cooperatives (weaving, coffee, etc.) that the people are forming to demand a more just price for their products; and about several other related issues. I will show a couple of these at the Little's screening.
4. What is the most interesting audience question you have had during a post-screening discussion?
I can think of two. Some people are very moved, not by my doc, but by the people in it, and they want to know what they can do. Right now I would say: support immigration reform, go to Washington on March 21st to march, and tell the administration there is widespread desire for legislation on behalf of the immigrants who come here and do our work to be treated like human beings. Also, people need to find ways to promote legislation that would monitor the effects of NAFTA on the people in these countries and modify it to make it less harmful to the poor. One young woman I know of was motivated to go to her church and get them to fund a scholarship for young women in Chiapas.
5. How have your films helped start conversations and promote change?
The young woman who got the scholarship started is the most dramatic instance of change I know. Beyond that, I think it is mostly conversations and incremental shifts and changes. We live in a world where we are literally awash in media and the media that people spend most time with are controlled by the giant corporations.
So someone who has the hope of sparking change with documentaries is a little like David before Goliath—but not likely to have the outcome of that story. Even Michael Moore, who has reached relatively large audiences despairs about making any real dent in the way big money runs things. But I don't despair. I think that John Berger and Eduardo Galeano are right when they say that we are in a period where we need to pull together and support one another. As communities struggle against the commodification of human beings, the destruction of cultural traditions and community, we have to survive and make our values survive. I hope that my documentary work is a small tug in that direction.