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LatinoBuzz: Alex Rivera & Greg Berger on Making Political Films & Joining a Cheese-Making Collective

LatinoBuzz: Alex Rivera & Greg Berger on Making Political Films & Joining a Cheese-Making Collective

Greg
“Gringoyo” Berger
is an American filmmaker living in Mexico who
makes social justice films. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and
understands his position as an outsider in the country, often calling himself a
revolutionary tourist.

Recently, in light of the drastic and violent effects the drug
war has inflicted upon Mexico, he has focused his camera on narcos and failed
drug policies. But, unlike his prior more conventional documentaries, his style
has evolved to include satire and humor to get his point across.

Berger will be screening several of his short films next week
at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens together with Alex Rivera,
director of the science fiction film Sleep Dealer. Set in Mexico, it is
not your run-of-the-mill sci-fi movie. It’s in Spanish, it’s political and it
imagines the near future, a world of cyberbraceros, coyoteks,
remotely-controlled drones, aqua-terrorists, and closed borders. Both
filmmakers use an imaginative and original lens to look at political issues.
And, it turns out they are old college friends.

LatinoBuzz talked to Berger and Rivera about their free
screening named “Bordering on Absurd,” what inspired them to make political
films, and their college days spent in a cheese-making collective. Yeah, read
on. It gets hilarious.

LatinoBuzz: How did the
two of you meet? Have you collaborated on films before?

Rivera: We met at
Hampshire College in the early nineteen-nineties. Back then, you needed a hand
crank to power up the internet, and moving images were recorded in flip books.
Even so, we managed to discover a set of shared interests in media,
performance, and politics. While we’ve never produced a film together, we’ve
always been in creative dialogue. Greg is a maniac. In a good way.

Berger: Alex is a
maniac too, but he tries to pawn it off on me. During our time at Hampshire
College I noticed that Alex had a unique talent for creative community
organizing and was a political thinker. We became friends and lived in a kind
of co-op housing unit on campus, spending most of our time creating film and
performance projects around political issues that we felt passionate about. It
seemed like every week we were building a 50 foot version of something for an
“urgent” radical media project. For some reason, whatever we were building was
always big. And we set up lots of front groups to try and siphon funds from the
student activities budget for our projects. We had a cheese-making collective
that never made any cheese. We learned to be resourceful. We each had sections
of our final-year film projects that needed to be filmed in Florida. Alex
needed to interview Jorge Ramos at Univision and I needed to film workers in
the Florida citrus industry. We financed our trip by “volunteering” for an interstate
car transportation service. We had to smile and convince a Massachusetts State
Trooper to let us drive his elderly mom’s 1980s Lincoln Town Car to Miami. I
remember him looking us over suspiciously as we smiled and explained to him the
urgent nature of our film projects. It was sort of like our first pitch to a
grant-giving organization. He let us drive the car, which is a better outcome
than lots of funding meetings I’ve had since.

LatinoBuzz: Can you
explain the meaning of the title of the screening: “Bordering on Absurd”? And,
how did the screening come about? Whose idea was it?

Rivera: I’ll let
Greg field this one.

Berger: Gonzalo
Casals, the Deputy Executive Director at El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan,
thought it was kind of absurd that Alex and I have collaborated for so many
years but never screened our work together! He has been supportive of both of
us for many years. Gonzalo is a big fan of The Museum of the Moving Image in
Astoria, and worked with the team there to make this happen.

Actually, the title “Bordering on Absurd” is a reference to
what it sounds like: absurd and surreal politics around the border as a
constant theme in Alex’s work. And also to my political comedies. The multiple
meanings of the U.S.-Mexico border, as a symbol of economic inequality, and as a barrier that unjustly separates families,
is a common theme in Alex’s work. I use political satire to cover Mexican
social movements and the push to end the farcical “War on Drugs.”

