The work of a documentary filmmaker is to try to decode via visual statements the chosen issue or figure. Although the artist uses reality as the malleable
raw material, this does not imply the final product is rid of subjectivity. Storytelling is a personal matter, and as such, it relies on the nuances and
vision of the one manipulating the story. Perhaps that is why Dir. Richard Ray Perez’ depiction of Cesar Chavez is different to that of others. His is a
spiritual Chavez, an imperfect man capable of grandeur. Not a saint but a devoted believer who used that faith to benefit others who couldn’t fend for
themselves. In the hands of a more conventional creator the story could have been too much of an idealistic homage or a didactic factsheet devoid of any
interesting analysis. What the director crafted in Cesar’s Last Fast is a story of sacrifice with the purpose of social change. Utilizing
incredibly intimate unseen footage shot by the late Lorena Parlee, filmmaker Richard Ray Perez elaborately made a film that doesn’t want to be the definite
biography on the farmworkers’ beloved hero, but at least an honest one, as honest as the relative truth of cinema allows. What the camera doesn’t capture
remains mysterious to those who will only meet the man through screens.
In this in-depth two-part interview Mr. Perez discussed with us the origin and unfathomable challenges to get the film off the ground, and his personal
relationship to the Chavez legacy.
Carlos Aguilar: Please tell us how you got involved with the project, and how you manged to make a film with such incredible freedom given the stature of this historical figure?
Richard Ray Perez: Several years ago, I had a mentor who really wanted to make a documentary film about Cesar Chavez, for years. He heard the documentary
rights might be available. He knew my background, that my father had been a farmworker so he thought I’d make a good addition to the team
. So we met with the Cesar Chavez Foundation, we had a really good meeting with them, and so my mentor started negotiating the contract. He wanted
exclusive documentary rights. But ultimately the Chavez Foundation told him that they couldn’t give him exclusive rights because somebody close to the
family had a non-exclusive deal to make a documentary. So my mentor stopped pursuing the project.
About two weeks later I got a phone call from the other filmmaker, she said “Hi, I’m Lorena Parlee, I know you were trying to make a film about Cesar
Chavez. Well, I’m the filmmaker whose already been working on the project. She said “I’ve been working on a Chavez film for about 10 years, and I’ve
amassed 85 hours of Chavez-related footage, about 20 hours have never been seen by the public, I’ve been holding it off for my film. I used to be Cesar’s
press secretary. During his fast I had volunteered crews and I had access, I shot all this stuff around his 1988 fast. Then when Cesar died the family let
me shoot video of the private rosary service, Cesar’s brother building Cesar’s coffin, the granddaughters knitting the lining in the coffin, etc. I have
all this footage and nobody has ever seen it, it is incredibly intimate access. Then there is all this the footage I’ve acquire over the years. But because
I’ve never had exclusive rights I’ve been having trouble raising the money”
She wanted my advice, she asked, “Do you think your mentor would be willing to team-up with me and be the producer, and I will direct. We’ll go back to the
Chavez foundation and try to get the exclusive rights” And I said, “It sounds like a good idea, but I know my mentor is only interested in directing this
film and I don’t think he’d be interested in co-directing with you or producing the project.” I advised her, “If you want to make the film you really want
to make, I suggest you pursue this on your own.”
She was totally appreciative; we went on to talk about the farmworkers. Then she asked “How about you? Would you be willing to come on board and help me
out as a producer” I said, “I totally would, but I’ve just started a freelance gig. I’m available in 6 months” She replied “I need someone to help me make
this film now because I’m being treated for breast cancer, and I could only work on this film two weeks out of the month” I said to myself, if this woman
is who she says she is and has what she says, then she has some good material. I said “OK in 6 months if you haven’t found anybody, call me and I’ll
totally work on this project for free, or deferred payment.” 6 months comes around, I don’t hear from her so I thought, “She found somebody else, anybody
in their right mind is going to jump on this.” 9 months later I get a phone call from this elderly guy, he says “Hi, I’m Lorena Parlee’s step-father. Lorena
died last month of breast cancer, and she left your name and her notes for us to contact you immediately to see if you’d finish her film”
She had told her parents about this conversation where I told her not to work with my mentor, and I think she appreciated that advice. She got sicker and
sicker, until unfortunately she past away. It took a long courtship between the parents and me because even though they wanted me to finish her film, they
still wanted to gain trust from me. At one point they said, “Come and pick up the tapes, they are in our garage” I said “Wait, we have to have this legally on
paper” So I had a lawyer dropped a contract, they looked at it, and legal language is strong, so they flipped out. There was a whole other set of
negotiations. In the end, I got a contract from them that said I could use this footage to finish a film as long as she got co-producers’ credit and a
co-directors’ credit. Then after I was done with the footage I had to turn it over to an archive in her name at UCLA.
I went to the Chavez’ people after I had nailed this on paper. I said, “I want to finish Lorena Parlee’s film” the first thing they said was “Where is the
footage?” They knew she had the footage and they wanted it. I said “I have legal control of the footage for the next 5 years, I want to finish the film,
would you give me an exclusive deal?” I had a good lawyer, what he did was, rather than negotiate a whole new contract, he just negotiated transferring the
contract they had with Lorena Parlee to me. It gave her editorial control, but he changed it so that I had the exclusive documentary rights. It was
something they had already agreed to in the past, and all the terms were pretty OK except the exclusivity. So he said, “Let me just change that and get
them to sign it” and sure enough they did. That’s how I got editorial control.
Lorena had left a 2-hour string out, which was not a film I could make. I saw it and it was just a linear traditional history from the beginning of his
life to the end, which had been done before in 1997 with a PBS documentary called The Fight in the Fields. But when I had all the tapes – she had all these VHS
tapes – they were labeled Day 23, Day 24, Day 25. I was like “What is this?” so I popped them in and Day 23 is that press conference with Martin Sheen, that’s
intense. Day 24, is more drama, more intense. Then everyday gets more intense. First I was like, “Is this what I think it is? Never-before-seen
footage” The second thing I thought was “That’s the natural spine of the film” That escalating conflict, and that suspense, “Will he break the fast? When is
he going to break it? Will he die before? Will he harm himself?” It was just almost immediate, just looking at those things sequentially I was like “That’s
it”. Between the days I could separate them and tell the back story because most people don’t know concretely what he did.
After I got the footage I just started from the ground up. I went back to Lorena’s parents and said, “I see a different film, I see one about his spiritual
commitment as embodied by this fast. That’s the film I’d like to make” Her step-father is a retired minister, he totally got it and they were OK with it,
and I basically made my own film with the material.
Cesar’s Last Fast opens in L.A. on April 25th and it’s currently playing in New York