A few years ago I decided to give up long-format political
documentary filmmaking and focus on political satire. I used to think that if
you pointed out how awful something was, people would be moved to change it. I
don’t think that’s true anymore. I’ve watched the city where I live, Cuernavaca,
fall to pieces during the War on Drugs. My friends, family, and neighbors there
don’t want to hear more stories about how horrible things are. They want hope.
Movements to end intolerable situations have to provide hope and even be fun,
and so I only use comedy to cover social movements these days.

But what’s really absurd is how many “far-fetched” elements of
Alex’s science fiction work have actually become reality. The remote labor
systems, outsourced military contractors, and drone warfare in Sleep Dealer have all turned out to be features of our contemporary
historical moment. That’s not just bordering on absurd. That’s beyond absurd.


LatinoBuzz: Can you talk
a little bit about the films you will be showing? What do they have in common?
Why did you choose them?

Rivera: Well, as I
mentioned, we’ve always been in creative dialogue, both of us seeking ways to
use humor, satire, and genre to directly address contentious political issues.
And we’ve both, for various reasons, ended up in something of a “mental
borderland” – working on images and stories and themes that connect the U.S.
and Mexico.

Berger: Over the
last decade I have been involved with a project in Mexico called The School for
Authentic Journalism that is a affiliated with the online newspaper Narco News. I will be screening several
short parodies that cover the movements to end the War on Drugs in Mexico, all
of which grew out of my work with those projects. Those films include Spring
Breakers
Without Borders, Narco-Mania, and Foreigner
Watch
. I will also be screening Now! (¡Ahora!) which I will talk
more about in a bit.

LatinoBuzz: When you do
a screening like this (which is free) what is your objective?

Rivera: To learn
from the audience. To come away a little more fired up to make new work.

Berger: The short
term objective is to not get booed offstage. Over the last few years I have
been concentrating on internet distribution and distribution via “self-piracy”
in Mexico City’s bootleg DVD markets. (By that I mean working with networks of
bootleg DVD stands to make sure my films are outside every subway station in
Mexico City.) Finding mass audiences is important if you want to use film as a
political organizing tool, but there’s no substitute for screening work in
front of a live audience. I steal most of my best ideas from live audiences.

I am also looking forward to speaking with Alex in front of an
audience about what we can do to use film as a tool for political movements. I
just hope that Gonzalo doesn’t have any Jerry Springer type surprises lined up
for the event.

LatinoBuzz: Which came
first your interest in politics or becoming a filmmaker? Were your films always
political or did you evolve as a filmmaker?

Rivera: For a long
time I’ve worked from the belief that EVERY FILM IS POLITICAL. It’s impossible
to make a non-political film. Every time you make a decision about theme,
location, cast, etc., you’re making a decision that puts certain people and certain
points-of-view in the center of the frame. And inevitably, you’re also pushing
other people and themes to the margins. ALWAYS. So the question any thoughtful
filmmaker must confront is: who do I want to put in the center? Whose
point-of-view do I want to explore?

Berger: I agree with
Alex completely. Every film promotes a political worldview. I have been
interested in grassroots politics since attending the massive anti-nuclear,
anti-Reagan march in New York when I was nine years old. And filmmaking since
before I was born. My mother grew up just a few blocks from the Museum of the
Moving Image, in a poor, single-parent household, and the movie palace in
Astoria was her lifeline to an imaginary world. The local movie theatre in
Astoria saved her life, in many ways. She passed her love of film to me.

But for me, learning to become a strategic political filmmaker
has been a much more arduous task. Every film is political, but it is much more
difficult to produce films alongside social movements that have an impact on
the real world, on the work and trajectory of movements.

For me, this became a matter of life or death when the Drug War
started to accelerate in Cuernavaca, where I live, about five years ago.
Several people I know have been murdered and kidnapped, and at one point I had
to pass through two military checkpoints every morning to take my son to
school. All because of a ridiculous and failed War on Drugs. That’s when I
decided that simply “reporting” through film was no longer enough. If I was
going to bother to make films, I wanted them to have strategic value and to
form part of a broader movement for change. That’s what we do at the School for
Authentic Journalism, where I co-direct the video program… it’s kind of a
laboratory for strategic filmmaking.

I put myself in my films, creating characters that satirize
misguided U.S. attitudes or policy in Mexico and Latin America. My goal is to
use myself as a kind of punching bag to attract attention to movements whose
stories need to be told to audiences less interested in “serious”
documentaries.

LatinoBuzz: Do you
consider yourself an activist who makes films or simply a filmmaker?

Rivera: An aspiring
thoughtful filmmaker.

Berger: A comedian
and aspiring organizer!

LatinoBuzz: Alex, you
are not Mexican. Can you talk about why the U.S.-Mexico border has been such an
important part of your work?

Rivera: My father is
Peruvian, my mom was born in Brooklyn, of Scottish descent. I grew up in
something of a “borderland” with icons of Peru around the house in which I
watched “Gilligan’s Island.” But that’s not the real reason to be interested in
the border, and interested in the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.
Anyone who’s seriously interested in the future of America – and therefore the
future of the world – needs to consider the deep, deep connections between the
U.S., Mexico, and Latin America. These are histories that are as intertwined as
those of Great Britain and India. Or Palestine and Israel. You can’t understand
one without the other.

LatinoBuzz: Greg, can
you explain your nickname Gringoyo and where that came from?

Berger: Well, in
Mexico “Goyo” is short for “Gregorio,” and I happen to be one of those gringos
who can’t hide my gringo-ness no matter what I do, so soon after moving to
Mexico in 1998 I said “fuck it” and turned the words Gringo and Goyo into a
compound word and my nickname. It also has become a plausible way to separate
myself from the dimwitted characters I create in my films. In 2003, I made my
first political comedy short, Gringotón, which is about a
good-natured but clueless gringo in Mexico City during the Iraq War. Soon
after, two people who later became good friends and collaborators, worked hard
to convince me to stop making “serious” documentaries and to use these
characters like the one in Gringotón to cover the stories of
social movements. Those two people were Al Giordano, the founder of the School
of Authentic Journalism, and Oscar Olivera, the Bolivian union leader known for
his role in the mass movement against water privatization in Cochabamba in the
year 2000. Oscar is also a professor of the School of Authentic Journalism. In
2009, as the Drug War heated up in Mexico and comedy seemed a better vocation
in the midst of so much pain and suffering, I finally took their advice. So
now, I blame all my stupid mistakes on “Gringoyo,” my alter-ego.

LatinoBuzz: Greg, can
you talk about how you became interested in Mexico and how you ended up living
there?

Berger: It’s
basically Alex’s fault. Alex should actually apologize to the 150 million
residents of Mexico for bringing me there and subjecting them to my unpleasant
presence.

In 1998, Alex was in the very beginning of his work on what was
to become his film Sleep Dealer, and he was learning more about Mexico and
brushing up his Spanish, and he invited me to come down to study Spanish with
him. I was trying to produce my own films in the U.S. but was barely able to
scrape by as a production assistant on horrible commercials and films. So I
went to Mexico and loved it. It was the late 90s, and just a few years earlier
the Zapatistas in Chiapas had set in motion a series of events that kind of
filled social movements throughout Mexico with an infectious feeling of hope,
that change from the bottom up was possible. Lots of local struggles felt
emboldened by what was going on. So I stayed and began to film these movements,
like the famous uprising in the town of Atenco in 2001. These movements became
my political teachers and my film school at the same time. Eventually, I met
Estela Kempis, a doctor and advocate for reproductive rights, and we started a
family together in Morelos.

LatinoBuzz: Greg, your
film Now! (¡Ahora!) compares the
dreamers to the civil rights movement. What are the similarities of those
struggles? Do you think the dreamers should be using similar or different
tactics to the civil rights movement?

Let me just start off by saying that the dreamers have become teachers to all of us who
strive to become more effective organizers. They are the most inspiring and
effective grassroots political movement in North America right now. I love what
they are doing. There is nothing about strategy and tactics that I could teach
them… quite the opposite, so I won’t presume to say what they should or
shouldn’t do.

And I’d love to explain the context of this film, which is
basically a shot by shot recreation of the famous 1965 documentary Now!
by Santiago Álvarez.

For those that don’t know the story, after the Cuban
Revolution, Santiago Álvarez became the unlikely director of newsreel
production at the ICAIC, the Cuban Film Institute. He was 40 years old and had
never made a film in his life. With limited resources and a U.S. blockade to
contend with, Álvarez made use of the materials available to him, which often
consisted of a few scratched LP records, cutouts from LIFE magazine, and
newsreel footage brought into Cuba by friends and allies. He once said, “give
me two photos, a song, and a moviola (film editing device,) and I’ll give you a
film.” And that’s literally what he did!

In 1965, he took images of the U.S. civil rights movement and
cut it to a track recorded by pioneering African-American singer Lena Horne
called “Now!” The song is something in itself…the melody is actually from the
Hebrew song “Hava Nagilah.” Lena Horne had to contend with the apartheid-like
conditions of the U.S. entertainment industry and was blacklisted for years,
but the content of what she sang was generally never overtly political. But
“Now!” was like a bomb. And Santiago Álvarez took that musical bomb and managed
to discover the essence of it and turn it into a film montage of the civil
rights movement that became an effective and gut-punching document of that
struggle. It’s an amazing film, and some film scholars call it the first true
music video ever made in the sense that it wasn’t just a filmed performance but
a film that was actually cut to the rhythm of the music to bring out the
essence of the song.

Álvarez took the newsreel format and made it both effective
political propaganda for the masses and high art at the same time. By some
accounts, lots of people would show up to a film in Havana just to see his
newsreels, and then leave before the feature.

I teach film at the State University of Morelos in Mexico, and
two years ago in a political filmmaking class my students and I began to study
the actions of the dreamers in the U.S. Many of my students feel a strong
affinity for the dreamers. Almost all of my students, regardless of social
class or background, have family in the U.S. and have seen or felt firsthand
the suffering that the border and accelerated deportations have created. The
parallels between what the dreamers are doing and the civil rights movement of
the 50s and 60s is clear. It’s something that lots of people see. It’s obviously
different in its objective conditions and long term goals and in lots of other
ways, but like the civil rights movement 50 years ago, they are winning and
inspiring millions as they forge ahead. They are inspiring my students in
Mexico. I assigned to them a project to try and find stills and videos of the
immigrants’ movements in the U.S. that matched in content and composition the
film Now!
which we were studying. We managed to recreate about 10% of the film.

Then, a few months ago, as the fame of the dreamers grew and
the Senate began to debate immigration reform, I dusted off that old class
assignment and finished the film.

As a political film this is really a celebration of the
dreamers and of all movements of undocumented people in the U.S., and a reminder
that they walk in the footsteps of the U.S. civil rights movement. And
notwithstanding setbacks and the continued struggle against white supremacy in
the U.S., the civil rights movement of 50 years ago was basically victorious,
and so will the immigrants’ movements of today.

But also, when I watch this new film we’ve created, an homage
to the dreamers and to Álvarez’s masterwork, I think about all the layers of
history and the way movements and organizers and media makers can speak to each
other across time and space. A Cuban filmmaker in Cuba takes a song written by
an African-American and makes it into a film about the U.S. civil rights
movement, and then a group of Mexican students work on an updated version of
the film 50 years later featuring images of a movement of immigrants with roots
from around the world in the U.S. It’s very cool to watch.

Join Alex Rivera and Greg
Berger for “Bordering on Absurd” a free film screening and conversation at The
Museum of the Moving Image on Friday, August 9, 2013. For more information
check out the
Facebook invite.

 

Written by Juan Caceres and Vanessa Erazo,
LatinoBuzz is a weekly feature on
SydneysBuzz that highlights
Latino indie talent and upcoming trends in Latino film with the specific
objective of presenting a broad range of Latino voices. Follow
@LatinoBuzz on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

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